I rode the ski lift up to the top of Mount Lemmon. This is where I let her go. I slit open the bag and poured out her ashes. My mother's cremains were fine white pebbles and sand. They spilled out into the air, flowing down onto a field of golden wildflowers. A wind pushed some of them up into huge pillars of sunlight beaming through the pines. There was a rushing sound as the bag emptied, moving like suspended crystals, the ashy clouds vanished then, in slow motion and sparkles.
She lasted about thirty days. The pain had started around mid-June. Now it was July 5th, the tests came back, and she knew the results; cancerous nodes on her pancreas and liver. When she told me, she sounded almost relieved, like she had won a race. I knew from my work at a cancer hospital that once a patient gets this type and has these symptoms, by that time it's usually too late. Stage Four. She broke the news with a phone call while I was in Beads of Paradise on 17th St. holding various strands of mala beads.
"It's really fast," I said, "like lightning." Then I cried, some of my tears falling on the beads. "I need you to be strong Steve," she said. I stopped crying. I told her I would call her back and said goodbye. I cried more as I rode on my bike down 17th Street toward the Westside Highway. When I got to the Hudson River, I composed myself and called her again. It was hot and charcoal dusty where I parked, near a huge boulder beneath a small tree, devoid of shade. A shifty looking man walked by, staring at me. Focusing on Mom, I listened and asked questions. I told her I loved her and said goodbye. I thought how much hotter it would be in Tucson, that I had never been there in August. I thought about the desert, dying, and inconvenience. I was afraid.
When I flew out to Tucson, I had about nine days with her, days of intense sun and heat then every afternoon wind and rain thundering down, pounding the trailer like the twister in the Wizard of Oz. Buckets of water flooding everything, making the swamp cooler leak onto the kitchen table and floor. I had to put down pans and plastic pails. Then, the sun came out again and transformed everything into a giant steam bath. Some nights, desert winds rattled the blinds like metallic spiders creeping up the trailer's walls and over the roof. She was very slow--on vicodin for the pain. I fed her and bathed her. I massaged her every day for short periods of time. The effects of the massage were immediate, making the edema in her swollen, seeping legs go down. But it was false hope, for as soon as I would stop, they immediately became swollen again. I helped her get dressed in the morning and tucked her in at night like she did with me long ago.
She was always athletic and a fighter so she wanted to go for two rounds of chemotherapy. We went for her first treatment to the cancer center on Carondelet Avenue. In the waiting room I noticed how some of the other patients were laughing, and smiling. One lady had lots of make-up on as if she was going out on the town. I realized that she was one of the lucky ones, that she was winning. I hated her. Mom looked gray, frozen. I was thinking about Buddha and Christ, I felt they were here. I wanted them to be here. A nice blond lady from billing appeared. She invited us into her office. She said she hated the heat and being in Arizona. She explained what the charge would be for today's treatment. She said this was really very reasonable, that some treatments cost thousands of dollars. She asked us how we wanted to pay. I began to cry. My mother was stoic. "You're a good son," the blond lady said.
Next came the treatment. In a larger room, along with more than one hundred people, Mother was hooked up to an IV containing her medicine. We all sat and watched "Call of the Wild" with Clark Gable and Loretta Young playing on a large screen. While being pumped full of their chemo, some of the other patients were smiling, talking or quiet. Most were couples. Some brought children. Some were alone.
The treatment took five hours. A gorgeous Latin nurse with hazel eyes and black hair walked us out and waited with my Mom while I got into the car. The heat was burning inside and the plastic seats when I started the engine. The horn got stuck and started a long, howling, penetrating wail. I pounded the steering wheel with my fists and it stopped after about three minutes. I pulled up and the nurse helped me get her into the car. As we drove out of the parking lot, she complained about the horn. She made no response. That was Wednesday.
On Thursday she had a bad reaction, lots of pain, and retching. Then it passed and I put her back to bed for an afternoon nap. Sunday morning she called me into her bedroom. "It's time" she said, "I can't stand this." I called Odyssey Hospice. An hour later, Candy the nurse arrived. She took Mom's vitals, spoke with her alone, then came out, sat at the table and started filling out forms. She asked me if she could get a cold compress, that she was having hot flashes and not feeling so well herself. I fixed a cold compress and gave it to her, nursing the nurse. We laughed about this later.
I thought I could handle everything but I was moving too fast like a cartoon and feeling numb. I was acting the part of the diligent, caring son but at odd moments the mask would drop and crack, with small sobs coming out of my throat. Candy asked me if I wanted a social worker. I said yes, call her.
When Arianna from Odyssey hospice came, about an hour later, I crashed and burned. Finally I was able to rest. I sat down across from her at the kitchen table and took a breath in. My "speeding up in time, super-Steve" mask began to crumble. I cried and confessed to her that Mom had abused me sexually when I was a kid. There, I dislodged it. That simple fact, like a sharp, fine fish bone caught in my craw for oh so long. What a relief to have someone listen. What a relief to have a woman simply coo with loving compassionate sounds, as I let go of this taboo, unspeakable thing I'd been holding onto for so long. And how inappropriate a thing to be saying about someone, when that same someone just happened to be dying in the next room. Being around death forces you to your knees one moment. The next, you're up and flying, (if you're lucky) rising from the ashes like a phoenix. I think it's also that I'm semi-manic depressive. Arianna said later, "It takes a lot of energy to die; it takes a lot of energy to live and it takes a lot of energy to die." That wisdom helped me make sense of the quiet drama unfolding that day with my mother and her last day on earth.
I wanted to keep Mom at home but Candy said it would be better to transport her to hospice to get stabilized. The ambulance came about 5 o'clock to pick her up. A few hours later I followed, along with my brother, Gregg and his girlfriend, Sandra. As we arrived, the head nurse said "Your Mom's an understater with the pain, we determined that right away." As I entered her room, two nurses were pricking her with pain medications, one on each side. She looked different. They had wet and combed her hair, parting it in the middle. It was old lady style, dying style, it wasn't her style I sat at the foot of her bed and massaged her feet, crying softly. I had to move my chair back a few times as there was another patient behind a curtain in the room and people were passing back and forth. I looked up at my brother and Sandra. She was crying. Then my brother was sitting by mother's bedside. "What? What?" he was saying to her. I moved next to him leaning closer to her. Then she said "I will always...love you both... forever and ever. Now I want to be alone...to sleep."
Back at my mom’s trailer, alone, early that morning, about 2 a.m., the phone screamed. The message from the nurse said, "Her breathing's changed--you better come."
I dressed and drove to her in the night alone, not wanting my brother to share this. I got there at 2:30 a.m. Monday. She waited for me. I sat next to her and watched her breath. Around 3:30, her throat fluttered like a hummingbird and she took her last breath. That little flutter was her saying goodbye. She had a look of amazement on her face when we closed her eyes. I meditated on her and stayed with her for a while. Then I rose and kissed the top of her head. "Goodbye my friend" I said.
I rode the ski lift up to the top of Mount Lemmon. This is where I let her go. I slit open the bag, pouring out her ashes. The sparkling clouds they formed in the wind disappeared into the pine trees and over dancing, golden wildflowers below. She loved this place. She was free now. So was I.