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The Reunion

The doorbell rang––the first in a very long night­­. As my youngest brother, Sam, opened it, a chorus of “Trick-or-treat!” greeted us. I wondered what the pint-sized Disney and Marvel characters would think of the scene beyond the candy––the furniture arranged around the hospital bed in the middle of the room, the white-haired woman with ashen skin laying in it, her eyelids drawn closed. But the children’s attention remained riveted by the sugary prize for walking miles around the residential Modesto neighborhood in California’s central valley.


I glanced at the clock and wondered how much longer Mom would hold on. Her caregiver had warned us, “I bet she goes on Halloween. Your dad is going to come and take her out for their anniversary.” All the hospice nurses agreed; patients often waited until a special day if one neared.


Mom and Dad never intentionally chose Halloween to get married; it happened to land on the Saturday in the middle of their two-week vacation from work––Dad as a steelworker and Mom, a registered nurse. It wasn’t until Mom’s teenage nephew asked when he could go trick-or-treating that she remembered the holiday. Wedding plans so consumed her that the October 31st significance flew under her radar. And now, 53 years later, she lay at the end of her story, all three of her kids gathered around her bed, waiting.


Between doorbells, we shared memories. Our parents were studies in contrast. My brother, Greg, often described them by saying, “Imagine June Cleaver, from Leave It to Beaver marrying Archie Bunker from

All in the Family. Those are my parents.”


We joked about their infamous parental noises we sometimes tried to imitate. For Dad, it was a breathy, “Aah”––a note of resigned annoyance growing to utter disgust as the decibels rose. Mom’s noise, however, was a short, throaty “Ha!” the sheer merriment of the moment stealing her voice, cut off as if she burst into laughter at the wrong time.


Mom was the one who wanted kids; Dad had begrudgingly agreed. As a divorcee in the 1950s, he didn’t have much bargaining room. So when Mom’s body temperature dictated tonight’s the night, Dad complied.


They spent their first anniversary in the maternity ward. On that eventful day, Dad confessed to Mom that he had fallen in love with another woman… me. From the moment he held his newborn daughter, he touted the virtues of family. Something in him shifted with his new title; he discovered he dug being a dad.


Mom was the one who looked up after their third child and said, “I think I’m getting too old for this.”


Throughout childhood, Halloween became my special day with little mention of their wedding. My birthday party, presents, dinner and an evening of trick-or-treating took priority. But as we matured, their anniversary stepped into the foreground, especially for the decade breakers.


With another doorbell ring, I looked up to watch Greg answer and greet the kids. He was quite chipper chatting with them; we all were. You’d never guess we were on a deathwatch.

We had hauled Mom’s bed into the front room when it became clear she wouldn’t get up again. That way, she could see all the neighborhood action. Over the past five years, she had gazed through those front windows toward Greg’s home, watching her only biological grandchild grow up.

Mom and Dad had drummed their fingers into blunted lumps waiting for the next generation, especially Dad. Periodically, he would demand, “Where are my grandchildren?! I’m not getting any younger, you know,” and look at us with the raised brows of expectation.

“Oh, Bob! Leave them alone,” Mom would answer. “Let them find the right person first.” But deep down, she, too, wanted to cuddle and spoil the next generation.


When Jamie was born, they took turns gazing into the eyes of this brand new life, their faces softening as they stroked her flawless hand with their timeworn skin. They attended every event in her life: baptism, birthdays, competitions, graduations, every holiday, reveling in that fractional immortality.

It was there, across the street from the next generation, that Mom had gabbed with friends or applauded the kids who played in the cul-de-sac. It was there that she acquired the tools of the aging: first a walker, then a wheelchair, and finally a Hoyer lift and hospital bed. And it was there that she dropped into a coma a couple of days ago, her skin growing that pallid color and her breathing growing sporadic. It wouldn’t be long.


# # #


When the doorbell rang again, I answered it. After filling the bags held by outstretched arms, I turned to see Mom propped on her side, still holding on like she waited for something.


We all knew Dad would go first. Eventually, the emphysema grew relentless, exacerbated by work’s noxious fumes and a smoking habit. The first time he landed in the hospital needing life support, he flatly refused. He was done with the shortness of breath. Although he drew a large question mark over the idea of an afterlife, he welcomed death, curious, I guess, wanting to know first hand if the stories were true. Every time a doctor asked how he faired, he replied with the same barking demand, “I want to die! Why is this taking so damn long?”


When a new doctor rotated on duty, she blinked hard at his bluntness and answered, “Well, we can disconnect your IV and take you off the oxygen. Would you like that?”


For only a second he hesitated and then said emphatically, “Yeah!”


Minutes later a nurse disconnected his equipment. After that, his breathing developed a rattle, and he tossed and turned with discomfort, whispering, “I don’t know what I want anymore.”


We looked at each other and then affirmed that this was his last hurdle; after he cleared it, we thought he’d be pleasantly surprised. We repeated what each had told him for the past four days in our own time and way: “I love you, and I’ll miss you, but it’s okay to go.”


The rattle worsened and he breathed, “I don’t know...”


