Posted by Irmgarde Brown
The core of this story my mother told me. But the details are mine.
I was sitting at the kitchen table working on my English homework. English was my favorite subject. It was late and I guess the light at the table was bothering my mother who wasn’t feeling well and trying to sleep. It was just one large room, our apartment. There was a coal stove for cooking and heating and sink for washing up, but only cold water from the tap. We had a settee and a soft chair where my father would sit to listen to the radio. There were two beds: my mother and I slept in one and my father and brother slept in the other.
My mother called out to me, “Herta, come to bed. Come and lie beside me. Herta.”
“In a minute. I will. Just let me finish this. In a minute, I promise.”
I didn’t realize that those would be the clearest words I would hear from her again. By the next day, she was struggling to breathe. Her slow labored breaths made such a terrible sound. She didn’t get out of bed again. And I sat with her then.
After he came home from school, I told my brother to try and find a doctor, anyone to come and help her. He didn’t know who to ask. He knocked on a few doors but no one was home. My father was at the barber shop working. He worked long hours, often ten hours a day, at only ten cents a hair cut.
I tried to get her to drink some tea. But it only made her start coughing when I tried to raise her head. Her eyes wept when she looked at me. She couldn’t speak. She tried, but only a few words I couldn’t understand. Maybe my name or Harry’s or my father. Once, I thought she called for one of her sisters. I wasn’t sure. And so I sat there because I didn’t know what else to do.
Finally, my father came home. He told me to make him something to eat and then he stood by her bed. I couldn’t hear what he said to her, but I could tell she was listening. He held her hand. He pushed hair back from her face.
I don’t remember what I made. Maybe it was potatoes. We didn’t have much. My father and Harry ate at the table. I couldn’t eat. I sat. And then they sat with me, the three of us, sat around her bed.
“Papa, can’t we get a doctor? Go to the pharmacy and get her something.”
“Herta, it is too late. She is dying. Her heart is not strong enough. We always knew. She knew. She warned me.” And he said no more.
Harry went to bed. I fell asleep in the chair, my head against the side of the bed. When I woke up, my father was still there. He did not go to the barber shop. Harry didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to school. We watched my mother die.
The silence was punctuated by her breaths which became slower and slower.
For three days we sat, sometimes sleeping, sometimes eating, but never far from her side. And then, I heard it and I saw it, her last breath, like a deep sigh, every last breath was released. She left her body in that sigh. She didn’t linger. She left.
My father rose. He pushed her eyelids down and then he washed his hands and face in the white bowl. He turned to me. I couldn’t look at him. I only looked at her.
“Wash her body after we leave. The bed clothes will be soiled. Dress her and comb her hair. I will go to her sister’s house and ask for a wagon to take her to the graveyard. I will ask her sister’s husband for a loan to pay for the gravedigger. Harry will go with me. Don’t wait. You must clean her before her body becomes stiff.”
And I was alone, at fifteen, with my dead mother’s body. I had never washed a dead body. I had never seen a dead person in my life. I cried. Hard. It wasn’t fair. None of it.
My aunt had promised to make me a new dress, a red dress, for my birthday. But now, there would be no red dress, only another black one. And every birthday after that would no longer be mine, but hers.
I washed my mother’s thin arms and legs. I washed her small breasts and sunken stomach. I rolled her from side to side to remove the sheet and thin blanket. There was a smell. I found two towels and put them under her. I pulled a dress up across her body. It was her better dress. Would she need underpants? For what? Should I put stockings on her? What would be the point? I covered her legs, up to her waist, with a blanket from my father’s bed. I pulled her hair back with side combs and tried to put back her wave. I folded her hands on top. Should I take off her wedding ring? I did. I put it on my own hand. Forever, I thought.
But, of course, it wasn’t forever. It was only one of the many things I would sell or trade, later on, during a war that we couldn’t imagine would happen again.
Posted by Irmgarde Brown
We were teenagers together. We talked into the night. We created songs together. We dreamed dreams. We loved being friends. We were the real deal.
Mary was forever: the rock of a small quartet of girls who navigated the sixties in a thrum of social upheaval. Mary, tall and seemingly powerful, resilient and self-confident, she was the magnet and in many ways, the de facto leader. She was the stable one. She had the traditional home life. She was smart and she was talented, a voice to die for, a smile that lit the hearts of her friends. But she was not the traditional beauty of that era. She was not blonde or petite or giggly. Mary would come into her real prime as a woman . . . and so she did.
