As a part of a site redesign and to consolidate content from an abandoned, soon to be demolished, portion of Newsome.Org, I am adding a few items to my primary blog feed.
As a part of this process, I’m moving 5 Days in April, a short story I wrote back in 1998, here. 5 Days in April revolves around my last visit to see my mom before she died of lung cancer and the birth of my first child five days later.
5 Days in April
April 9, 1998
A time of great sadness.
When I turned my computer on I had two messages from Sandy. One was forwarding a message from Tom Lee saying that he had to speak to me before I left town and one was telling me to call Pat Arnold, my accountant. I called Pat, since April 15 was only 6 days away. She needed a little more information on my songwriting royalties and related expenses for 1997. Basically, she wanted to know how I could spend so much money to make so little. After we hung up, I emailed Sandy and told her I didn’t have time to call Tom. I had to go see my dying mother, possibly for the last time.
I carried my bags downstairs, my trusty old leather duffel that my sister Ruby and her husband Harold had given me for Christmas many years ago and a garment bag I got when I bought my truck a few years ago. This was the first time after countless trips home that I would take two bags. Inside the garment bag was a black pinstripe suit, black belt, white shirt, dark blue tie and dress shoes. Funeral attire. The death of a loved one is marked by lasts and firsts. The last Christmas, the last birthday, the last card game. The last Easter. The first time you take funeral clothes to your mother’s house.
Raina hugged me goodbye, trying not to let me see the tears in her eyes. She was eight months through a hard pregnancy and the doctor had told her she couldn’t travel any more. As we hugged, I felt my child in her belly. I wondered how such a good thing could happen during such a horrible time. Cassidy Rebecca. Cassidy after the Grateful Dead song and Rebecca after my sweet, sick mother. My first child and mom’s first grandchild would arrive soon to a world far less happy than it should be. And, possibly, to a world her father’s mother had recently departed. Mom was trying to hold on so she could know her first grandchild, even if just for a short time. Depending on the day, I was either sure she’d make it or convinced she wouldn’t. Hanging on or letting go had to be a pretty tough choice for a grandmother to be. Watching it unfold was certainly pretty tough duty for a father to be. And one day, I suspected, it would be hard issue for Cassidy. My mother’s father died when I was an infant. I never knew him. It didn’t bother me when I was growing up. He was just a name I heard and an old photograph I saw once in a while. But as I got older and death and dying became such a theme in my family, I began to miss not having known him.
My father’s brother, Ray, drove his car into an oak tree when he was eighteen. I never knew him. My father’s mother died when I was a toddler. I never knew her. Daddy lasted until I was eight, before dying a horrible death of lung cancer. I barely remembered him. My grandfather remarried, and his second wife died when I was a teenager. He and I were sitting in her hospital room when she died. We could tell because her leg, which had been involuntarily bending and straightening beneath the covers for days, suddenly stopped. “Two sons and two wives,” my grandfather said, “it’s so horrible.” He lived for a few more years, dying during my sophomore year in college. Mom’s brothers died in sequence, all at an early age. C.J, the oldest, first, of a heart attack. Lorenza, the second oldest, of heart attack assisted by a long, slow train that kept the ambulance from getting to the hospital in time to possibly save his life. Finally Ken, the youngest brother, of too much hard living and a broken heart. So I knew death well. It hung over my childhood like a threatening cloud. But this time is was different. Death had set its sights on the one place I hoped it would not go for a long time. My mother.
I drove to the airport, part of a long line of cars leaving downtown Houston for a thousand other places. I looked at a few of the people in the other cars and wondered if they were going somewhere happier than where I was headed. Probably, I thought. At least I hoped so. After my daddy died, I used to pray that my sister and my mother would outlive me. Unless I fell asleep at the wheel or my plane crashed, I was going to do no better than one out of two. I noticed the deep blue sky, the green grass, the blue and red of the Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes along the side of the highway. I wondered if everything would look different after mom was gone. Maybe a little duller in color. Not quite as vivid. I decided things would keep looking the same to most folks. But they would definitely change for me. In fact, everything was already fading a little. Getting just a bit fuzzy around the edges. Even bright colors had hint of gray. Like the Procol Harem song. Like cigarette smoke.
We found out that mom had a brain tumor on the day after Christmas. Raina and I had arrived at mom’s house late Christmas night. We were looking forward to spending a few days with mom and Ruby. Everyone was excited about our baby. It was going to be a good Christmas. When we walked through the door, mom was wearing an eye patch. “I have double vision in this eye,” she said, “probably due to a sinus infection.” Mom had struggled with sinus infections for years. Sensing my alarm, she said “don’t worry. Jim did a CAT scan and it didn’t show anything. He did an MRI to be sure and we’ll get the results in a few days. But I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” I looked at Ruby, who had been home for a few days already, and she didn’t look too worried. So I tried not to worry about it. Raina and I wrapped everyone’s presents that night before we went to bed. We ordered almost all of our Christmas presents from mail order catalogs and had them shipped to mom’s house. It made holiday traveling a lot easier. We had a bunch of clothes for Ruby. A stereo and some clothes for mom. After all the presents were wrapped and beneath the Christmas tree, everyone went to bed. We would have our Christmas the next day. December 26, 1997.
The next morning we got up, ate breakfast and got ready to have our Christmas. We always open our stockings first. Mom doing one for each of us and the kids jointly doing one for her. She always put little toys and things in our stockings to give us something to play with. We did the same for her. Stockings were a big deal in our family. Mom needlepointed stockings for all of us. One for Ruby, one for me, one for Harold and one for Raina. She even did one for herself after we complained that she had to have one too. Only Harold’s empty stocking remained on the hook beside the fireplace. He had gone to Oregon to spend Christmas with his mom and dad. It was the first Christmas in as long as I could remember that Harold wasn’t with us. When we were almost through opening our stockings, the doorbell rang. It was mom’s friend, neighbor and doctor, Jim Thrailkill. He walked in, greeted Raina and me briefly, and, without sitting down, told mom he had some bad news. “You have a growth in your head,” he said, pointing to a spot on the back of his head, just above the neck. “You need to see a neurosurgeon to find out what it is. I have called a guy at Duke and he’s expecting your call.” He gave us the name and number. I tried to ask some questions about what this meant, but he was evasive. Less that ten minutes after the doorbell rang he was gone. Ruby was crying, I was stunned, Raina looked on silently. Mom tried to put a positive spin on things. “Look, we don’t know if this is anything at all, and we’re not going to know until I see the doctor. So let’s have a good Christmas and open our presents.” And that’s what we tried to do. We succeeded, sort of. Presents were opened. Hugs were abundant. We went through the holiday motions, but everyone was obviously worried out of their minds.
