This piece was written a year ago in May, 2011, following a memorial service for my mother, Lisette Berglund Hyde, and other patients of Seasons Hospice.
It is Friday, May 20, 2011, and I am here to write about being at my mother’s hospice memorial service two days ago at the community center in Wellesley, MA. When Steve and I checked in at the reception desk, I fought a mad impulse to confront the greeters: “Hi there. My name is Mary Ann Barton and I hate my mother.”
I wanted to blurt out, “She was mean to me.” I refused to have any of the nice foods at the table with the sweet green plastic tablecloth and the bowl of fruit. When my twin sister Katherine arrived I felt a little better, because I was so glad to see her. Steve was very nice to me, asking if I wanted some food. The room filled up fast. Everybody seemed to be talking to each other and maybe even having a good time.
Okay, here we are, I am here at my mother’s hospice memorial service. I can’t believe that the woman who is singing a song to open the service is singing in such a soft voice. Doesn’t she realize that she is not at the bedside of somebody who is dying? She stands beside the podium looking out at row after row of people who are dressed in nice clothes from all walks of life, and doesn’t she realize that we are almost overcome by the difficulty of hearing anything other than the words that pour into our brains? Don’t you understand, oh beautiful and young singer, that your soft voice hardly penetrates because my head is stuffed so full of Not-Wanting-to-Remember?
Oh, God, please spare me from attending an evening of remembrance. Please let me be somewhere else, not in this row, not with all these other people who have wept and hugged and cried and borne up so bravely at the bedsides of their loved ones.
Now the nice tall man stands next to the nice shorter woman in front of the podium. They are asking us to come up, one by one, when the name of our beloved is read, come and take a rose from the pile laid gently around the clear glass vase and place this long-stemmed rose in the vase to create a bouquet of remembrance. If we are more than one person arriving here to breathe in and out as our loved one’s name is read, we can all come up to the front, just like taking communion, except that instead of receiving bread and wine, or body and blood, we will place a flower in the clear glass vessel that is marked, metaphorically, In Memory Of.
The first one goes up to the front. She chooses a red rose. She turns to us, holding the microphone, and she says, “I loved my mother. I had her in my house since 2006. She took a long time but the hospice make it so much better. Not easy, only better. They talk to us and they listen.” She looked up at us. “Oh,” she said, “all you beautiful people. I am so glad I came.”
We laugh with her and there is a pause. And then more people come up in ones or twos or threes. Here is a group of four women honoring the fifth friend who belonged to their group, they are bonded like sisters, up there telling stories, and it is so sweet.
I wish I could remember. I wish I could remember everything that every person said. I only remember that some people cried. Men cry, women cry, young granddaughter-teenagers cry. “I loved him,” they say. “I loved her,” they say. “She complained about everything,” they say, “but everybody loved her.”
“I was so happy that he had all his friends coming to visit him,” one woman said. “They are all retired, you know, so they don’t have anything else to do other than come and visit my dad. Remember, Jean,” she continued, speaking to the nice shorter woman, “you used to call me from your car when you came to see my dad and ask me where to park. Because the whole driveway and the street was full of cars belonging to his friends.”
Someone else says, “We played music all the time for my brother. Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, we had tons of CDs. My brother’s collection of CDs was almost as big as mine, so I just played one after the other and I checked to see did I have ones he didn’t have and if I did I brought them over and I played them.”
When our mother’s name was called, almost at the end of the long program, Katherine and I went up together. We picked a pink rose, and I kissed the bloom before putting it in the vase. When it was my turn, I said:
My mother was an amazing and a very complicated person. When we were growing up in Napa, California, she loved gardening and animals, nature and walking. She was always reading, and listening to the second most politically radical radio station in California, KPFA in Berkeley, with broadcasts by avant-garde poets and scholars like Kenneth Rexroth and Alan Watts.
She had Alzheimer’s disease. One of the aspects of her long decline was that I got to know her in ways that were very unexpected. I remember that when she was at an assisted living facility — this was well before hospice — I went to have lunch one day and sat down at a little table for four with Mother across from me. Another resident sat down next to me and leaned over, saying in a confidential tone of voice, ‘You have to watch out for her. She told me to go to hell.’
Seasons Hospice was wonderful to my mother. During the last six months or so of her life, she was happier than I remember her being since we were children. She lived from moment to moment to moment. When I came to her nursing home and woke her up as she lay on her bed or curled up in one of the sofas in the day room, she would smile. Dear Mother Lisette, I love you.
As I write this I am thinking about the last time I saw my mother. It was just before Christmas and I sang to her, as I usually did, and as usual she fell asleep to my singing. But just before she slept, as I sang the chorus of Silent Night, she looked up at me and joined in singing. Then I watched her going to sleep and I saw a deep glow radiating from her face. “Oh,” I thought, “her face is transfigured.” As I watched, the glow blinked out and she became just my mother, sleeping. I said goodbye and kissed her on her cheek. I walked out into the hall and said out loud to myself, “I wonder if that’s the last time I’ll see her.”
After the hospice memorial service ended, I asked three of the Seasons staff to sign my program. “You are the Hospice All-Stars,” I told them. So today, when I look at the program, I see a neat and sweet signature from Evy, the music therapist, who came so often to play guitar and sing for my mother; a fluid and decorative signature from Eirinn, the woman who signed us up to receive services; and, at the bottom right, the words “With Love, Chaplain John Gianino.”
Dear Chaplain John, I did not know how tall you were. I’m sorry I didn’t meet you while my mother was still living. When you called on the phone over the months and months of her journey, I thought you were a priest and Irish. But looking at your last name now I realize you must be Italian. Are you from the North End of Boston? Could I meet you at Walden Rehab, even though Lisette is no longer living, to say some things I cannot say alone?