Autumn is my favorite time of year.
There is a part in Tom’s piano composition, “Fall Hymn,” that makes my ears see an autumn-colored leaf being taken downstream by the flow of the water. That’s what Fall is to me–leaves taking their leave.
The leaves have already started falling in the arroyo near my house. It’s very dry this year; I think that’s why they are leaving so early. But the stream is dry. I have to hear them floating down the stream in my mind’s eye.
I’ve spent the last few months chewing on some major disappointments, vacillating between being a victim and an irate warrior. Wondering why I found myself following the family recipe, when I thought I had thrown it out years ago because it tasted like crap. The kind of questions that seem to show up for me at night, turning it into a sleepless night. A night without dreams.
I had one of those nights last week. Somewhere around four A.M. I heard myself saying to myself, “It doesn’t matter. You just need to move on. It’s time to pull yourself out of the la brea tar pit, or follow the dinosurs into extinction.
The next day, as I walked through the arroyo, the path strewn with leaves, I thought about my mother.
She died last year at the age of 83. To most, that sounds old. but in her family, life began (again) at 90: her grandfather married for the third time at 90 and died in his sleep in his own home at 106. Her mother moved into her own apartment where she lived alone for the first time at 90. She stayed there until the day before she died at 99. “I wish the Lord would take me home,” she said. Five minutes later she got her wish.
So, even though my mother’s health was poor (she suffered from emphysema and othe pulmonary ailments), she was in some ways struck down in her prime. People were shocked by her death. Tom said he thought that her spirit was so huge, that it carried her body around, disgusing its frailness.
We didn’t have a smooth relationship, my mother and I, but we were usually close, until I would reach a crossroad and take the path that would challenge her sense of safety–that sense of safety you create to live within a family, and think it means how to live in the world.
The crossroad always had to do with what a woman could do or where a woman could go.
Anything and anywhere I would think.
There be dragons (or wolves) out there she would think.
Usually she would follow me down the path–eventually. Or at lease see that the dragons and wolves were much friendlier than she had thought.
Except for the last crossroad. The biggie. The elephant in the living room. There were two paths for me–surviving or living. I opted to live. Decided that allowing myself to be abused in order to survive was not the same thing as being alive. That family peace was not more important than my well-being.
It scared her. It created a rift between us. One I was sure we would bridge, just as we always had. But I didn’t realize how frail she was.
She fell on a Sunday afternoon.
I was with her when the doctor told her that her hip had broken into four pieces, not four places, but four pieces. Saw the look that came over her face as he delivered the news. I could tell that she had reached a crossroad, and had decided which path she would take. Her spirit was far stronger than her body. She didn’t want to die piece by piece.
They operated on her that evening, then she disappeared for the next two days. The hospital staff was annoying. Kept perkily insisting that she was doing just fine.
I would visit, looking for a sign that she would want to talk to me, give me her blessing before she left. But she was not present.
On Tuesday evening, about 9 PM, the full weight of it hit me. There was not going to be any final conversation between my mother and me. I would not get her blessing.
The call came at two the following morning. They had taken her to ICU. She had pneumonia. Perhaps we might want to come to the hospital.
The light in an ICU is so glaringly bright, it wipes out shadows. It’s a terible place for the dying.
My mother had a large plastic mask covering her nose and mouth. She tried to talk to us. We couldn’t hear her, so I moved the mask.
“I’m dying,” she said, as lucid as she always was. “I thought I was dying last night.”
“Is that what you want?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
The nurse freaked out. “Do you know where you are? Do you know who you are? Do you know what day this is? Do you know who the president of the United States is?” As if that was something she wanted to live for.
The doctor insisted he cold cure her.
“Cure what?” I asked.
“The pneumonia,” he said.
“And then what?” I asked.
He had no answer, because he knew what the answer was.
“She believed that pneumonia was the cancer patient’s and the old person’s friend,” I said.
Finally, we (my husband, brother, and sister-in-law) collectively convinced them that this was what she wanted.
“I’m giving you some morphhine, now,” the nurse said to my mother.
“Give me lots,” she replied.
Those were her last words. She died eight hours later.
For most of the year following her death, I was traumatized. I just never dreamed that she would die without our meeting at the crossroad again. Even if she couldn’t follow me down the path at least she would bless my choice.
As leaves blew across my path last night in my walk through the arroyo, I got it–I’m an orphan now. I canot rely on my mother’s blessing. I have to have faith in my own life’s experience.
And I understood that my mother had come to a crossroad similar to mine, and had made a choice similar to mine. Merely surviving was not enough for her. She could not show me how to live the life of a woman who can own her own life. Instead she showed me how to die.
How to leave–as a leaf takes its leave.
I like this time of year. There’s something comforting about it. It feels like beginnings.