On reliving the death of my parents
How long has it been? Five years, maybe six? Oddly, I keep track of that particular milestone by my mammograms, one of which is scheduled for next week. And there’s a reason for this, which will become clear in a bit.
When my parents died within two weeks of one another, the Chicago area was still in the “dog days of summer.” One left this Earth at the end of August and the other, at the beginning of September when the sun begins to take on that misty, golden…almost syrupy hue that heralds the approach of fall.
I had recently finished four weeks of radiation therapy for my breast cancer. Up until, and during the final days of my treatment, I was involved in putting together a fundraiser for an animal rescue group that one of my co-workers put a lot of time and effort into. My “work band” was the star attraction and I was the lead singer, as well as the catalyst for all our gigs.
Organizing and promoting this event, along with attending rehearsals and quashing “creative differences” proved to be exhausting, yet it kept the panic at bay. I knew my folks were in the last stages of life and I’m ashamed to say that I hoped to hell they wouldn’t pass before the gig was over. I don’t mean that to sound as cold as it does. I just couldn’t handle copping out on what I believed was the one truly positive thing going on in my life at the time. I love animals and wanted to be of service any way I could. And staying crazy-busy kept me from thinking about that room. That room where my parents spent their last days.
In retrospect, what a fool I was. I survived cancer. What could be better than that? Or, more positive? But I was driven to finish what I had started. No. Matter. What.
When their time ran out, my dad made his final exit, first. Technically, he’d been “gone” for weeks as he stopped speaking when he became incontinent while in hospice care. When the diapers went on, that was it for him. The end of the line. An indignity harder to bear than even the stage four lung cancer that killed him, and also vanquished his wife of over sixty years. My mother.
We tried talking to him. Did everything possible in order to elicit a response from this man who was so proud and also by turns, loving, yet difficult.
Nothing worked. My sister and I would sit in the room that our parents shared, two beds side by side, and did our best to hold it together while our mother implored her husband to speak.
“Lorry, Lorry, talk to me, please!”
His name was Lawrence. Everyone else called him “Larry,” but he was “Lorry” to our mom.
Our mother’s name was Jeannette, and dad called her either Jeannie or “Neege,” which is Jean, backward. (Their private language: A story for another day.)
I dimly remember the phone call from my sister telling us he was dead. I don’t recall what time it was. The wee hours, I think. Isn’t that always the way? The phone call that awakens you from a troubled sleep?
My husband and I raced over to the facility and what I saw, gives me chills to this day. Dad looked so different, so diminished, somehow. Like he’d been sucked inside-out. His face was upturned, as if that thousand-yard stare he’d adopted finally connected with something, or someone. His eyes were closed. I think.
I’m good at forgetting certain things. Others, not so much.
My sister said he’d been gasping for air when he died…choking, actually. I remember kissing him on his forehead and then dabbing, with a tissue, at the spittle that kept rising to his lips. I couldn’t fathom this.
A bubble of it, like ectoplasm, erupted every few seconds, and I just sat next to his body and kept wiping that spit from his mouth while my husband watched me wordlessly from across the room.
Much later, he remarked that he couldn’t believe I was doing that.
It seemed like an eternity…the length of time we stayed in that chamber of death watching over mom…and waiting for the funeral home to come and fetch “Lorry.”
So that was the end of him.
I had accompanied my sister to make the funeral arrangements per our dad’s instructions. He wanted to be buried in the Jewish cemetery, but, because my mother was gentile, they were confined to the secular side of the grounds. How ironic, really. We were stunned that he hadn’t opted for cremation, but those were his wishes. And our mother went along, as she always did.
During our meeting with the funeral director, my sister did all of the work while I sat in silent, albeit numb, support. She’d been caring for our parents in her home, for months, and anyone who has experienced this type of round-the-clock caregiving understands what a Herculean task it is.
I would watch her portion out in two, large, plastic pill containers, their daily dose of pharmaceutical “band-aids,” none of which would make any meaningful difference in their outcomes, but were somehow necessary, nonetheless.
She was as careful and precise as a surgeon. Her kitchen table was covered with the detritus of our parent’s lives. A special notebook was set aside for their many doctors’ appointments. Another for their financial commitments, of which my sister was also the keeper. A hefty brochure filled with instructions for the oxygen tank that our mother was hooked up to.
As I said, a Herculean task. One I could never have undertaken.
It might not seem so, but we did have our lighter moments as Mom always made us laugh. I remember when my sister was making our mother’s signature pasta sauce and Mom tried to make her way to the stove to check things out. The only problem there was that she was hooked up to an oxygen tank at the time and could have blown us all to kingdom come! We were forever telling her to sit back down!
Because my father was a Korean war veteran, the highpoint of his funeral was an honor guard ceremony. Sitting between my sister and my husband, I watched, dry-eyed, as they carefully folded the flag and then placed it in our mother’s hands.
Dad would have been kvelling at this particular pomp and circumstance. As I said, he was a proud man.
