Sunday, August 07, 2005

A Beautiful Life

My mother -- and the mother of my sisters Mary, Rebecca. Suzanne and Roberta, and of my brothers John and Charles -- died peacefully just after 8 p.m. on Tuesday, August 2. She was in a deep sleep at the time, simply took one breath and then didn't take the next. It was a quick and graceful exit -- exactly, I think, as she wished it to be, and much like she did everything: quickly and gracefully and on her own terms. Of course, it seems very sudden to all those who loved her, and we are legion. Friends and family were calling us at the hospital all through the days and nights. I'm grateful for that, and I know my brothers and sisters are, too.

My mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumor last Wednesday and was admitted to the hospital for tests that same afternoon. On Friday morning, her doctors informed us that they thought the tumor was operable, and she was scheduled for surgery on Saturday morning, I was in Idyllwild then, and made plans to drive back to L.A. and catch a flight east. I spoke to my mom on the phone Friday morning and, although she told me she didn't want me to come, I told her I'd see her soon. Her last words to me were, "I love you, honey." On Friday afternoon, as I was leaving Idyllwild, my sister Suzy called to tell me that while Mom was undergoing a pre-op stress test, she'd gone into cardiac arrest, had "coded." The medical team had spent thirty or forty minutes reviving her. The doctors wanted to know if we wanted to sign a "do not resuscitate order." We were all in a state of panic. I was hysterical as I drove down the mountain, and stopped at the fire station just outside of Idyllwild. The firemen took me inside to use their phone to call my sister again. Suzy told me that Mom was stable. I continued driving to L.A., calling the airlines en route, and managed to get myself on an early morning flight to Louisville. Once I was in L.A., Sarah did her best to keep me calm and help me pack. Elizabeth drove me to the airport at five a.m. When the Delta agent at LAX told me that my flight had been cancelled, I burst into tears. Within two minutes he'd booked me a first class seat on another flight leaving within the hour. Kindness upon kindness accompanied me every step of the journey. I arrived at my mother's bedside on Saturday afternoon. I'm grateful I was able to be there in time for her to recognize me and squeeze my hand. I'm grateful for all the others who loved her and stood around her bed.

Mom was in ICU, and the hospital staff had designated a private waiting room just down the hall for our use. The sign on the door said "The Woloch Family," and a dozen extra chairs had been brought in -- there was still not quite enough seating for all of us. My brothers and sisters and I took turns sitting by Mom's bedside, waiting for her to fully awaken. I slept in a chair next to her bed for the next few nights -- just dozing mostly, and listening to the monitors hum and beep, and watching her breathe, and thinking about how many nights she must have sat at my bedside, watching me breathe, grateful just to watch me breathe. But she didn't wake up.

The most difficult day for us was Monday, when the neurosurgeon told us that there was nothing more that could be done for her. ("I just didn't want it to end this way," my sister Suzy sobbed in my brother Chuck's arms. "No, you just didn't want it to end," Chuck said.) And Mom most likely couldn't have withstood surgery to remove the tumor at any point in the tumor's growth. I think she knew that, and chose her moment; chose not to have revealed what she most likely already knew until the last possible moment.

By Tuesday she wasn't responding at all. Another of her doctors met with all of us, and we agreed that the ventilator should be removed so that she could be made as comfortable as possible for as much time as she had left. At that point, a red-haired angel-nurse named Julie took charge of Mom's care. She wept with us and told us what a beautiful family we were. She started Mom on a morphine drip and removed the ventilator herself. We stood vigil by her bedside in two's and three's for the next several hours, talking to her and singing a little and kissing her good-bye again and again. A chaplain named Kathy said a lovely prayer. Mom looked beautiful and calm. There was a holy, motherly radiance around her, and I thought of the world she'd made from that body. In those moments, it was clear to me that there truly is a spirit, a human spirit, and that it continues beyond the body, beyond death. Mom was already far away.

In the early evening, Julie performed a small miracle and got Mom transferred to a large private room where we could all be together with her. At seven p.m., my older sister and her family left, one of my brothers decided to take his wife and kids to get something to eat, and I decided to run home to take a quick shower, change out of the clothes I'd slept in the night before. That left my three younger sisters -- Bekki, and Suzy and Bobbi -- and one of my brothers, John, and his daughter, Kayleigh, and my pregnant niece, Rachel, in the room. We've all agreed that Mom probably figured that was the smallest audience she was going to get, and chose that moment to slip away. I was able to get back to the hospital while her body was still warm, but it was clear to me she no longer inhabited that body.

I wish we'd had her here for another ten or twenty years, but I'm grateful for what we've had. As I told my nephew, Jimmy, we all have to die, but we don't all have beautiful lives. I believe my mother had a beautiful life, as I also believe my father did. They got much of what they wanted from this world. Most of all, they wanted to make a family, and they made a family --big and messy and real. I'm grateful that they gave me so many brothers and sisters. I'm grateful that they loved us beyond all reason and taught us to love one another, too. Taught us to love, period. I think my mother invented her own kind of motherhood -- all wild joyfulness. She sang to us and danced us around when we were still too little to walk. Then she taught us to stand on our own, but she never stopped taking care of us. She took an even deeper, wilder joy -- if that's possible -- in her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who in turn loved her wildly, joyfully. "My grandmother is the funniest woman on the planet," my nephew Jesse once told his friends.

