Tag Archives: Death

Endings in the Dead of Winter…

Driving up and down Oregon is something I have done a lot, but never during a winter storm. My 91-year-old mother was ailing and on hospice care. It would be only a matter of time, so I packed, got the car serviced, and headed south toward California on a Thursday morning. The December weather was worrisome. Rain poured down in a deluge and it was hard to see the road, making for slow driving, but lots of other cars were traveling south as well, cars with Oregon plates, and I found this very encouraging. I had already read online that the Siskiyou Pass on I-5 was very hazardous and icy, so I thought I’d cut across to Florence and take the coast route instead, but that road turned out to be closed. I found out later that there’d been a landslide. That left driving to Grant’s Pass and taking Highway 199 to Crescent City.

Rain turned to heavy snow south of Roseburg, but the big, fat flakes weren’t sticking to the pavement yet. There are several summits between Roseburg and Grant’s Pass, and the first one, Canyon Creek, was okay. This was the highest one, so I figured I’d make it to Grant’s Pass before snow covered the road, but at the bottom, traffic came to a halt. For three hours. Cars were backed up ahead of me as far as I could see, and they backed up behind me for ten miles at least. And there we sat. All that time, snow continued to fall, making it less and less likely I’d be able to get to Grant’s Pass. I used up a quarter tank of gas keeping the car idling and the heater on low.

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At times like this, driving alone becomes very lonely. I wished I had someone with me in the car. The woman in the black Lincoln ahead of me kept getting out to look around. She was wearing what looked like pajama pants with sock monkeys all over them.

I texted my daughter, Eithne, and she went online to find out what had happened. She texted me back that I-5 was closed. I wondered how long we’d be stranded. I got out a couple of times myself; the snow on the road was slippery. Somebody said there’d been an accident ahead at Wolf Creek which had closed the freeway. Eithne kept checking back. My sister, Carolyn, sent prayers, and after three hours, we began to move forward at a crawl to a spot where a man from ODOT gave us instructions, one car at a time. We were being sent back to Roseburg. He told me to get off at the next exit, which had been plowed, and get back on the freeway going north. They had plowed one lane of the Canyon Creek Pass, so we were able to get through. A lot of snow had accumulated during those three hours.

It was beautiful, like a Christmas card with all the tall firs and spruces covered with snow. Waterfalls cascaded down the banks bordering the freeway. The rivers raged wild, the water dark and cold.

Southbound cars and trucks on the other side of the freeway were backed up for miles. Eithne called to tell me she’d booked me a room at the Super 8 in Roseburg. I was glad she did; the “No Vacancy” sign went up right after I got there.

I was exhausted. I thought I’d have to postpone my trip and return to Portland the next day. Chains were now required on all the passes, and I am not a confident snow driver. “At least I tried,” I told myself.

Friday morning, I kept checking road conditions. By 10 a.m., the situation had improved, and I drove to Grant’s Pass. Going over the passes was a bit iffy, but I made it through. The streets were plowed in Grant’s Pass, and I headed on down Highway 199, a winding corkscrew, towards California. Plows had been through, and snow was piled up on the road shoulders—no place to pull over. Gas stations looked like you’d get stuck in them and not be able to get out. Snow had cleared by the time I got to the end of 199 and merged onto 101.

I stopped in Crescent City for clam chowder. I texted Carolyn, who was, I think, much relieved. She gave me the number of the Super 8 in Fortuna, a couple of hours south.

The motel was across the street from the Eel River Brewing Co., where I had supper—Greek salad and an excellent dark beer. A guy at the next table saw me using my Mac and asked if I write. He told me he’s writing a Sci-Fi novel and is about halfway through. He was about my age, all gray hair. So cool… a writer in Fortuna!

The drive through the redwood forests and green hills of Northern California was gorgeous—so green it was almost neon. Winter driving has its problems, but the beauty made up for it all. It was Saturday evening when I pulled my car into Mother’s driveway.

San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge

The furniture in Mother’s bedroom had been shoved aside to make room for the hospital bed, oxygen unit, commode, and boxes and trays of supplies. Mary Ann, the nurse’s aide, sat in the corner by the window.

Seeing Mother was a shock. Always slender at about 130, she was down to 91 pounds and looked like a skeleton in the hospital bed. She looked like she’d been in a concentration camp. I  told her I’d come all the way from Portland to see her. “I know who you are,” she said. I don’t think she knew me after that.