We went to Duke on the 29th and saw the neurosurgeon. He looked at the MRI and initially thought he could remove the tumor with no problem. “It doesn’t look malignant, though you can never tell. Let’s go in there with then intention of taking it out and see what we find. We’ll biopsy it on the operating table. With a little luck you’ll be good as new.” He scheduled mom for surgery on Friday of the following week. We were all relieved and reasonably optimistic. As a precaution, the doctor scheduled a chest and abdomen CAT scan, “just to rule out any other problems.” We left Durham, thinking that mom would have surgery the following week. It was December 30. On New Year’s Day the doctor called and told us the CAT scan had detected a spot on mom’s right lung. He wanted us to come back to Duke for a biopsy on Monday. We went back to Durham and mom had the biopsy on Tuesday morning. By this time we were all extremely worried. Our fears were confirmed when the doctor called me at our hotel that night. “Unfortunately, it’s a malignant tumor,” he said, “the brain tumor is a metastasis from the lung.” He had made an appointment for us to see a radiologist the next morning. The next day, we met with him, got the bad news in more detail, discussed the limited treatment options, and headed back home with broken hearts. Ultimately, mom decided to take radiation treatments for the brain tumor at the regional hospital near home. The other choice, and the one I initially favored, was to come to Houston and have treatments at M.D. Anderson. The brain radiation consisted of eighteen treatments, one a day for eighteen straight weekdays. Ruby dropped out of school and moved back home to care for mom. I spent all of January there and commuted on the weekends thereafter. The brain radiation must have worked, as her terrible headaches had subsided, only to be replaced by unbearable backaches where the cancer had spread to her spine. After much consideration and not a little hesitation, mom had begun a second round of radiation treatments on her back.
Mom had convinced herself that smoking didn’t kill daddy. That his lung cancer was caused by something else. Bad luck, genetics. Something, anything other than his love for smokes. I don’t know about all that. All I know is that he smoked and he died, like millions of other people. Mom still smoked, even though her lung cancer had spread like smoke in the wind through most of her body. As I drove, I could picture her in my mind, sitting on the back porch, bent over in pain. Cigarette dangling from her mouth. Playing Solitaire. Brave, sad and lonely in the face of the storm.
I checked in at the gate and found out that I once again had a middle seat. Long ago, before mom got sick, I would have been very annoyed at this. But by that point most things didn’t bother me too much. Things that used to be extremely important to me were just stones in the road. I walked around them to get wherever I was going. But I barely noticed them. And I never picked them up. When they called my row, I boarded the 747 and took my middle seat. It turned out that I was seated beside a woman I had seen several times on the same flight during the past few weeks. Once or twice we had traded magazines. A Forbes for a People. A Readers Digest for a Newsweek. That sort of thing. We chatted as the rest of the passengers found their seats. During the course of conversation, she told me about her job in Houston and her family back in Wilmington. I told her why I was traveling to South Carolina every weekend and that I was about to be a father. She asked what we were going to name the baby. I talked about my sister, Rebecca Ruby, and mom, Mary Rebecca. “Mom, Ruby and Cassidy,” I said “One, two three Rebecca’s.” “My name is Rebecca, too,” she said with a smile, “it’s a good name.” “Yes it is,” I said to fourth Rebecca. Soon we were both asleep as our plane flew through and around El Nino. Bouncing along toward South Carolina, where my life began and where my mother’s was ending. Living and dying in the time of El Nino.
After an easy landing in Charlotte, I got my rental car, a Toyota Camry with no radio knobs, and headed down Highway 74 towards Monroe. From Monroe the highway would lead through Wingate, Marshville, Peachland and then into Wadesboro where I would turn right onto Highway 52. Highway 52 winds through Morven and McFarlan towards the South Carolina line. Just south of McFarlan you cross the state line. Ten miles later you are in Cheraw, SC. The Prettiest Town in Dixie, according to all the license plates. My hometown. The place of my youth. The place where my father is buried out on Chatham Hill. Beside an empty plot. Daddy bought two when he and mom moved to Cheraw in 1956.
I pulled into mom’s garage at 11:45 p.m. Ruby met me at the door, looking tired but otherwise OK. She and mom were playing cards in the kitchen. I walked in and greeted mom with hugs and kisses. Mom seemed to be feeling reasonably well, and was glad to see me. I knelt beside her chair and watched her play. Ruby won, but it was close. After we visited a while, Ruby went to take a shower and I helped mom get ready for bed. Soon they were both sleeping, Ruby quietly in her room and mom loudly and uneasily in hers. Occasionally, she would cough violently. A short while later I laid down on the cot in her room, I fell asleep listening to her labored breaths and her hacking coughs. I wished for happy dreams for her. When she first got sick I had prayed a lot. For her to get well. For the cancer to not be in her bones. For all sorts of things. None of my prayers were answered, so I decided I’d try wishing. At least sometimes wishes come true. So I wished for mom to dream of better times, before things turned bad. That was a long time ago, but I knew she still remembered the good times. She talked about them sometimes when she was high on morphine or some other painkiller. I could remember them too, but I didn’t talk about them much. I figured you had to embrace your blues to defeat them. And I was holding mine tight. Right up against me, all the time. I slept on and off, but did not dream.
April 10, 1998
I heard Ruby moving around at 4:00 in the morning. She was flying back to Nashville for the weekend to put some of her things in storage. Bill Eutsler was to pick her up at 5:00 and drive her 45 miles to Florence for a 6:15 flight. Ruby had been going through a rough time even before mom got sick. She had been dividing her time between her and Harold’s farm in College Grove and a friend’s house in Nashville. Like the song says, it’s hard living on those in betweens. I had been very worried about Ruby during the past year. Now her friend had told her she needed to move her stuff out to make room for a new roommate. So on top of everything else, Ruby was at least partially homeless. And she wasn’t happy about it one bit.
Harold is a fine man and a brother to me. He was the best man at my wedding and we had always gotten along well. He was handling Ruby’s uncertainty about their relationship like a gentleman. He was supportive of Ruby while she worked things out, and rarely if ever spoke harshly to her. Perhaps because he knew that some of their problems were of his doing. He had started his own company many years ago. Ruby had been, at least nominally, a part of it since the beginning. And over time it grew into a successful and profitable business. But during the last few years Ruby’s role had diminished to not much more than a secretary. When Harold brought in an outsider to run their international operations, a job Ruby believed should have been given to her, she quit. A few months later she moved out of their house. It was a complicated situation, and I felt for both of them.
I had met Erin, Ruby’s recalcitrant roomate, a few times and liked her well enough. But I thought it was unbelieveable that she would kick my sister out while she was at home caring for her dying mother. As a result. it would be a tough weekend for my sister who I loved very much. Things were tough for everybody these days. But somehow I felt like they were tougher than they had to be for Ruby. One day I would figure who was really to blame for all of Ruby’s troubles. And I would make sure every one of those troubles came home to roost. But that was for another day. At 7:30 a.m. mom awoke with a hurting back and an aching heart.
