In the face of death, all bravado fades.
Christmas. We all gathered at mom’s and dad’s, children and grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and cousins. None of us knew that mom was sick—that cancer was killing her. She kept her silence while we kept Christmas, bearing the pain as only women—as only mothers—can. Cooking, reading to the kids at bedtime, scratching out grocery lists from day-to-day on the back of envelopes in her peculiar, letter-bending, left-handed scrawl.
Dad somehow managed to complete the deception. Probably by retreating to the sanctuary of his bedroom to read, or to the chilly silence of his garage workbench to carve. We were all oblivious. The adult children chasing the children children, catching up on each other’s lives, peering over mom’s shoulder into the pleasing bubble of pinto beans on the burner and the inviting aroma of cornbread in the oven. The short days passed, gifts were exchanged, and we all piled into cars and planes for the long trip back from whence we came. Happy, tired, frayed, but filled with holiday food and family.
Like graying migratory birds, mom and dad traditionally headed south after the holidays, shunning the deep freeze of their Plain State winter for the supple light and gentle warmth of South Texas. They returned when the vernal equinox signaled the approach of Easter. When they did not join the post-season exodus of retirees trundling down I-35 to Padre Island, we suspected something was wrong.
I don’t remember how mom revealed her cancer to the family—or to me. Putting the bad news on special delivery to the back of my brain I opted for hopeful and stoic when sober, cynical and sloppy when drunk.
In May, we congregated for her surgery. Two more years passed as we returned home from time to time and peered, like itinerant corner men, into the violent ring of mom’s death match with disease and modern medicine. It was hard to tell winning from losing.
As she began to slip away, we gathered. I dutifully took a night watch in her hospital room. The soundless drip of the morphine dispenser mocked my vigil. Clasped in mom’s hand was a plunger to call for more potion to dull the pain. She would awake, her fathomless eyes pleading in silent anguish for release that I could not provide. As I looked down at her, the years—and the grown man—fell away, shorn of the emotional trappings of manhood, the bravado of my gender, and the father became the son—just a little boy after all, watching his mother die.
Two weeks on, I stood motionless a few short steps from the open casket, unable to approach my mother’s lifeless body. Death was no longer a mystery. The greatest generation was passing, one by one, leaving their Boomer children to themselves.
As men are wont to do, I made a little box and packed away the pain and the memory. And there they sit—the little boy and his mother—in a timeless corner of the heart.
—Photo Victor Bezrukov/Flickr