Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Meat Of The Night

The minister at my mother's memorial service was an older man, given to somber oratorical cadences. He was, he announced from the podium, going to read from the Book of Proverbs.

For years I'd dismissed Proverbs as a compendium of dorky old saws, until one Sunday a few years ago, trespassing at a Catholic Mass, I heard a reading from Proverbs 8, the beautiful passage about Sophia, Wisdom --

22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.

23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.

25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—

26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.

27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,

29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,

31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

There was Merton's beloved Hagia Sophia, there was the feminine face of creation. I was moved and delighted by the poetry and the deep metaphor, and have returned to that passage time and time again ever since. So when the minister proposed to read from Proverbs, I settled back to listen.

He would read, he said, from Proverbs 31, the King James Version. He dug into his text. I listened carefully. It was a long passage. The room was silent, respectful. My eyes grew wide. I glanced at my husband, who looked appropriately somber. I looked back at the minister. The grave, mannered tones rose to a crescendo --

She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

I hoped that, if anyone saw me, the bereaved daughter, with her hand over her sputtering face and her shoulders twitching, they imagined they were witnessing grief and not the barely stifled hysterical laughter of a vegan, feminist, not-yet-confirmed Episcopalian shipwrecked on a whacky, textual shoal.

What I Said To Them

We can say about my Mother what the poet W.H. Auden said about William Butler Yeats in his famous elegy, that she

... disappeared in the dead of winter
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
and snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of (her) death was a dark cold day.

And we can also say, along with Auden, that she

... became her admirers.

and that now she scattered among a hundred cities.

My mother isn't a poet living on in the hearts of her readers, but a teacher with students, years of students, countless ranks of students, in each of whom she planted a seed of music. And I would like to think that in each student the seed sprouted and took root and flowered, and that each musical flower produced seeds that took root in other lives until a whole garden of delights grew up from the one sower, the one teacher, Marcia my mother.

...she became her admirers.

Now she is scattered among a hundred cities.

It's little wonder, then, that one of my most cherished memories of my mother is a musical memory. In the 1960's she and I took piano lessons together. Our teacher was Mary Ann Norman whose studio was in a cozy, old duplex in Newburyport on the banks of the Merrimack River. Two somber grand pianos stood side by side in the music room, far too grand for me, an indifferent student, not very talented and disinclined to practice.

Nevertheless, I loved our drives together to and from our lessons and the intimate meal we'd share at a dark little roadside diner on the way home. I can still see, in my mind's eye, Mrs. Norman's kitchen, where I'd sit and do my homework while my mother had her lesson. The sound of voices and piano music would filter through the thick, wooden door that led to her studio. I felt happy and safe and loved, and absolutely content.

About ten years ago I put these piano lessons into a poem called "One Piano, Four Hands." It was a long poem, full of Freudian innuendo and midair collisions over middle C, and I'll quote one short stanza here --

Mother’s lesson followed. I eavesdropped.
Her cool fingers skimmed -- no, what
did Father call it -- tickled --
the ivories, which tittered, gasped.
My ears burned. Was that my Mother ?
Rhapsodies upwelled from reticence.

Was that my mother ? In the music that poured out of the piano beyond the door I caught a glimpse of Marcia that transcended the category Mother, transcended all my daughterly expectations and overflowed the pigeonholes in which I'd tried to keep her. It was as if I were a voyeur, as if I were glimpsing a complete stranger in a personal, revealing moment.

Was that my Mother ? I had the occasion to ask myself this again this past week as we went through boxes of her old photographs, papers and yearbooks. First of all, I realized my pretty Mother had not been simply pretty -- she'd been beautiful. Slender, poised, stylish, even gorgeous. Breathtakingly, stunningly, amazingly beautiful. A real knockout. A serious babe.

