Tag Archives: death

Retrospective 5: 1967 — Impossible Memories

I have always wondered about the life of the unborn. Babies feel pain. My daughter howled when her heel was pricked for the PKU test when she was a few days old. The old wives’ tale says that a happy mother brings a happy baby. I was a happy baby, the product of blissful months on the beach. Rachel was not, the product of my father’s wanderings, my mother’s loneliness and uncertainty, her cowed return to a home she had fled and an “I told you so” mother who hated the man she had married. And then there is Leah.

In spring of 1967 we are in Nashville. I am not quite two and a half. Rachel is seven months old. And my mother is pregnant again, already.

She feels well, as she always did when pregnant. But my dad has been offered a job at CERN in Switzerland. Her mother is growing sicker with every passing day. My mother has two babies and no resources for another. At some point, she sits in the doctor’s office and asks for an abortion.

He plays an imaginary violin. “You don’t want that,” he says. “Really, you don’t.”

Whether she really didn’t want an abortion and his words awoke her, or whether she simply bowed to male wisdom, accepting her fate as a woman without a mind, she folded her hands in her lap and said OK.

Thus Leah was given her chance. But since childhood this almost-aborted sister of mine has lived in horror of death, of the dark, damp, clamminess of it. She grew up with nightmares, with a jittering terror of the world around her and its dangers lurking everywhere. Still, she is the biggest risk-taker of the four of us: She has backpacked alone in Brazil, worked the agricultural seasons all over Europe, parachuted out of an airplane, squatted in a condemned London house, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. She is both anal retentive and crazywild. She is empathetically generous and simultaneously grasping, always afraid of loss.

It was years after she was born that I found out about my mother’s visit to the doctor’s office. I don’t know if Leah knows about my mother’s moment of ambiguity towards her; I haven’t dared to ask.

One other memory: We are in Switzerland in November, in our sixth-floor apartment in Nyon. Leah has just been born. She has a shock of dark hair and an indignant expression. My mother names her after her mother, who died four months earlier. And I realize, now, that I don’t know whether my mother went home for her mother’s funeral. I realize that I know nothing at all about my mother, other than some facts, and a story I weave into a fabric of my own design out of my memories and those facts.

Retrospective 2: 1964 — Commencement

My mother negotiated the boardwalks behind the houses with her belly swelling bigger and bigger, though the doctor told her she had a retroverted uterus and was at risk of miscarriage. She should take it easy. She should lie down, put her feet up. My mother laughed. She lived in a little house at the bottom of a cliff. She had to take 213 steps up the cliff just to see the doctor, and to go grocery shopping. She packed the trash out on her back. Walking down the stairs was harder because sometimes she thought she might tip forward with the weight of me in her belly; she might go end-over-end into the water below.

Those first months of her pregnancy were idyllic. Spring and summer came to the area and the water lay glass smooth with the sun going down behind the mountains across the bay. She sat on the deck with her feet up and drank wine. I know she smoked, and now I know she smoked pot too, and perhaps I turned and turned in a world thick with dreams and giddyness, there in the dark warm womb with the light shining pink through her belly skin.

She was happy when she was pregnant. The food intolerances that plagued her between pregnancies and after, till she died, quieted down in those days. She was young and pretty, and her husband was handsome and kind, and the beach was a place for hippies and long conversations and secret trysts, for finding God in the phosphorescence when they took the boat out at night.

Then fall came, the days shortening, the wind hissing across the water. Did she lug herself up the hill alone to buy food, or did that come later? There was a time it all changed; the bliss, the being young-and-beautiful.

In late October I was born. She wrote a poem years later about the birth, and gave Rachel and I a copy. How? She was dead. How did we find it? I forget; I think she came up out of some place of memory and said, “Read this.” It was an act of love.

No.

Rachel said, “Mum wanted us to have this.” She handed it over. The light blew across the room, carrying Mum’s voice. I heard her read to me, from where she had gone just days before:

Your Father’s Gift

He brought a leaf,
Gold, russet, a touch of auburn, so lovely.
I imagine him spotting it as he walked, a girl by his side, smiling.
Its beauty a reflection of hers — in his eyes.
Were they lovers already?
Dappled, dazzled, by the sun as they danced through the whispering leaves.
Chattering. Laughing.

Golden as the leaf, the sun that filled my hospital window.
Golden, shading to amber, shading to umber,
As I waited.

When he came, he brought the leaf. So lovely.
A gift to exchange for the baby I’d just borne him.
I loved the leaf.
It was only the first of many such gifts but it was the best.
Forty falls later I pick up a leaf — shades of gold and amber-brown.
He’s long gone from my life, but I remember.
And I forgive because he brought a leaf.

