THE LAST BREATH
Rob called and booked for 6:15 p.m.
By 6:20 p.m., it was obvious that he was a no-show. Steve called his number and listened to an outgoing message (with the same voice) by a guy calling himself Carmen and left him a message “OK, so you’re a no-show; do not contact me again. Why do you even bother?”
About five minutes this was the reply text “You are out of your mind.”
Steve texted back “I’m out of my mind? Right. And you’re the one with two names that books a fake massage appointment. Just don’t call me again you spineless c***.”
On Monday morning, Aug. 9th, around 8 a.m., he awoke to the muffled sounds of his Mother yelling “Steve, Steve!” “Yes, I’m coming” he answered. He jumped out of bed and ran into her bedroom. She was laying on her side, twisted, her top sheet and blanket crumpled in a pile on the floor next to the bed. “I can’t stand this any more, call that place.” “I will Mom, I will.” He got her another Vicodin, put the covers back on her as best he could and called that place, Odyssey hospice.
Candy, the hospice nurse on call, arrived about an hour later. The black humor was that her name was so gay in light of her job, the death nurse. She was in her early 50’s with short red hair, wearing a blue blouse, denim vest and jeans. “Do you want me to call a social worker?” She asked him. “No thanks, I’m fine” he said, feeling embarrassed about wanting or feeling anything, after all he was healthy; his Mother was the one who was dying. He wanted to have a bed brought in and to care for her at home. Candy took his Mother’s vitals and consulted by phone with the doctor. “Considering the condition that your Mom’s in, it would really be better if we brought her into Odyssey and got her stabilized.”
Steve asked, “Do you think that’s best?”
“Yeah I really do,” she answered.
As the day passed, time seemed to alternately stretch out and slow down, then speed up and skip forward, the end result being that he was completely unaware of it. At certain moments of a normal day, one notices the details; making the morning coffee, the weather, will someone call for a massage or not? But this was anything but a normal day. At certain moments, Steve felt as if he were superman, in control of everything, able to meet any challenge and accomplish anything quickly and efficiently, with thick skin in place and a minimum of feeling, given the circunstances. It was the same mode, the turning off of all feelings, that he went into when doing massage on a physically repulsive client, or one with bad hygiene. By choosing not to recognize that he was in the shadow of her death and by always being in motion, it was easier to numb out and function. It was also easy to keep up the illusion that he was in control. He had promised himself he would rise to the occasion and meet this challenge and he was doing that. But after spurts of energy like some steel, strong superhero, he felt as if he were about to faint or pass out, exhausted by the caretaking of the past nine days. During these moments, moving seemed impossible. It was as if the ground beneath his feet was quick sand. And as her life ebbed slowly away in her bedroom, he had that feeling that she was, like a succubus, sucking his away.
As the day passed, he realized he was caught in the crossfire of a war; a war between his Mother’s living energy and death. As he came closer to embracing the truth that the end now seemed more imminent, mundane events took on a grand, operatic quality. Before she was only sick but now her leaving seemed more pressing. He fell into reflecting on the finality of the moments and the details of being with her. Would this would be the last morning she would lie in her bed or one of the last times he would hear her voice or feel her presence? Would today be her final exit from this cozy metal box that she’d called home for the past decade? It had become a sanctuary of sorts for him to; for the Christmas after 9-11, he came to visit her for the first time and it was such a relief to be away from mad, Manhattan, still raw with the after-shock of that day. What better place to escape to, than the surreal desert where quietude enveloped all like a dry, sun-drenched blanket in this 55-plus gated community; where trees were strange cacti and the sunsets were, candy gold and pink. Indeed here was the land of “manana”, for if you didn’t get something done today, there was always tomorrow. Not like the New York City were everyone was enveoped in a sort of annoying, manic frenzy of “do-it-now or get outta my face.”
She requested to see Nell and Annette, her two best friends, alone. They both arrived and went into her bedroom.
