Sometimes it seems that a thing is not real, does not have shape or size and does not take up space in the world until it has a name. And so it was with Mom’s cancer. Although her energy remained low after her surgery the previous year, she had not been sick. She shopped and cooked and swam and saw friends, continued to build her dollhouses and lived a slower, but normal life. Until she found out she had inoperable liver cancer. That day she drove home from her doctor's office and became an invalid.
As chance would have it, her friend Martha had been visiting from Reno when the doctor’s verdict was handed up. Martha extended her stay longer than originally planned to care for Mom during the two days it took me to arrange for a cat sitter in New York, pack for an indefinite period of time and sort out the details of taking my job with me to Sacramento. Martha telephoned several times a day with distressing news of Mom’s near-hourly deterioration.
She couldn’t get out of bed. She couldn’t eat. She was vomiting all day and all night. She couldn’t last another day. Hurry. Hurry. Mom was asking for me.
After 15 hours of delayed flights, missed, canceled and re-routed connections, I arrived in Sacramento at 10PM. Martha warned me not to be shocked at Mom’s appearance and when I entered Mom’s room, Martha’s telephone predictions about impending death seemed not to have been misplaced. Mom was weak, pale and alarmingly thin – but not so fragile to prevent her from following through at once on what was to her, apparently, an urgent agenda, one for which she had been husbanding her energy for my arrival.
Mom perked up the moment she saw me, despatching Martha from the room with embarrassing speed. When she was sure I had closed and latched the door, Mom directed me to collect her papers and other items from a file cabinet in the corner.
She had always said she wanted to die at home and what Mom showed me that night were the results of her careful planning for that eventuality.
Everything was neatly sorted and arranged. Bank account cards ready for my signature so I could handle finances in her name. Checkbooks, monthly bills, tax records, medical, life and auto insurance, car registration, birth certificate, other life documents, burial arrangements, cash for daily living – everything I would need. It was all in order, all there, including - her goddamned gold.
We had argued about the Krugerrands and other gold coins she hid in those fake food tins you can buy from such places as Lillian Vernon. I always suspected the burglars read the same catalogues and know all about false-bottomed olive and tomato tins but Mom had ignored my pleas over the years to rent a safety deposit box. She was a child of the Great Depression who had, from necessity, found her first job when 25 percent of the U.S. population was unemployed and from that time forward, Mom never entirely trusted banks or the government. If they let the worst happened again, she told me, real gold and not paper money would buy a loaf of bread.
In her room the night I arrived in Sacramento, literally on her death bed, Mom poured her gold coins out of those silly, bogus food tins onto her bed as she instructed me on what I should do with them after her death.
You should have seen her, propped up against a bunch of pillows, occasionally throwing up in a bucket beside the bed, running her hands through that pile of gold coins. She loved it. Like old King Midas she was relishing the heft and the glitter and rich jingle of the precious metal. I suspected she’d done the same thing on more than one occasion of an evening home alone even before she got sick. Then, it made her feel safe. And now, because her life had a cause of death and a time frame, she knew she had been right: the gold had kept her safe clear to the end.
…to be continued…
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript