The birds are whistling all around me as I sit in the cool shade next to the lake. Magically, the reflection of the water shimmers as it slowly becomes enveloped in a hazy mist. The fluffy trees bordering the water peek out of the fine white light. It’s heavenly here in July at my retreat at the top of the lake. I take in a deep breath, close my eyes and think back to April. The month of my mother’s birth and untimely death.
It all started with a perfectly cloudless sky on an early April day. The forecast said rain. It’s possible I thought. Weather reporters always have a challenge here in upstate New York. After all, it snows here in May. Mom always said, “April is our hopeful month.” She’d repeat the rhyme in her sweet, ever-young voice, “April showers bring May flowers.” She defined its meaning thus, “April is nature’s promise of Spring, which means much more than just good weather.” I tried to keep that sentiment close as I rushed to my car.
Mom had called me only moments before to say she had summoned an ambulance, as she feared her breathing was becoming compromised. Her words were a firework of echoes repeating over and over as I jumped into my car and drove. “Come pick-up Dad,” she whispered. “I’ll be fine, but he can’t stay home alone.” Was her breathing compromised? I was confused. Had her blood disorder reemerged, or was this something else?
When I arrived, I was distraught at the scene before me. In one hand, Mom held a small white towel-tinged bright red with blood pressed over her mouth. In the other hand, she held out a small suitcase containing Dad’s clothes. When she lifted the towel, I was speechless as her tongue looked to be filled with blood, dark purple and starting to protrude outside her mouth. I tried to remain composed as I walked over to hug her. A few minutes later an ambulance arrived. The two attendants were visibly shaken to see my mother walking over in her condition. She could barely speak, but greeted them in a muffled whimper as they assisted her onto a stretcher. Little did I know it then, but that would be the last day my parents would ever live or set foot again in their home of over fifty years.
Now only three weeks after that dreadful day, Mom seemed to be recovering well in a rehab center. It was another perfectly cloudless sky on this late April day. The weather forecast said rain. I grinned as I walked to my car through the crisp cool air breezing through the sheen of the bright, sunny sky. The birds chirped excitedly, reminding me to prepare for Spring. When I arrived, Mom was in great spirits with the glistening sparkle back in her eyes. We discussed how Dad was completely settled into the assisted living home and how she would soon join him. I did not mention that his dementia from Alzheimer’s was worse than any of us realized and his living there much longer without her was not a possibility. Nor did I admit how lost he was most days and really lived with me most of the time.
When Mom dozed off, her erratic breathing alarmed me. I knew she wasn’t really doing well. She was so weak. I worked hard to keep calm, but felt the heavy weight of reality piling on top of me. Literally weighing me down. I thought if I could scream for just one minute, I’d reset myself and become calm. Screaming gives one necessary distraction. Dad described it as an essential involuntary breathless howl. Hypnotic. Primal. Cleansing. That was obviously out of the question here. Instead, I detached myself from the moment by opening the window of Mom’s room. The cool air felt alive. I breathed in its sweetness as I studied the limbs of the massive tree hovering over the window. I followed its circuitous twist and turn as it mazed its way toward the shimmer of the sun above. I spotted a single red cardinal. Its glossy eyes stared at me knowingly. Its fiery head gleamed and then instantly, it was gone. It worked. I felt a reset. Upbeat. Ready.
Mom awakened, and I shared pictures on my cell phone of the rooms at the assisted living home arranged as per her direction. She glowingly smiled. Her continually buoyant persona mesmerized me. “Is this what happens on one’s last days?” I silently questioned. It seemed so awe-inspiring, yet fractured. Disquieting. Mom unexpectedly called out, “Ohhhh… how I love the chirping of the birds, so happy!” I struggled to see my new feathered friend. I knew he couldn’t be camouflaged in the mottled sap green of the new leaves wearing his bright red coat much longer. His song continued louder. Mom hummed along in unison with the melody. I reminded her, “You always fed the birds and they know you’re a bird lover.” Nodding her head in agreement, she announced, “Birds know much more than most give them credit.” As soon as she said that, the handsome red cardinal leaped down to a lower branch fully visible. We three stared in silence, transfixed.
It enchanted us to see a bird engaging us this way. Mom chuckled, “I think he’s just here for the stories.” Her eyes lit up as she continued reminiscing. “My parents came to upstate New York from Italy. We were very poor, but I don’t remember wanting for anything. We lived in the city and as soon as I turned thirteen, I worked part time sewing patterns for a clothing manufacturer.” Mom talked about her interest in fashion and that she made all her own clothes utilizing patterns of the “styles-of -the-day” in those early years. I love looking at old photographs of her. “I think my interest in fashion motivated me to become a hair stylist,” she happily pronounced. I reminded her of my punk-days and my magenta spiked hair. “I too had a hand at hair styling,” I teased. “I guess we’ll call it my hair-don’t period.” We both burst into uncontrollable laughter.
