And life goes on.
The attendant who came in as I was finishing Good King Wenceslas looked alarmed as she bent toward my Mother. “Has she passed?” I asked her.
“I was just here a few minutes ago” she replied as she tried to feel a pulse.
She got a stethoscope and summoned a nurse but that was not going to change anything. One of the attendants who I’d kibitzed with for the four years Mom had been on the wing entered Mom’s room in tears. She told me how my Mother was her favorite. That’s astonishing enough since about all my Mother could do was sing a tuneless “Wai, Wai, Wai,” duet with whatever song I was singing to her. Rarely she would surprise me by saying “I love you.” There was no point trying to keep my tears back.
As I left my Mother’s mortal remains behind in her room I made a couple phone calls. The first was to my estranged sister who had planned to come up the next day to make sure someone was with Mom while her heart still beat. She had agreed to travel to Duluth the next day, Saturday, while I traveled with my son-in-law’s family for their traditional Winter get-together. My daughter, Josh’s new wife and the mother of his two new boys, couldn’t make the trip because she’s taking a once-a-semester two-day class in the Twin Cities for her otherwise online class. Neither could Claudia because she had a Friday Class at her Seminary which was also in the Twin Cities. They would be gone for two nights leaving my new son-in-law with two rambunctious boys. Their overnight absence would cost them both to miss seeing little Jacob’s preschool production of the Disney movie “Frozen.” They would have to catch it on video which new Dad, Josh, would record before departing solo for his Company Christmas party. The planning for this busy day had left the boys in my care for the night. Moreover, I had been asked at the last minute to be a replacement “narrator” by the Preschool of the Fine Arts.
In fact, I had only popped in to see my gravely ill Mother that morning for a quick check to see how she was doing. I was scheduled to head over to the school for one final full dress rehearsal before that evening’s performance. I had just experienced the curtain closing on one show while the next was was preparing for final early morning dress rehearsal.
At my Mother’s passing my Sister’s desire to visit ceased with Mom’s final heartbeat. I told Becky of my near miss having arrived for a lone Christmas carol during which Mom passed. Becky told me of a premonition. The previous night she and her ex, a long-time caretaker of my Mother, her son, my namesake, all simultaneously began playing solitaire. She recalled that my Mother had played the game ad infinitum while they all lived together. She told me that she felt Mother’s spirit in the room as they all played cards. Such were the thoughts of our family’s Buddhist and they weren’t much different than mine, as an agnostic.
I called my Brother next and relayed to him my sister’s thoughts on next steps that would be required. This was a longer call. By now I was in my car prepared for a race to the morning rehearsal but I found myself “bridged.” I was stuck in traffic. It’s a phenomenon unique to Duluth, Minnesota’s Park Point the Earth’s longest fresh water sand bar. The peninsula was severed from Duluth by a canal a hundred years ago. For decades it has remained connected to the mainland by its Ariel Lift Bridge that raises its span to admit ships into St. Louis Bay behind the sandbar. A half mile of cars was stopped while a big Canadian Ore boat cruised into our harbor. That was when the funeral parlor answered my call. I explained that I would be back to see my Mother near noon because of my pressing need to rehearse for my grandson’s holiday program. I would meet their staff a few hours later when they could pick Mom up. Although Mom had died at 9:30 AM the funeral home would record her passing as having taken place at 10:15 when an actual nurse was available to confirm the fact.
As the Bridge lowered its span about to release me from the Point I had one more call to make. It was to my wife Claudia, and my daughter, Keely. They were en route to the Twin Cities. When I reached Claudia she asked how things were. She understood from the previous evening that the end was near. Upon learning that Mom had died she began sniffling. Claudia asked how I was doing. “Fine,” I stammered, “Until I talked to you.” It was just the second instance of many more tears that I would shed throughout the day.
I had gotten up early that morning to make alterations to the pre-school script adding in stage directions that coincided with my narration. My initial phone calls complete I parked beside Trinity Lutheran Church the site of the preschool. My grandson, perhaps the most easily distracted child in the program, was very keen to see me. He showered me with glances and waves as he stood steadfast in the square his teachers had taped to the floor to keep him confined. Other children only required a short strip of tape with their names on them to remain tethered.
