I didn’t have trouble accepting the fact that my mother had died. I had been at her bedside almost every day of the six weeks that elapsed between the moment she elected not to have painful and dangerous surgery that might have extended her life for a few years and the moment she finally died. It had been weeks since she stopped speaking, weeks since she had last opened her eyes. Her doctors did not know if she could hear, how much she was aware of her surroundings or if she could still feel pain. The palliative care team continued to regularly administer the medications that lessened the possibility of pain and her loved ones watched for any signs of physical or emotional distress. That last evening I was sitting by her bedside with my hand resting on her chest to monitor her heartbeat and her respiration. And so I felt the last beat of my mother's heart.
My mother was gone. The ache in my heart was not for her, it was for my father sitting there on the other side of the bed. He had loved her above all other living things for more than sixty years and now he was going back to the home haunted by her absence.
I never worried about my mother's fate after her death. If she was right about God then she was in heaven with the people she had loved and lost. If I was right about god then her consciousness had ceased to exist.
I didn’t worry about her but I missed her. During the last years of her life, as her health and energy failed, I had spent more time with her than I had since I was a child. When I read the news I looked for things that would interest her. When I went to the grocery store I looked for food that she liked. We planned our weeks around her, our weekends around her and our holidays around her.
My father decided to sell the place they had shared for so many years because he saw her absence everywhere. My sister and I helped him go through here things and as we do so we found tokens from her in the back of drawers and cupboards--things that had meant much to her and which she had carefully wrapped and labeled with my name or my sister’s, each with a handwritten message explaining what the thing had meant to her.
I missed her more rather than less as time went by.
I have never been someone who enjoyed housekeeping, yet one day I realized as I was stripping the bed, that I was feeling strangely cheerful. “Stripping the bed” was my mother’s phrase for the entire process of cleaning out each bedroom done each weekend. The windows were opened wide, all the linen taken from the bed, the mattress turned, floor mats hung out the windows, and floor swept. Then the linen had to be put back on without a wrinkle or a crease. Every book had to be put away, every item of clothing hung up and all the shoes aligned on the floor of the closet. In fact it was the “at home” version of getting a room “ready for inspection” as if one was living in Army barracks. As a teenager I had always found this annoying as much for my mother’s cheerfulness throughout the whole process as for any work involved.
The cheerfulness I felt seemed not to come from within me but from a presence keeping me company. I was not alone. Just there in the corner of my eye I could see....well, it wasn’t my mother as I had ever seen her, but somehow I knew it was her. It wasn’t the woman whose hand I had held as she died. It wasn’t the mother I remembered from my childhood. It wasn’t the woman in the Sergeant’s uniform in the picture that hung on the wall by my father’s chair. But yet it was my mother, I knew that. She didn’t say anything that first day, nor did I say anything to her--she was just kept me company as I went about my work.
One day several weeks later, as I was scrubbing a resistant spot in the bathtub, I thought a question at her presence: “Why were you always so cheerful as you worked around the house?” The presence seemed to chuckle back at me, “Think of all that lovely hot water!.” Then I remembered that my mother was born in a house with no hot water. In fact, their only toilet facilities were chamber pots and an outhouse and the only plumbing in the house was a pump in the kitchen. If you wanted a bath you pumped the water into a pail in the kitchen and then carried it up the stairs to your bedrom where you emptied the water into the bathing tub you had dragged into the room. Then you walked down the stairs, filled up the pail again and carried it back up the stairs until there was enough water in the tub to bathe in. If you wanted a hot bath then the water had first to be pumped and heated to near boiling in a massive pot on the top of the wood burning stove and finally carried it up the stairs again.
"Yes," said my mother's presence:
The wood that was fed into the fire in that stove wasn’t delivered to house. It came from trees that were cut down by my grandfather, my father and my brothers. They cut down the trees themselves and they hauled them back to the house and they chopped them into kindling.
And then, after all the work had been done, the clothes cleaned, the dishes cleaned, the floors cleaned, after all that had been done we might have time to sit down and read a book. Or study for class. By candle or by gas lamp. We didn’t have electricity until long after I grew up and left home.
We didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing when I was born. We didn’t have it when my brother was born. We didn’t have it on that cold winter night when my youngest brother was born and my mother started hemorrhaging after the doctor left and my father got on one of the horses without stopping to saddle it and rode desperately after the buggy trying to catch him and bring him back. We had neither electricity nor running water when my mother almost bled to death and the doctor operated without either to save her life.
I could barely dream, when I was a little girl, of someday living in house that was always warm in the winter and cool in the summer instead of the other way round. I could hardly dream of living in a house where there was always clean hot water whenever one needed or wanted it. I could hardly dream of living in house where there was always enough light to read no matter the time of day or night.
"How did you manage all that," I asked her. "How did you get through those hard days and hard winters?"
My mother and I have been sharing these moments for months. I understand now why she reveled in comforts of modern life that I take for granted. I understand why cooking and cleaning could be exercises of joy rather than hard work. The mother who visits me as I clean is the same woman who excitedly flung open the back door one day years ago, thrust a sociology textbook in front of her teenaged daughter and proclaimed triumphantly, “We’ve made it to the upper middle class.” My mother never forgot that her present comfortable circumstances were due to good fortune as well as hard work. She had watched people die from blood poisoning and pneumonia. She danced with young men who died when their ships were sunk when next they escorted troop carriers across the North Atlantic. My mother, in the words of the psalm, “made a joyful noise to the Lord,” for she understood that she had been born in a good place, at a good time, to good people. She had had the opportunity to have her hard work rewarded but she knew that there were many who worked just as hard with little to show for it.
And thus as time passed I came to better understanding of the woman I had known all my life, but I still didn’t understand why she looked as she did. Until the day my sister found a picture of my mother and my father taken by a friend the summer before they got married. That’s the mother I catch a glimpse of the corner of my eye -- the young woman who is happy and excited with her arm wrapped around the man who has invited her to join him in the next great adventure of her life. Death freed her from the worn body that ached constantly and failed her often and left her free to become a companion to her daughter--happy, pain free and forever young.
 My mother may have been a devout Catholic but her views on the afterlife were definitely not those of the Vatican hierarchy. She believed that death would be like waking from a deep sleep and opening her eyes to see around her all the people and animals she had loved and who had died before her. She didn't think there would be a dog "like" our beloved pet; she was certain that he had a soul and therefore would have preceded her to heaven. In heaven there would always be rabbits that ran fast enough to be fun to chase but slow enough to be caught. And dead fish to roll in and no more baths.↩
The Slacktiverse is a community blog. Content reflects the individual opinions of the contributors. We welcome disagreement in the comment threads, and invite anyone who wishes to present an alternative interpretation of a situation to write and submit a post.