“Obviously the facts are never just coming at you, but are incorporated by an imagination that is formed by your previous experience. Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.”
– Philip Roth
“Why the fuck is there a cross on the wall over her bed – did everyone suddenly forget she’s Jewish?”
Even typing it brings a shudder into my bones. When you’re standing in an intensive care room, anticipating the most shattering loss of your young life, the smallest details are the ones you carry around with you until your own days become minutes.
It’s amazing to me that twelve years have passed – probably because these last twelve years have felt like being stuck inside someone else’s dream, someone else’s movie. I find myself questioning my own memories, much like Roth’s quote – did things go down in the manner in which I remember them? Is it possible that my experience was solely my own, and everyone else involved has their own take on the movie?
It’s more than possible, in hindsight.
Comparing my own memories, I’ve come to find that being much more involved in the loss of my father has shed a fuckton of light on how much less involved I was in my mother’s passing. There were others who shouldered the burden twelve years ago, others who to this very day have still never spoken to me of the circumstances surrounding my lack of involvement and why I was not allowed to be a part of the process.
“You need to go home, Sean. Nobody wants you here anymore. You’re an abomination.”
It still stings, twelve years on. It feels like someone has poured Hydrochloric Acid into my ears when it echoes off the tiny bones inside of my skull, and my immediate reaction is to reach out and smash something, anything. To grab hold of something concrete and destroy it.
I can still see the look in my sister’s eyes in that moment, the way she glassily glanced at me briefly and then immediately turned her gaze out the window, to look aimlessly at a cloudless sky – anything to not see how decimated what was left of my soul had just become. Getting verbally slapped across the face by a family member is hard as it is, but having something so vile slide out of the mouth of someone who supposedly has the same blood in their veins, less than 48 hours after your own mother has come out of an eight week long coma was life-altering.
Nothing would ever be the same again. There was nothing anyone in my family could say that could bring back any modicum of innocent hope and blind faith. Battle lines had now been drawn, and my stupid ass was the only one standing on my side of them. No matter how many red flags had been raised in the weeks previous, I never for a minute thought it would have come down the way it did – with me kicking rocks on my way back to my McJob and shitty apartment in Phoenix, while my mother was in the ICU in San Diego, surrounded by the love and protection of her Holy Roller sister who had just cut me off from my own flesh and blood.
Twelve years later, and I still have not been able to figure out how I was blindsided by all of this in the manner in which I was. Twelve years and three more familial deaths later, and I have still yet to release my own frustration in regard to the loss of the woman who carried me in her womb. The two maternal figures that stepped into the void to help heal the broken little boy in me, are now gone as well, memories of their laughter and kindness fluttering around the everyday routines now in place. I try so hard to keep on keeping on, but there is this thing, this angry thing buried deep into the DNA of me. This thing can turn on a dime and burn up everything within my ever-expanding reach.
“You’re an abomination. Nobody wants you here – not even your mother.”
Flash to Mother’s Day of 1996 – me volunteering to work that day, because nothing was going to ease my mind more than putting my nose to the grindstone. Trying to use work to keep my head together, even though early that morning I found myself weeping and screaming out like an injured child in the shower. Because I knew. I knew even before my pager vibrated in my pocket. I knew even before I saw my sister’s phone number on the little screen.
I knew the day had arrived.
“Get here as fast as you can. Please. Mommy…Mommy doesn’t have much time, Sean.”
I think I was on a plane within ninety minutes or so – it’s really hard to remember clearly what seems like a dream. I remember having a glass of whiskey in my hand, listening to it rattle and shake, its harshness stinging my lips. I can still feel the hair on my arms standing up when I could feel my mother pass right through me upon my descent into San Diego – I could smell her on me as we came down slowly over Balboa Park and into Lindberg Field. The walk off of the plane felt like an eternity – like I was floating above the carpet – until I saw my sister’s broken face, her standing there, being held up by a friend – a river of tears pouring out of her eyes like blood from an artery.