At the kitchen table, Candy said, “Could I ask you a favor? Could you get me a cold washcloth I could put on my neck?” I’m getting hot flashes and stomach pains, I think I may have food poisoning from last night.” She looked slightly green, and sweaty with flushed cheeks.
“Oh this is great, just great” said Steve, standing up from the table, his eyes rolling; camping it up in jest and sounding like a sarcastic Jackie Gleason. “I call you for help, my Mother is dying in the next room, then you show up and you tell me you’re feeling sick!” They both began laughing at the absurdity of the situation; it was delicious to laugh. Steve fixed a cold washcloth in the kitchen sink and with Candy’s permission, gently placed it on the back of her neck. Soon Nell and Annette came out of the bedroom. “She wants to talk to the nurse again,” Nell said. She and Annette stepped outside. Candy looked at Steve and he looked back at her. For a just a moment, she registered a helpless expression in his eyes. She asked him again, “Do you want me to send for the social worker?” “Yes, could you? That would be really great,” he said.
About an hour later, a small car driven by a woman with long, dark hair arrived. After she pulled into the driveway and parked, Steve answered the door and welcomed Arianna into the trailer. Upon entering, the social worker radiated a mix of strength, gravitas and gentleness that seemed almost theatrical to Steve. He also sensed from her, a sincere desire to give support and comfort. Suddenly, he felt exhausted again, crashing from that frenzy of wanting to do everything and powerless to do anything. He needed to stop and rest. He needed to share his nasty, little secret, for the pressure was building up in him.
Candy came out from seeing his Mother again, sat back at the kitchen table and was making more notes. Steve sat directly across from Arianna at the low, toy-like kitchen table. She looked into his eyes and with a soothing voice said “How ya doin’?”
The lethargic weight of the past nine days hung on him like the hot, beating rays of the August Arizona sun. When his Mother had yelled for him, it must have been around 8:30 a.m., now it was past noon. He wasn’t hungry at all, for food was the furthest thing from his mind. The bright, clear emptiness of the trailer park with it’s sanitized slow motion streets and empty, wrinkled cheeriness were nauseating now. He was tired of waiting on his mother; he was tired of her continuous naps, her restive waking moments, her loopy Vicadin slow-motioness and her exacting directions when it came to food. He was feeling that same frustration and anger he’d felt when his cat was dying. For throughout the past nine days, though she could only take in the tiniest amounts, her bird-like portions had to be prepared according to her exacting specifications regardless of her Vicodin haze. Her body was breaking down minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour. “How do you feel now? And now and now?” He would ask. And she answered slowly with slight variations of “Fine” or “Not so bad today, Steve.” Then there was the nauseatingly musty, clammy, recirculated swamp cooler air of the trailer.
A part of him though, loved loosing himself in the caretaking of her, for it gave him purpose; a stronger purpose that he’d ever known in his life. But then there was always that lurking anger underneath, an anger that could never be spoken or explored yet was always there, as constant, as the everyday, burning, impossibly hot Sonora desert sun. His mask was crumbling, melting, and sliding from his face. He looked Arianna straight in the eyes.
“When I was little, she abused me. It wasn’t like “SYBIL” or anything. I mean there was no penetration” he was saying these words with a slightly embarrassed smile, as if to excuse himself, her, the entire, impossibly complex situation. “I don’t even know if she even realized what she was doing. But she touched me with her body in ways that, that weren’t right.” As he said this, a small sob escaped his throat.
“It’s OK, it’s OK” Arianna was saying, her words sounding more like cooing sounds. There was an element of artifice and tenderness in them beckoning him and encouraging him to let go; almost coaching him to feel and explore that painfully hard, bitter sadness of his Mother’s betrayal. It was a balm to hear caring sounds from a woman now, from a woman who could just listen and give him the space to talk without feeling guilty or fearing attack, reprisal or recrimination. With this woman, it was safe; it seemed possible that someone could believe him, have compassion for him and acknowledge him for who he was, a strong warrior with a heavy wound.
