Just like one of the characters in my novel, my mother had a Leap-Year birthday on February 29. As my sister and I remember her this year, I’m grateful to share a guest post from my sister that carries my mother’s voice — unmistakable to my inner ear, across years and the incomprehensible distance between this life and the next — in ways that leave my heart astonished.
It was captured at a time of unbearable loss, and unfathomable mystery, just the sort of atmospheres in which our mother knew how to accompany us.
By Tracey Edgerly Meloni
I need my mother.
I’m twelve years too late, but never have I needed her more than at this moment. Her last words to me were, “I’ll always be with you,” though I doubt either of us believed that she was being literal.
This is not what I expected, this waiting for Bob, the last time I will see him in this hospital, the last time I will touch his hand, brush his lips with mine. Sometime between when a tinny voice called me in the middle of the night and when I arrived here, he was spirited away from his sterile ICU cubicle (now stripped and eerily empty) to this unknown room I am waiting to enter. The Visitation Room, they call it. Doctors, nurses, orderlies and general helpers bustle past; no one looks at me.
I am sitting in the Dead Zone, an awkward limbo to hospital personnel: the patient is no longer here, but has not yet left the building.
Don’t worry — you know they are getting him ready. And I will be with you.
Mum is here – that deliciously throaty voice, Helen Mirren meets Lauren Bacall, her Arden scent wrapping around me like her slender arms.
Yes, I do know, after years as a doctor’s wife,
I know about “getting him ready.” Removing the tubes and wires, masking the bruises, the torn skin, the paddle burns; erasing that final image, the moment of knowing alarm, from his features. I’ve been there hundreds of times, but not with my Bob being the one readied. Definitely I am looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
Let’s go away somewhere for now – pick your happiest memory.
There were so many … let’s go with Turks and Caicos, 1987, before the Glitterati discovered it, when only one gas pump, a Club Med and the most glorious scuba diving in the hemisphere defined it. When torrid and wine-drenched afternoons were spent lying naked under the lazy ceiling fan …
In Venice, on the Grand Canal, in the bridal suite of the Regina-Europa, toasting Mum’s leap-year birthday at a time when no sane person goes to Venice.
Or in Cairo, having dinner at sunset on the Nile …
Or in Djibouti, where “Bombay Bob” gained fame on our 100-passenger explorer vessel for my dubious lyrics, to the tune of the old “Pretty Baby:”
“If you miss the final shuttle
Say GOODBYE, your cruise is scuttled,
In Djibouti today!”
Naked stuff there, too, yes?
“Mrs. Meloni? You may come in now – and my condolences.”
Mum says nothing – For this, I must step forward on my own.
The room is ridiculous, chintz and lavender wallpaper and a rocking chair, as if I am welcoming him to the world, not saying goodbye.
He is clean, pink, scrubbed – no sign of the odious central line that became so infected, all evidence of his cracked chest, ventilator, bedsores and other bodily harm hidden by an Amish quilt. Terrible music – Mantovani Mediocrity, elevator music – plays softly in the background. Tears, the unbidden, unattractive snotty-nosed kind, threaten.
No, no, no! We don’t cry for bad taste and worse music. Get everyone out of here and be alone with him – capture what you need.
I ask everyone to leave. I kiss his forehead, his earlobe, his neck. I slide off his wedding ring, knowing I will wear it on a chain around my neck, maybe forever. I marvel at his peaceful expression, so different from yesterday’s angst. I long to stroke all of him, but know that those days are over.
Never again will we lie naked together, under a lazy ceiling fan.
Some not-quite-a-nurse person hands me a plastic bag: the dead man’s stuff, no longer needed. Glasses and underwear and a book he never read about Cole Porter.
I think of his spider-quote from EB White: “and I … as spiders do, attach one single thread to you, for my returning …”
You’ve forgotten Antonio, she reminds me; we both love Antonio Porchia, especially “in a full heart there is room for everything and in an empty heart there is room for nothing.”
I cock my head to one side, holding Bob’s hand gently, wondering what she will say, and if she will come back again.
She blows me away:
Man, when he does not grieve, hardly exists.
A heart full of thanks to writer Tracey Edgerly Meloni