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  • Tom Gilchrist

Another way to say goodbye

Today's Film Feeling: Magnolia (1999)

The chemo was a success. The idea now was to remove the tissues where the cancer had been so it would never come back. Everything was going well. Mom was in the rehab center after the surgery and feeling better each day.

Then a fever came. Infection had set in and she was rushed back for emergency surgery to clean it out. Biopsies showed more and different types of cancer than had originally been seen. Now we were told she would never heal.

It was time to say goodbye.

There are good things about having a kid later in life. One of the best, for me, has been getting to experience fatherhood without the petty dramas of my own youth. My little girl doesn't compete with Daddy's nagging, unrealized dreams. I still have goals, yes, but goals can be managed. Dreams seldom are, and can keep you from seeing what's right in front of you. At 48, I'd had plenty of time for both.

Life wasn't like that for Mom. She had us a little late, perhaps, but for her that meant age 25. My sister and I arrived right in the middle of prime-time for her. Right in the middle of her desire to go back to school and build a career. Right in the middle of a disintegrating marriage to an abusive alcoholic. Somehow, she pushed through; two kids, professional career, bought and sold several homes. After her divorce, she never needed another man for financial support, and she always kept her finances private even from her closest companions. She was a model of strength and independence. She was my model.

When I reached the apartment, there was surprising energy running through the place. The hospice people had been coming and going all day, duties laid out, coverage negotiated, lists of supplies and visitations compiled. Mom was propped up in her rented hospital bed in the middle of the open living room with everything meant to flow around her. She lit up and whispered my name when she saw me enter: "Tommy." Her beautiful voice had already been stolen, but she could manage three and four word whispers. There was that accustomed light in her eyes; she knew her son was home. At least I'd arrived in time for that.

Nurses and aides were pacing, making notes and dictating into their phones. Special equipment was being unboxed. Mom, center stage, still seemed startlingly alone. I sat with her and took her hand. I would spend most of my visit right here while the buzz came and went around us.

I'm embarrassed to think it, but it seemed a bit like setting up for a movie shoot.

Hospice had turned Mom into the star of the moment, one who some of the crew were reluctant to talk to. There was a director here: the hospice coordinator. His well-practiced, preacher's voice led us in a rundown of what was to come. Mom had come home to die. She wanted to do it in as little pain as she could. It was our role to support her. In his job, he'd no doubt cast this scene dozens of times before. He delivered his speech, laid out the hospice schedule, and then we never saw him again. Perhaps he was more of a producer.

Mom was sleeping now. I'd already given her my daughter's school photo and she'd drifted off with it at her side. She hadn't seemed upset that I'd come alone. I was worried that I'd been weak as a son, perhaps as a father, for not muscling through flights and hotels and car rentals with my three-year-old in tow, so that she could see her little Abigail one last time. Since Abby's arrival, we'd flown Mom out to California twice to spend the week with her granddaughter, a descendant she never thought she'd have. Coming here alone, I told myself, was the best thing for everyone. Things were changing fast. I was needed in the apartment around the clock while the hospice coverage was still being puzzled together. I canceled my hotel room and unpacked. Mom was declining very quickly, her nurse told me. Or, she could hang on for weeks, the doctor added. It became clear that any hour could be her last. There was simply no telling. It was no place for a toddler.

Back when I was a kid, Mom would have shouldered any burden for me. She'd put her life on hold, if I needed her to, and sometimes did.

Now, with my own child waiting at home, I was booked here for only three days. Life would start to unravel beyond that, I'd reasoned. This decision was weighing on me now.

Back in 1972, a six-year-old could curl up and sleep in the rear window-well of a Chevy Nova. There were no seat-belt laws back then. The spot was a perfect, private, somewhat magic place to stare up at the stars and silhouetted treetops, coming home from a weekend in the upstate woods. We'd only just met our cousins up there, ones we never knew we had, with our "Aunt" Martha, at a cabin on Greenwood Lake. Sometimes you meet such mystery relatives when you're six, and think nothing of it. These folks happened to live near us, Mom told us, so we'd be seeing much more of them when we all got home.