Was that my mother ? The conventional wisdom about my mother -- at least my own conventional wisdom -- was that she was quiet, shy, reticent, reserved, even a homebody. And that this reserve was her genetic legacy to me. But, once again last week, I was confronted by evidence to the contrary. Her high school and college yearbooks are signed and oversigned on every page by masses of friends. There are photos of her on stage, in costume, arms outstretched, fearlessly singing; there are photos of her in front of classrooms full of students, teaching; there are photos of her directing gangs of sixth graders in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. There are dozens and dozens of photos of my mother and my father and their friends partying down. Oh, and then there are the travel photos: Marcia in Florida, California, Utah, England, Sweden, Norway, Spain, the Bahamas, Monaco, Italy and Portugal. That was my mother -- self-confident, talented, engaged with the world and the people in it. On the reserved side, yes, but certainly not a reclusive homebody.

In the end, we're all mysteries to one another and even to ourselves. We spring out of one unfathomable darkness, only to return to another darkness, equally unfathomable. In between we are entrusted to each others' care for a short, bright while. My mother -- self-effacing in the best of ways, always kind, unquestioningly devoted -- never betrayed this trust.

My mother's last several years were difficult. Those years mustn't eclipse all that went before. As she diminished and weakened, my father cared for her with ceaseless, tender devotion, a devotion that flowed naturally out of their long, lovely, mutually sustaining marriage.

One day, during her last hospitalization, I was sitting at her bedside. Suddenly I turned and found my mother looking at me, staring at me with a deep, frank, focused, even penetrating gaze. It startled me. I couldn't recall anyone ever holding me in such a gaze; it was like a Mother studying her newborn. It was as if she were trying to memorize me.

Realizing I'd noticed, she seemed startled and lowered her eyes. "I was looking at you !" she said, with mild amazement, then paused, then smiled, and said --

"Here's looking at you, kid."

It was my mother's last joke, and, I like to think, her loving farewell.

Let us pray:

Father of all, we pray to you for Marcia, and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Few Last Things

I was the one who'd suggested we accompany my mother's body to the crematorium. It seemed right to shepherd this most immanent and important part of what she'd been to its last earthly appointment. So, Monday morning, I found myself in the back seat of my brother's car, traveling through the outskirts of Haverhill toward an establishment called Linnwood Crematory. Crematory: a noun that replaces the nazi-like stink of crematorium with a fresh whiff of dairy.

Her remains, the funeral director explained, would be placed in the retort. Note the absence in that sentence of body, undertaker, and oven; note, even, the conspicuous absence of an elegant, latinate mortician. We were in euphemism territory as well as in Haverhill, and it was bleak. I gazed out the car window at the post-industrial, suburban wasteland of fast food joints, filling stations and aging strip malls -- all with faux mansard roofs, it seemed, and all encrusted with grimy fin d'hiver snow -- and felt a deep, claustrophobic, all-pervading, almost overwhelming, spiritual nausea.

This is it, I thought, watching a garish pod of diners waddle out of MacDonald's, supersized shake cups in hand and straws in mouth. I sighed, not with carsickness, but with acedia, a thick, cold, pinkish slurry of apathy, despair and torpor that lodged, squirming, in my upper chest. See Christ in all persons ? I would prefer not to.

My mother, the funeral director said, had passed away. Now there was another euphemism, a fastidious one, practically Victorian. She had swooned, if you will, into the great beyond. I, myself, prefer died and it's pair of thudding D's. We'd watched at the her bedside for three days and two nights, my father, my brother and his wife, and myself. "Passed away" does not do full justice to the labor of dying.

There is a certain stately, liturgical grandeur to the list of diagnoses that had led, over two and half years, to my mother's death: Alzheimer's dementia, myocardial infarction, emphysema, pulmonary edema, methicillin-resistent staphylococcus aureus pneumonia, contrast nephropathy, ANCA positive polyangiitis, allergic interstitial nephritis, urosepsis, dehydration, aspiration. But the incarnational reality of her death -- the bewilderment, fear, pain, weakness, breathlessness -- resisted euphemism, be it Latinate, Hellenic or Victorian. During her last rehab stay in December she'd lost function -- strength, cognition, continence. At home the decline continued: her appetite failed, she developed strange, undiagnosed pains in all her limbs, and could barely rise from a chair or walk -- even with maximal help -- because of weakness, pain and fear. My devoted father tended her tirelessly; on February 15th she went to the hospital, and was discharged to hospice on the 19th, her white blood cell count on the rise and the sensitivities of the staph aureus that had infected her kidneys still pending. Henceforth test results -- all those numbers and reports that comprise the language in which I think about illness -- would be moot.