She had so much fun with children. I kept telling my brothers and sisters, "We made her so happy." She might have kept right on having babies; she and Daddy were so gaga for babies, new life, the wild energy of children.

My grandniece Chloe Balou was born a few months after my father's death, and brought a whole new spirit into our lives -- and an old soul, too. When she was an infant, Mom used to bathe her in the kitchen sink and call her "my joy in the morning." Mom would say, "Life is too short to spend too much time grieving." Now Chloe Balou is six. When she walked into the waiting room on Tuesday night, we could see that she could see immediately what was gone from the world, who was gone. But when her grandmother, my sister Bobbi, told her that great grandma was "gone," she said, "No she's not. Only a part of her is gone. That part is an angel now."

And Chloe will have a new baby sister soon. Rachel's and Gary's daughter will be delivered by c-section on Monday, two days after Mom's burial. On Tuesday evening I held Rachel in my arms; she cried and I felt her big belly heaving against my ribs. I told her that her timing was perfect, again.

It's strange now to be alone in my mother's little house, where I spent so much time with her, and where she seems to be everywhere. Taking bed sheets out of the closet in the hall, I hear her again saying, "Honey, take the ones on the top shelf." Honey-this, honey-that. No one will ever call you honey the way your mom called you honey, I think.

She was our matriarch, as my cousin Lori said, and the life of the family revolved around her. The screen doors at the front and the back of her house were always banging open and closed. She was so much a part of my daily life that I know I haven't even begun to begin missing her. On Tuesday night, I drove home from the hospital, parked in the driveway, got out of my truck, and saw a little bat swooping around in the streetlight. "Mom, is that you?" I laughed. A little flutter of dark wings. She would still be awake at 2 a.m., maybe sweeping the kitchen floor in her nightgown, or fluttering down the hall to her bedroom with her bible under her arm and a small bowl of potato chips in her hand.

She relished the breaking of rules and conventions. Her faith was a deep and personal faith. She was fearless and passionate about expressing her opinions. She was vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq, where other mothers' children were being killed, and she boldly wore, for several years, a t-shirt my sister Bekki had made her that said, "Bush is not my president." She drove too fast. She flirted and teased and laughed. She taught me that it was possible to be both formidable and adorable, to be nobody's doormat and somebody's girl. She told me once, "If you don't do anything for people to gossip about, they'll just make something up, so don't pay any attention to gossip." A pal of mine dubbed her "the rebel Mom." She delighted in the friends from all over the world I brought home to Kentucky to meet her. She, herself, was one of my best friends. We talked about everything -- politics, history, memory, love, even sex. I wouldn't have made it through the nightmare of my recent divorce without her constant support. She gave great and practical advice. She loved to talk; she loved meeting new people. Last night my friend Robert called from Atlanta and said he felt cheated that he'd never had a chance to meet her in person, having heard so much about her.

I feel as if I've been through all the stages of grief a half dozen times in the past few days. I'll probably go through them all again and again. But maybe not the anger phase. I was angry when I first got to the hospital on Saturday and saw my mother lying in that bed with the tubes in her mouth and her throat. I told the chaplain I was furious about the injustice of it all -- why is it that the best people ("She was the best woman in the whole world," my nephew Jimmy sobbed) are struck down too soon, while the worst seem to go on and on? I've been reading a lot, in recent months, about evil and about narcissism, about the kind of evil and narcissism I've experienced in my personal life in the past three years, and the kind of evil and narcissism that have so transformed politics and culture in the U.S. that my whole family has felt betrayed. Why is it the bullies and their henchmen and their cronies always seem to go on having their way; where is the justice in that?

The chaplain didn't have an answer for me, but Mom did. And the answer is love. That's what the bullies and narcissists will never have. Because it's impossible to truly love a narcissist. Because, underneath the layers of seduction and deception, the layers of blaming and rage, there's really nothing at all to love. No self. No soul at all. I think it's possible that an evil person, ultimately, bit by bit, has relinquished his soul so completely that he dies and leaves only a corpse. And though, during his lifetime, some might pay obeisance to the bully or flatter the narcissist, he won't ever be truly loved. And without love, there is no redemption, simply, ultimately.

When my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and I stood around my mother's bed and actually saw the radiance of her spirit, the light of that love around her body, I thought: that's what the evil people of this world will never have. That's the only justice there is, and it's enough. Unloving people don't get to die with and into that light. So my mother's last lesson to me -- if it's indeed to be her last -- is that love trumps all. That's what I'll try to remember. That's what I'll try to hold onto in the days and weeks and months and years to come.


Blogger nolapoet said...


I'm sorry that your mom chose to go so soon... it's always too soon. But you clearly benefited from her spirit and her passion for living and loving. I wish you comfort and joyful memories.


6:19 PM  
Blogger Steven Shields said...

Ccilia, my sincere condolences.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Barry Solarczyk said...

"Imagine the beauty of it--
"That moment when the soul of a loved one returns to the stars,
"Each voice whispering,
"'I remember you.'"

Love and prayers,
Cousin Barry

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

while some have frontal labotomy's the irish have "a bottle in front of me's"..but then they celebrate the life of the passing...not the may i suggest an irish wake for the memory of your mother and may her glorious soul serve as an example...for those who choose to live without compromise or even complaint...thank you for sharing her with those of us who did not have the pleasure previously

12:36 PM  
Blogger mutterhals said...

That was very beautiful, your mother sounded like a wonderful person.

2:38 PM  

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