These are moments from my notebook. Remembering Gladys, my husband’s mother. Remembering Lisette, my mother. Remembering three years ago.
January 7, 2011. Gladys Wiseman Ruzich.
A Friday morning. I heard my husband Steve say something on the phone to his sister Pat — some reference to death or dying, but I forget what it was — and I realized that this phone call was the phone call. The one you get from your sister when your 96-year-old mother dies.
I thought, “Oh, ok, what happens next?” I felt calm and pragmatic. I thought, “I have to go over and touch Steve to comfort him.” I went over to the table and questioned him with a lift of my eyebrows.
“Mom passed away at 7 o’clock,” he whispered, and went on listening to Pat. I put my hand on his shoulder and slid my arm around him, kissed his head.
Releasing Steve, I felt something in my arms and shoulders, some physical sensation that I can’t describe, but which released me from my earlier life. I knew that life was very big, very real, and now I was a grownup. One of the mothers had died, and in leaving the world behind she had left her place for me.
Why did I know that Gladys left me her place in the world? I don’t know. What I thought was something like, “Oh, my God, she really died. I have to shape up. I may really be needed.”
Then I drove to my appointment in Medford. I was late so I drove fast, trying to remember where to turn right off the Mystic Valley Parkway so I could take the little jog that gets you to the community health center without going right through downtown Medford’s busiest crossroads.
January 14, 2011. Lisette Berglund Hyde.
Another Friday morning. Steve and his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Jon-Michael and I are at Gladys’s home in Libertyville, IL, getting ready to go to the funeral home to prepare for her calling hours. Liz and Jon are arranging photographs on illustration board: Gladys young, old, alone, with family. I wish there were some way to display her life’s work, which was teaching young children to read, to count, to love silliness and rhymes, to look with wonder at the dinosaurs in the natural history museum.
My cellphone rings. It’s the director of nursing at Walden Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Massachusetts. My mother, Lisette, has died the day before her 102nd birthday.
“Oh,” I said out loud, “it’s my mother. She died.” I felt awed. She had been living with Alzheimer’s disease, on hospice care for the last two years. I’d begun to imagine this day would never come. And then again, I wasn’t there. Surely she wouldn’t die without me.
Arriving at McMurrough Funeral Chapel that afternoon, I went right up to Gladys in her coffin. I put my hand on hers, patting her, murmuring. I know people often say that when they see their loved ones after they have died, they are struck by absence. The person is no longer there. But for some reason, I’m not like that. To me, perhaps because I’ve taken care of people in their homes and hospitals who are not able to interact, the person is always there, no matter how inert.
January 17, 2011. Phaneuf Funeral Chapel.
A Monday morning. At the Phaneuf Funeral Chapel on Hanover Street in Manchester, NH, we meet Marie, who is more or less 35 years old. She wears a black-and-white check suit and a slightly formal manner. Steve, bless him, has taken the day off work and driven me up to see my mother for the last time. Marie says that my mother is in the small viewing room off the chapel.
“She is resting in the container in which she will be cremated,” Marie tells us. “You will see cardboard sides of the container, though there are wood pieces for reinforcement. She has a pillow under her head. She’s on a cart that we use for moving people around the facility. Her hair is as it was in the nursing home when we picked her up. It’s kind of arranged, tucked in around her head. She’s wearing the johnny she was wearing. There hasn’t been any cosmetic work or washing of the body.”
Marie opens the small door — no, I open it — and I step down three steps to stand beside my mother’s container, looking at her head and face. A quilt is draped over the box just above the level of her clavicle. Her mouth is a bit open and her upper lip is slightly raised on the right side. You can see that her lips are pale, almost waxy. I remember that when a client of mind died I saw her lips go from flushed with blood to drained, white, a little stiff as if molded on the edges.
My mother’s forehead seems smoothed free of wrinkles. I see her high hairline, the fine, white hair tucked around her skull. Prominent cheekbones. Her nose is slightly turned to the right at the tip.
I fold the quilt back, gently, and reach down, raising my mother’s right hand and putting it on her breast. Her johnny is the white-with-tiny-blue-flowers kind that you see in the hospital. Her hand is cold. I put my hand on it, feel the skin move under my fingers. I remember touching Gladys’s hand, just three days ago. I put one hand on my mother’s forehead, the other on her hand. I make commiserating noises. I turn and put my arms around Steve. He’s warm. The room is very small.
February 2, 2014. Here at home.
As I write this, I realize that I don’t know how you will feel, reading it. I hope it’s not too much. For me, the important thing about these moments from my notebook is the love, and the reality of loss. In the kitchen tonight, Steve is playing a CD, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, in a minor key that is all too appropriate for the sadness of my memories.
Ginsberg the cat jumps up on my lap as I sit at the computer.
“How does she do it?” I ask Steve, jokingly, as I rub our cat lovingly under her chin. “How did this cat get to be so cute?”
“It’s in the job description,” he replies.
Here at home, in love and sadness, the music plays on.
Thank you for listening,