Every man must bear his cross, and when his journey ends, his cross will shatter. Every fruit will wither and die. The waters will turn, the skies will darken; the rivers will cease to flow. All creatures of the earth will no longer know him, will forget his face, likewise his name. No man will be called righteous; not one of us will be more clever, more kind, more witty, more filled with the strength of spirit that once brought us comfort. For a fleeting wink of time, after death and before judgment, we are all truly brothers to every man, in every sense of the word.

    I know that it will all end quietly for me. When my last breath circles around me like a shadow, I want pretty girls to kiss me and older women to wink at me and whisper their delights. I want to owe all the money I can owe to strangers, I want to be called eccentric, and I want to be vaguely connected with an old legend about a princess and a goat. I don’t want to die stupid, I want to pass away after I’ve flushed and not before. I want to be cremated before the bugs can get me.

    I was born with a couple of birth conditions that I’m still stuck with (I always thought it was right that a guy like me should be branded). (And no, I won’t tell you what they are.)

    I’ve done plenty of stupid things on my way from birth to Ocean Park. I’ve thanked God for the good girls and the devil for the bad girls. I’ve slept in old sheds and cherry orchards and the city dump. I’ve been lost and alone, I’ve taken my comfort from the road. I’ve stared through broken windows and waited for someone to save me. My heart has a permanent ache from being in the darkness of too many nights ...

    But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

    Right about now I’m missing my mother. (Is that an odd thing for an old man to say? I hope not.) Our family lived in a small house filled with large men (each of us at least twice mama’s size). We boys raised hell every chance we got (and she was in the way). We followed the ways of our father; work like a mountain, play in the pit.

    I’m sorry for that.

    And I’m sorry we never told you that you were pretty, mama, that no one ever took you to lunch or to get your hair done. You died all alone, staring at a hospital ceiling, and perhaps at that last moment, perhaps you called out and no one could hear.

    I’m sorry for all those things.

    There comes a time in a sad woman’s life when she realizes that her death belongs only to her, that (for once) she doesn’t have to share. But where have you left your secrets? Mama, tell me about your life when you were a child. What were your dreams, mama? What were you hoping for? What was it like before you met all of us?

    After all these years, mama, I can’t remember what your voice sounded like, and that’s the biggest heartbreak of all. I can’t remember the hand you favored or the way you moved. Does that mean I don’t love you anymore? I hope not.

    Do not think this is a tribute to an amazing woman. My mother was probably nothing more than ordinary. She was a little smart and a little pretty ... a little bit of a lot of things, and not much more than that. And tonight she sleeps in the earth far away, beneath fertile ground and fading stone. No history book will ever find her.

    My mother had suffered and despaired; yet for every minute, I’m sure she was glad to be in this world. And I believe that in the end, that her duty to her life had become a chore.

    Let this be my final word. To you, mama. Grace Victoria Raynes Downing, born April 27, 1913, 100 years ago: I feel you in the wind and the rain, in blue sky and in gray. You are all the things I miss.

Your son,

Wayne

    Wayne Downing is a refugee from Seattle. He lives in Ocean Park with his wife Cecelia. His daughter, son-in-law and grandson live in Long Beach, Calif. Write to him at ethelsear@willapabay.org.

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