Beside my mother's bed during her last three days was a machine, an oxygen concentrator. It was, in keeping with hospice, a comfort measure, along with the all-important comfort kit, a black pouch with four vials of liquid and four small syringes. We would, we decided, keep my mother comfortable. Which, in her case, meant asleep. Awake, she'd chanted the mantra that had become a staple of her last few weeks I'm afraid. I'm afraid. I'm afraid. As she sunk in and out of sleep, the mantra came and went in fragments fraid...fraid...fred.... It fell to me, the physician, to squirt the color-coded anodynes into my mother's mouth: thick red for pain, ice blue for anxiety, vague pink for secretions. On the second day we switched on the machine. It made a beautiful, low, complex sound. There was a deep, continuous rumble, like a purr. Above the rumble there was a biphasic sound, much like breathing -- a hissed inbreath, and a longer, lower-pitched outbreath that began with an percussive note like a gently struck tympani.

I didn't need blood tests to tell me what was happening and what would happen -- her pCO2 and Na+ would rise, metabolic and respiratory acidosis would set in, the BUN and creatinine would increase; I glanced at her foley bag -- urine output less than 30 cc's per hour. Officially oliguric. Undoubtedly she would, if she hadn't already, develop aspiration pneumonia. Finally, the K+ would rise -- her ECG's T waves would peak, the QRS complexes would widen, and v. fib would set in. That would be it.

What we saw was this: my mother's loud, quick, gurgling respiration suddenly, almost imperceptibly shifted, became slower, shallower. Our hands shot to her wrist. Do you feel a pulse ? I asked C., my sister-in-law. She shook her head. I looked at my mother's face and watched what little color that had been in it drain out. Then her breathing stopped. It was the sudden, complete pallor that surprised me, the sinking of her stalled blood. It was over.

We switched off the oxygen machine. The room was very still. It was 7:40 PM on Ash Wednesday.

Last Monday, five days later, my brother's car turned left and followed the minvan that contained my mother's body up a steep hill. Over the rise was a low building with several wide, metal-housed chimneys. The air above the chimneys shimmered like a heat mirage. We parked and approached the van. The undertaker and a denim-clad worker slid a long, slender cardboard box onto a stretcher. My mother's name was written on the top, in pencil. We followed the worker into a concrete corridor. On one wall were complex metal panels -- switches, buttons, dials, digital read-outs of temperatures. On the other wall were three retorts, two closed, one open. I peered into the open one, into a dark oblong space about three or four feet wide and tall, a space so dark it seemed for a second not a closed space, but a tunnel. I half-remembered an old, Lithuanian poem about the grave as a dark lodging without door or windowpane.

But there was to be no lingering to disinter poems half-buried in my brain. No, there was a box to ease into a hole, and a stainless steel door to latch shut. 55 years and 17 days prior I had slid out of the depths of my mother's body where I'd been woven, and here I was today watching my mother's body slide into the space in which her body would unweave. That long movement was more a vortex than a chiasmus; my spiritual acedie became tinged with vertigo. The worker invited us to start the furnace. Go ahead, said my father, nudging me toard the shiny panel. I hadn't prepared any words. I felt as if I were in one of those anxiety dreams, caught onstage in the spotlight with no lines memorized. It seemed so unceremonious, so clinical, but I pushed the button, red for ignition, and a muffled roar welled up behind me. I looked at the temperature gauge. It hovered in the low 400's. I looked away. There was nothing left to do. There was nothing to say.

There would be time for words, later. I knew exactly where to find the Lithuanian poem, and the outline of a eulogy was slowly taking shape in my mind. For the moment mortal flesh would keep silent: that would be our ceremony.

As we walked across the parking lot toward the car, I turned and looked again at the hot, shimmering vapor rising from the smokestacks. My Mother's present lodging, unlike the grave in the old poem, did have a door -- or at least an open skylight.

As a cold wind hit my face, I breathed deeply and got into the car.