That was the start of a week-long vigil from which I still haven’t recovered.

Mother’s condition deteriorated a bit more each day. In the corner, 24 hours a day, sat the CNA caregiver. Mary Lou was there the day I came; the next day it was Rita. Both of them were wonderful. I didn’t get to know the night shift nurses as well.

The bedroom across the hall from Mother’s room had been turned into a TV room—really a junk depository—but the sofa pulled out into a bed, and that’s where I slept.

Besides me, the people in the house were Mother in the hospital bed, the CNA nurse on shift, my niece Andrea, and Yvonne, Mother’s companion/caregiver before she took a turn for the worse. Yvonne was in the process of sorting through her belongings and preparing to move out. My other niece, Jennifer, was in and out, as were my sisters, Carolyn and Rosemary.

Out in the orchard a solitary buck with a fine rack of antlers was eating fallen apples and standing on his hind legs to pick ones that were still on the tree. He was there most mornings. There were rabbits in the yard, too.

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Rabbit

On Christmas, Mother seemed to revive a bit. She was feeding herself, holding a grape and taking small bites. A book the Hospice nurse gave us said people will often rally before the end, and that was the last time Mother ate or drank. The next morning, Rita said she could no longer swallow; “Her condition has changed.”

After that, Mother was unconscious most of the time. The nurses had little moist sponges on a stick to swab out the patient’s mouth and keep it moist. Mother was even choking on those. There were long gaps between breaths, at irregular intervals. She was on oxygen all the time now, lying there semi-comatose, getting morphine at regular intervals. The nurses had seen it so much, they could say, “It won’t be tonight.” They told us it is painful to die because of the circulation shutting down, and the morphine kept her from having any pain. Mother’s hands were getting bluish and cyanotic. The night nurse, Rosa, said, “She won’t wake up again.”

We all kept going in and watching her breathe. Every time there was a long pause, we’d think she was gone, but then she’d start again.

Saturday, December 29, we wandered in and out. Mother had not eaten or drunk any fluids since Tuesday. Mary Lou said when people are about to die, there is an odor, and she was smelling it now. She said it was a spicy odor. I didn’t notice it, being there all the time, but I noticed it afterwards, and it seemed to increase even after she was gone. Mary Lou said Mother was waiting for Eithne, her other granddaughter, to come. I told Mother Eithne was coming; not that she appeared to hear me, but the hospice booklet and information I had read online said hearing is the last sense to go. It lasts until the end, so keep talking to the person. Eithne did arrive that afternoon. She said Mother responded when she touched her and spoke to her. The rest of us thought she was in a coma and perhaps no longer here at that point, so maybe she was waiting for Eithne.

We all went out to dinner at a restaurant just a mile down Carmel Valley Road. We came right back and sat in the room with Mother. We talked about movies and joked about an actor with the nicknames “Captain Tightpants” and “Captain No Pants” after a scene showing full posterior nudity. Andrea called him “Captain McBooty Buns.” We were all laughing when it happened. Mother stopped breathing. We crowded around the bed.

The nurse, Sylvia, said “It is done.” She made phone calls. Her employer told her to leave. She told me that Mother had tried to die while we were out having dinner, but then she held on and started breathing again. She waited for us to come back and felt that at last she could go when her children were all around her in the room, laughing.

What a beautiful, beautiful thing to say. 

Quartet for Three Telephones and Percussion

Gordon’s basement window is a very tight squeeze.  The casing digs into my stomach and the broken latch jabs my shoulder.  I must have gained even more weight than I realized, but no amount of fat is going to stop me now.  My foot skids sideways on the top of the washing machine and my butt slams down hard, jarring my spine. I almost drop the can of white gas.  Something clatters off the edge.  This is not the smooth, stealthy entrance I intended.  I switch on my flashlight.  Globs of spilled detergent spatter the metal surface and there is a big skid mark where I stepped in a slick spot. I shine my flashlight down at the floor. The washing machine lid handle sits in a puddle where it fell when I came in.  Gordon stepped on it when he climbed up to change a light bulb and here it is still, a year later.  The room has a moist, stagnant smell from the leaking hose in back of the washer.  I ease myself down, stretching to avoid the wetness with my sheepskin boots.  I almost make it; only a little water seeps in. I check my pockets, a clumsy task with rubber gloves on but as far as I can tell, everything is safe;  the string, cigarettes and matches made it through the tight squeeze. I scowl at the window.  It has shrunk since the last time I had to crawl through it.  So many things can change in a year.

