Sunday, November 30, 2008

the cheese stands alone

November 26

Today my mother died. Not TODAY, today, but on this date 12 years ago. My mind refuses to remember the exact date. Maybe that’s because it was “two days before Thanksgiving” and that’s one of those holidays that moves around. My body, however, always knows it’s coming. There is no way I can forget to remember. For a short time last week I panicked because I couldn’t find my dad’s old black Filofax (remember them?) in which I list such things. I was just about to call my Aunt Sally and shamefully ask, when I found it in one of my many shoeboxes of stuff.

The column I wrote after she passed, became one of my most requested and responded to. Years after I left the paper, I would run into people looking for a copy, or telling me how they had passed it along to their own daughters. In that spirit I offer it once again:

I have come down with a severe case of chronic terminal adulthood.

Two days before Thanksgiving, my mother died. With both my father and younger brother having preceded her, I have become the last standing member of the family in which I came of age. And frankly, this is one of those times when there is cold comfort in the knowledge that many others are being propelled through an identical emotional gauntlet.

So, I have become – in the words of self-help guru John Bradshaw – not only a “terminal adult,” but an “adult orphan.” To those who haven’t yet experienced the last of their parents’ passing, it may seem a bit self-indulgent to consider oneself an orphan when one is just shy of 50, but it really is an accurate description of what it’s like. There is something both scary and liberating about finding myself in this position. As Janis Joplin once sang: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Ain’t it the truth.

My father used to say that when he was a young man attending family functions, he was seated at a table near the door with his cousins. Then, one day he turned around and realized he was in the front of the room, with nowhere left to go and all eyes upon him.

In the month since my mother’s death, I have barely touched on the emotional work. With all the pressing, practical details, it’s almost easy to avoid the crushing realization that the parenthood fantasy is ended. Gone. There no longer exists in this world someone to whom I am all-important, someone to always be there, someone to willingly place his or her body between me and the grave.

Aside from terse financial realities, there is all that stuff. The stuff, not only of their lives, but also of mine. A melange of memories. Sorting through it bounces me back and forth in time – very unsettling.

The passing of seconds, hours and days are indistinguishable. I rise each morning and go about the rituals of life, but I am disconnected. The world spins freely without me. And that’s OK.

Oddly (or maybe not so oddly), the only place I approach wholeness is in the solitude of my mother’s house. It still looks, smells and feels as if she stepped out for a walk. I watch TV from her recliner, wade through a mass of papers on her desk and heat the last of her frozen homemade vegetable soup for dinner. Some nights, I even sleep in my parents’ bed.

For me, she will not really die until I dismantle her home, scattering her worldly goods. I begin, slowly and singularly, shaking off offers of help. I am not in a rush. In a weird way I savor the chores, perhaps as one last parting gift. I want to do it right – as if there is such a thing.

As many others of the Great Depression generation, she saved everything regardless of the logic. I found niches filled with folded paper bags of every description, a can of old twist ties, a collection of more take-out plastic food containers than a caterer would need, receipts more than a decade old, handbags with broken straps, an evening gown I wore at 17 to a cousin’s wedding – and so on.

I ask my children, extended family and her friends what they want. Their choices are surprising: a vase from my own childhood; a pair of wine goblets: a set of fruit knives, a tiny teddy bear. As for me, I can’t decide on what to sell, what to give away and what to keep. I am literally dizzy with indecision. What do I do with all those bowling trophies?

For the first week or so, the answering machine in the den hummed with innocent reminders of missed doctor’s appointments and confirmations of future appointments never to be kept.

The answering machine is quiet now; there is no blinking light announcing new messages. Well, almost no blinking light. I confess to dialing the number once or twice just to hear that familiar voice promising to return my call.

No comments: