In New Jersey, my mother is beginning to die. This is a sentence that has loomed in my life since my late teens when she was first treated for cancer. It has been a long time since then, though reality has a way of compressing so much into the present. So much so that even my dreams feel heavier, freighted by a final responsibility, to be as decent and brave as any good son. To let go of a fear I have carried around like a stone rubbed smooth for luck, now that the luck has at last run out. Nothing is new to this, nothing that many friends of mine haven’t already endured. My mother endured it with her mother. I had to fly in then, too, from this side of the continent. I had to put things here on hold while I held the frail figure of my grandmother and whispered her permission to die. The last words she whispered back were in Russian, the language of her youth, a language she had not spoken since her youth.
I don’t know if any of this means anything, though it is consoling to believe so. When the person who gave you life starts to die, you don’t suddenly become wiser, though that would be comforting. All the books I’ve read, all the poetry I have half-remembered — there is a triteness to the very thought of beautifully rendered words and thoughts casting anew what is fundamentally mundane in its commonality.
My mother is a strong believer in God and will die still observing many ancient traditions of service to Him. All my life I have asked her why, I have made cheap jokes about old habits, and now when I want to feel why rather than know it, I am still at a loss. Which is probably the point. Which had better certainly be the point.
I don’t know how long my mother has left of this life, and when I think of her physical suffering my throat begins to swell and yes, I feel guilt and remorse for the pain that could have been avoided. But this has always been a part of our bond.
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That first time she was in the hospital for cancer, I remember being weak, I remember not being prepared for the shock of helplessness, the tubes running through her, the monitors. She had been asleep and I stayed but a minute before I made a dash to the parking lot and couldn’t find my car.
For an hour, in a sweaty panic, moving swiftly, cursing aloud, unnerving people on every level of the parking garage was this 17-yearold kid who just wanted to find his car and drive around the city all night playing fast, hard music and banging on the steering wheel at every red light.
Suffice it to say, composure was not among my gifts then. Thankfully, my mother recovered and with all too little help from me. Whatever I was afraid of then I couldn’t say, but it came out as anger and later felt like shame. It still feels like that.
Now, 30 years later, more than composure is needed. My mother has already told me, “We need to make a list.” Of what? “Let’s make a list of all the ways you’re gonna miss me.”
I have been away for so long, I have been too often a distant, negligent son forgetting, then refusing to call. I have stopped sending articles and funny postcards, and I have sent presents in place of affection. How do I make amends for that?
I suppose this is the beginning of the list.