Mom checked the rear-view mirror and noticed I wasn't in my seat. I was star-gazing, and didn't hear her say "Tommy" with that bit of worry in her voice. The dome light popped on and she spotted me on the rear window ledge. She howled, laughed my name, and asked me how I'd liked meeting our cousins. The treetops and stars were retreating from the lights of the city. In minutes we'd take an unfamiliar exit. It was time for her to come clean.

We weren't going home. Mom and dad couldn't be together any more. We'd have a yard and a basement to play in, bigger than our Bronx apartment. Eventually we'd have our own rooms. Dad was still our dad and we'd go see him sometime. She couldn't say when.

I remember how I cried. I shouted "no" and collapsed to the seat and then to the floor. "I want to go home!" That's all I would say to her, perhaps a dozen times. I could hear her crying too, wanting to help me through it, but she was driving in city traffic now.

I felt fooled. The special weekend trip, our new cousins, I'd been eating it all up, not knowing I'd already seen home for the last time. I hated how planned it seemed, how well- executed, and all without me.

I would spend years blaming dad for not being good enough, smart enough, maybe even "man enough" to hold us together. Eventually, I'd take Mom's side a hundred times against him. But that night I took his side. The game wasn't fair, and I took it out on her tenfold. I remember this night, I think, not because of the shock, but because I made her cry. I made her feel helpless. I can't point to many other times growing up when Mom was so vulnerable. Maybe I'd go back and be stronger for her, if I could, but I'd still be six when I got there, I tell myself. I'd still be six.

Mom's sheets and bandages needed changing. The home health aide needed all three of us just to turn her, re-position the bedding, turn her again, then again, and it all caused Mom intense pain and indignity. Any doubt about leaving my daughter at home was now gone. This whole apartment was tinged with what was to come, from the labored rasp of the machine that fed her oxygen, to the necrotic scent of the old dressings.

And I was having trouble now. I wasn't daddy material. I was her son.

It was my second day, and now Mom was saying "Hail Mary" to the thin air every few minutes. Sometimes it was an expletive, other times a plea. She moaned it whenever the pain came on, and I would check the log and measure out .25 ml of morphine. This time she didn't want it. She wanted to be awake. The light was still there in her eyes, but soft, unfocused. She may have thought I was some creepy doctor making his rounds. I went on about her granddaughter until she knew it was me again. The nurse said we'd soon go up to .5 ml of morphine every hour just to keep ahead of her suffering. It was important not to chase the pain, but this meant there would also be less connection with Mom as the morphine took over. Yesterday I was her son. Today I was son, doctor, stranger, disembodied voice, whatever the drug would let in. I really had arrived just in time.

Mom whispered "Hail Mary" again and squeezed my hand gently two times. She wanted something from me. I looked at her and she gasped the words. I said "Hail Mary" back to her. Then she added "full of grace." She was praying. I used my free hand to discretely Google the rest. I hadn't prayed since I was ten. We prayed together several times until she went back to sleep. Praying together had given her some comfort the medicine hadn't. By refusing morphine she'd wake up in greater pain, but she'd also made her purpose in doing so very clear: She was still in control.

That's what death was shaping up to be. A yearning to remain yourself just a little bit longer until you finally got lost. This woman who'd modeled life for me better than anyone had, or could, was now refusing to lose her voice. She'd made her point, and I was her witness. Perhaps she even knew that I was still learning from her.

I spent that evening on the couch nearby. I managed to give her two more doses by the time the overnight aide arrived, and she slept through till dawn. This was her last painless sleep, I think.

The summer following Mom's divorce we were headed back to Greenwood Lake with the cousins, who were now also our best friends. Jason was my age, and Bridgette my sister's. It was all very natural. You would never know Mom had essentially cast them as family, or that our Aunt Martha was a professional foster parent. Enrolling us in school with Martha's kids and picking us up each night from their home in Brooklyn was similar to what many extended families might arrange, except that each month our mother wrote a check.