“Mommy’s gone, Sean. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry…”
I couldn’t speak, so I just grabbed her and held onto her as tightly as I could. In that moment I was remembering the sorrow and pain of a family who had lost their Grandmother in the room adjacent to my mother – seeing everyone crack into tiny pieces at the moment of her death, each member of that family grabbing onto one another in a way that no writer could ever do justice to with the limitations of language – and thinking about how I needed to be as serene as possible when our family’s moment came. Squeezing my sister tightly, all I could do was keep on whispering in her ear – “She’s not in pain anymore – it’s alright – it’s okay – no more pain – it’s okay” – over and over again, as if saying it would somehow make us feel better that we’d just lost her.
I remember riding to the hospital in La Jolla, again with this feeling of levitation, as if the car itself were hovering over the highway. We had to go and say good-bye. I had to see with my own eyes that she was truly gone.
Arriving there, I became immediately incensed at the sight of the Holy Rollers, not for one minute thinking of their own pain from the loss – only having visions of vengeance and emotional restitution flipping through my mind. Spying my mother’s Oncologist out of the corner of my eye, I felt acid and bile rising up inside of me, and hoped that I would be able to spit its fury into his eyes and blind him, remembering that he, much like everyone else in this situation, had never once looked me in the eye when speaking to me – everyone using the voice of concern saved for small children, animals, and retards.
“Would you like to see her at peace, Sean? I’ll go in with you – we can say good-bye together, okay?”
Feeling someone taking me by the arm, I realize it’s the Holier half of the Holy Rollers – Saint Chris – he of condescending tone and clouded vision. Not wanting to fight with him in the presence of my sister, not to mention the former presence of my mother, I allowed him to take me into the room where my mother lay. We had to scrub in and don surgical gear, as my mother had been exposed to some form of super-bacteria after her colon had burst from the radiation and chemotherapy. I felt like I did during Chemical Warfare drills in the Navy – trapped in a cocoon of material that probably wouldn’t save me anyway – only this time it felt as though Saint Chris’ hands were made of lava, my skin wanting to melt away at his grip.
The first thing I noticed upon walking into my mother’s Death Room, was that same fucking cross above her bed. As if the wooden Jesus was mocking me, mocking her. I clenched my teeth tightly, and could feel very clearly the lack of her. Slowly looking down upon the gurney, I could see that her face was empty – the woman that I knew, that my DNA was derived from – she was gone. Her hands ballooned up from the fluids building up in her body, the empty and lifeless face barely connected to the woman I had been born of, the woman who had created me.
“She’s with The Lord now, Sean – can’t you tell by looking at how peaceful she looks?”
I started to vibrate, right on the cusp of going thermonuclear, but my mouth wouldn’t budge – everything clammed the fuck on up other than me whispering out an obligatory “Yeah, peaceful”. None of the simmering anger inside of me could come out, at least not in that Death Room, not where what she once was had been left for me to see. No matter how disrespectful I had been made out to be, I wasn’t about to allow anyone to point a finger in my direction and say “I told you so!”
I asked Saint Chris for a moment alone with my mother, but for some reason he continued to hover close to me, and I could feel him wanting to reach out and touch me again. I finally turned and calmly told him that the best thing he could do right now was leave me with her for a few moments, so that I could speak to her before they took her away for the last time. It took him a second to realize that I was serious, and that it was time for him to leave me in the Death Room with her. Alone.
Twelve years later, and I can still feel how cold the skin on her forehead was as I kissed it for the last time. Feeling the lack of life, lack of energy within her hand as I put it within my own. I can still remember how a wash of emotions came over me as I released my lips from her forehead, emotions that to this day I still cannot truly put words to. My mother was dead. My mother, the one woman in my life who believed in me, the innermost me, was gone forever.
Leaving the Death Room, Saint Chris tried to grab me, to hug me, but I brushed beyond him like a gust of wind, headed for the Charge Desk – full speed ahead. Chock full of unanswered questions and boiling over with rage, I asked the Charge Nurse for an autopsy. I demanded it, since nobody involved in this entire situation had ever once bothered to give me a straight answer as to what was happening to my mother.
