Like my mother, the man is in his early 50s. And like my mother, he looks about a decade younger. He’s neatly dressed and unassuming. His slight smile suggests shyness or perhaps just the wistfulness of which he speaks. I pretend not to listen, busying myself picking dead leaves from the flower bouquets on the windowsill in my mother’s hospice room.
“Phyllis, I should have married you,” the man tells my mother. “When we were kids, I used to have a crush on you.”
“You did?” my mother asks. She gives the man a doubtful smirk and gives herself a pump of Dilaudid. Either the drugs or the advanced stages of I-can-say-anything-I-want have made her a cynic.
“I did,” the man insists. “The other boys said you were too skinny, but I thought you were the prettiest girl in the neighborhood.”
“You did?” my mother asks, again. This time there is a lilt in her voice, and the smirk is now a full-fledged grin.
The man visits a while longer, reminiscing, until my mother begins to doze. He kisses her forehead and says goodbye.
I watch the man who could have been my father leave. I smile to myself, and from behind I hear my mother chuckling. “I thought you were asleep,” I say.
“I was. Just a quick nap,” my mother says. “Ain’t he somethin’?” She nods in the direction of the door and the old friend she hadn’t seen in decades. “Fine time for him to tell me all-a that.”
“Yeah,” I agree. I roll my mother’s tray-cart over to her so that she can get a drink of water.
“But girl, look,” she says, inclining her head toward me conspiratorially. “Lying here on my death bed, and I still got it going on.”
I laugh out loud. “Yes, you do!”
And she does. My mother is beautiful.
She makes sure we keep her toenails polished. And she borrowed a silver toe ring from me and a gold one from her godsister Tonya. But the nursing staff let her wear them only long enough for us to take a picture on my digital camera for my mother to admire at will.
I am not at all surprised when — after she has me give away her sizeable costume jewelry collection (Ziploc bags with white labels identifying each recipient) — my mother says she wants to throw herself a party.
July 29-30, 2005
The party is wonderful. Over 100 friends, family, co-workers, and former high school classmates come. A group from the church my mother attended as a child decorates the hospital conference room exactly as my mother would have: tastefully, meticulously, warmly. Everyone brings a covered dish. My mother is wheeled into the room in a comfy chair that accommodates and disguises her meds and her catheter bag. She is a bit hazy, but she enjoys at least a bite of each of her favorite foods. A soloist sings, pictures are taken, and no one cries.
A local news station sends a reporter and a cameraman. My mother is asked how this celebration makes her feel. She struggles for a moment to find the right word, and ultimately settles on “Popular.”
The festivities end in the early evening, and when it is all over I am exhausted, emotionally more so than physically. It is someone else’s turn to spend the night with my mother. “You don’t need to be in that house alone,” I am told more than once, and I agree. Still, I pass on multiple offers to “come home with us.” Instead, I drive to no place in particular until I end up at a bar/night-club where I’d met an old girlfriend from high school for a drink several weeks earlier.
I am not a “club” person, and I’ve never been to a bar alone in my life. But I dance until two in the morning at the Twisted Martini with a stranger from Gainesville who’s got beautiful dark brown skin and penetrating light brown eyes. He seems as determined as I am to have fun, and we move as if there is no one else on the dance floor. I am reminded of John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, and I decide to follow my mother’s orders: “You keep living your life. Do that for me.” I decide that I can’t go under. Neither can I worry whether others will approve of the way I have chosen to grieve. I am surrounded in Jacksonville by people who love my mother and who love me, but some have ready judgments about how I should be handling this process. I envision handing them cups of my tears to be measured. Do I make the daily quota? Will they, if word of my booty-shaking gets back to them, pour out half?
No matter. I just keep on dancing.
August 13th, 2005
Today would have been my Nana’s 83rd birthday.
I am sitting on the couch in my mother’s house when my cell phone rings. I recognize the hospice center’s number. I usually call them each morning, but today they call me first. I know why. I don’t want to answer, but I have to.
The nurse tells me that my mother passed peacefully and painlessly. Days earlier, she’d asked the nurse to tell me, after the fact, that she did not want me there when she let go. “She told me that there were several times when she wanted to pass, but she would open an eye to look around, and you’d be sitting there. So she kept waiting.”
And here all along I thought I wasn’t with her enough.
But she did not die alone. Two of her best friends were with her.
My half-sister Trice comes to watch my kids. I drive alone to the hospice. On the way, I call my friend Chris in Atlanta, counting on him to say something completely hilarious and, by most standards, completely inappropriate, and he does not disappoint. I am smiling through my tears, and therefore can make the drive without crashing or pulling off to the side of the road.
When I arrive, my mother is still lying in the hospital bed. Her godmother has folded her hands and placed her Bible beneath them. I touch her — her cheeks, her arms, her hands, until I find a warm spot on her neck, and I kiss it. I lay on her chest and cry, keeping my fingers on that one warm place.