Passage

The nurse was on the phone. My mother’s temperature had spiked, a bad sign. Her cancer had metastasized broadly, but she had been surprisingly stable over the last month. It was after 9 p.m. on a Friday. I told the nurse I would take the first train up in the morning. She didn’t think that was a good idea. My wife called for a car while I threw a few things in a bag and bolted for the street. I made it from Brooklyn to Penn Station in time to catch the last train of the night headed upstate by a few minutes.

My mother was in hospice care, housed at a rehabilitation center due to a broken leg from a bone tumor. My brothers and I alternated spending time with her. About a month before a doctor, also gravely concerned, had called me in Brooklyn on a weekday afternoon. She put my mother on the phone who said, “I think this is it.” I left immediately and my brothers converged from Boston, Illinois and Hudson. Remarkably, she came through. By the next day she was putting back with gusto the cream of squash soup, lemon cake and coffee from the local restaurant that she loved.

The train arrived around midnight and I took a taxi to the center. Her condition had declined. I do not know how conscious she was. Her eyes were closed and she did not speak. I didn’t get an explicit sign that she knew I was there, but I believe she knew. She was under a blanket on the bed. I held her hand. I sensed she was in pain but I can’t be sure. The nurse said she was forbidden from administering more morphine at the moment. My mother jerked her hand out of my grasp at times; I did not know why. I thought she must be hot, so I pulled the blanket down a bit and cooled her brow with wet paper towels from the bathroom. I checked the clock again and calculated the remaining time until the next dose of morphine.

The cancer had originated in the lung but travelled to her brain and slowly compromised her mental faculties. In recent weeks she’d had difficulty remembering words, finishing sentences or recalling what you had said five minutes ago. Before leaving some evenings, I would draw up simple instructions in big letters for how and when to change the channel on the television so she could watch a decent movie or two at night, and she would ignore them or forget why they were there. She repeated herself a lot.

Despite the frequent fog of her mind, she had moments of great clarity. She had trouble sleeping at night and preferred to stay up late sitting in her chair. Some of the overnight staff were brusque about getting her into bed and this upset her. We spoke to the supervisor about it, who offered to call out the orderlies directly and write them up. My mother was decisively against that. For over a decade she had been the chief administrator for a statewide government office. She herself had supervised many employees, and in addition to her professional acumen she had an abiding compassion for people who worked hard and were raising children on little pay, like much of the staff. It was something she knew a bit about, having found herself at the age of 40 an unemployed single mom with five kids, a month’s worth of cash and no place to live. The supervisor made a general statement about the prerogatives of the patients, and the situation was thus resolved.

Her breathing was hard and fitful, with long pauses between breaths. I waited fearfully through each pause, afraid each breath would be the last, selfishly wondering how much of this cyclical anxiety I could take, while also knowing somehow that the breath would come, and keep coming, at least for a while.

My brothers and I struggled day-to-day to try to manage all the various factors, medical and beyond, for the best quality of life for her, and we often failed. For example, it was hard to pin down, but it seemed when my mother received high doses of painkillers she was not only disoriented, but when they wore off she was deeply depressed. We tried to moderate what they gave her somewhat, sufficient to stanch the pain but without bewildering her so profoundly, but if we were not there for the evening rounds she would always opt for more medication. She was in control but also not, fading in and out of awareness. She called me once at 10:30 p.m., and despite the deep darkness outside the window of her room she did not know if it were day or night.

Among the ringtone selections on my mobile phone was one that honked blaringly like the claxon you might hear at a nuclear facility in a meltdown. I assigned it to my mother’s incoming calls, in part so it would be unmistakable, in part so it would convey the potential urgency of the call and in part out of a less than charitable humor at her expense. It is a little shameful to think about it now, but at the time it provided a coarse levity that perhaps helped me cope a bit. One never knew what a call would bring. Her calls were sometimes funny, sometimes nothing special, sometimes rife with confusion. She couldn’t remember who was coming today, or that one of us was already on the way. Sometimes the calls were desperate. One morning she called me in Brooklyn and repeated, “Get me out of here,” over and over. That hurt.

After a couple hours the nurse brought morphine. My mother’s body relaxed. I held her hand. Looking at her face was very hard. I remoistened the paper towels in the bathroom and mopped her brow again. She seemed peaceful and remote. I could not know where she was. For the moment I tried to stifle my awareness of what was happening, and my feelings. Her head was turned slightly towards me on the pillow. I noticed a slight trickle from her mouth. I cleaned it up. The trickle became a slow stream of beige fluid, and I realized she was vomiting. I went to the desk and got the nurse. She and the attendant asked me to leave the room while they washed her. When I returned a few minutes later she was sitting more upright in the bed, in a fresh gown on fresh linens. The room smelled of shit and disinfectant and the window was open, cold November night air blowing into the room. The nurse and attendant left. After a few minutes, I noticed she was not breathing. I went to the desk to get the nurse. She returned with the physician. The physician pressed the stethoscope to my mother’s chest. I waited at the foot of the bed. After a very long minute, she said, “I’m sorry.” I asked if I could have a moment alone with her, and they left and closed the door. I knelt on the side of the bed with my hands clasped, pressed my face into the bed and cried.