In this damp, moldy room, though, time has stood still.  The sour wet smell, the broken handle on the washing machine, the dank seepage on the floor with disgusting clumps of lint and hair–even the window is the same with its broken latch. It is I who have changed.  I yank my shirt down. It’s always creeping up over my butt these days–Gordon would make some scathing comment.  He’s merciless about fat people.   But he still keeps calling me.  It has gotten to the point where I keep the phone unplugged a lot of the time.  He must have seen me around town lately–I would have expected my weight to make him lose interest.  But he doesn’t call because he wants me.   He calls out of sheer meanness. He never speaks; he just breathes–filling up big spaces on my answering machine.  Then he just hangs up.  I fish the lid handle out of the puddle and with a flick of my wrist, send it spinning into the darkness under the dryer, forever out of reach.

With a firm grip on the gas can, I step out of the laundry room into the main part of the cellar.  There, next to a portable stereo, is Gordon’s precious drum set. He loves to put on a cassette and play along. The clang-clang of the cowbell makes his drumming sound like a herd of cattle coming home to be milked. His enthusiasm interferes with his rhythm and it’s as if the cows have all gotten drunk on fermented ground apples. They lurch and stagger into the barn, crashing into the walls and knocking over buckets and farm equipment.  This unrhythmic clattering and pounding, with the rock music playing in the background make the whole building vibrate and Gordon throws back his head and screams.  He tosses his mane of hair. In his imagination, he’s on stage with thousands of lovesick fans fighting over him.

Tonight, though, the house is quiet. It’s a deadly, stifling quiet. It swallows me up. I’m a shadowy figment of imagination, invisible to everybody but myself.  On one hand, it’s a hollow, echoing silence stretching in all directions; but at the same time it is muffled like cotton padding, or the quilted satin inside Dad’s coffin.  Sounds would be muted inside a coffin. Closed off.  Was that why they had the casket open at the funeral, so Dad could hear what was going on?

No–they kept it open to satisfy their own morbid curiosity and to show off the undertaker’s skill. Dad hadn’t looked like himself and everyone commented on this fact: they were gratified that he looked so peaceful at last.  But I knew Dad would much prefer being left quietly alone in the dark, listening to the minute sounds of his body decomposing, eternally at one with the all but inaudible crackles his veins and arteries would make as they hardened, and the tiny snaps as the ligaments fell off his bones.

The phone rang just as I got home from the funeral and I rushed to pick it up.  But it was just Gordon’s cold breathing, then a click followed by a dial tone.  I was stunned.  How dare he mess with me when Dad just died?

It is fitting now that the house is quiet.  And for awhile, at least, Gordon will not disturb anyone with his phone calls.  There’s no point standing here in the basement–the telephones are all upstairs.  I leave the gas can beside the drums and hurry up the dark staircase to the kitchen.  The steps make reassuring creaks as I go up. They tell me I’m real.

The big wooden salad bowl on the kitchen counter makes me suck in my breath.  Gordon made the best salads… he had his own special dressing, laced with basil.  I shine my flashlight into the bowl before I can stop myself.  Two forks lie in a puddle of dressing. A few wilted pieces of Romaine are left and I fish them out hungrily. The flavor of basil mingled with balsamic vinegar and Tamari brings memories that stab like an ice pick… Gordon feeding me morsels of lettuce and avocado, both of us laughing.

There are only a few shreds of lettuce.  He and Pearl have eaten all of the avocado.

I smear my hand around in the bottom of the bowl and pop my fingers into my mouth but the rubber glove ruins the flavor.  The bitter taste brings me back to my task–I’m here to get Gordon’s telephones, not to scavenge his leftovers.

