Common Wisdom: Requiem

I knew it was over when I heard the finality in his voice. To the telephone caller he replied, “She did.” It wasn’t a question. More words exchanged, and then my husband put down the receiver. “Mom’s gone?” The unnecessary inquiry. “Mom died?”

We went to Extended Care, where she was supposed to begin physical therapy, to sign papers. It was all there in black and white, even the time of death. The end of a life neatly typed, requiring only my signature. A nurse handed me a couple of white plastic bags, containing the material trappings of a hospital stay: get well cards, pictures of grandchildren which I had propped up on her window sill, a dry autumnal arrangement in bright oranges and yellows echoing the colors of trees outside her window. A worn, cream colored pocketbook with her compact and lipstick, her tinted eyeglasses. Conspicuously, two filmy blue scarves she fashioned into perky bows to soften the visual shock of a balding head, one which all her life had featured the most lustrous, voluminous hair. Elsewhere, somewhere, the body in which had dwelled her radiant spirit.

In retrospect, it isn’t the insult of death which sears those left behind. Somehow you get through the unfamiliar details of having to dispose of the shell. You find yourself, composed, stepping into a mortuary room full of caskets, half of them yawning open for families who chose to display the deceased. You walk with your daughter, numb, among boxes ranging from simple to elaborate. In the overwhelming silence of that appalling room, you try to decide what best suits forever the body of the life-loving mother to which you will consign it. We decide on one which has around it, three on each side, oval shapes containing what appear to be pressed flowers. Because she loved what was beautiful and decorative and because, like a flower, she will be permanently sealed into it. Later, after Mass, a young friend will say, “It looked like a jewel box,” and you know the choice was right.

At the cemetery office you finger samples of marble to designate her grave like someone looking at swatches for a foyer. You find yourself coordinating the rose-colored marble to the rosy burgundy of the casket. There is a kind of absurd incongruity in cosmetic decisions made in this dominion of the dead. The cheerful woman takes you in a van to select a burial site. “People usually like their loved ones to be near a tree,” she counsels, and you solemnly scan the hilly turf on that gray day for a tree. You try to find the perfect place, a room with a view. There is about it a certain salvific humor to what is essentially a lacerating experience. And you get through it.

In the end, of course, it is the unexpected that does you in. For me, it is the clock. Her last room lacked one; she was confused about time, and so grateful for the inexpensive model I took to her. It sat on a window sill with family pictures, and flowers, ticking away. Its second hand doesn’t quietly sweep, it marches off the seconds with a relentless tick, tick. One day in the presence of this clock, at the stroke of one of its ticks, my mother died. Now, when I enter the room where it stands, I hear it, a simple clock whose face was turned to hers and which marked her death. I am at once riveted and wounded by its sound, its haunting presence. I know I should give it away, and I also know that I would dispose of anything in the house before parting with the clock, with its inexorable tick, tick. It goes on, she is gone. It was there, I was not.

Hers was a simple life, not the stuff of awesome obituaries. Her focus was family, and since I am an only child, the focus was limited if intense. When we leafed through her calendars we read familial references like “Whitney comes home today” or “Scott leaves for Maine.” I could never interest her in joining senior groups. She was not a joiner. She wanted to be totally available for family events. She deplored the diminution of family dinner, something sacrosanct when I was a child. It was always the same: my father came home, changed into less formal clothes, poured two martinis (dry), and dinner was served at seven. When elderly, she shunned early dining habits of her peers, continuing after my father’s death a preference for late dinner to which my father, the cosmopolitan, had introduced her.

Theirs was an unlikely combination, the uniqueness of which caused her to marvel and cherish it even to her death and prevented any interest in marrying again. She never recovered from the shock that my father, the educated and traveled man from Trinidad, took as his bride the home-spun, inexperienced American from the Bronx. Not that she admitted the Bronx connection. She identified herself as a New Yorker, once she grasped that as a borough the Bronx had fallen from grace, the world according to Tom Wolfe as opposed to the modest but neighborly site of her youth. Her own mother, in fact, was one of the last hold-outs on Tinton Avenue, only relinquishing the beloved family brownstone when a number of her friends were bodily assaulted and their houses trashed.

