I was going to drive up, stay for the weekend, the first of many vigils. On Monday she went home, and I spoke to her on the phone - she was groggy from the morphine, but told me that we'd better not talk too long, since this was long distance. KSTP called on Monday to ask if I could do a show on Wednesday, and I accepted.
But by Wednesday she was worse. She spent most of her time sleeping, my sister said, and while the nurses said Friday would be fine, maybe Thursday would be better. I planned to leave around eleven and get there around three. Would that work?
Translation: will she be alive?
I knew I was going home to watch her die. Knowing it and knowing it, however, are different things.
I did the radio show. The next morning Dad called and suggested I take the first flight home. I threw clothes in a bag, packed my good suit and good shoes, numb, groggy. Quick flight. Uncle Myron - Mom's brother - picked me up at the Fargo airport. We stood outside while waiting for the bags, talking about turbulence. Today's planes are built to take it, we concluded.
A short drive home down the familiar street. The houses looked smaller. I almost told Myron to slow down at 23rd street: there were no stop signs, and Mom always told us to be careful. People just sped through without a care; you had to watch.
I wasn't prepared for what was in the living room; nothing prepares you. My mother was on her side, her body pulled into a comma. Music from an Enya CD played soft from a machine at the end of the bed. The room had a sick sweet smell of sweat and disinfectant. She was faced away from the window, mouth agape, eyes open and unseeing, dazed from a hammerblow of morphine. Bad enough. But the sound was the worst. Her breath was wet and ragged, each ration of air dragged through the thick sea of her lungs. It sounds worse than it is, the hospice nurse said at once. It's not hard for her to breath yet. She's strong. She's very strong.
I kissed her temple and told her about the flight. Blue sky, no clouds. It's a good day to fly, Mom. It's a beautiful day to fly.
I sat by the bed for a while, listening to her breath, waiting for her to turn over and say hello. She did not.
After a while I went into the kitchen. Dad, Myron, Dave my brother in law - my brother, really - and the Pastor. I felt in the mood for some nasty theological fisticuffs. Hey, padre. There's your poster girl for the faith. Not a bad thought in her life; not a single act of malice. So how come she's dying early in vivid pain? Hmm? Got an answer? Maybe there's something worse than evil at work here. Maybe the one thing worse than active evil is an absence of evil, an absence of good - things just are, and have no value outside of what we assign them. No God, no Devil, just cells that lose the instruction manual and decide to warp for no good reason. Hmm?
This would not please my mother.
The pastor puts a hand on my shoulder. He tells me that this is not God's will.
And I agree. Mortality was not in the original design specifications, I say. Right?
For the next few hours we do shifts - you go into the living room, hold her hand, smooth the hair from her forehead. My dad pats her hand with clumsy love; this is too awful to bear, and he can say no more than her name. He bends and kisses her hand: Eloise. Oh, Eloise.
And when you can take no more you go to the kitchen, where there's coffee and a five-pound bag of gummi bears. At noon I go downstairs and call the grocery store to order up some sandwiches from Hornbacher's grocery; the clerk is all pep and red cheeks and ya-sure-happy-to-help Fargo cheer. Next to the phone is a brush with my mother's hair caught in the teeth. She asks me if I want them to slice the buns and butter them. How about mayo?
Mayo's fine. On the side.
Dave gets the food. Dad is telling the preacher about his life in the war, when Mom was waiting back home in North Dakota. I make them both sandwiches.
Around one her pulse begins to get erratic. You can see it in her neck, beating like a bird that has begun to believe it is trapped. The nurse swabs fluid from Mom's mouth. The CD runs out.
I remember there was a song Mom played at the piano when her chores were done. Valse Lente, by Coppelia. I dig it out of the piano seat - it's been there thirty years, and it's frayed and thin as an old washcloth. She'd always had trouble with the accompaniment, the blue notes - she could never play it like she knew it should be played. She was always proud of my aptitude at getting the piano to sound like I wanted it to sound, and she had been saddened when I threw over the keys for the electric guitar.
I sit at the piano and pick out the Valse. I've never played it before. I know exactly how it goes. I heard it a hundred times, wafting through the house at four o'clock.
At two she is finding it hard to breath.
The preacher has left for a previous appointment. Myron has gone to Maple Cheyenne Church to mark off the family burial ground. It's Dad, Kim, her husband Dave, baby Alexa gurgling on the floor, the nurse, me. My father notes that her feet are cold.
That's a sign, says the nurse, gently.
The Enya CD comes on again, and nurse smiles: here's that pretty song, Eloise.
Kim on the left, Dad on the right. I am at the head of the bed, her hair in my fingers, caressing her forehead: cool and smooth. I see the coffee table where Kim fell and hit her teeth while I was babysitting. I ran to Hornbachers to tell Mom that sis was hurt. I was so scared I didn't change from my tiger-striped slippers. The same slippers I rolled up in a ball and put at the foot of mom's bed when the hamster escaped, hoping to make her thing the dreaded rodent was in her bed. The slippers are in a drawer in my room, I know. She saved them. She saved everything.
Her breath comes in short gasps. We whisper goodbyes. This is just the machine, I tell myself; she is already en route; this is just the machinery running down. She is so deep inside now she's already where she is going next.
One breath - another, deep, long, drawn with effort - and her eyes open. We rush to fill her field of sight, and fill the last look with smiles and familiar eyes, and each of us speaks for us all. We love you. Good journey, mom. We're here. We'll see you again. Goodbye. Goodbye. We love you, mom, we love you, we always will-
She draws another breath and gathers our words within and she falls still.
When the first few sobs have passed my father raises his face to the rest of us.
She was the only girl I ever loved, he said.
She was the first one and she was the only one.
The only girl I ever loved.
The nurse applies a stethoscope to confirm the matter. As she moves away she knocks the cord from the CD player, and the room falls silent.
The mailman comes a minute later, drops the day in the box and lets the lid clank shut.
I go to the door and open it; there is something in here that wants to go out. We hear the birds outside, chattering in the high tree outside, passing some inscrutable message among the flock. And then they fall silent and rise as one and scatter in the hard bright sky.
The CD player was disconnected during song four of the Enya CD. The lyrics of the song:
My life goes on in endless song
above earth's lamentation
I hear the real, though fair-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
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