Winners' Circle

Summer Song, watercolor with sumi ink, collage and rubber stamps, by Eleanor Rubin

She Flew

A hospital room in which someone is dying is a quiet and somber place, even in the midst of the beeps and clicks of medical machinery and the comings and goings of staff. Once the machinery is turned off, the room becomes almost shockingly silent, a silence gradually broken by the hushed voices of those gathered around the patient’s bed. The air in my mother’s room just after she died had a weight and thickness that reminded me of a time, years ago, when there were few to no tourists (due to a recent missile strike on a plane), when I was alone inside an Egyptian pyramid and the already-dim lightbulbs strung along the rock wall suddenly went out. I was plunged into a darkness so complete that it was palpable. I was too far in to be heard calling for help and had to navigate the uneven stone steps and narrow turns with hands and feet. The heaviness of the pyramid’s weight seemed to close around me. After 10 minutes or so, someone heard me and realized the lights had become unplugged. Similarly, in my mother’s room, it was as though the oxygen that had been pushing through her lungs had also been keeping us alive, and once it was stopped, like her, we could no longer breathe.   

 

* * * 

 

“You’ve really been through the wringer, Chris,” said Tim, one of three priests from my parents’ Episcopal church, when he arrived early that morning, taking her hand.

“Yes I have. and I’m ready for the dryer now,” she gasped though her mask, a grin on her face. Minutes from her death, my mother’s sense of humor withstood the pneumonia, sepsis, and organ damage the doctors had deemed irreversible.   

All three of the clergy were by then present, keeping vigil with us as the staff went about the business of getting ready for death, moving things around, adding medications designed to make her going a little easier. However, it was not easy and took far longer and was louder (the gasps for air) and more tortured (the body arcing) than we’d ever imagined. While she likely died within an hour after they pulled the cannula, it felt like hours.  

My sister, along with one of her sons and his wife, were bedside as well. Marisa, my partner, was in Chicago, making arrangements for the earliest flight out. My brother had returned to Georgia the day before, but as soon as I called him with the news, he and his wife packed the car and headed to western North Carolina again. We had sent my sister’s other grown sons and my brother’s daughter home the day before, when it seemed my mother was going to get better. She’d been in and out of the hospital for the last two or three years, quite ill but thus far recovering. And besides, she’d eaten the chocolate my sister and I had brought her the night before and then laughed with us about gaining weight, a preoccupation her entire life. 

That same night, my mother had asked me to clip her toenails. I laid a towel under her feet and took hold of one, startled to see how thick and hard the nails were, adamantine. Using scissors and clippers, I slowly began to trim them. Suddenly she howled so fiercely, I dropped the clippers. There was no blood and, as far as I could tell, I’d pinched her a little, nothing more. Yet that howl seemed freighted with all the grievances she’d felt as a child and throughout her life. So much so that I wanted both to comfort her and chastise her for what seemed to me excessive drama.

I had by then witnessed plenty of familial drama: long, loud fights between my parents and my mother’s mercurial temper: a hot iron flung across a room; the screeching of tires as she sped out of the driveway, leaving us long enough to calm herself down, and return remorseful. I’d hated her for those things. Yet I also adored her. She was beautiful, funny, and outgoing. We shared many doubled-over laughs in my adult years. But the tension among fear, anger, and love led to my keeping an emotional distance from her most of my life. Even the night before her death, my mumbled “I’m so sorry for hurting you” was as close as I could get. 

Contrast that with my 28-year-old niece, who rushed into the hospital room, ran directly to the bed, and flung her body across my mother’s. I was struck by her confidence and assurance, something I’d never felt, and Sara’s raw need to feel her grandmother’s body, not just a cheek or hand, but chest to chest, the full warmth of her. Sara stayed there for several seconds, her grandmother’s arms stroking her back. Later, I wished I’d been able to have that same kind of physical contact with my mother before she died; but it was impossible for me to have such a spontaneous outburst of emotion and affection with her. I was adept at self-containment.

* * * 

 

The morning my mother announced she was ready to die, the phone jolted me out of sleep. My sister, who’d taken my father to the hospital earlier, said, “Get up. Mom’s going off the oxygen today.”

“What?”  I jumped from the bed, running to turn on the shower.

“No time. I’ll be there in five minutes.” Indeed, in this small mountain town, the distances were short, even in rush hour.

I was in such a hurry that I was able to mask anxiety and shock with a sense of relief that my mother could finally do what she’d been telling us she wanted to do for the last year or so, just die. Under that relief, though, lay something large and too painful that I dared not examine until months later.

As I entered the room with my sister, my father, 93 years old, sitting in a chair by her bed, asked me, “What’s going to happen when they take her off the oxygen?” 

 “She’ll die, Dad.” 

Why? Why are they doing this?” 

“She wants to go. They can’t cure her. She made the decision earlier this morning. Do you remember?”  

Hard words to say to someone who had been married for 68 years. Without his counsel or permission, she’d made the decision to leave the world, us, him. Her agency in this matter stunned him. With her death, she also cut his life support. As difficult and tumultuous as their relationship had been, my mother had always been my father’s anchor, his confidant, and his social manager.

