In memoriam

I saw a random factoid on Reddit once. There will come a day, it said, where your mother will pick you up, and put you back down, and then will never pick you up again. And you won’t realize it when it happens.

I have been trying to pay close attention to firsts and lasts lately. Especially, as it turns out, lasts. If you have been around here much lately, you will likely be familiar with the phrase ongoing medical crisis, which I have been using a fair amount lately, without a lot of explanation.

The Ongoing Medical Crisis is over, more or less. My mother passed away sometime between 8:30 and 9:30 PM Saturday night. She spent the last six days of her life in a nursing home; we were beginning to discuss whether to move her into hospice care. I have no reason to not believe that she passed peacefully and in her sleep; as the nurses tell it, she was alive and sleeping for one bed check, and for the next she was gone. She was 68.

My mother and I were very, very close. I …

… I don’t know how to do any of this, as it turns out. I have her obituary open in a second window right now; I’ve got all of the easy bits done; grandchild here and aunts and uncles here and date of wedding and following a lengthy illness. Facts and figures; all bloodless. That part’s done. I don’t know what to write about her. And right now I feel like I have ten thousand things to do today and that I don’t have any idea what I’m supposed to be doing right now.


I have, I’m pretty certain, told this story in this space before, but I sort of suspect this won’t be the last time I tell it in the near future, so I may as well get some practice in: when I was in high school I started growing my hair out. That lasted through college, when my hair was down to the middle of my back and curly enough that I could tuck it in front of my ears and pass as an Orthodox Jew if I wanted to. And then I decided to spend a month in Israel after graduation on an archaeological dig. Long hair in the desert, I decided, would be a bit of a liability, so I went to the barber and got my hair cut short, instructing him to take my ponytail out in as close to one sweep as he possibly could. I then, as a joke, dropped my ponytail into an envelope, mailed it to my mother, who had been advocating for shorter hair for years, and promptly forgot about it.

This was in 1998, by the way, before anyone had cell phones, so if I was on campus for the day it was literally impossible to get ahold of me until I got home. And a couple of days later, my mother got an envelope in the mail containing about half a pound of hair with absolutely no context of any kind, and … well, concluded, perhaps not entirely reasonably, that I’d been kidnapped. And couldn’t get ahold of me for several hours, and … didn’t really see the humor in the whole thing, all that much, once I got ahold of her and explained what I’d done.

Fast forward, oh, right around two decades. My mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. The lump has been removed successfully with surgery and she is nonetheless going through a round of radiation and chemotherapy to make sure they got everything. I live in the same town as her by now, and we both have cell phones, and I talk to her nearly every day, so when I discover a padded envelope in my mail with my mother’s handwriting on it I am more than a bit confused as to what it might contain, as she hasn’t mentioned mailing anything to me lately, and why would she bother in the first place?

The envelope is full of hair, the punchline to a joke nearly twenty years in the making, and my mother is the first– and, as of yet, only— person I have ever known to successfully make the side effects of chemotherapy funny.


The obituary is not any closer to being done than it was a few minutes ago. This is, I admits bit of a mystery to me; one fairly consistent aspect of my personality throughout my adult life is that I process my emotions by writing through them, and … well, I don’t know. Is it bad, to admit that I’ve been writing and rewriting this post in my head for something like six months now? We thought we were going to lose her in June; she’d already been sick, and had just been released from the rehabilitation place they’d put her in to try and get some of the strength in her legs back, when her duodenum abruptly ruptured and she had to be rushed into surgery in the middle of the night. I called my brother in Chicago and told him to get home immediately; the doctor who did the surgery came as close as I’ve ever seen a medical professional come to saying I am going to try my best to save her but it is not going to be good enough.

She survived. The wound from the surgery never healed, and I mean that literally; she had a hole in her abdomen that stubbornly refused to close for the rest of her life, and spent most of that time attached to a wound vacuum, and while I think the immediate cause of her death was probably congestive heart failure, ultimately the duodenal rupture is what killed her. It just took a lot longer than anyone expected, and I got six more months with my mom that I might not have gotten otherwise.


“This won’t be what gets ya,” the oncologist says, as we are discussing the cancer diagnosis. “It’ll be heart failure, same as everybody else.” I find myself simultaneously angry at him and entertained by his frankness. He reminds me, oddly, of Joss Whedon.


