See You Soon

My mom died last week.  I’m hesitant to write about it because I’ve rarely seen funereal journalism done well, also because my head is in a netherworld and I can’t quite seem to get to it.

It’s where my head was when I wrote the last post, you can tell by the fragment that passes for a fourth sentence.  The real story, the one I was trying hard not to write, was that as I skated north and south, into and against the wind on the old canal, I fretted, waiting for the phone on my hip to explode again with a call from my dad or brother or sister-in-law with the latest news of Mom’s health.

We didn’t expect Mom to die.  Routine surgery a week before Christmas took a wrong turn, then it was going to be OK, then not.  Back and forth my blades etched the ice as the reports from Florida, alternately grim and hopeful, mirrored and mocked my obsession.

Could I get a last-minute ticket in the midst of ice storms and holiday travel rush?  To Orlando?  What would it mean for me to try?  That I’d lost faith everything would be OK?  I tried to parse the words that came through the phone.  Was my family being alarmist or overly optimistic?  Hours became days, then weeks; I knew fatigue must be clouding judgement, theirs and mine alike.

It should not shock you if I say my family has disagreements.  Some families sublimate their differences; mine airs them.  We argue about religion, politics, sports.  (I hardly know what color clothes to wear when I visit Florida, lest any choice alienate two-thirds of my nieces and nephews.)  Deep down, however, we share an indelible faith that life changes, but does not end.

If that faith is writ large in our lives, smaller acts of faith can be harder.  Book the flight south?  Ask the priest to administer last rites?  How do you know when it’s time to cede the small faith, the faith that everything will return to normal?  When do you reach for the larger faith, the one you’ll need to pull you through?

I waited too long to make the switch or maybe Mom’s condition just declined too precipitously.  Never physically robust, she was determined not to live on any terms but her own.  She made that clear to us.  In the end, it fell to my dad, brother and I to carry out her decision.  Her certainty didn’t make the task easier; it merely comforted us after the fact.

My earliest memories are of my mother telling stories.  If this blog (or my career as a whole) has a genesis, it is there.  Death was a character in many of them.  This was not unseemly, as her lesson was to have no fear of death.  She told me of great Uncle Francis, succumbing to tuberculosis in my great-grandmother’s arms a century ago.  Bridget Hehir wept so profoundly, begging her son to stay with her that, several minutes after he was pronounced dead, he opened his eyes and said, “Mom, please let me go.  It’s beautiful there.”  She assented and he closed his eyes a final time.

Within months, another great uncle, Marcus (after whom I’m vaguely named), died of influenza.  Shortly after, my great-grandfather, shoveling coal into a boiler on the night shift at a brewery, heard Marcus call him from the next room.  He followed the voice to find no one there, but the voice beckoned from another room on.  He followed the voice, room after room until he left the building, whereupon the boiler exploded, killing my great-grandfather’s co-workers.

A researcher by trade, I investigated this story a few years back in newspaper archives and the annals of the Rochester Historical Society and found no evidence any such explosion ever occurred.  I was not surprised; any story retold by the Irish for ten decades is unlikely to jibe with dry paper on a library shelf.

What remains is belief.  Subtropical storm clouds gathered as we carried Mom into St. Mary Magdalen Church Saturday.  We emerged to a day dry, sunny and still; so it remained as we carried her to the grave.  Then, as the last prayer passed from the lips of Father Charlie, a sudden gust of wind – just one – passed through, causing the priest’s white vestment to flutter like a flag of surrender.

My sister-in-law, Maureen, turned her palms to the sky and said, “There she goes!”

See you soon.

© Mark Floegel, 2014

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