I must back up at this point and mention that, even though there was no official “wake,” as that is not the Jewish way, prior to the start of the service, immediate family was allowed to say their “final goodbyes” to the deceased. In other words, we were invited to sit and gaze at the thing in the box at the front of the room.
I say “thing” as that was not my father. No way in hell was that him. But that said, I have that image of the person who used to be my father, fixed in my brain…fuzzy as it is. I push it back by conjuring up the image of Dad tending to his beloved vegetable garden. He was so proud of those tomatoes! And I can still laugh at the recollection of my mother’s sigh of resignation when he would present her with a shit-ton of them for her signature pasta sauce, or “gravy” as Italians often refer to it.
As I write this, I can almost taste it. Too, I can remember the verdant aroma of the fresh basil she used, also from Dad’s garden.
No thank you. No “thing in the box,” for me.
After the service, family and friends gathered in the room set aside for food and beverages. I don’t remember what I ate or if I ate. I do seem to recall that a few of us, my sister included, snuck away for a couple of pops of whatever booze we had on hand. Vodka, I think, as that was our mother’s poison of choice and she was allowed a small tipple. And why not?
For most of the afternoon, I stayed by Mom’s side, trying to entice her to eat, while I myself had to force down a nibble of cookie or sip of coffee.
Finally, it was over and everyone left. Just the immediate family remained, all of us exhausted beyond measure.
As I stood up to go, I was stunned to feel a patch of wetness on the back of my light gray skirt. Shocked and embarrassed, I checked the chair seat to see if something had spilled on it, and then came to the realization that I had peed myself! Not much, thankfully, but it was there, nonetheless.
Holy fuck me all to hell. How did that happen?
I hadn’t felt it coming on or I would have gone to the restroom. Naturally. And to this day, I still don’t know how my body simply gave way, like that. I can only surmise that because emotionally and mentally, I wasn’t “all there,” I didn’t feel. Anything. Indeed, I was numb.
Never have I admitted this to anyone but my husband. I don’t even think my sister was aware of what I’d done. I literally flew out of that place and into the car.
So how can I reveal this to you? Because I believe you’ll understand.
Less than three weeks later, we received the second call. Again, in the middle of the night. Mom was dead. She’d kept saying she wanted to join “Lorry” and so she did. And once again, I didn’t recognize the body on the bed in the hospice room. I blinked several times, trying to clear my vision but still, I couldn’t see my mother. It was as if all the air had been siphoned from her, with nothing but skin and bones remaining. She’d already been skinny, but this was…too much.
The funeral home was quicker this time. The attendant zipped her into a burgundy velveteen body bag and away she went.
So that was the end of her.
Funny thing, or not so, depending upon how you look at it, but I don’t remember much of my mother’s funeral other than the dreaded opening of the casket, beforehand. And even that, isn’t as clear in my head as it was when I saw my dad lying in “repose,” and resembling a museum piece.
Part of me feels that this is due to the fact that my mom was never one for sentiment, cheap or otherwise. She didn’t care a whit about Hallmark holidays or birthday bouquets or the like. In a sense, I’m like her in that regard. In many ways, in fact. But Dad has his share of me, as well.
Perhaps Mom let me know from wherever she landed, that it was okay for me to block out that particular recollection. Certainly, that’s not how she would want to be remembered.
So I do my best to think of my mother in her kitchen, rolling meatballs and trying to think of ways to use up all those damned tomatoes that my father nurtured so sweetly, and so well.
I never go to the cemetery. I haven’t been in years as I don’t see the point. It’s hard enough to think of them lying side by side in the cold, hard, ground without being confronted with the reality that, six feel down in the cold, hard ground is exactly where they are…or what’s left of them.
They share one headstone that my sister “special-ordered.” I believe the design is a heart encircled with flowers and leaves and the inscription, “Sweethearts forever.” I can’t be certain though, because it’s been that long since I’ve seen it.
Rather than imagining them spending eternity in a box in the ground, I like to pretend that they’re floating above, watching as I write this, swilling vodka on the rocks and battling as they did in life.
I wonder what my mother would have thought of the “Sweethearts forever” thing. A tough, funny broad to the end, she probably would have scoffed, and then made a joke out of it.
One memory, in particular, stands out. In the hospital, while undergoing a painful treatment for hemorrhoids brought on by the chemo or some other bodily breakdown, my sister and I waited outside the room while the hospital staff did their thing.
We both jumped when Mom shrieked in pain, tears welling up in our eyes. And then we heard a low murmuring, followed by laughter.
We were told that after the procedure, Mom cracked wise, saying, “It rectum but it nearly killed me!”
The nurses loved her.
Dad, on the other hand, would be proud for the world to see they were still “sweethearts,” in spite of the heartache they frequently inflicted on one another. In spite of everything.
“Sweethearts forever,” indeed. What a pair.
© Sherry McGuinn, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Sherry McGuinn is a slightly-twisted, longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and numerous other publications. Sherry’s manager is currently pitching her newest screenplay, a drama with dark, comedic overtones and inspired by a true story.