I helped her up and got her dressed and we came downstairs. Ruby had left a sweet note on the kitchen table, telling us she’d miss us and that she would see us on Sunday. Mom was not feeling well at all, so I gave her some pain pills. Lately, she had been waking up very sad. Sometimes she said it was physical pain. We knew it was at least half emotional pain. After the pills took effect and she had a few smokes, she slowly started to feel a little better. I made her some eggs and toast and she dutifully ate about ½ of it. Afterwards, she sat down on the back porch to play solitaire while I went upstairs to take a quick shower. Mom wanted to go to Walmart to get some wash cloths and a toy for her cat, Plato. Since we needed all kind of supplies, I figured we could stop by the grocery while we were out. When I came downstairs mom was still on the porch, so I walked out there and sat down beside her. “When something happens to me, you have to take care of Ruby,” she said, looking at me with her one good eye. “I am worried about her. She has been crying a lot and I think she’s in pretty bad shape.” I rubbed mom’s shoulders. “I’m going to try to get her to move to Houston, mom.” “I know, she told me. But she doesn’t want to ’cause she thinks she’ll be a burden to you and Raina.” “She won’t be a burden,” I said, “both of us really want her to move there, and we’ll surely appreciate the help with the baby.” “Just take care of her,” mom said, “I always thought I’d need her to take care of you. The tables have turned.” Mom and Ruby had taken care of me my whole life. If I could take care of them a little, it would even up my account a little and make me feel better about things. “I promise I’ll take care of her. We’ll take care of each other.” Mom thought for a few seconds and decided to take on a tough issue: “I think she should have stayed with Harold. I told her that I think Erin is taking advantage of her state of mind.” Mom was smarter than most people, even with 60 mg of Morphine in her bloodstream. “Well, mom, to tell you the truth, I do too. But Ruby has to find her own happiness and we may be wrong.” Mom dropped the issue as abruptly as she had brought it up. “Let’s go do our chores.” So we hobbled out to the car and headed for Walmart.
Mom had always hated shopping. I inherited my kamikaze shopping approach from her. If you need something, go to the closest store that has it, buy the first one you see and get the hell out of there. But now that she was getting out so much less, she didn’t seem to mind shopping. I rolled her around Walmart and we looked at all kinds of things. We ended up with 4 wash cloths, 2 towels, a catnip mouse for Plato, some Brillo Pads and candy and treats mom wanted so she could make an Easter basket for Ruby. We always had great Easter baskets growing up. And even as young adults, we always looked forward to our Easter baskets. I had a plastic Bugs Bunny in my office that came in an Easter basket many years ago. He is soft plastic, with wire inside like Gumby and Pokey. He has a carrot in one hand and if you position him just right, it looks like he is committing a lewd act. He provided more than a few laughs to first time visitors to my office.
After stashing our stuff in the trunk, I put mom in the front seat, made her promise not to get out no matter what and walked to the Food Lion, which was in the same strip center as Walmart. Thirty minutes later, the trunk was full of groceries and we were headed home. Mom came through the front door and made a beeline for her cigarettes. We put the groceries away and fixed lunch. Pimento cheese sandwich for her; barbecue for me. While we ate, Plato had a ball with his toy. He liked it a lot, and that was good. After lunch, mom wanted to put the wash cloths and towels away, so we headed upstairs. Plato had used his litter box, which was in mom’s room near her bathroom. And it stank to high heaven up there. I scooped the mess and put it in one of the empty Walmart bags. As I was walking toward the stairs to take the bag out to the trash I held it up and said, “look, mom, a plastic bag full of cat shit.” She laughed. A genuine laugh. Normally, such language would draw a quick reprimand from her. But in her current state she just laughed. It was good to see that smile I missed so much. I hoped it would not be the last time I saw it. When I got back from taking the cat shit out, mom was headed back out to the porch. More solitaire. “You know, nothing interests me at all these days,” she said, more matter of factly than wistfully. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” I replied, “nothing interests me either.”
Mom fell asleep in her chair on the porch, a deck of cards in her hand. While she was asleep, the doorbell rang. It was her friend Ruth Ingram. Ruth went out on the back porch, mom woke up and they had a good visit. Nothing poetic. Just conversation between old friends. The kind of thing that in a better world mom would look forward to for many years to come. Mom was asking Ruth how she was doing. How her children were and which of them were coming for Easter. When she left, Ruth looked at me and asked if I was OK. I told her I was doing all right I supposed, all things considered, which is a polite southern way to say you’re not doing good at all. Ruth teared up and said, “I’m thinking about all of you.” “I know and we appreciate it,” I replied. She waved and walked out quickly, fighting tears. Mom played cards for a while longer and fell asleep again. After 45 minutes or so I woke her and asked her to lie on the couch so her neck could get some rest. She didn’t want to sleep. “I sleep all the time,” she said, “I don’t want to sleep right now.” I guess when you don’t have much time left, every nap is an opportunity wasted. An opportunity to watch the hummingbirds, to pet the cat, to be with the ones you love, to wish it wasn’t so. Mom walked around the house with her walker, waging a valiant battle with the sandman while I checked my email and flipped through the paper.
A little later the doorbell rang again and it was the florist. A lovely arrangement of carnations and daisies from Ruby. From 500 miles away, she was sending her love out to her mother. After a few minutes, mom decided to water the plants on the porch. She also watered the new arrangement, though it didn’t need it. Mom isn’t much for talking about her emotions, another trait I inherited from her, but it was clear the flowers touched her. We took a ride down to the river to see how high it was and then out to Chatham Hill to visit daddy’s grave. On the way back, we noticed a rabies clinic had set up outside the old Health Center. We hurried home and picked up Plato. Together the three of us rode back to the clinic, where Plato got a shot and a shiny new rabies tag. The vet who gave the shots had been our family vet many, many years ago. He had moved to Fort Mill and after the other vet died, Cheraw had been without one. But he came back once or twice a year for rabies clinics. I recognized him, but I was sure he had no idea who I was. I had been just a boy the last time I saw him. I felt like an old man now. A lot had happened since we saw each other last. Some good, a lot bad. But there we were after thirty years. Same shot, new pet. Price: $3.00.
When we pulled up to the Health Center there was an old pickup truck full of coonhounds parked by the curb. There were half a dozen hounds in the back, chained to a toolbox and raising hell. On the grass beside the truck was another hound. But he wasn’t raising hell. He was dead. Just lying there, like he was sleeping with one leg in the air. After the vet had given the other coonhounds their shots, the coon hunter walked over to the table where you signed up for the shots and picked up his licenses and tags. Then he walked over, picked up the dead dog like a sack of potatoes and tossed it into the back of the truck, sending the surviving hounds into complete hysteria. I could relate to their reaction. It was probably a universal reaction to the death of someone you were close to. If mom hadn’t been with me, I’m, sure I would have let out a howl too. “What happened to him?” I asked the vet, nodding toward the pickup truck. “Choked,” he replied without elaboration. “Well I suppose that will make a lot of raccoons happy,” I said. The vet that cared for my daddy’s dogs thirty years ago stared at me blankly as he gave Plato his shot. Plato stared at the vet blankly as he got his shot, probably thankful he was born a house cat and not a coonhound.
After we got home, I took a nap for about an hour while mom dozed and played solitaire. I got up around 7:30 and fixed some country ham and cheese grits for supper. Mom ate plenty of grits and only a little ham, commenting that it was too salty. “It’s good you think that,” I said, “it means your taste buds are coming back.” Mom had complained that everything tasted the same after her first round of radiation. “Yeah I think they are, a little,” she said. After she was finished, I took the scraps and threw them in the backyard for the wild animals to eat.
For years mom had fed the birds in her backyard, which abuts a thick woods. She had all kinds of birds back there, from doves to finches to hummingbirds, and everyone in town loved to sit on the back porch and watch the birds. A few years ago, she started leaving scraps in the back yard for the wild animals. At first she put the food back by the tree line, then slowly moved it closer to the house. Now at night you could see possums, raccoons, and foxes eating practically on the back steps. It is a neat deal to see, and mom was adamant about feeding her animals, even when she felt too sick to feed herself.
Sometime after supper Ruby called. She talked briefly to me and to mom. Mom had said several times that she hoped Ruby would call so she would know Ruby was OK. Ruby sounded good, which was a relief to mom. She and I talked about how things were going in Nashville. It sounded like things were looking up, but I had heard that before. My sweet sister was on a roller coaster ride to God knows where. She wasn’t driving, but she was going along for the ride. And she either couldn’t or didn’t want to get off. I hoped it was didn’t want to. Definitely the lesser of two evils. After we hung up, mom was in much better spirits. She knew her daughter was OK. And that was good.
We played two games of spite and malice, a card game similar to double solitaire that we had all played when we were kids. I had found the rules on the internet and we had relearned the game in the past few weeks. The object was to play all of your pile of cards on the center stacks, with cards played in ascending order, while trying to keep your opponent from playing his. Mom really enjoyed playing cards, so we tried to play with her as much as we could. And we enjoyed it too. Our family had always been big on parlor games. And we all had our specialties. Ruby was unbeatable in trivia games and anything with a literary flavor. Mom always won in Scrabble and cards, and I was good at Boggle and Pictionary. Mom won the first game convincingly. I came back and won the second. I knew, though, that if mom were well, I wouldn’t stand a chance. Even in her medicated state she won over half the time. She had difficulty picking up the cards and at one point said, “I used to be so good with my fingers, and now look at me. I can barely pick up a stupid card.” I stroked her hand and said “mammy, those fingers have done so much for other people, it’s OK to let others return the favor.” I picked up the card she wanted and handed it to her.
While we were playing cards, mom chain-smoked Marlboro Lights. I was surprised at how much she smoked. It seemed like a lot, even for her. Either I had badly misjudged how much she had historically smoked, or she was in smoking overdrive. “Mom, why are you chain smoking?” I asked her. No response, though I knew she heard me. “Mom, you’re smoking too much. I’m not fussing at you, but you are.” “OK, I know,” she mumbled. That conversation was going nowhere and neither were her cigarettes.
By the time we finished the second game, it was after midnight. Mom asked for the paper and read the headlines for a minute. Then she shuffled upstairs to get ready for bed. When she came out of the bathroom after brushing her teeth, Plato was already in the bed, lying in his spot right beside where she usually slept. Mom laboriously climbed into bed and quickly fell asleep. Her breaths came hard and loud again. She sounded very congested and coughed a lot. Her cough reminded me of times when you try to clear your throat but can’t. Only worse. Much worse. I knew that wasn’t a good sign. I also knew that the 15 or so cigarettes she had smoked since the sun went down weren’t helping.
She slept fitfully through the night, only getting up once to go to the bathroom. Her breathing was rough and wet throughout the night. At least, I hoped, she was getting some rest. Since she hated to sleep during the day, nights were her only chance to get the rest her body needed to support her and the cancer within her. Again, I wished for her to have happy dreams. By the sound of her moans, I could tell she didn’t.
April 11, 1998
I remember the day my daddy died.
At least parts of it. He had been in the hospital for some time, and I was staying with various friends of the family while mom stayed with him. On the day he died, November 14, 1968, I was staying with the Jeters. Their son, Jeff, was in the fourth grade. I was in the third. I liked staying with the Jeters OK, but not as much as I liked staying with the Eutslers. The Eutslers lived on a big farm out by brock’s mill. They had a big old house with lots of places to explore and two fishing ponds. Bill or Annie would take me fishing about as often as I wanted to go. And I wanted to go a lot. It was fun out there. Not as good as being at home, but good enough. I learned at an early age that enough was the most important word in the English language. Things didn’t have to be perfect. Just good enough. You didn’t need a lot. Just enough. I eventually rejected the good enough philosophy and became a perfectionist of sorts. It wore me out at times but at least I made good grades and was able to find gainful employment. The more I thought about it as I got older, the more I thought the enough philosophy was the correct one. I was easier and things were going to end up screwed up anyway. So why bother. It was a constant internal debate that caused me a good deal of conflict.
One morning Mrs. Jeter came into the room where I was getting ready for school and told me I wouldn’t be going to school that day. Another example of bad news masquerading as good news. At the time, I had a cat named Courtney and she was with kittens. All I could figure out was that Courtney had had her kittens and I needed to stay home to help care for them. I think I even asked her as we drove towards my house if that was the case. I’m sure that made her day. When we got to our house there were several cars parked in front. I didn’t know what to make of that, but it seemed unlikely that a bunch of my parents’ friends would take time off from work to come see a bunch of kittens, even if they were Courtney’s. I walked through the door and someone, I have no idea who, escorted me to up to my room. In a few seconds my mom came through the door, closing it behind her. “You better sit down” were her first words. “No, I want to stand,” I replied. Even at eight years of age, I knew some situations called for quick action and you could move faster on your feet than on your ass. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I was starting to sense that it wasn’t good. Surely Courtney didn’t get run over, I thought. “Daddy is no longer with us,” mom said finally. I don’t remember if I cried, screamed or just stood there. But I knew that my dad was dead. Gone in a puff of smoke. The next few days are a blur of images and partial memories. Lots of friends and family in and out of the house. My mom’s family, who always treated us well and whom I loved deeply. My dad’s family who didn’t and whom I didn’t either. But the one constant was mom. From that day forward, she had been the one constant thing in my life. Working hard to be both mother and father to me. Seeing Ruby and me through college and graduate school. Like a rock she was always there. Years later, I learned that she wasn’t really a rock. That she was horribly depressed for years after daddy’s death. But I didn’t know it then. She protected me from all of that. She was my mother and that she took care of me. She took good care of me. She was a great mother.
Mom got out of bed at 7:30 a.m. She wobbled into the bathroom, brushed her teeth and put on her eye patch. She shuffled out of her bedroom and I carried her walker down the stairs. Her mornings were getting worse and worse. Her depression deepening like shadows at the end of a hard day. She was in pain and, try as she did, she couldn’t hide it. I gave her an anxiety pill, we called it her happy pill, 60 mg of Morphine and two supplemental pain pills. The big white ones that she said worked the fastest. She wanted oatmeal for breakfast, which I hurriedly fixed after reading the directions on the side of the box. As I cooked, she sat at the kitchen table, her head down, groaning ever so slightly ever now and then. She only smoked one cigarette, but the windows were closed and the smoke hung about the room like a cloud. Another gray morning.
When her breakfast was ready, she ate a few bites of it. Then she slowly got up and made her way to the couch. “I’ve got to take a little nap,” she mumbled as I helped her lie on the couch and covered her with a blanket. she was asleep in no time. Thankfully, her breathing was smoother, less difficult. I hoped she would feel better when she awoke. Mornings are scary times for dying people. You never know if it your last one.
I walked into the living room and stretched out on the couch. I am a light sleeper and knew I’d hear mom if she got up. It was 8:30. I figured I could nap for 45 minutes to an hour. At 11:00 I awoke to a quiet house. I listened for a few minutes and heard mom snoring softly. She was still asleep. I knew this would reinforce her desire not to sleep during the day, but I figured if she was sleeping this long, she must need to. A few minutes later she awoke and began struggling to get up. I helped her up, and she shuffled off to the bathroom. A few minutes later she was back in the kitchen, smoking and feeling a little bit better. “What time is it?” she asked. “Take a guess,” I said. “10:30,” she answered without looking at the clock. “That’s close. 11:30.” “Wow, ” she said, “I slept a long time.” She had begun smoking in earnest now, lighting up her third since her nap and fourth of the day. “Mom, you were really coughing last night in your sleep. You sounded very congested.” “Yeah, I’m a little congested today…I don’t know why.” “I think,” I replied, “that is has something to do with all those cigarettes you’re smoking. I’m not fussing at you, but you scared me last night, and I know it will scare Ruby when she gets back. I just want you to cut down.” “OK,” she said, with watery sadness in her voice. Dying may be sad to her. But the thought of cutting down on cigarettes was absolutely heartbreaking. “Just see what you can do,” I ended the conversation just this side of a meltdown- her because she was afraid we would hide her cigs again, and me because I couldn’t believe she was chain smoking in this condition. “Can I have a happy pill?” she asked, obviously very willing to change the subject. “Sure,” I said as I took one from the bottle and handed it to her, “be happy, mom. That’s all I want.”
A little while later, I made her some eggs and toast for lunch. She ate little of either. It was obvious that she was having a blue day, even though she tried as hard as she could to be pleasant. “What’s the matter, mammy?” I asked. “I don’t…I don’t know,” she answered. “Overall, do you feel better or worse than you did two or three weeks ago?” “Probably worse,” she replied, her one good eye looking up at me intently. “Is it worse because of physical pain or emotional pain?” I asked. “Probably emotional,” she said, “I’m sick of this.” “Of being sick, you mean?” “Yes. Sick of it. Tired of it.” “I know mammy,” I said, rubbing her stiff back with my palm. “I know it’s hard for you. I know it’s hell. If I had one wish in the world it would be that this hadn’t happened to you.” She didn’t answer. The doorbell rang and it was her friend Ruth Tillman, a lovely flower in hand. I took the flower and showed it to mom. She said it was beautiful and thanked Ruth for it. I went to put it on the back porch with the rest of the plants while mom and Ruth visited in the kitchen. Ruth lived just down the street and she always had a picnic on Easter Sunday for her family and some of her close friends. Mom had been there every Easter for as long as either could remember. I heard Ruth telling mom to come down if she felt up to it. Mom thanked her, but told her that mornings were the worst time for her. “They are hell, mom said, “pure hell. But after a couple of hours I start feeling better.” Ruth hugged mom, then me, and asked if there was anything she could do for us. “No, you’ve done so much already,” I said, “and we really appreciate it.” Ruth left, inviting me to come down to the picnic and promising to bring some food over if we didn’t make it.
When I got back to the kitchen, mom was making a list. “What’s that?” I asked. “A grocery list. I want to make Ruth some jalapeno cornbread for her picnic. She is so sweet to me.” “OK, mom. We can do that.” I went upstairs and took a quick shower while mom smoked and worked on her list. When I came back, showered and dressed, she was ready to go so we hit the road. First we stopped by Teal’s Seafood and ordered up some fried shrimp and oysters for supper. Teal’s is in an old beat up looking place down by the river. But it has good food and half the town eats there regularly. It doesn’t have tables to speak of; you order your plate to go and take it home or down the road to the park where you can eat on picnic tables and watch the river flow by. I ordered two shrimp and oyster plates and told Mr. Teal I’d be back to get them in 45 minutes. We left Teal’s, took a right on Second Street and drove through the middle of town to the hardware store. Mom had wanted a can of white spray paint to paint a little wicker Easter tree white. I went in and picked it up. The store has changed a lot since my youth. When I was growing up, it was a family hardware run by the Duvalls. There was an old man that worked there who was certain that any kid that came in was planning on stealing them blind. So he would follow us around, watching us like a hawk. It pissed us off so bad, we made up a game to taunt him. We’d walk down an aisle as a group and then on cue we would scatter like dropped marbles, everyone going down a different aisle. It made him so nervous we were afraid he might keel over right there. So we only did it when he was especially annoying. Or when he followed two feet behind us instead of three. We never stole a thing from them. But we could have. It was now a sterile, warehouse-type building supply, owned by a big chain. As I walked down the aisles looking for spray paint, I missed that old guy so much I remembered his name. Way. George Way.
After I collected the paint, we drove towards the Winn-Dixie. Mom was still pretty down in the dumps, but she was trying not to show it. “How about just the pain?”, I asked, hoping the current radiation treatments were helping some, “is it the same, better or worse?” “I can’t say it’s any worse,” she answered, “maybe just more frequent.” I ran into the store while mom waited, dozing, in the car. I picked up some buttermilk, some baking soda and baking powder, since I wasn’t sure which one she wanted and they were side by side, and some grated cheese. When I got back to the car, mom was awake. We drove back to Teal’s to pick up our supper. Mom was once again quiet. I knew that meant she was feeling poorly. She has a huge threshold for pain and will almost never admit she’s hurting, but I’d learned some of the signs. On an impulse, I swung back by the house and ran in and got a morphine pill and a cup of water. At the last minute I grabbed a appetite pill and went back out to the car. Mom took both without complaint, pausing only to ask what they were. We went back to Teal’s and picked up our supper. As I was waiting to pay, Mr. Teal, a big friendly man with a black pompadour, was telling another customer that he had had five bypass operations and still had blockage in his arteries. “The doctor told me not to come anywhere near this place, but I can’t do that. I have to work.” When I got up to the counter he looked at me and said “you still in the grocery business?” “No sir,” I said, sure he had me confused with someone else. “I thought you worked for Floyd McBride.” “Yessir, I did, a long time ago when I was in high school. But I live in Texas now. I’m back visiting my mother.” I thought you used to work for Floyd,” he said. “And you’re right. That was a while ago.” As I was waiting for my change, I noticed a bunch of photographs arranged under a plastic sheet on the counter. A high school aged boy in a CHS football jersey. A lovely girl in a prom dress. I hoped for their sake that Mr. Teal listened to the doctor and slowed down a little. But I doubted he would.
I put the food in the back seat and we drove home. When we got there I helped mom inside, and went back out for the paint, groceries and food. Mom sat on the back porch reading the mail while I painted her Easter Tree on the back steps. When I came back inside, she was asleep at the kitchen table, her head down, snoring softly. A few minutes later, her friend Etah Fields came by. I woke mom up and they visited for a while. Plato went in to greet Etah. I heard her say “you like me, you really like me.” I couldn’t tell if she was making a witty Marilyn Monroe reference or not. If so, it was wonderfully subtle. As I sat in the den listening to them talk, I could almost imagine that mom was OK. That she was sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee and visiting with her friend the way she had done a thousand times before. I could almost pretend that she would be a part of my daughter’s life. Maybe even see her graduate from college. It was a wonderful feeling for just an instant. But I couldn’t hold it. Reality came nudging back into focus and I knew that none of that were true. I was over half way through my five-day visit. It was a great sadness to me.
