Mother In Her Casket Print
Essays and Memoirs

Mom Early 1940sPotomac Review Issue 39 Spring/Summer 2005)

Because the casket will be closed for the funeral, I want to view the disease-ravaged body of my mother as soon as the embalmer gets her ready. Five months from diagnosis to death. My brother Jeff and I were with her at the onset of the fast-metastasizing cancer but not at its end. We called every Sunday and she said, “I’m doing OK. You don’t need to come. Let’s wait and see.” The doctor’s phone message was abrupt, jarring. The plane flight, numbing.

Laid out, sunk in the plush bed, she seems trapped under gravity’s anvil. The burial dress my brother selected—white shirt, grey skirt, grey tweed jacket—is too big for her. Her hair done, her cheeks cotton-puffy, her glasses (why must she be buried wearing her glasses?) magnifying the willfulness of her eyes, as if she is holding them shut. Her hands are withered to bone, a blotchy yellowish-white. The left one is smattered with bruises from the chemo injections and bloodlettings she endured. A drooping mouth, flecks of dandruff, a strand of hair on her jacket—phantom life arrested in her skeletal agony.

In the viewing room, feeling her disapproval of me, my judgments of her, her fear of touching people (her sons especially) and ours of touching her—all that which was so unavoidable and present to me dissolves. I feel her fingers. They are cold. I revolve the wedding ring this way and that as she used to, idly or with intent. I feel her face; it is absent of temperature, like plastic. I press her chest. I grip her arms and feel the limbs of a little girl. How odd. More lifelike than marionette. When have I ever held her? In grief at my father’s death, I once pulled her to me and felt her resist my pull: that repulsion—her I can’t, I won’t—is palpable even now

Alone with her body, I ask her to forgive me—for peeking on her naked when I was a boy; for discounting her Republican Party allegiance, voting for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan; for the time I got exasperated at her (and turned off the TV) when she said what a patriot Oliver North was; for being angry with her disagreeableness during her illness; for asking her not to ask the oncologist at every visit what her odds were; for the years I spent moving west to Missouri, to New Mexico, to California, which she thought meant I was moving farther and farther away from her in Ohio: for not smoothing out the shabby prejudices she and I carried for one another—until, exhausted, I realize: Forgiveness from the dead we the living supply.

There it is, at last unwrapped: I think that’s what I start crying for, the permanence she has achieved and I have not, at least not yet. The woman in the casket, having waited out her old age, having waited for death to release her, is now waiting for me in a kind of never-waiting for me. A bride of dying.

I believe my mother spent the final years of her life waiting to die because to have lived with even occasional joy would have betrayed my father’s memory. Not having waited would have meant letting go of Dad, who, choking on a lunchtime chicken bone, had a fast-massive coronary in a hotel room in St. Louis and was gone. The terror of that moment, screaming Help, screaming Stop It, her hands like steel spatulas, unable to hold his electro-leaping, flag-flapping body that whipped itself to death on the maple-leaf-patterned bedspread. How, after that, and for the next 20 years, could she have let him go, her life-partner, whose stultifying work at the paper company, whose stress-ridden Naval assignment in the war meant he had earned and never received, as she had, the golden years they’d been promised? Though only 61, my father made a quick exit, which she probably envied on sleepless nights without him, feeling his absence beside her (maybe as he once felt the absence of war beside him). Mother wanted nothing to do with another man. She didn’t talk to men unless they were with a woman or the married husbands of her friends. She avoided them, the “silver foxes,” who were all alike, determined to sniff out and siphon off her small income. When I asked, a few years after Dad died, “Mom, wouldn’t you like to find a man, maybe someone to go out with, someone to—” she blew air, pffffffft, like an arrow piercing a tire. That was it; the subject shelved. I assumed my mother would have been “better off” with a man, less depressed, less alone. What I didn’t understand, until now, feeling her coffined remains, was that she didn’t want to be better off, she didn’t want to be getting-on with her life. She preferred (to what I thought was a logical desire) a sort of daily misery without Dad. This is what her body before me now memorializes.

After her funeral and back in California, I tell friends, for several weeks, of what I assumed must have been her agony those final months, and yet each time we talked she said she was feeling better (better than what? I should have asked) until the story ran its course. A year later, I sketched a memoir of her last five years, landing on the clear pictures as Reynolds Price calls the brimming recollections: flying in for her one, then two angioplasties; bringing the kids from San Diego for Christmas; driving her to northern Wisconsin after my older brother Steve, Mother’s first born, had died of the same heart disease that killed my father so she could see, but not enter, the house in which he collapsed and so she could see her grandchild, Akasha.