Where Mary was the regal big girl, Becky was the slight, soft-spoken one. Becky seemed fragile but with a sincerity of heart that spoke kindness and love. Self-deprecating, she always spoke better of others than she did of herself. She had her own form of stability, but it was deeper. She was the the non-judgmental one; she was the one who accepted everyone around her at face value; she believed in the good of people, even the ones who hurt her and betrayed her. Also brilliant, Becky was our philosopher.
Jennie was our conscience in the face of change. We actually lost her to the times. It was 1968, the year MLK was assassinated and black power became a force to be reckoned with. She had to choose between the love of friends, that is, her white friends, and a future where she would have to make place as a black woman. Blacks of that time were asserting their identity; it was important to be black, to be proud, to be strong in the face of prejudice. But we didn’t think it needed to affect our group, we loved freely, we were true friends. But for her, it was a moment of crisis. Her black friends had challenged her, had questioned her “blackness.” She,too, was brilliant, but even that aspect of herself had to be set aside for the sake of identity and the black Muslim culture. We lost her that spring, right before graduation: she moved on to another life without us.
And who was I in that day? A poor girl trying to escape her foreignness, her Latvian-ness, her unstable home life, her fears, her self-loathing. I wanted to be like anyone else, just not me.
Mary’s home had been a refuge. Her pastor father (Gordon) always seemed accepting and gentle. Even if he was protective and conservative, it never came across as anger or vindictiveness. He was steady. And kind. To me. Mary’s mother, Edith, was another rock. Clearly, Mary’s stature and security seemed rooted in the genes of her mother. Edith was a servant, a traditional mother, who made cookies and kept her kitchen clean and aromatic. She would sit at the kitchen table with us . . . with me . . . and listen. Her listening spoke of respect for us, despite our age and our inexperience. She was interested in our ideas. She grieved for my home life–and Becky’s. Years later, I would be comfortable enough to spend two weeks in their home, playing scrabble, and becoming one of their beloved “strays.” Gordon died in 2006. Edith, at 96, is in hospice now. She is not remembering, not every day at least, that her daughter is dying too. Will they pass together? I would not be surprised.
Mary is dying. How can that be? How do I embrace a truth of that magnitude and not somehow “do” something. Can’t I stop the inevitability? Can’t I pray the right prayer? Can’t I be the “Good Witch of the West” and wave my magic wand to stop this travesty of human loss?
My tears will not keep her here. Nor will my anger or indignation. Nor my pleas to the God of my faith.
How often have I really seen her since those teen days, those magical days when we bonded hearts in such a way that even a lifetime of loves and experiences and travels and change could not break our bond? Not so many visits, not really. We were so sure of our friendship that we didn’t really worry much about the time or the distance. Whenever we did connect, we just started right there. Whether we sat in a boat in the Magothy River or lounged in her parents’ cottage in Mayo, Maryland or got all dressed up and celebrated a family wedding or birthday, we believed in that undying friendship. We made it so.
Yet, Mary is dying.
She was the one who filled her life with adventures from Canada to Nepal to months on a sailboat; Mary was always seeking, seeking, seeking. She cast aside her traditional God understanding and tried on a few extremes but then eventually, found a way to unite them all within herself into a magnificent wholeness. She walked labyrinths and sat in sweat lodges; she sang hymns and tribal chants; she wandered the universe within and she learned about the voice of silence. She found love in Jim and their marriage challenged her as much, if not more, than her wilderness experiences. But, she remained the rock, even for him, and then for her two girls, Hilary and Ariana, as well. She learned with them and through them. She went back to school and picked up that formal credential to do something she had already been doing all her life: helping others be themselves.
Mary is dying.
Mary is living on. She will cross into a new kind of life and her greatest adventure of all time begins. She leaves a legacy of love. She leaves a plethora of friends who call her cherished. Her daughters will fill jugs with their tears and yet Mary will drink them, in gratitude for their trajectories launched. They will be all right. And even Jim, husband of three decades, will find her spirit near to under gird the sorrow days and nights. He will be all right too.
But will I? Will Becky? Would Jennie, if she knew, even after all this time? Mary was a presence that we counted on, maybe only once a year or even less, and yet, we knew the tether from 1964 remained unbroken . . . until now. Our grief will be different than the immediate family. We can pretend for longer that she’s still there. And so, I predict, there will be odd drifts of grief that will overwhelm us in the months to come. It will feel fresh and immediate. And memory will have to be enough but never will be. Until we meet again. There.
Mary is dying.
Mary is living on.