“I feel so friggin absurd saying this to you, while she’s in there, dying. But I have to, I have to.” He felt so guilty. There she was in the bedroom, literally dying, and here he was attacking her with these accusations, talking about how she had molested him. God this was absurd! It was so many years ago. Was he sick? Was he making it up? But no, it was real. And in between Arianna’s cooing and healing words, she encouraged him to pause, to rest and hear his own breathing, his own heartbeat and silence in between. In this moment now, her support was encouraging him to feel and take back just a little of what had been stolen from him back then…
“When I was little, she abused me…” There. He had dislodged it. His voice echoed in his mind. The simple fact, like a sharp, fine fishbone caught in his craw, festering for years. What a relief to let it go! What a relief to have someone listen, and be a witness. “When I was little…she abused me.” Again, there was that feeling of guilt. The inappropriateness of it all. But then life wasn’t appropriate. It was messy and sad and happy and boring. It was a Mother you were in love with, and men you massaged and fucked for money when once, a long time ago, all you really wanted was to dance and sing and make art. Life was a weave of what we wanted, and ultimately what we got.
The sun burned on through high noon to mid-afternoon, meandering through the hot, blue sky. Months afterward during his grief counseling, Arianna would say to him “Sometimes your heart breaks open—and sometimes, it breaks closed.” In that lovely cooing was a deep, female tenderness he now needed to hear and feel. It was his moment now, his turn to feel, to remember, and be heard. He needed attention! And as he got it, there was a little lightening of the load and a letting go in the telling of the secret. Arianna’s listening encouraged him to feel the hurt again, but instead of anger, following like always, now there was a speck of something new; a simple wondering why? Why did she touch me that way? Did she know what she was doing?
The shroud-like weight of the last nine days began to lift a little as the afternoon passed.
Soon, ambulate arrived around 5:30 p.m. to pick her up and transport her to Odyssey hospice. While they were wheeling her out, the wheels of the upright stretcher-gurney got caught in the sheet and in the track of the sliding glass doors opening onto the porch, as if the trailer itself didn’t want to let its old friend go. The heavyset attendants were like big untrained, monkey-clowns pretending to be movers; making chaos under a spot-light in a three-ring circus pulling and jostling his Mother as if she were a big bag of potatoes.
Her transfer continued outside. As they lifted the gurney and carried her down the four, small, front porch steps into the bright sunlight he noticed the yellow pallor of her skin had deepened. As they slid her into the ambulate, she looked dazed and before they closed the doors, he raised his hand to wave “I’ll see you shortly Mom.” She didn’t respond, just stared out at him in confusion and fear. Again he thought of the faces of the new arrivals of patients at Calvary or when he’d walked past their rooms upstairs, glimpsing the hollow eyes staring out from a powerless hell; shriveled, pale grey hands clenched to metal bed rails like talons to prison bars. The clownish attendants slammed the rear doors separating them but he could still see her, staring at him through the windows. They drove away. She was gone. It was a relief, and his heart felt mangled.
He arrived to visit her at the hospice facility that evening, around 7 p.m. As he walked into her room, her hair is what he noticed first. The nurses had changed it. It was strange, wet and parted in the middle, flattish, old-lady style, not her style. She never would have worn it that way. As she had grown older, her hair had come into it’s own, it was thick, lustrous gray and ash blond with a gorgeous natural wave to it that she spent time and care arranging so that it framed her face like mink. She was a hairdresser and artist after all with a knack of styling.
“We got right away that your Mom’s an understater with the pain,” the head nurse said to him just as he entered her room. Inside and precisely at that moment, two other nurses were sticking her with needles, one in each arm.
Steve stared down at his Mother; her eyes squeezed shut against the pain of the cancer; again he noticed the jaundice in her face.
“Mother” he said, “I need to ask you why.” She slowly opened her eyes and looked toward him.
“Why did you touch me with your body when I was like three or four? I was so little. Do you remember? Do you remember that night in the motel, Mother?” She just stared back at him. He thought she understood, but he wasn’t sure.
