My brother remembers that I never picked up after my kids when we came to visit mom. He remembers that after we left, the cleanup fell to him.
I, on the other hand, remember that nothing brought mom greater joy those last few years than spending precious time with her precious grandbabies. Between visits, I remember taking her to the oncologist and pain specialist on my “days off.”
During these same years, I remember the empty Stoli minis in our neighbor’s side yard next to our driveway tossed there by my husband who passed out on the sofa most every night whilst I made airplane noises so my infant son would “open the hanger” and eat his peas.
I remember every detail of my firstborn’s spindly body after we brought him home from the hospital. I remember the surgical scar on his chest running 180° from front to back, the hole where feeding tube was, the red abrasions from tape that held in place the tubes that kept him alive those first three weeks.
I remember carrying 115 pounds on my 5’10” frame and friends telling me I was too thin, for once.
I remember the sound an epipen makes when I’d inject it into the thigh of my two-year old son who has just ingested a Valentine treat containing peanuts.
I remember the improbable phone call I received from my brother whilst dropping my dog at the groomer, informing me that mom had fallen, was on the kitchen floor and would I call an ambulance.
I remember dropping my kids at a neighbor’s who was preparing a meal for her father-in-law who was dying.
I remember getting to my mom’s house and finding her lying on the Italian tile in a fetal position, moaning.
I remember finding my brother in his upstairs bedroom shaking nervously as he raised a cigarette to his lips and his protestations that he couldn’t deal with mom because he was suffering from a poison oak rash.
I remember the beautiful hunk of an EMT grabbing my brother by the front of the shirt and ordering him to get his ass into the ambulance with mom because he had treated broken hips and he had treated poison oak and he guaranteed my brother that my mom was in far greater pain than he was at that moment.
I remember going to gather my children before heading to the hospital only to learn that my neighbor had left for another hospital with my son. He’d touched a tabletop that had traces of shelled peanuts on it. Ones the dying father-in-law had eaten earlier in the day.
I remember not knowing which hospital to go to first, the one where my mother was or the one where my son was being pumped full of prednisone and epinephrine.
I remember the broken hip was the beginning of the end for mom and I remember visiting her at the rehab center in Golden Hill.
I remember the enormous centerpiece I won at a dinner auction and took to her on my way home. I remember standing outside the locked sliding glass doors after visiting hours in my eggplant-colored cocktail dress and high heels and the kind orderly with a thick Jamaican accent who let me in.
I remember the smile that spread across mom’s face when she opened her eyes and saw me, and the flowers.
I remember her staying with us after she was released from rehab and a well-meaning friend telling my three- and four-year-old boys, “your Nana is dying.”
I remember the boys sitting on the side of her bed, my bed, and asking “Are you dying Nana?” And her telling them “Yes” and asking them if they would keep and care for her two beloved cats after she died.
I remember them both earnestly shaking their heads ‘yes’ and I remember thinking they had not the first clue what the word “dying”meant.
I remember mom’s last trip to the hospital when the doctors told us that the cancer had spread everywhere.
I remember my evangelical Great Aunt Edith trying to convert mom, asking her to accept Jesus Christ as her Savior. And I remember mom saying in her weakened voice there was no way, and Edith persisting and my having to ask my once-favorite aunt to leave the hospital room.
I remember my brothers and I gathered in that same room at Harborview Medical Center making confessions to mom about things we’d never told her, but somehow she knew anyway. Who knew that the night she came home from her job as a banquet manager at the Kona Kai Club and found me praying to the porcelain god, who knew as she stroked my back and held my hair, who knew that she knew I did not have the stomach flu, rather had been drinking fruit daiquiris all evening with my girlfriends?
I remember the hospital bed in her dining room that hospice delivered. I remember the round-the-clock vigil we kept, her brother, sisters, friends and children.
I remember being thankful she had a few days to say her goodbyes before losing touch.
I remember crawling into her hospital bed, spooning with her and whispering into the curve of her ear how much I loved her, how I was going to miss her so, and the boys were going to miss her. And how all would be okay, somehow. And that it was okay for her to let go.
I remember her restlessness and distress at 2:00 am, despite the Fentanyl patch and morphine.
I remember the hospice nurse arriving at 3:00 am and checking mom’s vitals. I remember her telling us that mom was attempting to leave her body and that for some it was more of a struggle than for others.
I remember knowing then that soon she would die.
I remember waking the others camped out on sofas and chairs and I remember someone saying “where’s Bobby?”
And I remember calling Pacer’s strip club and asking the bartender if my brother Bobby was there and would she please ask him to come home because his mother was about to die.
I remember the shot of morphine the nurse gave her being twice the normal amount.
I remember during those last long breaths praying but not hoping for the next inhale.
At 4:12 am there was no next inhale. I remember that. And holding her hand as it turned cold.
I remember my boys and their dad arriving before the sun and before the coroner. I remember taking them to her bedside to say their goodbyes.
I remember my three-year-old turning to me and asking in a somber voice he must’ve sensed was appropriate, “did Nana die?”
“She did,” I told him. And I’ll never forget his response: “Yes! We get the cats!”
I remember a few days later peeing in the powder room off the living room at mom’s place and my four-year-old coming into the bathroom and asking “what are all of Nana’s things doing in the bathroom?”
I could tell by the way he asked the question that he still didn’t understand what dying meant. So I explained what I had resisted explaining. “You understand that when people die they don’t come back?”
“Jesus came back,” he said plaintively.
“Yes, honey, that’s true, but Jesus was God’s son, you understand?”
“But mommy, we are all God’s children.”
How do I tell my four-year old that Jesus was God’s favorite? I just told him, “That’s true. We are all God’s children, but Nana’s not coming back.”
I remember a few weeks later while packing up mom’s closet finding a tiny white eyelet dress stashed in the back corner of the top shelf. I asked my mom’s sister who was helping me sort, “whose dress is this?” For I knew, having been 12 pounds at birth, that it couldn’t have been mine.
“That was Rebecca’s,” my aunt explained.
Rebecca. The baby girl my parents adopted before adopting me. The baby girl my mother loved with all her heart. The baby girl she and dad did not learn was half black until weeks after they brought her home from hospital. The baby girl the social workers pried from my mother’s hands so she could be placed with a black family for “her own good.” The baby girl my mother never talked about except that one time when my brothers had teased me mercilessly that they’d had another sister before me. And so I asked mom if it were true and she said, “I’m only going to tell you the story once.” And so she did. And kept her word.
And because our church pastor advised her to relinquish Rebecca, that it was in everyone’s best interest to do so in 1960 suburban Chicago, she never went to church again. Nor did my son, who still hasn’t forgiven God for playing favorites.
I remember all of that.
What I don’t remember is not picking up after my kids. Perhaps it just didn’t seem a priority at the time.
Memory is the main character of this piece because as with any main character, the reader must grapple with its nature its malleability and fickle tendencies, how it can be manipulated to subjective favor, how it clashes with another’s memory and somewhere in the unattainable middle is the truth with the capital T. One capital T truth is that my son never forgave God for playing favorites, never returned to church–not even for the donuts.