By noon I was free to drive to the funeral parlor to transact business. As my Brother and I are co-conservators I had to call him again to fax his signature for the paperwork. It had been agreed by all of us that Mom would be cremated and that there would be no funeral as the few people who knew her lived in Mankato a town she had not lived in for nearly a quarter century. Eventually we would lay her ashes to rest beside our Father.
It was well past two when I pulled into the nursing home just ahead of the funeral parlor’s staff. Some conversations with Bayshore employees were necessary and I wanted to load Mom’s art and family photos and get them home leaving me enough time to change into a suit and tie. Last minute jitters had the teachers thinking they might need a fourth rehearsal before the scheduled performance.
I began loading our car as the undertakers arrived. Before my second load they were placing Mom on a gurney for the trip to their vehicle. I had been at my Dad’s side too when he had been wheeled off in the same manner 27 years earlier. My Mother had not been whole for almost a decade but now, like my Father, she was fully absent.
I emptied the room with a couple more loads and had fifteen minutes to race home and grab a coat and tie. I’d have to unload the car after the big show and cram two small boys in with all the keepsakes. The boys would be in my charge with their Dad at his company dinner. The next day I would have to get them ready for our Saturday trip to have yet another Holiday party with their Dad’s family in Central Minnesota.
A fateful thought crossed my mind as I pulled up to the church. The boys and I could make our evening a night to remember my Mother. I decided we would watch the Wizard of Oz on our unopened DVD celebrating its 70th Anniversary. Claudia was convinced that Margaret Hamilton would be too intense for Jacob and had repeatedly scolded me every time I suggested the boys watch it with us. She was sure Jacob would get nightmares. Aw Heck. The previous spring I had both boys paint the Wicked Witch green when I sculpted her in snow. Now Claudia was safely out of town and couldn’t stop me.
My Mother was a Kansas girl and had checked every Oz book out of the library. As a young mother she had read half a dozen of the books to me. For our movie snack I had the treats I kept my Mother’s room stocked with for the last four years, Hershey’s Kisses. I’d spent a small fortune keeping her Papier-mache’ candy bowl perched on an elephant full of them. I thought they would tempt the staff in to check on my Mom. Tonight it would be my grandson’s turn to sample the many flavors I brought back with me.
I reread my narration to make sure I had all the cues in the right order but otherwise had to cool my heals until the four O’clock start. In the meantime, I found Grandma Sue, the Mother of new Dad Josh, in the audience. She had staked out one of the seats near the left front where I’d texted her son it would be the best to video the production. My camcorder was new having only been used once before to record one of my wife’s Sunday School Classes. Claudia was teaching it for one of her Seminary courses. She got a 97 out of 100 for a grade. Damn shame she’s taking all her classes pass/fail.
A few minutes after four there was standing room only and a crisis. Our Olaf, the little snowman, got stage fright. He had to be replaced necessitating a costume change, carrot and all. After ten minutes an apology was offered for the delay. Then the understudy got stage fright and more time passed. I sat by the stage door clueless as to the frantic work behind the scenes. I tried to mollify the crowd by joking about first day jitters. Then, finally, the cast entered en masse with its new snowman. It wasn’t the understudy. It was Jake with a magnificent orange carrot sticking out above his forehead. I gave him a big smile and surreptitious thumbs up. The first number was a full cast sing-a-long but a minute in I looked at Jacob and saw a small stricken child held captive by his square. Jacob/Olaf had tears streaming down his face as the other children sang and gyrated. The gravity of his situation had sunk in deep.
Jacob needed an arm around his shoulder but I was helpless. I couldn’t wade into the cast. My reassuring and sympathetic look wasn’t slowing the tears. I motioned him over to me and he threaded his way through the cast and hugged me while I whispered that he could do it. I shooed him back to his square as the first song concluded and cast evaporated for the first scene. Jake’s teachers directed him to a hiding place behind a cardboard mountain he had not hidden behind in any of his three rehearsals. I could only hope he could steel himself to the task of remembering the unpracticed lines that had given the first two snowmen cold feet.
Teacher Jodi had assured me beforehand that this performance would be “preschool perfect” and she was right. At the rehearsal Princess Elsa was dragged to jail by the guards. The audience, however, was treated to five guards picking the princess up by each appendage and carried precariously to her incarceration. I never figured out what the fifth guard was holding on to but the audience was biting its nails.
There was a daring jail break and an escape to the mountains leading to Olaf’s grand entrance and first spoken line. My little Olaf emerged from his mountain all smiles. “Yeah, why?” he inquired successfully and smiled even more broadly. He got laughs so, for good measure, he said it a second time. The crowd’s mirth was intoxicating and a thespian was born that night.
At the conclusion of the tale loud applause rang through the Church basement. The lights were dimmed and candles were passed out for the singing of Silent Night. Although I hadn’t brought anything for the potluck dinner that followed I surrendered to my grandsons, especially Jake who wanted to stay with the other kids. There was plenty to eat.
After dinner I grabbed the string dangling from one of the helium balloons that decorated the set and handed it to Jacob. It was a shiny silver star. It caught on my coat and was almost pulled out of his hands before we left the church. I offered to hold it until we got to the car but Jake was determined to be its bearer. We walked out to the bright night lit by a full moon. As I began to explain to my grandsons the special night I had planned to honor my Mother who had just departed for heaven I teared up once more. As we neared the car I heard an anguished wail. I turned to see Jacob’s silver star ascending into the heavens.
I told the boys the first thing that occurred to me. What we were seeing was very special. Jacob had just sent a star up to meet my Mother who had left for heaven a little earlier that day. By the time we were getting buckled into the car older brother Tanner was crying too first in sympathy for his brother’s loss and then because of the news of my Mother’s death. It took me a while to restore calm while I choked back tears. When I regained my composure I told the boys about my plans for the night and explained that we were going to watch “The Wizard of Oz.” I told them they had to keep it a secret from Grandma because she was worried that the movie would give Jacob nightmares.
By the time we reached our house equanimity had begun to prevail. I took a small plastic Christmas tree out of the car leaving everything else behind. We hurried down to the basement I where put the little Christmas tree I’d set up and decorated for my Mother the previous night before her death. The boys took a quick bath so that they would be clean and fresh for their Dad’s family gathering the next day. This required a little more work as our hot water wasn’t working. I had to haul a couple buckets of hot water up a couple flights of stairs to warm up the tub. When they were scrubbed and clean I let each boy choose a handful of my Mom’s Hershey’s kisses to snack on in our journey to Oz.
Tanner, who had seen the movie a year earlier, warned little brother Jake when it would get scary and Jake shielded his eyes but not for long. To my delight, he was mesmerized by the story. I sat with a boy on either side of me and a fat yellow cat on my lap. Tanner explained that the Kansas scenes were in black and white. I told the boys how my Mother had grown up in Kansas, not far from Dorothy’s home, and how she had read the Oz books to me when I was their age.
When the movie ended I read a couple books to the boys and then sang them songs I had previously sung to my Mother until the boys collapsed about an hour later. I’m not expecting any nightmares.
NOTE TO READERS: I HAVE MEANT TO EDIT THIS POST SINCE FIRST WRITING IT. I FINALLY GOT THE JOB DONE ONE YEAR TO THE DAY THAT MOM DIED. I CONCLUDED THE ORIGINAL POST WITH THESE LAST TWO PARAGRAPHS. “WHEN I’M 64” WILL STILL APPLY TO ME FOR THE NEXT FIVE DAYS.
Sorry, but I’m wrung out again. It’s late and there will be no proof reading of this. Although there are more post worthy subjects stuck in my head I’m still planning to abide by my pledge from a few posts ago to shut my fingers down.
One more thing. I’ve been telling my family I don’t want them to sing Happy Birthday when mine rolls around. I want them to sing the Beatles “When I’m 64.” I’ve been waiting for it to be apropos for about fifty years.