“Gramps had died a week before. Gregg was staying with neighbors and you and Dad brought me along to see some carnival near Rockford, to get away after the funeral. It was so cold in that room from the air-conditioning. But it was a hot, summer night outside. Do you remember? Do you remember what you did? You invited me into your bed that night. Do you remember what happened?”
Her brow furrowed then and she closed her thin, yellowing eyelids a little. “Why, whaa…?” The morphine was kicking in. Her face went into a slight grimace, from a wave of pain racking her or because of his question, he couldn’t tell. There was a pause.
“Mom, please. Can hear me, and I know this is hard, but I need to know why you did what you did? You had me come into your bed and you pulled me on top of you. You didn’t have any clothes on. Dad was snoring on the other side of the bed.We snuggled at first, but then you began to hug me too tight. You hugged me too hard Mom and and…it seemed like you were…like enjoying it, like I was giving you pleasure. I could hardly breath. And, I felt your body down there.”
He leaned closer into her now. His nose breathed in the acrid smells of piss and shit. And a sweet, sickly smell of something else, he thought he could smell her cancer.
“Why did you touch me that way? Why did you do that? Do you even know what you did when you pulled me on top of you that way?”
She began to shake her head back and forth as if to deny he was speaking to her or as if to make him stop.
He could feel tears running down his face now. He just needed an answer, some sort of acknowledgment from her of what she’d done; some iota of awareness or consciousness.
She opened her eyes then. She looked straight into his. He saw a glimpse of recognition in her eyes, and a kind of disgust. Very slowly, she said, “Why, why are you bringing that up now, after all these years?”
“Because I need to know.”
There was a long pause, she looked away and up. And then he could see she was remembering. “It was so cold in that motel room” she said “and so hot outside, but so cold in that room, like it was—“
“Like it was the night, the night my Mother died…she died right in my arms. I was holding her, I was only thirteen. It was January, winter in Mt. Carroll. I was holding her, and she just died…awful, awful. And it was so, so cold. Like in that room…with you. I just wanted to hold you close, to keep you warm, to keep us both warm son. I guess I was afraid…I was afraid I was going to loose you, like I lost my Mother.”
He stared at her, wanting to understand, wanting to forgive. Like he’d never wanted anything so much as to make that stain in himself go away; that awful shadow he’d lived with every moment of his life. To lance that boil of pain, to squeeze all the toxins of hate and fear and guilt and anger out. He so craved the letting go and the healing but in order to do it, he needed her to acknowledge what she’d done. He breathed in. She went on, achingly slowly, but with a new clarity, in spite of the morphine.
“—That night in the motel, with Gramps dying, and your Father just back from the war, the war had changed him. He was trying to be tough all the time; he hardly ever touched me. And that night, I was so lonely, so cold and lonely. I just needed to hold someone so bad.” She paused here and squeezed her eyes closed as another wave of pain overtook her, seconds turning into minutes, then she opened her eyes and continued. “And you were there, next to the bed, crying or having nightmares from the funeral. You were so little and helpless and fragile. And you were my baby boy, my little living doll. So I picked you up and into bed with me. And I hugged you to me…you felt so good, so warm in that cold awful room…then I thought of my Mother. And I remembered the feeling of her dying in my arms and I was afraid Steve, afraid that you would leave me that way too. I guess a part of you became her. And I didn’t want to loose you. So, I just held you tight, so tight…I didn’t want to let go of you, ever. So I pulled you into me, closer and closer, you felt so warm, so warm, so warm…” She closed her eyes as if her responses to him had worn her out.
He stared at her. He took a deep breath and dropped his head. His hand moved closer to hers and he slid it under hers then, clasping it gently, as if it were a tiny hummingbird. Her hand felt cold and then he felt her squeezing his fingers back ever so gently. Suddenly he understood. As he lifted his head and stared at her, she closed her eyes, and then opened them again looking at him with such compassion, that it almost made him turn away.
“I’m sorry son…I’m sorry if I hurt you…I didn’t mean to…I just thought I was loving you. I guess I was loving you too much.” She smiled a little then, just before another wave of pain gushed over her again, forcing her eyes to close, forcing the corners of her mouth to stretch wide in a grimace.