In my peripheral vision I could see the other Holy Roller, Saint Carole, my mother’s older sister who had forsaken her Judaism to become an Evangelical monster, shaking her head at the Charge Nurse, in what seemed like a well-rehearsed unspoken dialog – “He’s crazed, please do not listen to him” came tumbling out of her mouth like venomous snakes.
“She’s with the Lord now, Sean. Nobody wanted you here – you’re an abomination.”
Standing out in the middle of the parking lot now, burning holes in every passerby as I smoked a post-viewing cigarette, I finally start to pace. Violently. Temples throbbing and hands shaking, I see my sister coming out of the entrance, flanked by the Holy Rollers. None of them look my way, they just slowly plod their way over to the car, as if I weren’t even there. Realizing that they will probably leave without me, I stomp out my cigarette and make my way over to the car. Nobody speaks a word, we all just pile in and head South to my mother’s house.
“We’ll go to the mortuary tomorrow, and start making arrangements for her burial.”
Barely onto the highway at the moment, and I am already boiling and churning again. My head, pressed against the fogged window, throbbing and pulsing with what was left of my heartbeat. Burial? I asked if anyone had ever discussed with my mother what her wishes were, and Saint Carole became unglued, saying that conversations of that nature were “unholy”, and that I should just allow everyone to come to terms with the decisions that she was making for all of us. I couldn’t take it anymore, and started grabbing at the headrest behind Saint Chris as he drove, begging him to pull the car over to the side of the highway so I could throw up, the bile and acid working their way into my mouth, scorching my tongue.
Crouched down in the brush at the side of the highway, spitting out the remnants of my stomach, with my head in a dizzy haze of anguish and sorrow, I decided that it was time. Only Saint Chris had gotten out of the car to make sure I was alright, and I looked up at him with my boiling eyes, trying to cook the skin right off of him.
“She didn’t want to buried in the ground. She wanted to be scattered over the ocean. How dare you. How dare all of you. None of you had the decency, the common human decency, to even ask her what she wanted, when she was the one who was dying? How dare you people, you fucking hypocritical cowards, hiding behind your Lord and Savior! She was my mother, not some pet who couldn’t speak and gets buried in the fucking yard!”
I don’t even remember getting back into the car, nor do I remember getting to my mother’s house. The next memory that I have is of me, digging into the bottom of my duffel bag for my pipe and bag of reefer, taking off to walk on the beach and smoke myself into a peaceful state of being. I didn’t want to be in the same room with anyone, and I certainly didn’t feel like sitting around and talking about what a fucking monster I was for speaking my mind. I do remember asking if anyone had the balls to call my grandmother, since nobody had even bothered to tell her that her daughter was sick, let alone dying of cancer.
“You’re an abomination. A monster.”
High, I went to a pay phone, and called my father collect. He knew as soon as he picked up the phone. I could hear his voice break, him telling me to “hold fast” and all I could do was sob. Even though they were divorced, they had spent over twenty years together – and twenty years of marriage, no matter the circumstances, that counts as time served – he was crushed. Telling him about the Holy Rollers, their naked aggression toward me, and their planned-out “burial”, I could hear him pushing a stream of air from between his teeth. There was a moment of silence, and then I could hear the ice in his glass of scotch cracking.
“I’ll be on a plane tomorrow morning. I’ll call you at the house, and I want you to commandeer whatever car you can and pick me up at the airport, okay?”
I stumbled around Pacific Beach for another couple of hours, intermittently smoking more pot in between bungalows and underneath piers. The conversation in my head was as one-sided and broken as could be – me asking myself over and over again why I was in this situation, why I was an “abomination” and a “monster”. I couldn’t come up with anything, other than the fact that I had always been honest about my disbelief in “God”, and that I had once thwarted the Holy Rollers attempt at converting me, when I was fourteen years old – even calling them out on it in front of my parents.