The bedroom phone was the one Gordon used most, lying sprawled across his enormous king-sized bed… But the bed is not where it was–the whole room is wrong!  I dart my flashlight around in bewilderment.  Instead of Gordon’s sunny wicker furniture are brooding, Victorian antiques.  The four-poster bed has a fringed canopy with dusty pink roses all over it.  Roses are everywhere–vases of them, and strands of silk rosebuds festoon the windows and circle the big mirror over the dressing table. A ponderous-looking dresser and two matching night stands complete the new furnishings.  Tassels and fringes hang from dozens of throw pillows and from draperies thrown over the dresser and bedside tables. Mirrors and Maxfield Parrish prints in heavy frames decorate the walls.  White Victorian lace curtains have replaced Gordon’s wooden blinds.  Colored glass perfume bottles and dainty little boxes clutter the dressing table.  Pearl lives here?  This is even worse than I thought…  I throw open the closet doors and glare at the frilly dresses and long flowing skirts.  I use my flashlight to peer at some of the labels:  All size 7, or “small.”  My own shadowy bulk reflected in the mirrors tells me that I am not “small.”  In my dumpy sweats, I look like a bad-tempered geriatric nurse.

He never asked me to move in…  They haven’t even known each other that long and here she is, decorating his house!  I grab the phone, a white-and-gold antique-looking job and jerk the cord out of its jack.  Nurse?  No–I’m a doctor, performing emergency surgery.

“You fool, Gordon,” I mutter.  “She’s useless.  If I’d moved in, the first thing I would have done was clean up that laundry room of yours.”

As I turn to leave, my flashlight beam spotlights a framed photograph on the wall beside the door.  Gordon, all in spandex and black leather like a rock star.   “To My Gorgeous Rock God–All my love, Pearl” is scrawled across the bottom. Usually, people sign their own photo, but Pearl has given Gordon a portrait of himself to moon over.

“She worships my drumming,” Gordon told me when he left me.  “She worships me. I feel like a god when I’m around her!”

About the drumming, all I could manage was a tactful silence.  Pretend I liked it?  Act worshipful?  I just couldn’t.  But Pearl was willing to treat him like a god.  Does that mean she loved him more than I did?  Or did my stubborn honesty mean that I loved him more?  I drive myself crazy with questions like that, going over the same thing again and again; and even if I did figure it out, it would make no difference.  Gordon has made his choice.

The rest of the house is scarcely recognizable but I try not to notice as I gather up the phones.  Only the basement has not changed, and I will soon fix that…

It’s so easy, almost anticlimactic to arrange the three telephones around the gas can in the center of Gordon’s drum set. The roll of string comes out of my pocket and dips itself in the fuel almost before I know it is happening.  A loose screw lies on the cement and I tie one end around it to make a sinker and lower it into the open can.  The soaked cord uncoils to stretch into the laundry room and out the window, but for me there will be no more tight squeezes.  I am now free to go back up the stairs like the lady of the house and let myself out through the back door, making my exit far more elegant than my humiliating entrance.

I stroll down the narrow path beside the house to retrieve the end of the string and the black trench coat I stashed outside the basement window.  The coat is a definite improvement. It smoothly conceals the baggy sweats and gives me the look of an undercover agent.

The back yard is terraced and I sit on a low stone wall to wait for Gordon to come home.  He’ll charge down the stairs three at a time with his fire extinguisher but it will be too late to save his beloved drums.  And the phones?  They’ll have melted by the time he puts the fire out.  I clap my hand over my mouth to hold in my gleeful chuckling.

It’s a long, freezing wait.  My fingers and toes are stiff and I’m shivering, my excitement evaporated long before the car drives up. All I can think about now is getting warm.  At last, the light comes on in the bedroom. I glance down at the end of the string next to my feet. I wait until the light goes off. I take out the pack of cigarettes.

It takes almost a whole book of matches to light one.  It’s hard to light a cigarette in a night wind under the best of circumstances.  Shivering and with rubber gloves on, it is almost impossible.  And there’s the truth of it; inside my snazzy trench coat, I’m just a fumbling amateur.  A professional would have brought a lighter, the push button kind that gloved fingers could operate with no problem.  Something to keep in mind if I decide to make a career of this…

At last, miraculously, one of the matches stays lit long enough to ignite the tobacco.  I take a long drag to suck in a little warmth and immediately choke on the harsh smoke.  My eyes water and I lose the cigarette as my hands fly to my mouth to stifle an explosion of coughing.  I stopped smoking several months ago; it’s the reason I gained weight.  “Idiot!” I curse myself as I search the bare ground.  The cigarette lies next to a flower pot, still cheerfully burning, and I place it with the unlit end against the string.  I should have plenty of time to get away before it burns down to ignite the cord.

Sunday Scribblings – Fire