April 22, 2010
Two days after the oil from a mile deep British Petroleum well began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate so voluminous that nobody seemed to have the first idea how to quell it (remember the dumping of old tires and tennis shoes onto the leak?), and two days after a shotgun wielding man (in local Wichita Falls news) dispatched the doorman at a night club then took off for the local Hastings bookstore where he shot and injured seven others in pursuit of a former girlfriend before putting the gun to his own soon-to-be-lifeless self,
She had been wheeled in on her bed to the Serenity Room at the Christian Care Center in the same town where all that gunfire had occurred two nights before- a tastefully furnished, subtly lit room where people living at the Alzheimer’s Unit at the CCC were taken to breathe their last breaths. There were several Bibles in the room and the de rigeur book of Helen Steiner Rice poems (Oh, God, please don’t let anybody read HSR to me as I lay dying. Read to me from Mary Oliver instead, or Rumi, or Rilke, or Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, which made me laugh harder in 1972 than I have ever laughed before at anything in print, or since. )
I watched her breathe those breaths knowing that she was down to the last thousand or so of them, maybe less. Each breath was a separate, distinct, and instinctual breath now, a gasp- short, shallow, and separated by increasing seconds. At the beginnings of life, our breaths- the first ones- are reluctant ones, forced on us by organs within over which we have no control and which are a damn sight more harsh than the gentle liquid flow of oxygenated blood passed to us through our abdomen in the deep rhythms of our mother’s interior thumping and whooshing heart and lungs.
That first mother- made music we hear has a great beat, is easy to dance to, and is never forgotten. We’re rarely conscious of it, until those times when it speeds up, misses a beat, or finally crescendos , then stops. Mom’s interior music had now become a pianissimo staccato. As I sat in front of her, about a foot away so she see me clearly, I could feel my own breathing beginning to match hers in either an unconsciously sympathetic rhythm or a prevenient rehearsal of my own someday swan song. Or perhaps both.
I thought incongruous thoughts as we breathed in strange tandem: 1. If the whole Gulf bottom rose in a massive methane burp (as some wild pundits were punditing) and engulfed all of the Southern states and Mexico and Cuba in a lethal greenish cloud, Mom would- hallelujah- be spared the burning, choking death the rest of us would suffer. 2. Please stop knocking on the door, Care Center workers, to see if I need anything. No. “I am watching my mom die, what could I possibly be in need of?” I didn’t say, but thought, each of the ten times it happened. 3. If I try to call Robbie, my brother, the kids, what will Mom hear me say to them (on the very off chance that she was still able to put words and thoughts together), and if I left the room and she died she would have died alone, so I went to a mirror in the room and angled it so I could see her even though my back was to her and called Robbie and my brother, the kids could wait. 4. And..
The time we stood on the corner in Akron waiting for the bus and I was holding her hand and her purse strap was in my hand and I thought I’m holding it and she’s holding it and then the bus came and she lifted me to the first step.
The time some young woman came to the front door and wanted a drink of water and I stood peeking around the kitchen doorway and the woman was crying and my mom held her hand even though she didn’t know who this woman was.
The time she fainted and fell under the dining room table after, earlier that day, having some dental work done. I ran outside and found Dad but my mouth opened and I couldn’t say anything.
The time there was a note on the kitchen table when my brother and I got home from school. It said, “Dave and Denny” and “Dear Boys” but those two greetings had been crossed out and then this one: “My dearest sons” followed by the words “Grandpa died this morning..” and there was more and I can quote every word of it but fifty years later I can still cry remembering the utter poignancy of the words (and am).
The time I handed her one month old grandson to her at the airport.
The time she brought intricately decorated Santa Claus cookies to my fourth grade classroom and Grandma was with her.
The time I fell from the hay mow in Grandpa’s barn and had the air knocked out of me. Some cousin ran to the house and I looked up and saw Mom, Grandma, and Aunt Betty running- running!- to the barn. I remember their hair, their aprons, their dresses, their arms moving in..
almost a dance, a flurry of fast-moving color against the gray shingled house behind them..almost a dance, more like a furious rhythm, a crescendo of communal heartbeats, almost a dance..
like this one in the Serenity Room which came to an end about 10 p.m., just before many people would be watching the latest news about the book store shootings and the disaster in the Gulf.
I sang “Amazing Grace” to her because I knew there would be – please?- some part of her that remembered, and then the breathing was down to the last three..two…….
Since that night three years ago there have been two grandchild weddings, and three great grandchildren: Charlotte, Robby, Ike, and another coming in July. A sister has died.
And there have been many more oil leaks and spills in places all over the Earth.
Bernice Weber, center, with sisters