After Etah left, mom went out on the back porch to rock and smoke. I fixed two plates of shrimp, oysters, fries, hush puppies and cole slaw. A small plate for mom, about the size of a child’s plate at a family restaurant, and a regular one for me. I went out on the porch and found mom sleeping in the rocking chair. It was hard for her to stay awake for long periods of time. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t help falling asleep. I watched my sweet, sick, brave mother for a little while and thought about all the wonderful things we had done together. I thought about the time she took up golf, just so she could play with me the way daddy would have if he’d lived. I thought about the times we played tennis, her game that she always won easily. I thought about the trips she had made to Texas, as recently as last Thanksgiving. I thought about all the games we loved to play. trivial pursuit, rummikub, spite and malice and countless others. I decided that I would never play any of those games again after she was gone. It would be too sad. I thought about how much fun we had had over the years watching basketball together. Wake Forest games, Houston Rockets games. Even when we were apart, we’d call each other at half time and at the end of a game. I remembered the shot Randolph Childress hit to beat UNC in the 1996 ACC Tournament. I remembered how happy we both were. I wondered if I would be able to ever watch another Wake Forest basketball game. I was overcome with sadness. So I silently shed a tear for all the times we wouldn’t have. I hoped there were TVs in heaven. And tennis courts. I hoped daddy would take care of her when she got there the way he was unable to on earth. Mostly I hoped there was a heaven so mom would be surrounded by her loved ones. Her mother and father, her brothers. My father, the only man she ever gave her heart to. Countless friends and relations who had preceded her on this final journey. I would have died right that second just to know if my sweet mother was really going to a better place. And not just to Chatham Hill to lie beneath the cold, hard ground.
I woke her up and we ambled into the kitchen. She ate a couple of shrimp, commenting correctly that they were a little tough, and several oysters. After we finished I put the dishes away and mom said it was time to make the cornbread. She got out her recipe and her magnifying glass and went to work. She made two batches, one for Ruth Tillman and one for Joyce and Ernie Jansen, other good friends and neighbors. She would work a while and rest awhile and before too long the cornbread was in the oven. While mom went upstairs to the bathroom I cleaned up the kitchen, washing the big pots and pans by hand and putting the others in the dishwasher. Mom came back downstairs and we decided to play spite and malice. I won the first game handily, mom not missing too many plays but having bad cards. After the game was over mom said “I can’t play anymore.” “Why not?”, I asked, “what’s wrong?” She looked up at me with that one, sad eye. “I know my neck is going to start hurting and I dread going to bed because then I wake up and the mornings are so horrible.” That was a tough one. If you dreaded waking up, you had only had two choices. Deal with it or just not wake up. I wasn’t ready for that. “Maybe we’ll give you some pain pills in the middle of the night and a happy pill as soon as you wake up,” I suggested, “maybe that will help you get a better start.” “OK,” said mom, “let’s play one more game” I dealt the cards and we began a new game. Mom started out behind but rallied at the end and beat me by a good margin. “What time is it?”, she asked, after we put the cards away. “It’s just after 11:00. You can have another morphine pill at midnight.” “I think I’ll try to stay up ’till then,” she said, walking onto the back porch and sitting at the glass table. “OK,” I said, “I’ll bring you the pill in a little while.” Five minutes later she was dozing in her chair. I read the paper for a bit, watched a little TV and stared at the clock. I never thought much about the passage of time before, but suddenly I was amazed at how fast time was flying by. Almost like time was speeding up at the worst possible time. It was midnight in about ten minutes. I took mom her pill, which she took easily, and helped her upstairs. While she got ready for bed, I played with Plato who had taken his usual spot in the bed and was waiting for her. As I was helping mom into bed, she looked up and said “I’ve enjoyed spending the last few days with you. It’s been fun.” I’ve enjoyed it too, mom,” I said, “I love spending time with you and I love you very much.” “I love you, too,” she said as she settled into the bed. As I turned out the light, Plato was curling up beside her, ready to watch over his master and friend while she slept. After mom was asleep, I checked my email, watched part of a western on AMC, and went to my cot and fell sound asleep.
April 12, 1998
Mom slept unusually well, not getting up a single time to go to the bathroom. And her breathing was better than the night before. Very little coughing and only a little congestion. She didn’t wake up once until 8:15. When she began stirring, I took her a morphine pill and a happy pill. She took them, got up, and went to the bathroom to brush her teeth. We got her dressed and went downstairs. She seemed to feel a little better than she had the past few mornings. She ate some Corn Flakes, smoked a cig, then went up to Ruby’s room to fix her Easter basket. After she was finished and the basket was on Ruby’s bed, she came back downstairs, grabbed a deck of cards and sat on the back porch playing solitaire. I put some laundry in to wash and walked out there to join her. “How are we doing?”, I asked. “Pretty good, I guess.” “You seem to feel a little better this morning.” “Yeah, maybe so,” she replied. “I bet it because you slept so well.” “Maybe so,” she answered, “at 10:30 we need to deliver the cornbread. We need to drive. You could walk, but I can’t.” Mom had become short on attention span and long on non-linear thought since she began taking so many pain pills. “OK, we’ll take the car,” I said. Mom went back to her cards and I sat in the rocking chair and watched the birds at the feeders. All of the sudden they all flew away, as if scared by something that I couldn’t see.
I took a shower and dressed and we set off to deliver the cornbread. First we drove just down the street to the Tillman’s. Mom waited in the car while I put the cornbread, wrapped in tin foil with a little chocolate egg on top, on their porch. Then we drove back past our house and down Nock’s Hill towards the Jansen’s. The Jansens had moved to Cheraw from Iowa several years ago and they and mom had become fast friends. Joyce was always bringing food by and helping mom with things, and Ernie, an excellent carpenter and furniture builder, had done so much for mom. Mom wanted to show them how much they meant to her. As we drove up their driveway, they came out the back door to greet us. When they saw what mom had brought them, it was clear that mom had succeeded. They were clearly touched by the gesture. We talked with them for a while and then said our good-byes. We drove down to the river to check the water level. Since I would be leaving the next morning, I was keenly aware that this might be the last time I would go to the river with my mother. As we drew closer to the water’s edge, I made it a point to take it all in, to swim in every image and feeling. The water was still high, but not as high as it had been the day before when we drove by after going to Teal’s. The trees were green and beautiful and the water was flowing peacefully from our left to our right, north to south. There was a couple loading a pontoon boat into the river. Going fishing on Easter Sunday. I missed simple pleasures like that. I longed to live in a small town where such things were possible. Mom looked at the river for a few seconds, commenting that it was receding. With one last glance back towards the sacred waters of my childhood, I drove away, back up the hill. Back home.
When we got home and parked the car in the garage, I asked mom if she wanted to walk around the yard for a while before we went inside. It was a beautiful day. “No, I don’t think so,” she said. Our back yard, where the woods are and where mom feeds the birds and the animals, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. The fact that mom didn’t want to walk around and enjoy it was unmistakenly a very bad sign. “I think I want to just go inside,” she continued, “I just want to curl up and die.” My heart broke a little more. “Mom, are you in pain? Please help me understand what’s going on.” “I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t think I’m in pain. I’m just bored. I’m ready to move on to the next place. Do you know that Dr. Kavorkian?” I had worried that mom might decide she wanted to check out early. I also figured she was smart and considerate enough to do it while I was there to spare Ruby the pain and agony. She had asked Ruby the same question a week or so earlier, but I had the feeling if she was going to take that road she would do it on my watch. And that was the right thing for her to do, given Ruby’s state of mind. I had told Raina before I left Houston that I was afraid mom might ask me to help her put an end to her pain and suffering. “Oh God,” Raina had said sadly, “if she does what will you do?” “I don’t know,” I said, then “yes I do. If she really wanted me to and she was in agony, I’d do it. It would kill me, but I’d do it.”
