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Friday, 06 August 2004

A mother's final, best lesson: postscript

category_bug_journal2.gif On the day we returned to our respective homes, Joe to San Francisco and me to New York, Joe drove me to the Sacramento airport. After four months of getting to know one another in round-the-clock intimacy of caring for a woman we both loved, the parting was painful. We were both teary, but neither of us doubted we would be in touch often and we promised to follow up on our plans for Joe to visit me soon in New York.

Mom’s friend, Barbara, was becoming my friend, Barbara, and we phoned several time a week after I left Sacramento. At first, she spoke mostly of the times she and Mom had shared over the years and how alone she felt without Mom. Now we were discovering our own commonalities.

When the phone rang one day about two weeks after I got home, it was the first time I had heard Joe’s voice since we had left Sacramento. He was hesitant and a bit distant. He said he had tried to write a dozen letters to me, but the words wouldn’t come and now the telephone seemed the only right way to say what he then blurted out:

“I’m gay and I’m HIV-positive.”

It hit me like a punch in the gut. If, in the 1980s and 1990s, and you had made your home in Greenwich Village for a long time, you could not escape the scourge of AIDS. I had already buried too many people I loved – many of them not much more than boys - and my oldest, dearest, closest friend, who lived in Los Angeles, was HIV-positive too.

Joe had not told me in Sacramento, he said, because he didn’t want to increase the burden I already bore. But he was surprised I had not guessed because of the AZT pills he swallowed at regular times of the day and the several rest breaks he took – both required to maintain his health.

I had assumed the pills were vitamins, and Joe had made so many of the household chores his own, I hadn't noticed rest breaks. It wasn't fair. I wanted to scream and yell and cry and when we hung up the phone, I did. I had found a second brother with whom I had connected so closely, and now the spectre of his early death would shadow everything between us.

We humans are remarkably resilient in the face of horror, and Joe and I had an outstanding ten days together when he stayed with me in September. Joe had never been to New York and he took to it like a native. The subway was an adventure and instead of seeing the dirt and grime and noise, he liked its speed and convenience. We visited museums and walked through Chinatown and went to a Broadway play. We took advantage of the variety of restaurants and we shopped the Bleecker Street stores for cooking at home.

Joe saved my life one evening with the Heimlich maneuver when a piece of cheese caught in my throat.

Joe agreed with me that among the abundance of spectacular architecture in New York City, the Chrysler Building outshines them all. He was as much in love with New York as I have always been and he said, at the end of his visit, that more than anything else, he wanted to walk the winding Greenwich Village streets during a snowfall.

So we planned a February visit.

Late in the year, Barbara phoned with terrible news: a tumor had been found in her brain. Surgery was to be immediate, but the doctor warned about damage to her brain, though there was no hope at all without the surgery. The doctor’s concern proved true. Barbara and I spoke briefly on two, maybe three occasions following the surgery and then her son told me she no longer recognized anyone. Barbara died a month later.

In the days before Joe’s February arrival, I was glued to the weather reports. It was cold, flurries were predicted with a light dusting of snow, but no big storm: good for airports, bad for Joe’s wish. I sent entreaties to the gods. I got my mojo working and some good juju too. I lit a few candles and prayed the weatherman was an idiot.

There were light flurries in the air, nothing serious, when Joe arrived in the late afternoon. We talked and chattered and reminisced for a couple of hours. I cooked dinner and we lingered over the last of the bottle of an excellent Bordeaux I’d saved for his visit. Afterwards, Joe helped clean up the kitchen and wash the dishes, and when I peeked out the window around 10:30, I was giddy to see that my mojo had caused the weatherman to fail. Already, there was more than half a foot of snow on the ground and I could tell it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.

Joe and I giggled like kids as we bundled up in our coats and scarves and hats and gloves and we were the first, on some blocks, to make footprints in the snow. There was enough of it piled on parked cars that it was easy to ignore them and imagine we were walking in the Village a hundred years before when these same houses were lit with gaslight. When we listened carefully in just the right way, we could almost hear the clip-clop of a horse and carriage around the corner. Joe said the walk was more than he had hoped for and the best thing that had happened to him in ages.

Joe didn’t have as much energy on this second trip to New York. One day, we cut short a visit to the Metropolitan Museum when his entire being seemed to deflate as weariness suddenly overcame him. His enthusiasm for the city had not waned, but his ability to keep going all day had. Nevertheless, by pacing ourselves, we checked off everything on Joe’s list before he went home.

Although we talked about Joe returning to New York and even fantasized now and again about his moving to the city, he became steadily more sick over the next year and a half and spent increasingly more time in and out of the hospital for new treatments. Each took more out of him.

Sometimes, when Joe was too weak, I talked with his caregiver, Jack. By mid-1994, Joe was no longer capable of speaking on the phone at all. In October, Jack said I should come. The end was near.

Jack was sitting on the front stairs of his home when a taxi dropped me there from the airport. He was crying as he hugged me and said Joe had died at the hospital while my plane was still in the air.

There was a memorial for Joe a few days later at the Bay View Boat Club where he was a member. That’s “boat,” not “yacht” club, as befits those like Joe who loved sailing more than any kind of status. His friends told me he had often talked about me in the years after Mom died and about his two trips to New York. And they said he always called me, “my sister."

Some weeks after I returned home, Joe’s friends scattered his ashes near the Farallon Islands, about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco.

There is no revelatory conclusion here. No grand enlightenment. No flash of wisdom gained. Joe and I, and Barbara too, had been the tight little family surrounding and protecting Mom in her last days. Two-and-a-half years later, there was only me to tell this story.

                                        - Finis -

A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
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

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 03:21 AM | Permalink | Email this post


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You really owe it to yourself to read the whole series (links are provided at the end of the postscript) because it is one of the best things on the web, I kid you not. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 16, 2004 12:29:28 PM


What a remarkable record of an unimaginably difficult time. You have got me crying again... My best friend's mother died yesterday after a long battle with cancer, throughout which my friend nursed her. I will be telling her to read your beautiful series when she feels stronger.

Thank you so much.

Unlike Jeanne, I have no cause for the tears that are rolling down my cheeks beyond having read your postscript. Ronni, your words (and the events that they tell) are truly moving. Thank you, once again, for sharing this wonderful story with us, your readers.

I'm afraid that if we deny the reality of death in life, then we close ourselves off to the rest of what is real and incomprehensible and wonderful in life. These warm, respectful stories gently help us to open our eyes and put us in contact. It has been a great series, a thing of great substance. I wish it could have a broader, more enduring life than is possible from the blog medium.

As you know, your series has helped me through a bad time recently. We make connections in life, and inevitably as we age, the losses pile up. With each, we are stronger. But the acceptance never really completely comes, and the memories are all we have left. Thank you so much for sharing what I can see is pain softened only a little by time.

I sit here with tears rolling down my cheeks. I had planned to read all you wrote about your Mother this the past Mother's Day, but I did not, following the recent loss of a family member of my own.

Previously, I not only hadn't taken the time to read this full account, but after a light skimming here and there, I didn't have the courage to do so.

Today, I thought I just might be ready to allow myself to experience the full feeling impact of the words here.

There is much with which I can identify. There is, also, much with which I have had no personal experience. I can only say at this point in time, how profoundly moved I am by what I've read.

Oh my, oh my. What a wonderful, loving daughter you are. Such a tale i have not heard told so exquisitely honestly, crisply, graphically. The timing for me in reading this is exquisite, too. What guts you have. What awareness. Like you, i couldn't find it in myself to honor my mother far earlier in her life and in mine. Maybe it is never too late. You had the very end of her life to bring you together w her and w your "family" and... with yourself. Thank you for this gift of your narrative.

Ten years ago I lost my best friend - my Mother Rose at age 83. The loneliness and acceptance has been hard for me because sometimes it is better not to be too close to one's parents. My Mom had heart trouble and other ailments and also wanted to die because My Dad had died in '91 after an eleven year battle with prostate cancer. When I read this story, it made me realize that others too - share such pains and reflections and this story was like a trip down my memory lane. Thank you for allowing me to read it.


