My Mom died last week. Her maiden name was Alice Westcott, she was born in Astabula, Ohio, and grew up gleefully running a spine of eroded land the local kids called the Hogsback. People say that when your last parent dies (my father died about 15 years ago) you realize, uhoh. You’re next. I don’t feel that way. When I die isn’t all that important, death comes to all of us. But I’m going to miss Mom.
When Dad died, I was relieved. I never got along with him, he often told me scathingly that I was not his son, something that made Mom really angry because probably the Puritans messed around more than she did. In general I did not belong in my family and I actually did audition once for a show called Aliens Among Us, reality program built around people who believe they are from other planets. That would explain me and the simplest answer is often right. Sadly, the show never aired. But even though I got along with rest of my family about as well as if I were a turtle-based intelligent lifeform from a far away galaxy, I did very often get along well with Mom, especially in her last years.
After my Dad died and I moved away, Mom had to decide what to do, whether to stay in Arkansas alone on the family farm residue, or buck up and make a new life. She made a new life. My sister Becky had a rental house all prepared for her in Texas, and she took a look at it and decided, No, that’s not what I want. Instead, she found a little one-bedroom fixer-upper not too far away and bought that, with her own money, and paid to have it put to order. She enjoyed having her own home and making her own decisions without the influence of family. She did things the way she wanted to do them, for the first time.
As Mom got older, she got frailer and less steady. Sometimes she’d fall when she was in a hurry to answer the door, and people started to worry about her. My sister who lived a minute away sometimes found her sitting on the floor because she couldn’t get up and didn’t want to push the emergency necklace button, figured someone would come around soon enough. Mom was pretty tough, got bruises and cuts, never broke a hip. But everything comes to an end, eventually she moved in with my sister as an experiment (we all said) and my sister tried to watch over her for awhile.
I know that’s tough, taking care of someone in those last years. I helped when my father reached that stage, old enough to wander about but not smart enough to have good sense, and Dad was a D-Day vet with issues he’d never resolved. People in my family still won’t believe what happened in those times. I used to go to sleep in the back bedroom wondering if maybe I should block the door. Dad was suicidal, wanted to go out with a bang, would tell me he wanted to die in a head-on collision, bam! and done. I would tell him, but there are people in the other car, Dad! You don’t have a right to do that to them. He didn’t like that answer. D-Day vets can do what the hell they want, I guess. One night Mom yelled for me, I got up, Dad was wandering around the house buck naked and confused and fell over backwards like a dead tree before I could get to him, bashed the back of his head against a chair so hard I thought maybe he’d be killed. Nope, just buzzed him a little, D-Day vets are tough. I put my hands under his arms while Mom was saying, “You can’t lift him!” and I lifted him up, off the floor, told him to put his feet down and he did, seemed surprised. I was surprised at how little he weighed, seemed like most of him was gone already. The next day, when Mom asked if I thought she should hide his shotgun ammo? I said yes, please! Please! Please do that! and she did.
One Sunday morning when other people in the family were visiting, Dad dressed up in his best suit and marched out of the house saying he was going for a drive. I thought, “There’s something wrong about this”, but I didn’t stop him. Maybe an hour later he came back, came into the house all nervous and excited, said that he’d been driving around Scott Mountain on 14, a deadly S-curve with a drop down to the river of hundreds of feet if you went over, and drifted into the left lane as a car came around the bend. He went left, the other car went right. It was a grand tale, everyone was excited but me. I knew what happened. The other dude was just a survivor with better reflexes than a suicidal D-Day vet and managed to outsmart him. That was the last time Dad drove a car, and it was his decision, so that’s in his favor.
When your parents get old, and one is a WWII vet with guns and ammo, it’s a lot different than the usual thing. But it’s hard to explain this to people who haven’t been through it. Dad talked to me about the death compulsions when he would talk to no one else, and that’s the only sign I ever got from him that he respected me. I don’t guess it makes me feel better.
Mom was different.