Slowly working my way back into my mother’s house, I could see that everyone else was still awake. The three of them sitting around the kitchen table, already going through old photo albums, glasses of wine and two empty bottles on the table in front of them. Before I could even open my mouth, the conversation went right back to deciding on a service that we could all agree upon – the three of them suddenly coming to the realization that they might not have understood the greater picture, and that there were other people’s feelings at stake here besides their own. I made mention that there should be a Rabbi, considering the fact that she was a Jew, and her mother would be present – a very proud Jew as well.
“Uncle Chris will do the service with the Rabbi, then. We should have representation for both religions, don’t you think?”
Instead of being angry anymore, I decided the best thing for me was to curl up somewhere and sleep. The weed wearing off had made me ropey and gooey, and even thinking at this point had become torture. I kissed my sister on the forehead, and gave both of the Holy Rollers genuine hugs. I knew that the next few days would be a blur of shaking hands and making small-talk with people who had no idea who or what I was – and that most of them had already been painted a not-so-rosy picture of who Sean was.
I remember picking up both my father, and my grandmother at the airport the next day, as I had been relegated to chauffeur duty. I remember how fragile and elderly my grandmother suddenly seemed to be, her grief hidden behind over-sized sunglasses that made her appear so tiny. I remember my father, eyes bloodshot and skin reeking of scotch and shame. I remember meeting with the nice man from the mortuary, and noticing immediately that he was able to sense the tension between the Holy Rollers and myself – and that my grandmother and my father were my only allies in the world.
The man from the mortuary showed us this amazing lily pond, and showed us the rock formations surrounding it – little crypts to spend eternity in, overlooking the beauty of the pond. I remember how my grandmother grabbed hold of my hand so tight in that moment, as if she knew this was The Place. I caught a glimpse of my father, shuffling his feet and fighting back tears as we stood there in awe of all of this heavenly glory.
“This, this is what my daughter would have wanted. If anyone else has issue with this decision, too bad – I’ve made the decision for all of us.”
She was squeezing my hand so tightly as she spoke, as if she was trying to reassure me as well as use some of my own strength to say what she knew I had wanted to say. Everyone else kind of looked around in a daze, nodding their heads in an unspoken approval. Saint Carole gave me a sharp and quick look, but then looked back to the pond, silently.
I remember meeting with the Rabbi back at my mother’s house, out in the parking lot before he even got to the door. I remember him getting out of his beat up Rabbit, papers falling out around his sandal-covered feet. He knew who I was right away, walking over briskly and taking my hand with an assuring grasp.
“You must be Zalmen, the good Jewish son. I’m deeply sorry for your loss. Are there really Evangelicals in there, waiting to eat me alive?”
I loved him instantly.
Twelve years later, and I remember the sweet smell of pipe smoke that wafted off of him. Twelve years later, and the blur of memories surrounding the service comes down to me only being able to remember sitting between my sister and my father, holding both of their hands as they silently cried. I remember little bits and pieces of the service – people coming in to my personal bubble slowly, to give their condolences and quietly move along and slip back into the crowd. I remember riding to the cemetery with my father and a little cousin – herself an unlikely survivor of childhood leukemia, a champion of epic folklore.
I remember the cat very clearly.
During the crypt-side portion of the service, my sister and I both looked up simultaneously. Up above us, sitting out in the branches of a tree directly over my mother’s new resting place – was a sunbathing cat. The cat kind of cocked it’s head to the side, giving my sister and I a sly little wink. My sister and I both stood there transfixed, and I nudged my father’s arm slightly so that he would look up as well.
Twelve years later, and I still don’t know why I was an “abomination” or a “monster”. Twelve long years of unanswered questions and unresolved suffering. Couple all of that with the other losses that I have suffered over the last few years, and you might begin to understand why I live so cautiously now. Losing my mother was the first really challenging moment in my life, but there were, and are, many more to come. Memories fade with time, and sometimes the stories all blur themselves together as if they’re all a part of one another. Maybe Roth is right after all – these memories can quite possibly be all of my imaginings of the facts.
But I will always remember that cat.