My mother passed away during the week of the longest light of the year. As I post this, we are in the longest darkness of the year. I look forward to the oncoming light.
“Nun-uh,” Janice said, shaking her head with a sad smile, her hair extensions shaking too. She was seated at the front desk, giving the receptionist a lunch break. “I still won’t let Denny put anyone in that room.”
The room she referred to was inside my mother’s care home. It was the room closest to the caregiver station down the corridor known as Country Lane.
It was the room that belonged to my mother.
My mother had died five months earlier, and with the daylight waning in November, her spirit still cast a long shadow over the caregivers and courtyards that bolstered her life for six years. So much so that her room sat empty all this time.
“Every time the number comes up,” Denny said, nodding along. “I just pass it up.” Tall with dark hairs grazing across his chin and upper lip, he snapped his long fingers to emphasize a tacit understanding between he as marketing staff and the caregivers like Janice.
He was referring to number thirteen. In a life where my mother often considered herself the booby prize and we joked about the long-standing era of our family’s Januzzi jinx, she was blessed by care only a mother could give in a room with an unlucky number.
They didn’t mean it, I thought, staring in Janice’s eyes shielded by long lashes, her round face framed by a hairstyle that changed on a daily basis. But her smile had stayed true to its width and her white teeth shone through as a testimony to her mixture of sadness and sweetness that crossed her mind when thinking of my mother. She of all the caregivers was most unable to put into words her unexpected love for her expected duty.
Talking to Janice and Denny, I leaned over the desk, my feet aching from the black patent heels on my feet. I was better dressed than I would have typically appeared whenever visiting with my mother. I used to wear jeans or a sweatshirt precluding my mother from deriding me. “Oh, so high class,” she would say and eye my black sweater with a fur along the collar.
I too had felt my mother’s presence as I entered into the warmth of her former home. The waves of laughter and sadness taken in over the years rippled through me. My mother’s voice rang through the hallways that lay behind the secure door and thrummed in my ears. I so wanted her back roaming those same hallways, moving furniture, making nice or mean with the next person she encountered, stranger or not.
I had visited three times since her death, each with a few more weeks passing between visits, separating me further from my mother and our past. When I drove up the long driveway and veered left or right, I looked for familiar cars and was met with the sight of Janice’s navy blue sedan. It was the sign I always looked for. That my mother was okay.
Standing in the foyer, I saw the flickering ghosts of caregivers, staff, my sister and me, all following my mother’s body on a gurney in the tradition of her care home to accompany the body as it left the premise for the final time. I was yanked back to that day she died.
My mother had ceased breathing around 10 a.m. and by noon, as we stood in the parking lot around the hearse, the scene took on a Hollywood shimmer, forsaking the soft blue sky that opened up earlier. We shielded our eyes, eyes blurred by salt and memory, eyes adjusting from the darkened hallways we had occupied only minutes before as the funeral home escort prepared for my mother’s leaving.
Outside with the form of my mother placed in the hearse, we listened to Jana, the director, speak about her. Suzanne, the bubbly receptionist whose memory of my mother’s berating of Elvis rocketed my mother the top of her list of favorite residents, stepped up to read Khalil Gibran. For what is it to die, but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
Beneath the dimpled sheets falling into my mother’s now hollow cheeks, her tiny, cold body, still holding on to her pixie-cut gray hairs, had done such a thing. I imagined her melting away from me like clarified butter, turning into or toward more perfect matter. She no longer was mother, wife or an individual with dementia. She was her self.
I, too, would have melted at that prospect.
The director asked the crowd of caregivers if they had anything more to share. Felicia, a large-boned woman, slowly moved away from the crowd of caregivers standing under the eaves. “I jes remember Jean, and I used to sing Unforgettable with her and she would finish singing.” Everyone had his or her song, his or her own way of engaging with my mother and keeping her from “engaging” with someone else.
Before Felicia could finish, the tall skinny hearse driver who could have passed for a Harlem Globetrotter, inched away from his post at the back of the car. Our focus was now on him as he started the engine. A loud crackling came from the car stereo and through it, notes of Nat King Cole soon drifted, singing Unforgettable.
I waved my arms to rally the caregivers. We circled together and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, where the burden of my mother’s care had been evenly spread, staff to daughter to caregiver, arms around each other.
For the final time, we lifted my mother in song so she might dance out of the ring.
My only childbirth experience was having a C-section to deliver my son, but the division of life into two during surgery was equally if not more violent than the natural process, the pulling back of intestines, the recover from anesthesia, the inability to walk for days, the complications that followed. I felt all of that in a painful release of my mother into the heavens. My insides cried.
Later after the hearse drove away, I walked back inside with Beth. My feet in flip-flops were heavy. My cell phone rang and rang. There was much work ahead of me before I could mourn my mother: A son’s college graduation that weekend, flying out of town the next day, a funeral to plan, financial accounts to rectify and the duty in front of me—cleaning out her room.
“Do it now because you won’t be able to come back for while,” Jana had said earlier, patting my back in a maternal fashion though we matched each other in height at five feet tall. Able was defined loosely; she meant I would be confronted by the smells of turkey or human output or the sweet, syrupy scent of red punch. I didn’t believe her; I had been there every day for the past twelve. Of course, I would come back soon. I couldn’t stay away.
Beth and I returned to my mother’s room. Slowly, I parsed through each of her belongings, what would stay: Love One Another – a plaque hung over my mother’s kitchen seemed appropriate to leave behind. What would go: her Sinatra CDs for Janice and Becky, my mother’s little black purses which went to Jeanne and I kept her Christmas caroling dolls.
The task took no time since I knew the contents of all her compartments. Where she hid Kleenex or where the demons hid. The Kleenex and the demons were now vanquished.
Over the years, I had done my best to scrub the room clean, to save what mattered or replace it with something that stood in for something else. Ironically, that had also been me.
There was little else for me in that room that signified “Mom.” Whatever remained of hers I no longer needed and I left the rest to be donated. Eddie, the maintenance man had placed her rocker and nightstand in my car. I walked out with two small cartons and set my sights on the emptiness of packing for a trip I, as a mom, had to make. A duty my mother would have respected.
“It hasn’t all been emptied out,” Janice said, bringing me back to life, but not my mother.
How many more months would they let her room sit, I wondered, with remnants of her life lying in state across the plastic covering of the bed?
“My friend was so small, hard to fit her clothes. There’s still stuff laying around in there.” Janice offered another of her reasons, to join the ones about the maintenance staff not painting it yet or there were no new move-ins that necessitated the disposal of the contents or needing a place to store new mattresses.
It would be hard for Janice to see another woman wearing my mother’s clothes, inhabiting the maroon sweater she wore with her short arms poking through and pushing on the door to exit into the air that kept her alive, her shirts with gems or rhinestones that reflected light off her cherub face or enhanced her cheeks reddening whenever she was angry or filled with an explosive moment of joy or shame.
And her shoes. Who would ever walk in those same size 8.5 Reebok Velcro sport shoes, the white and black ones that had finally bested the industrial washers and dryers in a small victory of mine?
But my mother wouldn’t want her room crowded by leftover clutter from the previous year. “Right there,” she would demand some figurine or slip of paper be moved. She was a woman of clarity. “Get that stupid stuff off down here.” Or utter some version of, “Clean up your room.” She had already let go of her old life.
My mother would want a room flush with a golden light, another woman frail in mind, but not will, taking up residence. One who needed care from anyone who found a moment of surprise in her boxed in life, whoever would be at her side until the end.
Yes, that’s what she would want in that room.
And she would haunt any caregiver or family member who didn’t show up in the way she had done.