Let me listen…
Help me hear the stories…
Make me speak the truth…
My cell phone rings in the cabin and I jump to answer. It feels like a dream. Cell phones don’t work here. The ring tone is the waltz; the one I assigned to my parents. The deck of cards icon pops up labeled: “THE FOLKS”. It’s 7 AM and they know I will be asleep. This must be my mother calling because dad is having a bad reaction to the chemo. I almost didn’t leave this weekend because of it but they insisted.
It’s my father, and for a moment feel relief. He says, “Sharon? I can’t wake up your mother. I think she’s dead.”
I hear myself tell him I’m sorry. I remind him I’m out of town. He remembered. I say we will come now but are three hours away. He says okay. And thanks.
My husband is awake now and knows without me saying it. His arms wrap around me as my body shakes and I sob.
I am glad this is what my body does. I had wondered what my reaction would be when she died. It appears I did love her.
Family and friends help with the funeral. We get my father through this and he prepares to die. His affairs were already in order but now he gets them more in order. He gives me the keys to his car. “It’s yours. If I drove and got into an accident you’d think I was trying to kill myself.” He says this after I gathered up Mother’s medications. We go to the bank to get my name on his account, he consults with my brothers and gets their approval for me to be the executor of his Will since I live in the same state. He clarifies his medical wishes. No more chemo treatment. No more dental check ups, or blood pressure monitoring, or anything to keep him alive. When his body fails we are to let it go. Dad smiles. “Understand I’m not asking to be tortured. You can give me Aspirin.”
I visit him every night, rub his feet, and listen to how much he misses her. How angry he is that Mom prayed to die first. “It was supposed to be me. If she knew how much this was going to hurt me, she wouldn’t have done it.” My father is a scientist. He’s logical. This isn’t the man I know. This man talks about his feelings, cries, and says “I love you.”
The night before his massive stroke when he can still speak he says, “Thank you for all you are doing…but you know I will never get over this.”
I hug him, “I know, Dad.”
He kisses me good-bye and closes the door. I imagine him sitting in his recliner staring at the television he no longer watches.
The stroke happens when I am at work. The assisted living facility calls to tell me and won’t answer my questions. They repeat the same sentence when I ask if he’s conscious, if he can talk, what happened: “Your father was in his apartment on the floor and we called the ambulance.”
I call my husband and we both arrive at the hospital before my father. They call me into the emergency room when he arrives. Dad is awake but can’t talk. His body jerks and shudders at intervals. A doctor who does not know my father wants to start procedures. I look into my father’s eyes and make my promise. “Daddy, I won’t let them keep you alive.”
The doctor explains what he wants to do, and I tell him to do nothing except ease his pain. The doctor turns away and walks out. He comes back minutes later with a nurse who injects dad with something that makes his body quiet. His eyes are open but calm. It takes four days for his body to quit. It gives me time to thank him for being my father. I see him reach to someone I can not see. “Is it Mom? Do you see Mom?” He nods and tears roll down. I kiss his cheek. “Soon Daddy. You’ll be with her soon.”
My brother Roger arrives on his last day. I go home to sleep.
At three AM my father wakes up agitated. Roger tells him it’s okay to go. Our brother John is on his way but doesn’t want him to wait.
Roger reads the hospice pamphlet that describes the process of organ failure and then reads the Baha’i Prayer for The Dead. The ending is repetitive and soothing.
We all, verily, worship God.
We all, verily, bow down before God.
We all, verily, are devoted unto God.
We all, verily, give praise unto God.
We all, verily, yield thanks unto God.
We all, verily, are patient in God.
Dad’s body relaxes and dies on the last line of the prayer.
Thirty days after we buried mom, we bury Dad. We use the same funeral home, the same format, the same cemetery. Some of the relatives return. Others can’t make another trip again so soon. It takes a month to clear the apartment, and two more months to settle the estate.
When I drive his car, I hear the lively conversations he and I had on the way to his doctor appointments. And after Mom died, the silence on the way to the funeral home, the burial, and the monument store to select the tombstone. The Honda Accord was a surprise choice for Dad. He didn’t like buying foreign cars, especially Japanese. He bought the car he thought I wanted. And he was right about that. But he didn’t think about how it would feel driving it when he was gone. I didn’t either until I drove it one day and had to pull over and get out of the car to breathe.