While in the center, my mother had many caring friends visit her. I recall especially a few significant conversations, the kind of conversations that get right at something that matters and stay there in clear communion, conversations where silence is not a burden. Behind her illness, she retained a still reservoir of wisdom that informed her presence and her words.

She may have died before I had re-entered the room. The nurse and attendant who cleaned her up had odd looks on their faces in retrospect. There’s no way to know. I’d like to report I would have noticed right away if she wasn’t breathing but I cannot.

One of my brothers shared an apartment with our mother for some years. Naturally, after her death, he held on to all the household items, many from our childhood. Chipped mugs from the 70s, with a dun-colored glaze, the telltale earthiness dating them to that decade. The enamel Dansk casserole pots — a smaller red one and a larger canary yellow one — that had been in our house since before my awareness blossomed. Tentacles of experience, memories and moments attach to these modest objects. After my mother’s death, each of my brothers and I claimed a more formal memento or two from the household: an etching of a Roman arch in a forgotten landscape; a Venetian glass bottle my mother had purchased while in Italy, when my father was serving at the U.S. military base in Livorno; a ceramic pitcher from Siena. But the less significant chattel feels both mundane and more fraught, as if objects charged with the purpose of reminding are less poignant than if the reminding is an accident of their existence. Or as if in the use of the items through the decades there also accumulated and appended to these cups and pots the sequence of largely insignificant moments that constitute a life, like the warm patina on the boss of a balustrade, produced by the unconscious cupping of countless hands. Moments that now cut when you realize you can’t share them with someone, when you realize that a loved one cannot any longer enjoy the simple contrast of a cup of hot coffee on a cool spring morning.

I sat back down in the chair beside the bed. After a few minutes I stood up, kissed her forehead and sat down again in the chair. I began speaking to her. I apologized. I apologized for being such a fuck-up. I apologized for making her life difficult so many times. I apologized for making her give up so much of her own promise to take care of me and make my life and hopes possible. I apologized for all the times I disappointed her. I told her I loved her. I sat and looked at her body. It was 4:30 a.m. on Saturday. I did not know what to do.

Alone in the room with her body I felt the obligation of vigil, but was tugged as well by an impulse to leave the room. I knew there were compulsory duties — phone calls, emails, texts, tasks — but at the moment I was too overwhelmed to sort them out against the impracticality of the early hour. For now, I would sit.

In the months that followed I experienced moments of dislocation. Several times I was gripped with a quick panic that I should be doing something, like the cold jolt you feel when you wake up late for an important appointment. Then I remembered the person for whom I would be doing it was gone. Looking over our shared mobile phone bill, I saw the calls she made to me and my brothers, evidence in the present of a person who was no longer. It was a ghostly space straddling two realities, two different states of affairs: manifest documentation in the now that she was, and the reality that she is not, in simultaneous suspension. Another example: A month after my mother died, Dave Brubeck died. I reflexively went to my email to send her news before I caught myself.

My mother loved the music of Dave Brubeck. She had lived in New York City in the 50s and seen many of the jazz greats from that era. She used to tell us stories of staying out till near dawn many nights listening to the likes of Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet or Marian McPartland, walking home to the Upper East Side apartment she shared with her friend, changing her clothes and heading off to work in the General Electric building at Rockefeller Center. As a child, she trained on classical piano for many years. She stopped playing as rheumatoid arthritis first attacked her hands and eventually severely deformed them.

My sister’s first husband played piano and also composed repetitive, minimal art-pop numbers, free of dynamics, for electronica. One day my mother, who hadn’t played in a couple decades and whose hands at that point looked like the twisted base of an old oak, sat down at my brother-in-law’s piano and somehow got through a few minutes of an étude. Even though the notes were imperfect she coaxed a lovely feel and tone from the upright’s wood, felt and steel. “Oh,” my sister said, “that’s what it’s supposed to sound like.”

A couple of years before my mother’s terminal diagnosis, my brothers and I hit upon a plan to surprise her and take her to see Brubeck play. There was always a reason not to, some obvious (a broken hip), some less so (one of the brothers couldn’t make it), and we would wait for Brubeck’s next tour. We never made it.

I called my wife and brothers. I sat with the body. How long should I sit with it? Whom else should I call? Which friends to inform and which not to burden? What else was required in this moment? Nothing felt clear. Surely I was missing something obvious. One would think that in a time of such magnitude, a 51-year-old man would know how to go about dealing with a rite of passage, moreover one that had been imminent for a couple of months — it wasn’t like I hadn’t had time to think about it. Structure is helpful in times like this if for no other reason than you don’t have all your faculties. I went down the hall to the day room to gather my thoughts, but at the same time felt guilt for leaving her.