“I forgive you darling,” he said. “I forgive you forever and ever and I’m here for you now and I love you Mom” he said. He was crying softly, this big strong man, with the gentleness of a child. Her pain passed; there was a moment. Then, he heard her voice for the last time, so thick and slow now with the morphine. “And I…will…always love you son, forever and ever. I want to sleep now…I just want to sleep.” And she closed her eyes.
“Yes Mom” said Steve, watching her breathe. His face was wet with tears. He took his other hand now and put it on top of hers. He wanted so to keep her warm, to keep her cold away. But he knew he couldn’t. He moved to the foot of her bed. He sat in a chair and as tears flowed down his cheeks, he began massaging her feet. She seemed to be sleeping. He was thinking he was relieving her suffering. He needed to do something. He cried silently, as he kept massaging her. Then, after a time, he got up and went home.
In the trailer alone, it felt both good and lonely to have her gone. He didn’t want to think and immediately crashed. He woke in the dark, early Tuesday morning, the tenth of August, around 2 a.m., with the phone ringing and the machine beeping. Then he heard the sound of a voice leaving a message, a hangup, and the dial tone. He knew it had to be the hospice. He walked into the living room and played the message on her answering machine. “Hi this is Carrie from Odyssey hospice. I just wanted to let you know that your Mom’s breathing’s changed and it could be anytime now. So if you wanted to see her you should probably come now.”
He dressed like a zombie and got into the car. He drove west on Speedway through the dark morning, the warm wind rushing into the car with all the windows down. He’d never noticed how deep and black the surrounding environs were, far off and beyond the well-lit sterile boulevards of Tucson. Again, there was that feeling that death was out there, somewhere in the dark, like a beast, running in the blackness, on and on parallel to the car, partly running and partly flying, racing him to the hospice.
He arrived at Odyssey around 2:30 a.m. She was still breathing but unconscious. He sat next to her. Around 3 a.m., he left to take a break and wandered through the halls. It was so peaceful here. He walked outside through a rear entrance. He felt the quiet calm of the warm desert night. The neglected backyard smelled musty, the lawn looked uncared for. The grass was soggy and spongy like musty Astro-turf beneath his feet, probably from a broken sprinkler system. He thought he smelled something rotten.
He went back inside. It was around 3:15 a.m. He found her room and sat next to her again. He watched her breathing. She was fully reclining, her head extended back. With her strange hairdo and gaping, toothless mouth, she looked like some haunted, wailing, witchy spirit, or a Banshee. Her head was extended back, and propped up on pillows her mouth was open in a gaping, hollow expression of “O,” her eyes half-closed, her pupils rolled up and far back under her lids. She’s looking toward heaven, he thought to himself. The elements of her face, if taken in separately here horrible, but when viewed as a whole, revealed a kind of ecstasy. As if she were looking back down at the earth and at her whole past life in amazement. But now, just now it changed, he thought. And now, her amazement had changed from seeing where she’d been; she was amazed to see where she was going!
He watched her breathe. In and out, in and out. Around 3:30 a.m. there was the tiniest movement in her throat, like the flutter of a hummingbird, then her breathing stopped, and she was still. She was gone. He let out a small sound, something in-between a tiny yelp and a sob. He rose then and got the nurse. She came in, and they both gently, matter-of-factly, closed her eyes. She left him alone with her. He sat back down, meditating on her and breathing. Their struggle together was over. But that she was dead, this fact was not important, nor did it seem real. He tried to focus on her eyes. Were they really closed? Her mouth, open in that silent kind of toothless wail was hard to look at, so he kept focusing on her eyes.
The fighting was over; all the loving and hating, all the confusion and wanting and desiring was over. Instead, now there was peace. He sat watching over her, silently praying for something or someone to protect her and guide her to the next place—if there was a next place. This was the bardo time it was important that he was with her for a while.
Go Mom, go soul, he was thinking and praying, go where you need to go. I am here, watching over you. I will stay with you a while, he thought. And so, he did.