I know we are nowhere near Mother’s Day, in fact we’re on the exact opposite side of the calendar, and, amazingly, just about to put a wrap on 2018. But all week I’ve been thinking about my mother and moms in general.
In Yakima, four years ago on a sunny fall morning just days before my 65th birthday, when I would officially become an elder, Virginia Catherine (Harmon) Gable died with Starla and me sitting beside her bed. She’d waited through the whole long night before while I sat next to her in a chair holding her hand. She’d waited through the early morning while I dashed off to get a shower and change my clothes and Starla took up a post beside her.
She’d waited while Starla and I sat on the front porch of the adult family home where we had placed her only days before, not knowing how long this chapter would last. (We’d checked her out of Yakima Memorial Hospital — just across the street and two blocks from our family home of 62 years — where so many Gable dramas had unfolded. Where decades ago us kids had waved up to dad in his little window after he’d had his first heart attack — we were in elementary school and not allowed to go in to see him, though Starla snuck back later. Where even further back both Starla and I had been interred there to get our tonsils removed — one of the unneeded medical trends for kids at the time. Where I’d gone for my broken wrist just before my 12th birthday, the ignoble end of speeding down Kenny Muth’s cement driveway on roller skates. And where we’d taken mom over the last decade of her life for various, sometimes mysterious and scary, difficulties that had left her temporarily unable to speak or walk or be herself — though we had noted that this “self” was changing incrementally week by week, month by month).
She waited that morning until both Starla and I returned to her room, where roses sat quietly in a vase by her bed and her favorite Teddy bears smiled from the top of a dresser. Only then did she take her last breath. We stopped talking about nothing and, silently, looked across at each other — was that it? Yes. There was a slight pulse at her neck for a moment, but no other breath followed.
So, it was that quietly that mom began her last journey to… well, we can’t know, can we? Her face softened and relaxed as we sat with her. She even seemed to smile in a wistful way, those roses beside her catching the light from her west-facing window.
It was a quiet transition, a small wave slowing pulling back from the glazed sand. It was a tsunami of unimaginable proportions.
Then we had her body, still pliable and warm; still her in some way we could not yet fathom, though, at the same time, not her. A pastor arrived: she had meant to come talk to mom, to read her some Bible passages, perhaps hold her hand. We both sat with her. I talked about how much mom had loved the Yakima Valley, the beautiful Ahtanum foothills rising like the edges of a bowl circling this fertile land.
So the pastor suggested Psalm 121, and we read it together: “I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help. Behold, the Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.”
I liked that phrase, “thy going out and thy coming in,” as if at the beginning one bursts into the world, and at the end one returns to a place one knows somehow, though it has perhaps existed only in a shadowy corner of our mind. Where have we come from? But that question fades, and soon we’re walking, running, fully engaged in the gift of life. Until — oh, I’d forgotten about this part — it’s all wrapped up and completed: this was you, where you were born, your own parents, how you grew up, who came to love you, who you married and why, where you lived, who was birthed from your body — all of it a grand cycle that rolls on infinitely with only one’s brief appearance on stage in human form.
Then Starla and I went through the usual motions: calling friends and family, more talks with folks from the church, meeting with the funeral director, arrangements to be made, money spent. All of this, for the moment, obliterating the import: we have only one mother whose body we have shared in the most profound human intimacy, and now we are in the world without her.
Shocking. Regular. Expected. This event instructing us in the most tangible way possible about time: how we are floating on it in a tiny bubble so that we don’t really feel its passing, even as our bodies, which can’t be protected from its effects, speak to us more directly as years go by — no, you can’t do that anymore; take a nap; you need reading glasses; don’t eat that second piece of pie or you won’t sleep tonight. Losing a mother breaks the bubble.
Someone came to take her body away — he tried to be as sensitive as possible, but still, the black bag, the zippering it up, the finality of it all. The roof is ripped off our house, a category six storm, and we either stand or fall. If our parents have done their jobs, we’ve built a new structure for ourselves with a suitable and robust foundation, a life to stand up in, something they would be proud of.