She had a difficult adolescence after her physician father died. He left the family impecunious, which forced his wife to take in boarders and his two daughters to leave school for the workplace. Her sister was what we would call today “upwardly mobile;” she insinuated herself into Manhattan society and ultimately married a dashing graduate of the Naval Academy. She was horrified by my mother’s low estate as secretary with the Edison Company and wrangled a position for her with an artist in Greenwich Village. The arrangement lasted about two days before the artist made a move on Mother, who boarded a subway and wept all the way home to the safety of the Bronx. The Edison Company took her back.

Her sister, however, had succeeded in establishing contacts, and in her brief sojourn to Alice’s world Mom caught the notice of a tall, distinguished Brit who wore tweeds and sported a cane. They married, and the woman who had only been shipboard on the Staten Island ferry found herself en route to a honeymoon in the Caribbean to meet in-laws. Afterwards, they lived in suburban New Jersey, where all the women seem to have been graduated from Wellesley. She lived pained by academic inadequacies. She needn’t have suffered. She was, indisputably, the belle of Shadowlawn Drive. I used to sit on the stairs at parties and watch as she charmed every man in the neighborhood with her disarming effervescence. She would tell me, years later, that she confessed to Daddy that several men had “gotten out of line,” and he replied, unperturbed and bemused, “You do know that you are a flirt?” Mother had innocent fun, not seduction in mind. I think my father, the essence of refinement, rather enjoyed his pretty butterfly of a wife. The ability to fascinate does not come with a piece of parchment.

She never lost her capacity to enjoy and intrigue men. It was never more apparent than in her final months last fall when I woke to hear her crying and opened my bedroom door to see her crumpled before me in her nightgown, arms outstretched, in heartbroken defeat at failing health. She had used a bathroom but did not have the strength to return to her room. Her heart was racing beyond count. I followed the ambulance and in the parking lot after she had been admitted the rescue team looked at me in amazement. “Y’know what your mother did? She thanked us and told us we should come back when she was feeling and looking better.” To the end, a woman appreciating, wanting to be appreciated. The consummate coquette.

Religion was paramount in her life, although she L., had scant formal instruction. What she had, took. Unlike my father, whose knowledge of Catholicism was comprehensive, she leaned on faith. Daily, she walked to noon Mass until problems with vision prevented it. Every night she knelt by her bedside to pray, and she slept with the silver rosary by her side. Eventually the rosary wound up suspended by me over her head from an exercise bar she would never use. Her rosary is with her now, deep and dark, in her hands underground. The only other adornment on her shroud, thanks to the whimsical inspiration of my daughter, is a favorite pin worn each St. Patrick’s Day: a wishbone and four leaf clover. Two symbols of what she was, the spiritual and the sportive.

Few attended her Rosary and Mass. Relatives are far flung, and people here never knew until later that she had died. The paucity of mourners was deceptive. More than anyone I have ever known, my mother genuinely cared about individuals encountered in her routine landscape, from bank clerks to apartment managers. The flood of cards and letters and phone calls which came to me testify to the effect she had on those whose lives she touched. It is perhaps most succinctly expressed by a note from her ophthalmologist and his assistants: “Whenever your mother had an appointment with us, she lit the place up.”