Mom’s recollections seemed to seize my senses as they swirled around in my head as she spoke. I thought how amazing her memory was compared to Dad’s. His often-times unexpected reaction to my presence reminded me of the tubes in the old childhood television that needed to warm up before finally turning on. She was just the opposite, sharp, on cue, and always in control.
When Mom drifted lightly off to sleep again, I surprised her with a manicure. I painted her nails with a frosty colored pink nail gloss. I distinctly made note of the luminous rosy color that glistened sprightly against the blue hue of the sad wallpaper of the room and recall initially feeling gloomy as I got caught up in its weirdly soothing odor. It eventually lulled me into a blissful, dreamlike state of consciousness. When I finished, I took a picture with my cell phone of her hands admiring my work before typing these lines.
Pink nail polish
She’s like a little girl
Shiny and new
She closes her eyes
Spilling out onto the bed
Blanketing her in
Just before leaving for the day, Mom asked me to find and help her put on her favorite red sweater. “The cardinal red one with the beaded collar,” she sang. “Cardinal red, how apropos.” I chimed. Mom giggled. I adjusted the bejeweled collar below her silver hair before taking another picture. Mom made an appointment to have her hair washed and styled. My thoughts darkened as I wrestled with its divergent significance. Was this life moving forward or in preparation for death?
I walked Mom to the hair salon down the hall. As I turned to leave, I looked back as she sat in the chair at the special sink. She looked like a little girl sitting there alone and fearful. I immediately convinced myself it was my negative imagination creeping in again and when I looked back once more her eyes caught mine, lit up and she smiled. I blew her a goodbye kiss.
I felt restored as I drove home reminiscing on the day enveloped in an overwhelming feeling of hopefulness. I thought about how Dad and Mom were still so in love and ever playful after 60 years of marriage. I snickered to myself as I envisioned Dad playing his peppermint game with Mom as I drove into the early evening stillness.
Peppermint Candy Kisses
He says, “I love you”
She says, “I love you more”
Peppermint Candy Kisses
I convinced myself that Mom would soon join Dad. I pulled into my driveway optimistic and happy. My cell phone abruptly rang, interrupting my fantasy. It was the rehab center and Mom asked that I come back right away. I was immediately perplexed and filled with anxiety as I turned the car around and sped away. I feared the worst. I disappointingly questioned myself out loud as I reflexively drove, “Is today the day she leaves me? What if I don’t make it back in time? Keep calm, drive, do not speed or you won’t make it in time.” I intermittently practiced breathing techniques my father taught me. Three deep breaths in through the mouth. One long, slow deep breath out through the nose. I was feeling calm as I drove until the traffic encircled me. Captive. I screamed the involuntary howl. It burst out of me in a primal cry. When I was finally able to move through the traffic, I drove instinctively and arrived at the rehab center in a state of defeat.
I rushed into mom’s room, relieved to see her calmly propped upright in bed. She reminded me of the porcelain doll my grandmother always bolstered in the middle of her bed pillows. Her eyes had that same adrift look I had seen earlier that afternoon, but when they met mine, they sparkled as she thanked me for coming. Her shimmering snow-white silver hair was whisked into soft curls framing her blushed cheeks. I was strangely relieved to see she was still wearing her favorite red sweater. My sister arrived, and we convinced each other her imminent death was not a possibility, but deep down I knew my mother was preparing to say goodbye that day. Mom was still in control and echoed how she was reassured knowing that dad, the love of her life would be taken care of. Then she stated she asked that he not be present. At first, I was puzzled and frankly shocked. Devoted to each other for over sixty years, why?... deep down I knew the reason.
We did not confront the idea of Mom’s death. I put that out of my mind as I fussed over her newly styled hair, her freshly painted nails, her soft laugh, her warm smile, her gleaming eyes. She whispered, “I saw the red cardinal again.” I instantaneously felt bizarrely relaxed. I scanned the room. It looked to be a perfect duet of light and dark; the wallpaper glowed a blissful, warm aqua hue. The room reminded me of a stage set or film purposefully lit to highlight the dying person. “Could this be how it can happen?” I asked myself. I stared outside for a moment, preoccupied by the parking lot light. It strategically shined on each green-tipped leaf, climbing over part of the window. I hadn’t noticed before. It looked as if a visual display artist had highlighted the window surroundings to emphasize the inescapable scene inside. Could Bergdorf’s finest be at play here, I playfully joked to myself. There was no escaping the true gravity of what was happening.