I stopped and turned to mom, looking into her good eye. “No, mom, I don’t know him. But I know of him.” I stopped for a second and bent over, my face touching the side of her head. My mouth beside her ear. “I won’t let you suffer mom. I promise. If you are truly suffering I want you to tell me. I love you too much to see you suffer.” “I know, honey,” she said softly. She began moving towards the door and I followed, holding out a hand to steady her as she walked. We went inside and she sat down at the kitchen table. She was sleepy and soon fell asleep, her head on her hands. I went downstairs to put the clothes in the dryer. When I got back upstairs mom had moved to the porch and was sitting at the glass table. “Do you want to play cards?” I asked. “No not really.” “OK, just let me know if you do, because I think it would be fun.” Again, she was asleep. After 45 minutes I woke her up and asked her what she wanted for lunch. She wasn’t hungry, but agreed to eat some oyster stew if I’d make it. We needed oysters so we climbed back into the car and went back to Winn-Dixie. Our third trip in four days. She dozed in the car while I went in, and soon we were headed back home. I made her some oyster stew, following her instructions the whole way. It turned out pretty good and she ate a fair amount of it. After we finished, I found a tennis match on TV and brought a swivel chair from upstairs so she could lean back and see better. I propped it up by placing some music books sideways under the front. I put some pillows behind her head. And for a moment she was content. She was excited about the chair and the tennis match. She watched most of it. Near the end of the last set she fell asleep. While she was napping, Ruth Tillman brought over some goodies from the picnic and asked me to thank mom for the wonderful cornbread. She too was immensely touched by the gesture.
Not long after Ruth left, mom woke up and again moved to the back porch. Annie Eutsler came by and they had a nice visit. The love between those good friends was almost tangible. You could feel it in the room. You could almost touch it. Annie’s heart was broken by the thought of losing her best friend, but she was a champ. Coming over almost every day and spending a lot of time with mom. Little hints of normalcy. Little glimpses of the way life used to be. It was good for mom. After Annie left, Glynn and Josephine Baker stopped by. Two more tried and true friends. Glynn had been by to see mom almost every day since she got sick, and Josephine came often too. There was a wonderful bond between these old friends. I often asked mom if she was aware of how many people in town loved her. Our house had been a revolving door of visits, flowers, cards, plates of food and demonstrations of love for the entire period of mom’s illness. I hoped she knew how much she was truly loved by a lot of fine people. That fact alone made me glad she had resisted my suggestion that she take treatments in Houston. Josephine brought a big basket of food and some lemonade. More picnic fare that we could eat for supper.
When Glynn and Josephine left, I again asked mom if she wanted to play cards or go for a ride or sit in the backyard or anything else. “No I don’t want to. I don’t know why. I’m just so tired of not being able to do anything,” and for the second time that day, “I just want to curl up and die.” She put her head down on the glass table and began to doze. I put my arms around her from behind and stroked the side of her head with my face. “I love you so much mom. I don’t know how I’m going to get along without you.” After a few minutes I walked back into the den and sat down on the sofa. Mom was sleeping at the table. But without making a sound. For the first time since her horrible headaches had subsided a few weeks earlier, I wondered if she would wake up.
Ruby called to say she was in Spartanburg and would be home in a couple of hours. I filled her in on mom’s day. The reasonably good morning and the sad afternoon. Ruby said she was afraid mom was giving up. I told her I didn’t know for sure. “I think one of her problems is she’s bored out of her mind, but nothing interests her.” Later I thought to myself that that sounds a lot like giving up. Ruby filled me in a little about her weekend. I got the distinct impression that things with Erin were more on than off. Ruby said the new roommate wasn’t moving in after all. I thought, but didn’t say, that that was good and fine but as of two days ago she was. But I knew that would be an unhelpful comment. Plus I was seeing things in black and white, when there were undoubtedly many colors to the story. The thing that mattered was that Ruby would be home in a matter of hours. Mom needed her back, and so did I.
I walked out on the porch to check on mom. She was sleeping soundly. Her breaths light and easy. I let her sleep in peace. I checked my email and surfed around on the internet for about an hour. I heard mom stirring and went out to the porch and helped her up. She needed to go upstairs to use the bathroom. When she came back we decided to eat supper. I fixed each of us a plate of picnic fare. Deviled eggs, potato salad and baked ham. Mom ate pretty well. After I put the dishes away she said “I want to go take a sponge bath and put on my pajamas. Then I’ll beat you at Spite and Malice.” I helped her upstairs and waited in the hall while she bathed and got into her pajamas. She got finished bathing and changing faster than I thought she would and we went downstairs and sat at the kitchen table. Mom was still very depressed and a little agitated as well. She kept saying “I don’t know…I don’t know what I want to do.” It was almost like she had a choice to make. And if that was the case, I was afraid I knew what it was. I dealt the cards and we started playing. Less than ten minutes later, I heard a key in the door. Ruby was home. Mom was genuinely happy to see her and they hugged and talked softly for a long time. Mom told Ruby about our weekend and Ruby told mom about hers. Afterwards, mom and I sat down to finish our game while Ruby got some things out of her car. “I’m tired. I don’t want to play anymore,” mom said suddenly. Normally mom would play cards all night if she could find someone to play with. This was another bad sign and a definite indication that she was not feeling good. “Why not mom?” I asked. “I don’t know. I’m just miserable.” “OK, then we’ll stop,” I said as I picked up the cards. Ruby was back by now and equally worried about mom’s state of mind.
Mom fell asleep at the table and Ruby and I talked about our weekends. Ruby was very unhappy about her newfound homelessness and felt betrayed by her friend. I told her she had to find her own happiness and that happiness had to come from inside, not from outside. I didn’t know if that was right or not, but I had read it somewhere and it sounded logical. All I wanted was for my sweet sister to find the joy she so much deserved. But I couldn’t help thinking that she had a lot of heartbreak in front of her. And only some of it because of mom. Ruby was exhausted after her drive and decided to take a shower and go to bed. She walked over to mom and hugged her. Mom hugged her back and spoke sweetly to her. I thought to myself that this might be the last night the three of us would ever be together. It was almost more than I could bear. I felt like I was dying inside. Losing mom was killing me. The unfairness of it overwhelmed me. How could I be a good father to my baby if I felt like this? I wasn’t even sure I believed in God any more. What did that mean as far as her religious education. I had a lot of questions and no answers. All I knew was that in my own way I was almost as miserable as a man could be. Ruby went to bed and mom and I talked for a bit. Then she said she was ready to go to bed, so I helped her upstairs and into the bed. Plato was waiting for her when she got there.