It is Saturday afternoon, and my father and I are at my mother’s bedside at the nursing home. Neither of us know this, of course, but she is in the final six or seven hours of her life. She is semiconscious at best, occasionally waking up enough to say a sentence or so, or to ask us to move a pillow or adjust a leg, but I can’t really call it talking. In the background, a television is on, and Indiana University’s basketball team is beating Ohio State. My mom and dad met at IU; my dad, my brother and I all graduated from there, and while my mom is a woman of few hobbies, IU basketball is one of the few genuinely enduring passions of her life.

She wakes up at one point long enough to look at the TV; of the two hours or so I will spend with her today, “Oh! IU basketball!” is probably among the most coherent sentences I hear her speak.

She says “I love you” when I leave. It is the last thing I ever hear her say.


This is the second relative where my final memory of her is sitting at her bedside and watching IU basketball, by the way, as the exact same thing happened with my paternal grandmother. I spent my last couple of hours with her watching basketball. I don’t remember who won that game, though.


My son has been put to bed, and my wife and I have had a brief conversation about what needs to be done in this upcoming week. We are about to start a TV show.

My phone rings.

It is the nursing home, and my heart sinks, because there is only one reason why the nursing home might be calling me. I call my brother and go over to my mom and dad’s house; this is not information I can give him over the phone, and I have to let myself into the house and wake him up to tell him that his wife of 47 years is gone. For the first couple of minutes of the conversation, I’m not entirely sure he realizes he isn’t dreaming; I’m sure that he hopes he is. I realize something that surprises me: I want to see her. I have never been good at viewings and had you asked me just a few hours ago if I wanted to see her body I would have said no, and done so emphatically. We go over to the nursing home. She looks peaceful; the first time in many months that I have seen her where she is not in any trace of pain. An anecdote from Reddit floats through my head.

I do not remember the last time my mother picked me up, and I do not remember the last time she put me down. I will not allow myself to not know the last time I hugged her.

I love you, Mom.

RIP, Mrs. Gates

image-29403_20180310.jpgxI got a text from my mother just now, while I was eating dinner, that my second grade teacher had passed away, at the admirably ripe old age of 92.  Mrs. Gates is one of the several teachers that my book Searching for Malumba is dedicated to, one of only two from my elementary/primary school years.

I had found myself wondering about her many times over the years.  My second-grade recollection of her was that she was one of my older teachers, but that could have meant she was 40; kids are terrible at pegging how old adults are, right?  As it turns out, she was nearly 60 when I had her, so she was probably nearing retirement at the time.  I remember her as being probably the best example I ever had of the “strict but fair” teacher, which was something I always tried to emulate in my own career.

The funny thing is that when I try to unearth specific memories of what she was like as a teacher, I can only come up with one or two of them, and the clearest memory probably counts as educational malpractice, to the point where I almost feel disrespectful for talking about it.   Mrs. Gates was always big on cleanliness– keeping the room clean, and in particular, keeping our desks clean.  She’d actually inspect them from time to time– I have no idea how frequently; this could have been a daily or weekly thing for all I remember, or it could have been more frequently than that.

I am still in touch with literally no one who was in my second grade class, but I can think of perhaps four or five kids who are no more than a quick Facebook search away.  And I guarantee each of them remembers the day Mrs. Gates got tired of Jonathan W. (I remember his full name, but why let him Google this?) having a sloppy desk for like the nine hundredth time in a row and in a fit of frustration dumped it out on the classroom floor in front of everyone.  Objectively, with thirty-some-odd years of hindsight, this was probably a terribly humiliating thing for Jonathan and was not the proper way for her to have handled the situation.  certainly can’t imagine dumping a kid’s desk out on the floor in front of the whole class.  And yet, I think for most of us, it made us more fond of her– and make no mistake, strict as she was, the kids in that class loved Mrs. Gates.  Because this lady wasn’t taking any shit, and chances are most of our moms would have done the same damn thing in similar circumstances.  I stayed friends with Jonathan until he moved away, I think in middle school sometime, and that story was still getting told at slumber parties years later.

For whatever it’s worth, I suspect he’d probably still laugh at the story.  I dunno; maybe I shouldn’t have told it.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Gates.  I hope wherever you are, all the desks are pristine.