“Are you ready, Chris?” asked the doctor before removing the cannula and shutting off the oxygen. What a question. Floored, I wondered how she could be so sure, so ready to leave us forever and enter the mystery that is death.    

 “Yes,” she answered unequivocally.  

* * * 

 

My mother used to tell me when I was a frightened kid, “Live ‘til you die, honey. Death isn’t worth the time you spend fearing it.” But still, death?  I hadn’t lost anyone close to me in my 66 years of life—or perhaps I never let myself feel close enough to someone who died to have to face the reality of loss. I was never particularly close to my maternal and paternal grandparents, so their deaths had been sad only in an abstract way. I was one of the lucky few who had not (yet) lost friends and parents.

My mother’s decision to die that morning marked a great release for her after the years of catastrophic falls: she lost an eye, stripped the skin off her ring finger, endured countless stitches, underwent much physical therapy (she hated it); she also suffered recurring pneumonia and the loss of mobility in her legs three years before she died. But more, it would be a relief from a lifetime of hurt from, and disappointment in, the people she loved. Her rages cost her a great deal, and she paid in shame and remorse. Her impatience with her flaws was a heavy chain she dragged through her life. Death would relieve my mother of this.

My chest constricted with the knowledge that in moments she would be unable to breathe. We surrounded her bed as Tim performed last rites, something my father had done dozens of times as a priest and later, bishop. He’d accompanied so many people to their deaths, but months after my mother died, he told me he thought the things he’d said to comfort families of the dying were “bullshit.” “There is no comfort for this. None.”

My mother’s death was radically undoing his certainty about God. In some ways, she ushered him into a much deeper spiritual reckoning than he’d ever had to experience before. His mind was slowly succumbing to the ravages of dementia, but he was completely available to the searing grief of his wife’s death. Her chosen death.

There were no comforting or beautiful final words from her. In fact, “leave me” was the last thing she said. Intensely private, she did not want us to witness her final throes once she realized how physical and loud this leave-taking would be. My father refused, his body curved over hers from his chair, his face on her hands, weeping, stroking her hair. “Please don’t do this.”  The rest of us, clergy included, filed out into the hall, not sure what to do next.

It only took a few minutes to realize that standing in the hall while my mother was dying inside that room was untenable. Her wish vs. my need. I couldn’t believe she really wanted us to go away, but I will never know. When we filed back in, the doctor told us she was beyond caring. Though still alive as we surrounded her bed, she was clearly trying to find the key that would release her from her body. Each of us laid a hand on a part of her—head, arms, hands, legs. We did this to comfort her, of course, but counter to her struggle to achieve the release of death, it seemed to me that we were trying to hold her down, to keep her spirit from slipping away. Yet despite our efforts, she flew.

 

 

Wild Irish Yenta
by Joyce Sanderly
  Set against a backdrop of a suburban Maryland synagogue, Wild Irish Yenta dishes on interfaith marriage, misbehaving clergy, Biblical myth, and the beauty of religious traditions. When the body of custodian Roberto Gomez is found in Temple Israel’s parking lot, Patricia Weiss, nee Reilly, exchanges her suburban-mom sneakers for gumshoes to investigate the hit-and-run. An ardent new convert to Judaism, Patricia is grappling with her outsider status at the upscale Reform congregation. Inspired by her detective dad, Patricia is compelled to find out who-dun-it and why. While poking fun at cultural stereotypes, the novel interweaves biblical stories with questions of contemporary concern. Can a nice Catholic girl find happiness with a Jewish cardiologist even if she converts? Can Patricia’s yenta patrol detect a connection between a custodian’s death and other troubling happenings at the Temple? Joyce Sanderly is a Pushcart-nominated poet and an attorney retired from her position as Senior Counsel, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Her collection, The Shomer (published under Ellen Sazzman) was a finalist for the Blue Lynx Prize and semifinalist for the Elixir Press Antivenom Award and for the Codhill Press Poetry Award. "In Wild Irish Yenta, Philip Roth meets Agatha Christie, and the result is a page-turner that also explores the interlocking dynamics that exist within an interfaith marriage, a family and a Maryland synagogue." — Michelle Brafman, author of Swimming With Ghosts "This keenly observed, funny mystery … combines an insightful look at interfaith marriage, the complexities of friendship, and the politics of religious institutions." — Susan Coll, author of Bookish People  

Bios

Ann Folwell Stanford is a Vincent DePaul Professor Emerita at DePaul University. She has published prize-winning poems and scholarly articles in many national and international journals and literary magazines. She wrote poetry with women in Cook County Jail for nearly 10 years and co-edited a collection of essays by prisoners, scholars, and activists, Women, Writing and Prison.

Eleanor Rubin is an artist and writer whose work is the subject of Eleanor Rubin: Dreams of Repair, with a foreword by Howard Zinn (Charta, Italy 2011). Her prints, drawings and watercolors are in permanent collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Boston Athenaeum, the McMullen Museum, Boston College and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, University of Michigan. Rubin plays the cello and is currently preoccupied with helping Ukraine through her music, writing and art. For more, visit Persimmon Tree's Dreams of Repair or go to ArtsMart to purchase her work.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *