Thursday, December 9, 2010


The wonderful thing about literature is the way a writer can describe something unique or very personal and make it seem as if you were reading your own thoughts.  Because some are able to plummet the depths and bring them to light with words, the rest of us are comforted.  I just read such a piece in the New Yorker that came today.  It's by Joyce Carol Oates and it's about the last week of her husband's life, his sudden illness, his hospitalization, their assumption that things would be all right, his unexpected death.

Of all the emotions we human beings feel, one of the strongest has to be grief.  Part of our fear of death is our fear of the grief that will follow the death of someone so important to our lives that life itself doesn't seem possible without them.  And yet people die, others grieve, and the world goes on.

Oates regrets not telling her husband just how much she loved him (though by her account it seems she did, whether she realizes that or not) and not being there when he died among "strangers."  Her account  is so poignant it makes your throat tighten and your eyes sting.  I hope she has good friends to comfort her.

Every detail of that last week is seared into Oates' heart in a string of moments that in retrospect are freighted with meaning.  For me, the moment that clings to my heart occurred a year before my mother died.  My mother was a lady, in the old-fashioned sense of the word.  She was genteel, soft-spoken, and calm.  To me she remains the ideal woman against whom I measure myself and come up short.  She taught middle-school art, refusing an offer to move to the high school because she loved her squirmy students and was good with them.  She was artistic, but she left it to my brother to be the artist.  She was an unfailing support to my father, a coach, who adored her but probably never realized how much she sacrificed for his sake.  My parents were a couple who were a closed world, much as it seems Joyce Carol Oates and her husband were.  They needed no one but each other.

I have a memory from when I must have been about three.  My parents were standing in the middle of our living room with their arms around each other.  I wanted to be included and put my little arms around both of them--at about knee level--but even then I knew that much as they might love me they needed each other more.  When I was a child, my security came from the stability of their marriage.   They shared their most important thoughts only with each other.  "I love you" wasn't part of the conversations they had with me.  I don't remember now the first person I ever said those words to, but I'm sure it wasn't either of my parents.

My mother lived to be 88, but she suffered a series of strokes during her last four years that left her speech impaired and confined her to a wheelchair.  She and my dad were in a nursing home that my mother had insisted they move into before one of them became so decrepit the facility would no longer admit them.  You had to be able to walk in the front door on day one.  So they moved from the home they had built and loved into two rooms with a microwave they never used.  Six weeks after moving in my mother suffered her first debilitating stroke.  From that point on we couldn't communicate by telephone; I ran everything through my dad, with whom I'd had maybe two serious conversations in my life.  I expressed concern; he tried to remain optimistic and never left her side.

This is when adult children step up to the plate and care for their parents, not as if they were dependent children but, yeah, sort of.  But I lived many hundreds of miles away, was a single mother with three children, and had an ill-paid part-time teaching job.  I was able to get back only about once a year at Christmas.  My nieces lived closer, and they were wonderful.

A year before my mother died I did make it home that summer for a week-long visit.  She had been in and out of the hospital and was just then in intensive care.  My brother was there too, and he, my dad, and I sat beside her bed and carried on a desultory conversation.  Beyond her hospital window were fields with cows grazing, and I was reminded of Auden's poem about Icarus falling into the sea while ordinary life proceeded unmindful of the extraordinary event.  I was leaving the next day, and I didn't believe my mother to be in immediate danger, but in her condition you never knew.  My dad left the room first, while my brother and I said our goodbyes.  He took her hand and spoke to her with such gentle kindness that I later told him that if I ever got sick I wanted him to take care of me.  I waited for him to leave, then I said goodbye.

"Let me know if there's anything I can do, and if you need me to come back, just say the word."  She nodded with comprehension and tried to say something, but she couldn't finish a sentence.  I leaned over and kissed her forehead, then I, too, left the room.  My brother and dad were waiting for me by the elevators, and as we descended to the first floor I felt as if I were being strangled.  If I so much as tried to utter a single word, I was sure I would burst into tears, and that I simply would not do.  As we rode the elevator in silence, I knew that I would never see her again, and when she died a year later I had not been able to afford to return in all that time.  Did my parents want to see me but not want to impose?  Did they prefer to be left alone to face this together?  Were they disappointed that I never came?  I will never know.

My dad lived four more years, increasingly deaf, increasingly isolated.  When he was nearing the end, I went to see him and it was clear he didn't have long.  I didn't want to have the same regrets with my dad as I did with my mother, and I told him what a great father he had been and how much I loved him.  He said, "That's very meaningful," then paused.  "I'll be with your mother soon."  Those might not have been his last words, but they're the last ones I remember.  I do so hope he was right.