Mom couldn’t have her last morphine pill of the day until midnight so I went back downstairs and watched the end of a baseball game. After a few minutes I heard mom moving around so I bounded up the stairs to make sure she was OK. She was coming out of her room, clearly agitated. “I can’t sleep,” she said, “if I could just sleep.” “Well you don’t have to sleep if you don’t want to. Come on down stairs and we’ll sit awhile.” “Do you have any sleeping pills?” she asked. I looked at the clock. It was 11:19. “No, but you can go ahead and take your morphine pill. I’m sure it will help you sleep.” We went into the kitchen and I gave her the pill and a glass of water. After she took the morphine I gave her a happy pill, hoping it would calm her nerves a bit. She sat at the table, her head on her hands. I rubbed her back and shoulders, but didn’t say anything. I had the feeling that she needed peace and quiet. After a few minutes she got up and said “let’s try again,” and shuffled towards the stairs. I helped her up the stairs and back into bed. Once again, Plato was waiting for her. I wished for the pills to calm her and let her get the sleep she wanted. I went back downstairs and watched the rest of the baseball game. The Astros were playing the Dodgers. The Astros lost a one run lead in the ninth, regained the lead in the top of the tenth, and lost the game in the bottom of the tenth. The Astros, like my mother, could find no relief. I locked the doors, checked to make sure everything in the kitchen was turned off, and cut off the lights. After brushing my teeth, I collapsed in my cot. I couldn’t tell if mom was sleeping or if she was lying there suffering silently. I waited until I heard her snoring before I let myself drift off to sleep. I dreamed I was a child again, living in that very house. There were a bunch of big, gorilla like monsters in the back yard. They were trying to get into the house by picking the lock on the back door. I was standing near the back door with my shotgun and a box of shells. In my dream, I turned around to tell mom that I would protect her, but she wasn’t there.
April 12, 1998
Mom slept as bad that night as she had good the night before. Her breathing was rough and congested, and she got up at least once an hour, sometimes to go to the bathroom and sometimes just to sit on the edge of the bed. When she got up for good at 6:45 a.m. she was exhausted. I helped her downstairs and she sat at the kitchen table while I got her some pain pills. After she took them she put her head down on the table, ignoring the small pillow I had placed there for her to rest her head on. She was a pitiful sight and I hurt for her with all my heart. A few minutes later she got up, with much effort, and got a cigarette. The very act that put her in the place she was now. Her doctors had told her that if she continued to smoke, her lungs would get irritated and congested and she would die a harder, more painful death. I couldn’t believe that she wanted to smoke as badly as she felt. I was furious with the tobacco companies. I hoped a few of those rich cats would smoke one too many of their death sticks and get a taste of what mom was going through. After she finished her cigarette, she wanted to go upstairs and get dressed right away. Her housekeeper was coming that morning and she wanted to be dressed when she arrived. She didn’t want to slow down on the cigs, even if it meant sparing her the agony of a more painful death. But she wanted to get dressed for her maid. I fought back my tears, knowing that if she was going to give up cigarettes in order to live longer, the time to do it had been thirty years ago, after daddy died. Or maybe twenty years ago, after the link between cigarette smoking and early death and heartbroken families was firmly established. Maybe back then, but not now. That choice had been made. Now we were on a train barreling down the track as fast as it could go. Driven by an engineer that had neither brakes nor a desire to use them.
I helped mom upstairs, waited while she took a sponge bath, and helped her get dressed. We went back to the kitchen, where she lit another cig while I made her a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. I watched mom puff away and my sadness grew to immense proportions. There were millions of monkeys on millions of backs all over the world. There just happened to be one on my mother’s back. And neither she nor I nor anyone else could pry it off. Mom was just a host to the parasite tobacco. Even as she was dying, she had to feed the parasite. That was the way of nature.
Nellie Jean arrived just before 8:00. Ruby was still asleep, which was good since she had a long haul in front of her. I wouldn’t be able to come back until Raina had the baby, which would, according to her due date, be from three to five weeks. As soon as the baby was born, I planned to return. And as soon as the baby was old enough to travel, which would be at least two weeks after she was born, we would all three come to Cheraw. All I wanted at that point was a picture of my sweet mother with her granddaughter. I wondered if I would ever see such a picture.
While I was cleaning up, mom said “honey, I hate to see you go.” “Me too, mom,” I replied, “it’s going to break my heart.” “It’s going to break mine too,” she said, coming as close to talking about emotions as she was able to come. I knew that she too was wondering if this was goodbye for a few weeks or forever. I walked up behind her and rubbed her shoulders and kissed her head. “I love you with all my heart, mom. I am proud of you and I am proud to be your son.” She put her hand on mine, but said nothing. There was no need. We both knew the stakes. After a few moments, I continued cleaning the frying pan and she went back to her breakfast.
Ruby got up just before 9:00 and came downstairs. She looked tired and sad, even after a decent night’s sleep. We talked for a bit then she went out on the porch and sat down in the rocking chair. There is a hummingbird feeder just outside the porch and you have a great view from the rocking chair. I looked out there in a bit, and noticed that she was crying. I walked out on the porch and put my hand on her shoulder. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “The same old thing,” she answered. I knew mom and Ruby would leave for Florence, for mom’s radiation treatment, in about 45 minutes. I would leave for the airport in Charlotte at around 11:00, a little over an hour after they left for Florence. I felt like a condemned inmate. Time was passing too fast. It was as close as I’ll ever have to an out of body experience. It was like I was an observer. Watching myself spend the last few minutes with my mother while the sands fell quickly through the hourglass. I looked at my watch. 35 minutes to go. “We need to leave soon,” mom called to Ruby from the kitchen. She was ready to go. I could almost feel time accelerate. 20 minutes to go. Ruby was on the phone with Erin. Mom was walking around from the den to the living room to the kitchen and back again. My stomach was churning. 15 minutes. Ruby was getting dressed and ready to go. Now my head was starting to spin and I felt like I might throw up. I sat down for a moment to gather myself. Five minutes to go. “Ruby we need to leave,” mom was getting very impatient. Ruby went down and got a car, and pulled up in front of the house. I walked mom out the front door and down the steps. Through the yard and into the front seat. She was trembling. I got a sweater out of the back seat and we put it on her. I knelt beside her. “I love you mom,” the tears were burning my eyes like cyanide in a gas chamber. “Help me get this sweater on,” she said. “OK, there,” I said as I put her other arm through the sleeve. Again, “I love you mom,” the tears flowing now. “I love you too,” she said. I stood up slowly, closed the car door and watched them pull away. As they drove off Ruby waived and said goodbye. Mom couldn’t see me but Ruby must have told her I was waiving because she waved a long wave goodbye. My last image her hand waiving in the sun that shined through the window. In an instant they were gone. Mom had left. I remained in her front yard. At her house, full of the memories of a lifetime.
I walked back inside, my mind blank with emotion. I sat down in mom’s chair. I smelled the familiar smell of cigarette smoke and allowed myself to miss it for a few seconds. Plato jumped into my lap and meowed at me. One orphan to another. As if he were saying that if he could find a home, maybe I could too. “Maybe, my friend,” I said to him as I stroked his back, “maybe one day I will.”
Epilogue (April 24, 1998)
I returned to Houston on Monday, April 13, 1998. When mom woke up the next day, she was having difficulty breathing. She was admitted to the hospital that morning. She spent five days in the hospital, and was taken home on April 17, 1998. On April 19, 1998, Mary Rebecca Brockington Newsome, my beloved mother, died. She was survived by one son and one daughter. She had no grandchildren. Five days later, on April 24, 1998, my first child was born in Houston, Texas. We named her Cassidy Rebecca.
© 1998 Kent Newsome