She had a breathtaking facility to converse easily with everyone, and it was inconsequential to her if the person held an executive post with Merrill Lynch or was the checkout fellow at Seven-Eleven. She took delight in those simple conversational exchanges most of us brush off with polite if feigned interest. She never forgot birthdays, haunting the Hallmark store for just the apt sentiment. Her apartment neighbors told me, “The bell would ring, and there would be your mother, with a bouquet of flowers.” One neighbor was a retired teacher, and Mother, always smarting (without bitterness) about academic inferiority, had a running competition with her about who scored best each night on “Jeopardy”—Mom always seeking the “A” she never had the chance to earn, in a college she couldn’t attend. Among the poignant finds in her apartment I would come upon “Jeopardy” questions, destined to be asked of me. That I usually delivered the correct answer never failed to give her satisfaction, her feeling of inadequacy compensated by my ostensible sufficiency.

But it was she who was no pushover. Far more than I, she took on various controversial folk who set up tables along University Avenue in Palo Alto. She never shrank from challenge or confrontation. Approached by young, healthy men begging alms, she’d pull herself up to her full 5’4″ and protest, “I should give you money when all along this street there are HELP WANTED signs?” She, who faced potential penury at 15, staring down a hefty “homeless” person wearing a cozy down vest and designer jeans. She was articulate, she was fearless. That combination could be dangerous, and I worried lest someone haul off and slug her. She, however, never blinked.

Because of a virus, I missed visiting her for a few days. When I returned to Extended Care, I could not believe her precipitous decline. It even dismayed her oncologist. In truth, she was unrecognizable. They had taken away the scarves, her tinted glasses, and her dentures. I found her lying on her side, eyes alternately closed and open. She was drifting. No extraordinary means were in place to extend life; she was free of machinery and ‘vs. It pained me to see her in such desperate condition with no visible help, but all that could be done had been done.

Simple measures remained; I moistened her dry lips with damp Kleenex. Occasionally her eyes fastened on me. But where was she? I held her lovely hands, which showed no sign of age. I fingered the pink, pearlized nails and remembered giving her a manicure ten short days ago when she was spunky and optimistic. “Mom,” I chided through a lump in my throat the size of Boston, “what great looking nails! To think the manicurist never charged a dime!” Miraculously, from the fog, her mouth parted, and the edges stretched in a fleeting but unmistakable smile. She caught the humor.

But if there was even a vestige of lucidity, how could I leave? She slept, she woke. She stirred, she was motionless. My mother, in the grip of depletion beyond recall.

Finally, emotionally and physically exhausted, I got up to leave. “I have to go now, Mom, but I’ll be back tomorrow.” Did she hear? Did she understand? I walked reluctantly to the door. And then it happened. The sick little head turned from the window to me and she clearly formed words she was too weak to say, “Thank you.” I stood rooted in the spot. She said, “thank you.” Thank you for coming, thank you for all you’ve done now and always. Thank you for being with me these last months through all the tests, all the worry. Thank you for being my beloved daughter. I wondered, with intuitive dread, would these be the last words I would hear from my mother? They were.

I am unmercifully twitted by one daughter who, years ago, gave me a daily scriptural calendar as a Christmas present. It sits on my night table and is the first thing I reach for when I wake. I anxiously search for its replacement each December. I begin each day with a verse, and my room is festooned with favorites I cannot bear to throw away. How often they have set the tone of the day, the Lord reaching out.

The day I returned to visit my mother after an absence the calendar alerted me to her approaching demise before it was visually confirmed. “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:7). The day her plucky self was committed to earth I read, “Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once; but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God” (Romans 6:9-10). When I awakened the next day, unsure I could survive that bright candle extinguished, I saw, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). The skeptic would say coincidence. What a leap of faith in the haphazard. And how he would labor to dismiss the relevant verse, of all Biblical texts, which greeted me on my birthday. I woke, struggling to accept the reality of a first birthday without my Mom; she who made so much of the day and so much of me (she thought I was far better than I am) was gone. The goneness of death. No card, no flowers, nothing. I tore off the page to January 3, and there, in stunning proclamation, came the words she could not speak, but spoke through Christ beyond the grave: “Though I be absent in the flesh, yet I be with you in the spirit” (Colossians 2:5).

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.



  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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