Then, several years after her death, I began forgetting the details of her illness, the desolation of her stare once she’d described the funeral arrangement (“Nothing fancy”), the sadness of her chewing a cold melon. And, finally, I seemed to stand outside myself and hear her homilies, those she made famous and my brothers and I always mocked in memoriam, now coming from my voice. Sayings I preface with “As my mother used to say. . . .” After her one visit to a psychiatrist for depression, which she declared a bust, she said, “He didn’t tell me any­thing I didn’t already know.”

Once, when I didn’t get the job I wanted, she said, “Mister, you’re a day late and a dollar short,” to which, she appended, “I know you don’t want to hear it, but clothes make the man.” She revisited the summer of my confessed LSD experiments with, “You’ll never know what I went through until you’re a parent.” And her surprising utterance, climbing the stairs to her bedroom, one foot up and the other foot up, step by step, ­weak­ened from chemo yet refusing the roll-away bed in the dining room: “Dear God, why can’t I just go!” I have only recently, tentatively, tried on those seven little words myself: “Dear God, why can’t I just go!” their dash out the door, their middle-of-the-runway lift-off, the enthrallment of certainty my mother briefly, terribly, owned.

Are those the magic words that release her from wherever she is: Dear God, why can’t I just go?

All this would be much easier, and maybe longer, had I known my mother in the resolute way I knew my father—who flipped the breaker switch so the lights came back on, who palmed my hand every week with a one-dollar allowance, whose eyes and whose touch told me he loved me. But those things with her don’t exist for me. Which means coming back to the anecdotes, white-bordered Polaroids arranged in columns and glued in an album. I come back to her fretting all morning about an overcast sky so she doesn’t have to go to her bridge group.

I come back to the day I split up with my wife and moved out, broke and homeless, and I called, weeping, and she said, “Of course I’ll help you. I’ll send you $500 right away.” I come back to her insistence, after she had received the cancer sentence and after I had been beside her for several weeks, that I return to California: “You have to get back to your children.” That was not the real reason, the unexpressed reason, I had to get back. But how much I wanted to hear her say those very words—releasing me from having to stay and watch her go—instead of what I feared, her begging me to remain until the end. I come back to what I stumbled through in our final moment—the moment she said I could go—when I thanked her for raising me (and thought to myself, I am thanking my mother, as though she were my nanny), thanking her that I turned out OK, since I did turn out, I think, more than OK, given a life that’s my own making but wishing I could grasp the contradictory thing I got from her, which, like a shoelace knot or tangled fishing line or a woman I once loved desperately who told me, “You don’t love me; you love an idea of me,” I still can’t say.

And yet the certainty remains that during our parting she said, “Honey, this isn’t goodbye. I’ll see you when you return.”

She meant, of course, I’ll see you when I return.

She asks, before I leave, to write her obituary and read it to her. “Don’t make a fuss,” she says. “Just state the facts.” I read her the list of dates, her sorority, her degree, the full names of her children and grandchildren, and she responds, “That’ll do.” And then, a small miracle. It seems once she’s heard her life enumerated, her eyes smile contentedly, she’s wearing the laurel, though I’m not sure what she has won. Maybe this, which it’s taken me years to decipher. My mother has designed her end on her own terms, that she will die alone, that she’s not waiting for me to come back, that that’s all there is to it. This is how she wanted it. To have lived safely, to have survived among those cornfield distances Midwesterners covet, to have insisted that we not touch her, not get close to her since the reason is finally clear, hearing her whisper to me still, “I can’t feel anything.”

She has lived, according to a plan I can only know in reverse, with the same intent with which she has died. I am the son who thinks his mother should have been different, been better than she was. I will see that the son she would have let stay would have never thought of her like that, as her critical parent. Always with judgment. Always with despair. Always parenting her, my child. It courses through me at once—that she is unfinished and cracked and petty and frozen, and she is not only willfully alone, but willingly lonely. But that is also the way she feels about me. A judging son is not a good son. Who is he? He is not the son she wants him to be. And he has never been the son he could have been. So: she sends him back to California and his family. Soon, he will see that he isn’t leaving her to die. She has given up on him. And now he can begin regretting a life he never had.