Sunday, July 16, 2006
Thank You for the Goodness
I broke a promise to myself the other day when I bought some used books from this guy on 73rd Street.
He's a big, husky black man and he sets his table outside the Chase bank branch on Broadway, a block or so away from my shrink's office.
I always tell myself, no more books, you have piles of them you still haven't read yet.
But then I'll see a novel I've been looking for, or I'll read the jacket copy, and, think, gee, it sounds pretty good, and it's only a couple of bucks...
So that's what happened again on Thursday, when I picked up a copy of House of Sand and Fog and some English novel that won the Booker Prize in 1988.
As I handed over my money, the proprietor of the sidewalk business nodded to me.
"Thank you for the goodness," he said.
It's a good line and it comes to mind today, the fourth anniversary of my mother's death. Her mass card says she "Entered in Eternal Life" today and I surely do like the sound of that. I usually describe it as the very worst day of my life.
My mother had been hospitalized for months, possibly a year, and we had grown used to visiting her at St. Vincent's Hospital in Staten Island. Her condition had worsened as time went on, as her lungs grew weaker.
Time's Winged Chariot
I went to see her a few days before she died and she was barely able to move. Her face was covered in sweat and I had to give her water by dipping a stick with a small sponge one the end and putting it into her mouth. When she sucked on the sponge it made me think of a wounded animal.
I got up to leave because I had to get home and order dinner for my father. I remember my mother's face falling as she looked at me.
"You're going?" she asked weakly.
I told her I had to go take care of Dad, though looking back I don't see why he couldn't have called the restaurant and ordered his own supper. I promised her I'd be back on Wednesday and I left, not realizing that those two words would be the last thing my mother ever said to me.
My sister and father went to see her the next day. They suggested I come out and see her, but again, it was like I put a pair of blinders on my mind. I told them I'd see her on Wednesday, even after my dad said she might not last that long. Still, I didn't go.
I think now I just couldn't bare to see her in such terrible condition. I conned myself into thinking that this awful situation was working on my schedule, when in fact none of us had any say in the matter.
I came home that night and found my father had created this fiction, which he told me and everyone he spoke to on the phone.
"The doctors said if Mom gets through tonight, she'll be okay," he said.
I'm fairly no doctor said that to him, that he made this condition up as way of not facing the inevitable. I was in no place to point fingers.
My mother's doctor called me the next day, Tuesday, at my office, and told me my mother had gone into cardiac arrest.
I was working at Goldman Sachs, right on Water Street, and after calling all my relatives and telling them to meet me at the hospital, I ran downstairs to get the Staten Island ferry, only to see it pulling out into the water. There wouldn't be another ferry for something like 30 minutes.
I ran around in circles for a few minutes, then decided to take the train back to Bay Ridge and then jump on the bus to the hospital. By the time I got to 86th Street, I said, screw this, and dashed around the corner to a local car service and got a car to take me to St. Vincent's.
I have to confess here that as I headed for the car service, I saw a young woman, attractive, bare midriff, and I thought how good looking she was. Then I reminded myself this was an emergency, you pig, and get your ass in gear.
The car pulled up to the hospital 20 minutes later and as soon as I stepped to the curb, I heard my sister shouting my name.
"Mom's dead," she said to me as I approached her.
Oh, I never cried so hard in my life. I threw my arms around her and I wailed, I didn't give a damn who was looking, what they thought or what they did. I could hear my sister saying "we have to be strong for Dad," but at that moment I wasn't being strong for anyone. I was going to pieces.
My Dad showed up and as he spoke I noticed his voice was high, cracking, and then I realized he was crying, something I had only seen him do once, years before, when he was watching a special about JFK.
We went upstairs to my mother's room. It was horrible seeing her body in bed like that and I quickly left the room. I heard my sister say "I love you, ma," but I couldn't go near her. My brother noted that she was free of all the machines and tubes that needed to keep her lungs working. She was away from all that misery now. She had entered into eternal life.
The hospital chaplain came up and I blurted something stupid about how I wish I had done more with my life before my mother had died, which is rather self-centered and, if you knew my mother, completely unnecessary. She didn't give a damn how successful we were, just so long as we were happy.
"I hope you have someone that can help you process that," the chaplain said to me.
Process? I'm not sure what she meant, but it sounded an awful lot like her job.
The next days were consumed by preparation for the wake and funeral. It was bizarre, picking out a coffin and the clothes to for my mother to wear. Life really does go on, you have things to do even when you'd rather run off and hide in a some cave, you just can't.
It was terribly hot on the day of my mother's funeral and I remember sitting in the limo as we rode down Fifth Avenue, right by the bank where my mother used to work, I looked at the people outside, on the street, living their lives, doing their Saturday shopping. I wanted to be out there, too, living a normal, mundane life.
After the funeral we all tried to get back to that normal life. I called my father from the office the first Monday after my mother was buried and he stared crying again.
"I'm missing, Mom," he said, his voice drenched with pain.
I started crying and I got off the line quickly and ran down the hall to the men's room, my face pointed downward.
Four years have gone by and it's hard to believe. My father has since been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and has become quite frail.
We planned to visit the cemetery on Saturday, one day early, as my brother had made plans to look at a new house with his new wife on Sunday. He was driving, so that pretty much settled things. I was watching TV on Friday when my father approached me.
"Where's mother?" he asked, quite seriously.
I paused for a second. I hate having to remind him that his wife of 50-odd years has been dead since '02.
"She's gone," I said softly. "We're going to go see her tomorrow."
Four years, so hard to believe. We all piled into my brother's car, went over the bridge to the cemetery in Staten Island. For a while, when my father was still able to drive, he would come out here nearly every day, telling me, "I went to see mom today."
I hated that phrase, but I saw how important it was to him to think he was visiting rather than standing over a patch of ground. I used to worry because his driving skills had deteriorated so severely I was convinced he'd get killed in a car crash. I'd call every day from work at 4 pm, praying he had made it home safely.
Now he's unable to drive and my niece, Kristin, who used to sit on my father's lap, was helping her grandfather out of the car and walking him over to my mother's grave.
We went to breakfast and then headed home. I guess time has taken some of the sting out of my mother's death, but I do miss her. The late blues singer, Johnny Adams, does a song called "You Don't Miss Your Water" about a busted love affair, but it makes me think of my mother. You really don't miss your water until the well goes dry.
For a long time after my grandmother died, my mother would begin crying at the slightest thing. I was a child and it felt strange and awkward seeing her cry. She would often ask me, "do you remember grandma?" Of course, I did.
When I chose Martin as my confirmation name in honor of St. Martin de Porres, to whom my grandmother prayed and gave money, my mother was sure this was a miracle and she cried again.
I didn't what she was going through at the time, how much it hurt to lose your mother. I didn't know this until I lost her. And now I know all too well.
I want to think about the good times we had, how my mother was always there, always supportive. How she put up with temper tantrums, my whining, and outright stupidity. If I had shred of goodness in me, I know it came from her.
So thank you, Mom, thank you for the goodness. I'll do my best to pass it along.