Soon, Mom was building that career while we were away on extended summer stays, roaming Cypress Hills by day and coming in for spaghetti and powdered milk at night. TV was black-and-white and full of old movies in the small hours, with up to eight kids laying on sheets stretched across the linoleum, some watching while the others slept. The TV was never off, and a late night movie always won the vote. I awoke one night to Abandon Ship (1957), which takes place aboard an overrun lifeboat as Tyrone Power sends the weak over the side in order to save whoever he could. I remember their faces drifting away into the murk as the boat pressed on. It's been stuck in my head all these years.

Abandon Ship! (1957)

Once school let out, it was a great adventure to return to Greenwood Lake, this time without any big surprises. There was the promise of fishing off the dock using Wonder Bread, or even from the cousins' rowboat.

Jay's friend Tulio was out on the dock one day while I was threading a rusted hook I'd dug up from the ground. Tulio wanted to make splashes with rocks, which didn't help our fishing much, but no one seemed to care. He clawed the rocks up from the mud, each larger than the last, and humped them over to the water's edge to sling them in. His final rock was the size and shape of his own square head, and he could barely heft it. He swung it out, missed the lake entirely, and bashed my skull, putting me right down.

I woke up cradled in Mom's lap while she pleaded with me not to go to sleep. She laughed and cried when I opened my eyes to meet hers. We were on the way to the hospital in our cousins' commandeered Caddy, our commandeered uncle speeding us there. I recall it, again, not because it was the first time I'd ever been knocked unconscious, or even because I certainly would have drowned had I fallen forward instead of back, but because I'd made Mom feel helpless again. I'd made her cry.

Somewhere along the way I got this idea that growing up would mean never making Mom feel that way again.

What did I know.

I'd taken over the morphine since my first day here. Mom's med list was pretty simple; morphine for pain and lorazepam for anxiety, given together if she seemed anxious. We were going up to .5ml today and then 1.0 ml soon after. Communicating would become very difficult.

It was my third day. It was time to say goodbye somehow.

I sat with her all that afternoon. Sometimes I hummed or sang songs. Those she'd sung me to sleep with were now fresh in my mind again, because I'd taken them up after Abby was born. Mom smiled faintly now to hear them. She'd always swapped "Mommy's Little Boy" into the Mills Brothers' "Daddy's Little Girl" for me. Today it was Abby's favorite song, too. Mom seemed serene when I told her that. It felt to me like some small circle had been closed.

Mom's eyes hadn't been open in a while, I thought. In fact, I would never see them open again. She was getting lost.

I held her hand and told her it was her Tommy. I had to go home to my own little girl soon. She held my hand firm, and clenched her eyes.

I'd made her cry again. It's fundamental between parents and children, I realize now. I was crying too. I felt lucky to have such a mother to cry over. I kissed her forehead and told her she would never be alone. I told her we would see each other again, and I hope we do.

I told her that her granddaughter was growing into a strong, smart, creative young woman, and all these things came to her straight from her grandma. For the few minutes we had left, I wanted to be a bridge for her, to some kind of shared future, to some part of her that wouldn't be going anywhere today.

I thanked her for making me the parent that I'd become. And then I just thanked her.

It was Sunday night.

Tuesday, by dawn, she'd died.

There aren't any movies I can think of that deal with death in the way I've seen it come to people I've loved. There are certainly no chess matches like in The Seventh Seal, or trenchant, soliloquized regrets like Jason Robards' in Magnolia, although that film rings truer with age.

Death just shrinks us. We become frail, quiet creatures clutching to one safe thing at a time -- a memory, a warm hand, a prayer, a song, or even a breath -- while persisting for just a bit longer.

It's not very cinematic.

I think if someone helps you keep ahead of your pain, you've probably set it up about right.

And if you're ever, yourself, that one safe thing that someone, especially a parent, holds onto near the end, I will agree with Jason Robards here. Let your regrets run right over you. We carry them from childhood into parenthood, and they're the forge where all the mistakes of our past can reshape into tools for the future, whether ours or our children's.

Remember all the tears you've brought to all your loved ones, in fact, and regret them. Because they're inevitable, but also because they're now gifts. They make us work to become something better than we've been.

And, taken together, they form the current for the stories of our lives.

Jason Robards and PT Anderson on the set of Magnolia. (No rights)

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