Perplexed and shaken I observed my mother looking otherworldly, like a startled fawn stunned just before flight. I automatically asked her if she was in any pain and she smiled and in her honeyed ever-fruity voice pronounced, “No, I am ready to go. My only regret is that I’m going to miss everyone.” The magnitude of her statement shook me to my core as the finality of it was palpable. “Was this really happening or was I in an altered reality?” I murmured. My sister questioned me with her eyes. I nodded yes.
Astonishingly, my mother’s clarity and awareness were full up until her very last breath. Holding tightly to our hands while saying her final, parting words, “I have my beautiful daughters.” She gazed upward as her eyes widened while quickly darting back and forth as if watching something far off. I was frantic but never let on as I tightened my grip, looking directly into her eyes whispering, “You are the very best mother, the very best.” I squeezed her hand even tighter, as I was not prepared to let her go. I felt her hand gently loosen as she released me. I realized she let go of our hands when she was ready, as she knew full well, we could not release hers. It is hard to find words to describe such a flawless death. Truly beyond belief it was absolutely magnificent.
I looked out the window at the lingering bronzed light peeking through those same fresh green leaves that bore witness to my mother’s death just seconds before. I looked for the single red cardinal that I was convinced stood in vigil. Delighted, there were two cardinals now whistling sweetly. Beaks quivering, heads bobbing in unison, a ceremonial declaration of my mother’s passing.
And as the mask of darkness was just beginning to fall, I thought about my father. I now fully understood why Mom did not want him present. She could never say goodbye to him. Dad was drifting into a void while struggling to hold on in much the same way I felt in that instant, looking back at my mother’s serene, lifeless body. It was as if I too was outside my own body only an observer as nothing seemed real.
I silently panicked at the idea that my mother was gone and would soon grow cold. As I fixated on her, I instinctively grabbed my cell phone and took her final photograph. I immediately felt a reprieve from my grief as she looked so peaceful, as if only sleeping. I knew she would soon be gone forever, and I shifted my focus to my own primal desperation and need to embrace her remaining warmth. I picked up both her hands and held them close, putting my cheek against hers. I truly needed to feel the literal physical aura that defined her as my warm, loving, nurturing mother. I was anxious to capture her essence before it slipped away forever, leaving only her intangible memory and the vessel that carried her certainty there on the bed, now as if discarded.
Heavy with grief, it spontaneously filled me with a feeling of bliss as I became inwardly consumed and focused on my breathing next to my mother’s motionless body. I closed my eyes in a kind of regenerative hypnotic state, remembering the lessons of self-hypnosis my father taught me. I was completely at ease as I gently opened my eyes ready to bid my final farewell.
When they came to take Mom’s body away, of course, I knew it would be the last time I’d ever see her. I studied her face one last time. My mother was no longer of this world. Instead, her glorious memory was even more alive within me. I was changed, stronger and better prepared for what would come next.
I walked outside, as it was just beginning to drizzle. I spotted the lone red cardinal arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain, preparing for another day. It lifted its head for a brief moment and looked at me. A bittersweet final goodbye.
I drove home alone into the rainy night, relieved that we decided to wait until morning to break the news to Dad. I practiced my lines in rhythm as the wipers whisked away raindrops falling like tears. “She died peacefully in her sleep; she was ready to go.”
When I told Dad the news, the next day, his face looked vacant. He acted as though he had not heard the words. I thought this could be evidence his dementia had finally taken over. The assisted living home where he lived planned a Mardi Gras party that night. Dad wanted to attend. I reluctantly agreed. As I accompanied Dad toward the revelry already underway in the dining hall, I winced. Upon entering, we placed the overly embellished masks presented to us over our eyes as we walked through the festive room full of strangers. The music loudly played, and the attendees danced merrily . I knew we were just going through the motions robotically as we drifted over to our table and sat down. A few minutes later I looked closely at my father as he sat across from me. Tears were rolling down below his mask as he began to cry. My heart sank.
Magically, my father stood up and came directly over to me. He was softly singing along with the Elton John tune that was playing, “And I think it’s gonna be a long… long time ‘till touch down brings me round again to find…” Dad looked upbeat, yet, through his mask I could see his eyes were filled with tears. He reached out for my hands and escorted me to the dance floor. He tipped his head confidently in the direction of the dancers, light on his feet, singing louder. Spellbound, I instinctively joined in singing along. As Dad spun me around, I closed my eyes. I was dreamily whirling in flight. I could hear the melody of the red cardinal tenderly crooning, melting my pain into song.
Marianne Światłowicz Dalton (AKA Marianne Smith Dalton)
Visual artist and curator. Working in painting for much of her creative life (30 + years) her focus for the last several years utilizes fine art photography, and most recently writing. Exhibiting both painting and photography locally and nationally, she lives in rural upstate New York.