That’s when our story started. We described a party gathering on the other side, peopled with everyone who had already passed over. While we had lots of visitors saying goodbye in this room, another group gathered to welcome him. We took turns imagining what awaited him on that mysterious other side––a reunion with his parents, with uncles and aunts, with his hunting buddy, each of us adding to the collage of images while a froth of blood foamed at his mouth and his body gasped for air.


We kept at it while I watched his carotid pulse stop periodically, just to start again. The same happened with his breathing. When I noticed his eyes glazed, I said, “I don’t know if he’s here anymore. Look at his eyes.”


“I think you might be right,” Greg replied, but just in case, he continued talking him through this. We kept it up, affirming our love, telling him it was time to go; it was the other side’s turn.


Finally his pulse stopped, and his lungs gave up their work. We sat in silence until someone said, “Well, he should be arriving at his party about now.”


“And won’t he be surprised,” Mom added, “to turn around and find us following right behind... because there’s no such thing as time in heaven.”


As we talked about how strange life would be without him, I suddenly felt something behind us and turned around to see... nothing, just the sunlight pouring through the window.


But about nine months later, as I lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, a vivid image of him came to mind. My eyes spilled over in a torrent of tears that filled my ears and doused the pillow. It was like he had stepped into the room, a young man in his early thirties, and I missed him with a surprising intensity, my body reacting, somehow knowing what my conscious mind couldn’t fathom.


# # #


Halloween night wore on. Bloody zombie costumes haunted our door––teenagers bent on trekking extended mileage for the plunder they hoisted over their shoulders in pillowcases. As visitors waned, we continued turning Mom from side to side.

I submerged into a fog, watching the clock, wondering what happened to Dad. When would he come and relieve Mom? Only a residual spark of her animating spirit remained in that inert lump of body, her eyelids hiding her wide green eyes that had lost their deep color with age and their sparkle as the dementia settled in.


Her mother suffered from it; so did her sister; and I think she knew she’d get it too. But that didn’t stop her from fighting like a warrior, attempting to untie the mental knots that tangled her words. She fought every offer to help, insisting, “I need to try!


Mom’s version of dementia mostly assaulted her speech, like the cord to a speaker had been cut. I could see the message playing in her brain; it just didn’t reach her mouth anymore. As she deteriorated, she let go of cooking and cleaning but fought for independence, still wanting to pay bills and drive, insisting on working her muscles of cognition.


“I know Mom, and we want you to,” I told her during one visit. But she needed caregivers now. As we argued, I found myself telling her, “Mom, there’s some reason why you’re battling this. I don’t know why, you don’t know why, but God knows why. Maybe you should trust Him.”


She stopped arguing after that.


Mom grew up in the Episcopal faith, but for years we shared spiritual literature from various cultures. Her interest in my latest books sparked many deep conversations as both of our religious studies evolved and cross-pollinated. She worked her spiritual practice hard after her diagnosis, but eventually, she stopped talking and walking altogether. My visits increased to every other week, and as my busy summer schedule erupted, I sandwiched in a trip.


When I arrived, I found her lethargic, tossing and turning in discomfort. We took her to the hospital with another chronic urinary tract infection. Usually an IV topped with antibiotics did wonders, but this time they admitted her.


When I entered her room, I found her looking out the window saying, “I’m so happy. I’m sooooo happy!” She hadn’t spoken in a long time.


“What did you give her?” I asked the nurse who madly typed into a mobile computer.


She looked me in the eyes and said emphatically, “Nothing. We gave her nothing.”


I turned back and asked, “How are you doing, Mom?”


“I’m so happy,” she repeated and then pointed toward the window.


I didn’t see anything and asked, “Mom, what are you looking at?”


She didn’t answer and retracted her arm as if her center of attention had evaporated.


Eventually, the hospital discharged her, recommending hospice. I complained to her caregiver, “She just had a UTI. How is that grounds for hospice?”


Like Dad, friends came to say goodbye but fewer of them. For five years Mom’s mental abilities had withered in a slow march to muteness and immobility. It was hard to watch, and most people kept their distance, occasionally asking, “How’s Mom?” content to hear a brief description instead of seeing a once loving and vivacious woman reduced to an inert body with eyes looking right through you.


By this point, I had steeled myself for this laborious tempo, watching Mom plateau for months before taking another slow step down a darkened staircase into a foggy mist. Occasionally, I’d think, God, this is hard. When is she going to die? But then I’d catch myself. What are you thinking! This is Mom! Do you want her to die? And I’d resume the robotic pace, waiting.

She saw it coming and fought it, but I think she knew that ultimately it would win and made peace with it. Where Dad had stepped headlong into courage, Mom embraced trust and eventually just drifted away... until a few days before the end when she returned for a final visit. Several days before Halloween she joined conversations again; some words still garbled, but she was back!

One afternoon, we were gathered around her bed and someone suggested listing the things that made life enjoyable like a good joke, singing, camping trips...

Then Mom added, hoarsely, “Family.”

Sam had been holding her hand, and he stroked her shoulder, saying, “That’s right, Mom––family.” She didn’t say a lot, but in the next few days, she chimed in here and there, looking at us like she saw us again.

