Eight years ago this month, we removed my mother from life support. It was on the anniversary of my due date 34 years before. The day she believed she would meet her daughter and the day I believed I would lose my mother were the same. Neither day happened as planned.
I have had six extra days on this planet. My mother had five.
When the doctor disconnected her, she breathed on. I wondered how she had the strength to extend the rhythm that had buttressed her fifty-eight years of living. Late at night, when I wasn’t there to talk to her and pin memories to each breath, I imagined that her breathing was pure, breathing for breathing. Breathing for life.
Afternoons, though, she inhaled stories of her life and love, strung together by me in no particular order. I wanted every breath to bear a memory. But I couldn’t know everything she knew, couldn’t see all she had seen. So sometimes I’d be quiet, and play her Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata so she could see for herself. I would take one earbud and journey with her through scenes of her days. I knew some of what she saw was for her alone, but some visions we shared.
A silver tower swallowed by a rising plume of ash.
Her father’s silver widow’s peak, once dark, set in neat lines by a comb he allowed us both to brandish as children. His wiry body on the floor, a little girl’s perched on the goldenrod armchair above, delightedly grooming him as he talked politics with a relative across the room.
The wiry, papery twist to the left and then right and then left, to open that bag of Wonder Bread for her children at the table. The sticky-wrinkly plastic. The blue and yellow and red circles that had melted onto the metal toaster when we stored the wrapped loaf too near. Like the negative of a photo, the imprint of all our lunches.
A PBJ at Jones Beach, somehow always laced with sand that crunched like sea salt, a gourmet peanut butter before its time.
Katrina. Days and days of coverage and horror. How would those poor folks ever get out.
The days of planning with Mom for when she would get out.
Before the way was clear.
Mom loved piano. She’d be a pianist “in her next life,” this devout Catholic! I realized I had no idea which piano song she would want to usher her across, and she could not tell me, so I continued to give her Moonlight Sonata. It moved so gorgeously and gratefully under the weight of the world. I played it again and again. I knew it was possible I was forcing her into some unwanted state, but I had to trust that this song of life and death did not make her want to kill me. And I ended every session with Here Comes the Sun, our song, a promise I was sure she would appreciate.
Last week, I was in the car, making phone calls that are impossible to make from my temporary apartment. Ugly phone calls about problems that have plagued us for the fifteen-plus months since the storm took home, job, new career, cars, life’s savings, and security from us, plus any semblance of control. I stewed in these problems for the first part of my commute. I wailed, I railed. I DON’T WANT TO MAKE ANY MORE ANXIOUS PHONE CALLS. I used to live for my beach-road commute. There is a tree that used to change the seasons for me. My Entering Long Beach Tree. My crossover tree, and on some days my only connection to nature. But now I drive past, raging at agencies, sadly unaware of which stage of ice-melt my tree-friend is in.
On this day I missed my tree. And I wailed a big ugly Whyyyy????? I just wanna SEE what I saw! I wanna FEEL everything! I wanna love! I used to LOVE! This storm has stolen me from me! Why????? I don’t WANNA make any MORE CALLS!
But in some ways I still am who I am, so I made the call. Of course, I was immediately placed on hold.
For four straight minutes, nobody answered. Except Mom, via Moonlight Sonata. She showed me scenes of my life. Those right before my eyes, like the owl landing atop a tree below the bridge, or the marshlands in billowy white, stands of snow-coated cattails leaning into each other.
She showed me scenes with her: We danced with each other and feather dusters to Here Comes the Sun in my childhood apartment. We danced again as two grown women at my wedding. We danced “the Monkey” to Get Off My Cloud, but Beethoven slowed the scene so that you could see our same wide grins and our same sharp elbows. He made it slowly, spinningly, cryingly beautiful.
She showed me scenes, he showed me scenes. I ached and ached but I saw, and felt.
The song ended. There was a moment of silence. And a woman picked up. I smiled.
There are storms in this world, but also the Stones. There are battles, and Beatles. There’s debt, and there are dances. There’s Sandy….and sandwiches. The sun does come. The moonlight softens.
I smiled. I have this phone call. So too do I have owls, songs, cattails, snow, and—if I should so desire—Wonder Bread.
Thanks, Mom, for returning the favor. There is nothing like a Mom-made sandwich. I think I’ll stay for lunch.