Mom was an Army nurse when she met Dad, and although my sister says it’s in Mom’s handwritten journals I haven’t wanted to read them to find out why she fell in love with him. He was a real tough guy then, a drill sergeant turned officer, used to punish people by chasing them though obstacle courses and if he caught them he’d beat them half to death. At St. Lo in France an American artillery shell blew off half his right hand and he went home after three days in the hot zone and never forgave the world for it. Mom married him and for the rest of their time together she would select his clothes and lay them out on the bed for him in the morning, because that’s what an officer expects. A lot of that I just don’t understand, but it wasn’t my life to live, it was theirs.
I think some of Mom’s best days came after she gave up hope and moved to Texas. Now she had her own place, her own money, and she did want she wanted to do. Mostly it was small stuff, like fixing the house up the way she wanted it and watching the contractors to make sure it happened. She was very happy there.
We used to talk, on the phone. Better talks than we’d had before, we’d talk about my sisters and how they tweaked us, and how we managed to ignore them anyway. Mom hired a maintenance man to build a little garden plot in her back yard so she could plant some onions and green beans just for fun, and he built it just the way she wanted it. When my sister Patty saw it, she said OH! Mother! It’s all wrong! There’s too much shade! You are planting the wrong things! and Mom thought Hey! this is my garden! When she told me about that I laughed a lot, I’ve had that same problem with Patty.
In the last of Mom’s lucid years we had good talks. I remembered that Becky had come up to spell me when Mom had hip surgery for the second time and figured I should repay that by going down to Texas to help with Mom while Becky got a week off, it was all the vacation time I had. I am glad I did that, it was my last chance to talk with Mom and my best chance to talk with her on equal terms. We were the only ones in the family still alive who shared the strange things that are the most important things in my life. No one else remembers those. Mom remembered, and had stories of her own. We laughed about it, we were glad we had each other, could support each other against family. We could talk. I felt like an equal. It was beyond family and what you are supposed to do, it was kindred spirits and being friends.
Death comes to us all. Mom started living more in a world of her own choosing than in the world that makes meals and does practical things, and we all agreed she should go to a “home.” It was a nice place as those places go. I wasn’t a good son, I didn’t visit every day or week, I lived too far away and was kind of glad I did, because I didn’t want to see Mom in that situation. But I still called her, even when she couldn’t figure out how to make the phone work. Usually she fell asleep while I was saying, Mom? Mom? and I just heard her breathing for awhile before I hung up.
At the last, Mom made her own world entirely. I should have made notes but I remember part of it. I lived in the room across the hall and she would go over in the night and put a blanket over my feet so I wouldn’t get cold. I remember how in high school I used to come home stinking drunk on Saturday night and go to sleep on the couch in the living room and wake up to Mom sneaking up on me with a blanket and say MOM! I’m OK! and she’d drop it carefully on my feet and run back to the bedroom and not mess with my puberty issues any more than necessary. Nurses know things, I guess. Dad was in her world, too, at the last. Mom kept a suitcase packed and was always waiting, because Dad was going to pick her up outside soon and they were going home now.
My Mom’s last Christmas, my sister Becky took her home for the day, some of the family were there too. I called, I’ve never been much for Christmas, not very social, but I’ve always wanted to talk to Mom on those days and I guess I never realized this until just now. Not a duty, something I wanted to do. Mom was worried, Dad hadn’t shown up. She didn’t know where he was, and she asked me if I thought he was with another woman? I said no, but I was thinking way beyond that, things I couldn’t say, cripes Mom, don’t you know, in spite of what my asshole rude jerk Dad with the wooden chest full of porn in the attic always talked about, don’t you know he would never have been with anyone else but you? But I instead I said, Mom, don’t worry about it, I think Dad’s gone fishing. He can go fishing now whenever he wants. He’ll be back.
She was OK with that.
The way I remember them, I drop all the bad things that happen with family over a lifetime, I think of them as people, and never mind all that. Dad, jerk that he was, waiting anyway, in the afterlife for fifteen years, and of course doing a considerable amount of fishing. Mom getting older, always sure he was there, ready to pick her up and take her home. Then she packs her suitcase for the last time, looks around her room to see if everything is neat and clean, and she walks out the door, young and strong like an Army nurse in the forties.
I just don’t know what kind of car they drive away in, and this is where I start to cry.
Bye, Mom and Dad