Toward the end of this spell of recognition, she repeated her hospital episode. Sam and I were talking to her when she pointed past our shoulders at some unknown curiosity.

“What are you looking at, Mom?” I asked.


She garbled a reply. Most of the words jumbled like she talked with a mouthful of marbles again, but I heard the word “Christ” clearly as her arm reached past us.

We looked at what caught her attention, and seeing nothing, gave each other a look and a shrug. But she saw something. Her outstretched fingers wiggled at an invisible object dangling just out of reach, her face shining with recognition.

She had rigorously worked her spiritual practice, and although it didn’t prevent her from traveling through this demented landscape, I wondered if she had company. I finally said, “Mom, if that’s Christ you see, grab His hand. That one you can trust.”

She didn’t reply.


# # #


Eventually, the Halloween moon sunk toward the horizon and the doorbell rang no more. We bedded down around the living room on makeshift mattresses. I glanced at the clock as I lay next to Mom’s bed. It was after 11:00. Maybe this business about Dad coming for Mom was just a heap of wishful thinking.


As the room quieted and everyone’s breathing slowed into deep, even rhythms, I couldn’t join them in sleep. I kept focusing on Mom’s potholed breath, the false stops and starts, until midnight arrived and departed. And still, sleep evaded me.

One o’clock came and left, then two o’clock, then three o’clock, then four o’clock, and still, I laid on the floor eavesdropping on her fitful rhythm, wondering when. Then, around four-thirty, I realized with a start that her next breath was overdue. My attention fixed on that missing sound, and as the seconds stretched out, I sat straight up.


Nothing.


I got up and circled to face her. She was frozen in the same lifeless position of the past two days, eyes snapped firmly closed. I timidly reached out to check her carotid pulse and jumped back in surprise when suddenly she exhaled a great relieving breath. Then nothing. She was gone.

What the hell happened to Dad? I wanted him to come on their anniversary to take her home. Yet here it was, the day after. What went wrong? I knew that Mom and Dad could banter like the Bickersons, but their contrasting natures wouldn’t keep them apart, not now, would it?

I started to ponder the alternatives when, in a flash, I understood. I could almost hear the echo of their comic jousting. My mind’s eye saw a thirty-something Dad pull up in his early-model VW bug and get out wearing his 1950s suit and tie, hair smoothed back except for the sculpted wave up front. He grabbed the flowers that he always brought home from work every Friday evening throughout their early years of marriage and adjusted his tie before knocking. I could imagine his surprise when Mom answered, still white-haired and wrinkled.


“You’re not ready!” he said emphatically.

“No,” Mom told him, arms crossed. “I’m not going yet.”

“And why not?” he replied, vexed.

“I am not going to die on my daughter’s birthday.”

“For Christ sake, Mary!” he said, his ire flaring. “You’re already mostly dead anyway! Why do you want to prolong their suffering? Look at them, all clustered around your bed, sleeping on the floor. Come on, let’s go already!”

“No! I’ll not have Lee spend the rest of her life remembering her special day as the one in which her mother died!

“Aah,” Dad breathed as he sat down to wait.


# # #

I attended a seven-day silent retreat three months after Mom died. After an evening processing a mountain of grief, amassing a pile of snotty Kleenex in the seat next to me, I fell asleep, only to wake a half hour later. A dream-like image of Mom as a young woman filled my mind. Her black, shoulder-length hair coiled in graceful locks to frame her face, and she smiled at me, her green eyes twinkling, happiness radiating from every pore. At the time, I didn’t think much of the image, but as that picture of Mom kept returning, I realized she wasn’t just okay; she was jubilant.


# # #


For many years, those snapshots of Mom and Dad in the prime of life comforted me when I missed them for no good reason. That said, I could never know for sure if their reunion actually happened––not really. I could say with certainty they both died with grace, facing, not fighting the inevitable. Their deaths were not the end but the pinnacle, the ultimate reflection of how they had lived. Those left behind could never know for sure what, if anything, existed in that ultimate unknown, but once they did cross over, there was a resolution to their story, a very personal one.


And when I really pondered that Halloween night, it made sense that Mom stalled until the next day––All Saints Day­­––using whatever wiggle room she had in the dying to delay it... for me, one final parting gift of love.



BIO


Lee Ann Summers, retired from 35 years in Park Service, is currently writing a creative non-fiction book on our complex history with wolves. She also is working on a collection of fictional and memoir-based short stories as well as poetry.


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2件のコメント


不明なメンバー
2023年4月04日

Wow. This blew me away. Thank you for writing and sharing.

いいね!

不明なメンバー
2023年3月11日

Oh my gracious Lee...i am in tears!....what a poignant description of such an intimate time in your life....your words paint a picture so vivid i clung to every sentence...my parents were also married on Halloween~..i am humbled to be privy to such an event as this..it isn't often we get to know about a persons life and yet here it is, although just a glimpse i am honored that you would share this with me and so many others...i know writing this must have taken a toll on you but it is really a labor of love and i cannot wait to read more...i know my friend Donna Edward (87 years old and an avid reader) will also read this…

いいね!
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