Your writing is incredibly beautiful, and I very much appreciate the honesty and grace of your words. Thank you for sharing this.


I couldn't stop reading your story and identified so much with your experiences and thoughts as I also took care of my father at home when he was dying of liver cancer.
I was living in Australia and
had to leave my daughter with my ex for several weeks, which was very hard. I know how difficult it is and felt unprepared for the demands. There wasn't much aupport from the rest if the family. except for my nephew sand as couple of old friends

But, like you, I thought my father was teaching me how to have courage in the face of death.

A really fine,well-written, poignant piece.

Oh Ronni:
I finally took the time to read your beautiful series. I was profoundly affected. This is some of the best writing I've ever seen.
Have you considered a memoir?
More should read this. The lessons are rich and meaningful.

I spent the morning reading these profound, beautifully written words that flowed so directly from your heart. I sat quietly for awhile, unable to respond, touched so deeply that words didn't come, only quiet tears. In addition to being so deeply moved by your experience, my identification is strong. While your mother was dying, my husband, who I loved very deeply, was dying of lung cancer. I kept a journal through those times to save my sanity thinking someday I would write his story. Perhaps some day I will be able to that and it will be called: Let's Drink the Good Wine. That was his response to my determined optimism about his potential treatment outcomes in the weeks after his initial diagnosis. He said, "I'm perfectly willing to be optimistic, but let's drink the good wine." Eleven months later, continually demonstrating amazing courage and deep caring while he continued to live life fully until he couldn't anymore, he died at home. It was our choice too.

Thank you, Ronnie. Thank you very much. There's no way I can express how much I appreciate what you have written. Blessings to you, ~ Sil

Ronnie, as I read this, it brought tears to my eyes, and I thought of two similar stories in my own life, and of how doing for them brought more to me than I could possibly have given to them. This lesson is one that cannot be too often repeated; your telling of it is something I will never forget.

Ronni, this eleven part series is the best writing I've encountered in decades. Your story telling is so well done. You are a real voice in my head, narrating your tale. I smile and laugh and cry as I listen to you. Thank you.

Thank you for this - My father was in a hospital when he died, unexpectedly, and my mother in a nursing home also died unexpectedly (also, she had dementia) so I was both blessed (I thought at the time) and denied the experience you had with your mother. Thank you for such a clear description of what I missed (and I don't mean that ironically). And I'm grateful that you had the faculty and talent to make the description so artful. Thank you for your honesty in the sharing.

Painfully profound piece exceptionally written.

Ronnie, I was in your shoes just 11 years ago that seems like yesterday. My journey was 9 months and there were days that I didn't think I could go on but just the sight of my mothers beautiful face made me go on. It was a struggle but a lesson for me and I pray that I will have the privilege of being with loved ones when my day comes. You are beautiful and you write it down with meaning. Thank you

As I am getting of an age when "arrangements should be made", I thank you for showing me exactly what will happen (if I'm fortunate) for my daughter.
I will encourage her to read your story, in order to prepare her.
Thank you from both of us.

Thank you once again. This is most inspirational for me.

What a beautifull history i am a private care giver in antioch california and i know what u whent thou i love my job but it take all my energy i learn so much from each of them is a sad experiece but thats thru we know how to live or survive but not all whant to take a time to live the experience to take care of their parent the last days of life u did good whem i see pacients die i ask my self where in the world are the family.so sad but truth.

Thank you for sharing this intimate part of your life. We all can benefit from your words.

I read every word. Thank you for sharing.

As I read your story, I was reminded of my four month "end of life" journey with my Mom - a woman who absolutely adored. Although it's now 7 years since that journey, often it seems like only a few months ago. In your heart-felt, beautifully expressed words, you captured so much of the emotions and many of the experiences the journey leads us through. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Typed in "memory loss" and ended up on your site. Wonderful! All is said already. Wholeheartedly agree with everybody's accolades. I'm going to take the time to read more on your site in the near future. Your writing is exquisite. Thank you so much for translating emotion in words.

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