I feel my father with me. Once when I lay in bed, he sat down next to me. I saw the covers move. I don’t feel my mother and it makes me uneasy. Could she be the one who visits, and I want it to be my father instead? Can she read my thoughts? Does she know I can’t feel her?
Six months after their death I consult an intuitive healer. People I trust, trust her. She asks, “How can I be of service?”
“My parents died within three weeks of each other, and everyone gives me sympathy, but I think I’m doing okay. Am I?”
The healer says she usually consults with people on the obstacles they face, physical ailments, and helping them clarify their purpose. She rarely talks about the spiritual world but in my case she will. She says my father transitioned immediately. “Sometimes souls are confused about where they are. It takes them time to acclimate. Your father soared into the next world. He’s a powerful spirit and he is close by you…all your family. You can call on him to assist you.”
She pauses. “Your mother is doing something else. She feels she did everything she could for the family when she was here and now, she is doing something for her.” The healer pauses again. “You may not have known this about your mother, but she longed for an education. In the next world…for lack of a better word…there are colleges. Your mother is studying science.” This healer does not know my father was a scientist. She didn’t see how my mother sat silent at the dinner table when my father, brothers, and I discussed scientific principles, current affairs, and politics. From time-to-time mom attempted to become a part of the conversation by introducing topics. “Nixon went to China.” “Muhammed Ali refused to be drafted.” “What did we learn from the trip to the moon?” We waited for her to say more, but she offered no thoughts or opinions. She must have caught the amused expressions we tried to hide as we took on her subject and then changed it to something else.
The healer says even though my mother isn’t around us, she is going to do something for me. “It’s a gift and it will be extraordinary. You will know when it happens, and you’ll know it’s from her.”
I cannot think of what it could be. I feel like she already gave me the gift of dying before dad. I didn’t know how I was going to cope with her grief. She would have been inconsolable, and I had decided to quit my job when it happened. I hadn’t told anyone that yet.
“She wants you to know that she didn’t want to burden you. That’s why she prayed to die first. She wants you to enjoy your life.”
I ask the healer, “Isn’t that the gift?” She laughs again. “No. It’s something better than that.”
There isn’t anything I want or need. We sold my share of their stocks and paid off all our bills including the mortgage. Maybe she’s going to help the kids with their careers. They are both artists and need some magic to happen.
On the first anniversary of Mother’s death her voice wakes me up. “Sharon! It’s time to write your stories.” I open my eyes expecting to see her. Write my stories? I remember when I wrote stories. Teachers loved them and read them out loud. Kids applauded. Mother hated them. She cleaned my room and found one of my stories and left it on my desk with a note: “Sharon! Get out of your dream world!!!” I stopped writing. It didn’t feel safe anymore.
“It’s time to write your stories.” Was that my mother or my imagination? What stories do I have now? I’m a mime. I found a way to tell stories without the words. I don’t need to write. Besides, my children are writers. They are those take-your-breath away writers. Whatever I write will be laughable next to theirs.
And writers need solitude. I don’t want to spend hours locked away communicating with no one, writing for years, submitting manuscripts, and receiving rejection letters. That isn’t the life I want. This feels more like a curse than a gift.
On the drive to work as I pass the cemetery where my parents are buried a story comes on the radio about internet blogging and how it is changing the writing world. There are writing communities online. Writers can get readership and feedback. For many it’s fulfilling enough. They don’t need or want books published. But if they do, it helps hone their skills. Several blogging sites are mentioned and that night I join one and write my first story. It’s the story of Mother’s death, followed by my father’s. I hit “Publish” and check back an hour later. A woman had clicked the “like” button and left a comment. “Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I recently lost my mother, and this helped me.” Something I wrote helped someone.
After the first story more come. They explode in my head. I write and see what I hadn’t noticed. In those stories I discover my mother. And me. I am happy in a way I didn’t know was missing.
A year later I am on my way to my first writing workshop with the woman who will become my mentor, coach, and friend. Judy Bridges owns Redbird Writing Studio. Redbird. Cardinals. My mother’s favorite bird and favorite baseball team.
I see a cardinal and think of my mother. And my writing coach, who gives me what my mother never could: encouragement, gentle guidance, and delight in my words and me.
Writing is my mother’s gift back to me. The deeper I take it, the more I need to remember that. Stories emerge that scare me. I doubt myself…Is this true or my imagination? This story could hurt someone I love. Should I tell it?
I close my eyes and hear her voice. “Sharon, it’s time to write your stories.”