We have a friend from Lithuania. A few weeks after my mother died my brother, my wife and I went to visit her. She led us into her apartment, and once we were all inside she stood upright before my brother, bowed slightly and formally, shook his hand and said, “I am sorry for your loss.” She stepped in front of me and did the same. This was extremely touching. It also had the aura of simple rightness that was lacking from so much of my own fumbling through this experience.

After my mother’s body was removed from the room, I felt I had to work and did so with dispatch. I threw out underclothing and socks, bagged sweaters and pants, boxed books and papers, wrapped the framed pictures in the bubble-wrap we had brought them in and stacked everything on the bed. It didn’t take long and when I was done everything was piled neatly, ready for transport, and the room was bare.

Beneath or beside the inchoate grief was a welter of ambivalent feelings that accompanied each decision or action I made at the time. The feelings would just sit there silently and look at me, like strange animals that arrive at your campfire at night, motionless just outside the circle of light, blinking occasionally, not going anywhere. The feelings were too fugitive to understand or articulate to myself.

Later, misgivings about these moments besieged me. Did I do some things too soon, or did I wait too long? When was the right time to take the body away? Is there a right time? According to what or whom? I felt I had a responsibility beyond my own need that was unstated, silent, and that I could not know if I had broached an unseen protocol until after I had decided or acted; only crossing the line brought it to light.

As morning broke, and patients woke and made demands, and residents in wheelchairs began to crowd the halls and meander towards breakfast, and the morning nurses began their duties, the room with the closed door became stigmatized wordlessly to the ward. I felt an obligation to measure my need to come and go from the room, as my presence caused anxiety, or was I interpolating others’ feelings too aggressively? How shall I speak to the staff? Whom do I acknowledge amongst the residents, who know by now, on this morning of my mother’s death, as they awake to the small changes, the closed door, my early presence and slightly erratic behavior, that something has occurred, that someone they knew yesterday is not today, that we’re all moving in that direction and some of us are much closer than others.

My presence embodies that. I can’t wield that weight irresponsibly, regardless of my loss, which often compels others to give us a pass on certain conventions, though I found out after my sister died that some friends can tolerate your acting oddly in times of grief and some cannot.

Another friend of ours grew up in California but her family is from the Philippines. She told me, “When someone dies I know exactly what’s going to happen. There will be a party for nine days.”

Later that morning, breakfast at the diner with my wife and brother. Food. Is this allowed? I recalled how food was anathema when my sister died. After her funeral, that evening, our family and some friends had gathered at my brother’s house when a thoughtful friend of his swept in with trays of meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and brownies, and swept out again. Turns out we were famished, but I recognized the privilege of feeling hunger and physical deprivation, something the dead could not share. We ate, voraciously, thankfully, through our ambivalence.

Now the server comes to take your order; you know something she doesn’t and it feels discordant. Your mind is a gray tumult but you can’t ignore the simple demands of the moment. You need to function. For the server, it’s a sunny November Saturday — there are plans for after her shift, perhaps a date, grocery shopping, a movie with a friend. For us in the booth it is different, each instant laden with the significance of what just happened, and also, by virtue of empathy, having the benign cheer of a bright and crisp fall morning seen through her eyes. You order coffee and eggs with your best smiling nonchalance and hope you’re unobtrusive.

We had a memorial gathering for my mother several months after she died, and invited her friends and former co-workers to join the family at an Irish pub, where we celebrated her life. My mother was very social; people and friendships were deeply important to her, more important than anything else really, and so I knew the event was a success and an appropriate honor of her life when, at a couple of points in the evening, looking over a room full of her friends and family talking, remembering, laughing, eating, drinking, and enjoying each other’s company, I was overcome with a premonition that my mother was about to walk in, take a place at the big table among her friends, and order herself an Irish whiskey. In that precise milieu it was abnormal that she hadn’t yet.

After her formal retirement, my mother worked as an administrative assistant and later office manager for about ten years at a domestic violence shelter for women and children. She had more much power and responsibility in prior jobs but in the end I think she felt this was the most important job of her life. At the memorial celebration, one of her co-workers told me that my mother was the nicest person in the world to work with unless you somehow got in the way of her trying to help a shelter client in need and then heaven help you.

In the time leading up to that evening, I knew I would be called on to say a few words — my final duty as a son, and this one was clear. What would be the most important thing to relate in a few short minutes? I thought about what dies and what does not die, and the persistence of our acts in the network of people and interactions we call the world. I believed that goodness doesn’t die with the good. I believed that my mother, like each of us, had a light. I believed that the many people my mother helped over the course of her life, cared for, fought for, that they experienced that good, her goodness, her light. I believed that this light became one with their own light, and that when they in turn shared that light, in moments of charity, compassion, strength in the face of difficulty, courage in the face of the seemingly unendurable, they passed that light along in their own way through their own life and actions. And thus her light lives on and so it is for all of us and that’s what I said.

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Christopher Quirk

Artist. Somewhere between chaos and koan. Notes on current art and inspiring miscellany. Artwork at christopherquirk.net.