Love thy brother… and thy sisters

Continued from here:

“For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever….you should not have gloated over your brother on the day of his misfortune….you should not have looted his goods on the day of his calamity…. As you have done it shall be done to you.” Obadiah. 1:10-15

My mother witnessed gruesome fights between her mother and her mother’s siblings when she was growing up. I wrote about them in my creative thesis, a novel, turning my mother’s memories into my fiction. My thesis director told me people just didn’t behave that way. “You’ve been sheltered then,” I said. “They do.”

My mother lived in fear that we would fight after she died, as her mother and aunts had fought after their mother’s death. “I’ll come back and haunt you,” she said. “I don’t want you fighting.”

Of course we fought. My mother’s friend, the one who reminded me she had called the heron Obadiah, said on her way out after the party: “Someone should right a book about you four girls. You’re all so different, and so interesting.” Someone did. Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible. OK, it wasn’t exactly like us, but close enough that Mum saw clear parallels. And one of the things that was most interesting, I suppose, was the very different way we dealt with her dying, so different that it caused a rift that threatened to destroy us.

But last week, from the moment we saw Obadiah on Friday night till the moment we saw her again on Sunday evening, we didn’t fight. We had a good time. And the party was wonderful.

When my mother’s friend reminded me of my mother’s pet name for the heron, I wondered what I would read when I tracked down what it meant. Then I found out. Obadiah is a minor prophet of the Old Testament. His writings are short, 21 verses packed into a single chapter. In it, he threatens the wrath of God on Essau and the Edomites. Why? Because Essau fought with his brother Jacob.

Obadiah. My mother knew what to do to bring us together. I don’t know how it happened. I just know that it did.

The Restaurant Heron

“Look,” Dad said. “A heron.”

Dad, Leah and I had just left a waterfront restaurant where, for the first time in the four years since my mother died, my three sisters and Dad and I were all together. Ruth May and Rachel had stayed behind for a drink, while Dad, Leah and I headed for the opera. And then, as we crossed the boardwalk bridge to the sidewalk, Dad saw the heron, not 20 feet away in the water in the dark at 7:45 at night, staring fixedly at we knew not what.

People passing by exclaimed too, as Dad pulled out his camera and tried unsuccessfully to get pictures.

“Oh well,” Leah said. “We saw it. All three of us.” Her words triggered something in me. I ran back into the restaurant and touched Rachel’s shoulder.

“Look,” I told her and Ruth May. When I turned to point out the window, I understood what the heron had been staring at. He was framed perfectly in the center of the window, looking at the table where we’d all been sitting together.

“It’s Mum,” Ruth May said, tears in her eyes. “I wish I had Liam here to see it.”

“She’ll be back,” Rachel responded, hugging Ruth May. “She’s always here.”

We had all been dreading this weekend. Actually, I hadn’t been, and Leah hadn’t been, but then again I don’t worry too much any more about family politics. Getting the four of us together might be a disaster, but I’m not going to go looking for trouble. If we can all just breathe and forget for a minute how hard Mum’s death was, we’ll be OK. But the Rachel and Ruth May? Well…. they dreaded it.

Leah was the one who insisted on the get-together. “I don’t want the next time we get together again to be at Dad’s funeral,” she said. “You know Mum wouldn’t want that either.” And she was turning 40, flying from Ireland for her birthday. She wanted us all there. When Rachel refused, Leah called on Dad, who called Rachel and insisted she come.

Now, looking out the window at the heron, Rachel leaned towards me.

“Even Dad knows about the heron,” she said. “Even if he doesn’t admit it in so many words. Did you know when he called me to insist I come to Leah’s party, he said, apropos of nothing, ‘oh, there’s a heron on the railing.’ Mum was there then, too, making sure I said yes, and he knew it.”

My parents had lived on the beach for nine years when Mum died. In all those years, we’d never seen a heron on the deck railing. Not till the one that showed up when Mum was dying and stayed there, watching her, till she died. And since then, at this time of year, the heron returns to the railing every year. I’ve never seen one on any of the other decks. Why our house? Why, for every meaningful event and moment in life, does a heron appear, sometimes to stay and watch us, as the heron last night did, and sometimes just to fly overhead, glimpsed for a second, then gone?

For me, it’s a sign that this weekend will go just fine. Mum’s back, uniting us again, reminding us that life is mysterious and inexplicable, and that she’ll always be here.

“If you four fight,” she said as she was dying. “I’ll come back and haunt you. You know I will. So don’t fight.”

I’m glad she chose the form of a heron, a flighted spirit, a natural inhabitant of these parts, but also usually aloof and wild. It’s perfect for her. For us.