Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Day Two: Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Part Two: Evening

The plane ride was uneventful.

Actually, because I rarely do it, flying is always a bit exciting. You know, the take off, looking out the window, all the weirdos in the cabin with me and whatever they're up to, the free beverage. It's fun. And yeah, I was able to separate myself to some extent from my reason for flying and enjoy myself and all the air travel procedure. I listened to jazz on my iPod and read Noam Chomsky.

But then we landed and my stomach started to hurt. Very soon, I would be meeting my father and older brother, and our shared loss would become all too real again. I got off the plane and made my way toward baggage claim.

And there they were.

I hugged my dad first. I couldn't help but think that as sad as I was, Dad was taking it worse. As Commander Riker's father once told him of his long dead mother during a father/son knockdown-dragout during an otherwise forgettable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "She was your mother, but she was my wife!" Dad lost his lover of forty seven years. I simply cannot imagine that. What does it mean for the life in which you had invested a half century to fall apart instantly? He was clearly sad, but managing.

Then I hugged my older brother. The hug was stiff, as usual. Chris had always been a non-hugger. He always chaffed a bit when Mom hugged him while we were growing up--some things will never change.

But this made me think. How will our family survive?

We were always a family of men, tempered by the presence of a single woman, Mom. She was the emotional center of the family. She was the counselor, the negotiator, the communicator of difficult information. The strong one. She was at the center of all family relationships. She's how we all managed to get along without male aggression mucking everything up. Losing her literally means the end of our time-worn family structure.

How will our family survive?

I think that it was maybe then that I determined to make sure we survive. Somehow. I still don't know how, exactly, to do that. But it would be a damned shame, a dishonoring of my mother's memory, for us four men to go our separate ways. We will survive.

On the way home I learned more details about her death. She had gone to a hospital/professional building to do some mall walking. That is, what was supposed to be a shopping mall back in the eighties, but was never finished due to an oil recession, was eventually converted to a medical purpose; it's still laid out like a shopping mall, but with doctors' offices taking up one half, and a hospital on the other. So Mom had gone to get some exercise.

According to the account of a friend of hers, Janis, who was there when it happened, my mother entered the building and started up a conversation with her. Only seconds into their interaction, my mother stopped talking in mid sentence, her eyes widened, and she simply collapsed. Because they were in a hospital, the code blue people were there almost immediately. Janis had the wherewithal to grab my mother's cell phone, find my dad's number, and call him.

He was there in minutes and was able to watch them work on her. But it was just too late. They worked for hours, he told me, but they think she was gone before she hit the ground. My younger brother Steve, who has a house in Kingwood, got there later. Chris got the news very quickly and left Austin immediately; all the fireworks were over by the time he arrived, but he was there, too.

As I've already written, I didn't find out until hours later, so I couldn't be there--I'm still not sure if I was cheated by fate out of something important, being on the scene of my mother's death, but it's only an intellectual sense of deprivation; I guess I don't really feel cheated. Besides, what does it matter? She's dead whether I was there or not.

I really wish I could have hugged her one last time, though. Told her that I loved her one last time. Been her son one last time.

The manner of her death did nothing but add to my sense of walking through mythology. It was as though Zeus, first among the Olympian gods, struck her down with his thunderbolt from on high. Or as if God Himself, Yahweh of the Judeo-Christian perspective, decided that He needed her. Right now. I wondered if this is what the Rapture was supposed to be like; of all the Christians I've known in my life, my mother always seemed to be a likely candidate for the chosen few--but then, the Rapture is supposed to be a bodily, as well as spiritual, experience, no physical death involved.

When we got home, we looked at some of the old pictures of her that Chris had been going through, to be placed later on a memorial website, some of which I've been posting here with these Grieving Notes. Very quickly, my older brother started crying. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said as he weeped.

"Don't be sorry, Chris," I told him, "we're supposed to be crying now. We need to cry." I was starting to wonder if my new role among our all male family was to take over Mom's job as emotional facilitator. I'm the actor, after all; the emotions are my landscape.

Later, after Dad went to bed, I asked Chris what the doctors think killed her. I was surprised to learn that they didn't know. "It might have been her heart because she's had cardiac issues for so many years, but the thing is that she was being well monitored for all that, and her most recent checkup had her in really, really good shape. Maybe it was a stroke, or an embolism, or an aneurysm." I also learned that Steve and my dad simply couldn't bear an autopsy, so it was likely that we may never know what actually killed her.

I'd like to know. But I also understand that won't bring her back. And I fully understand where my father and younger brother were coming from. Why cut her up? What good would that be, really?

I stayed up late, as is my habit, watching television by myself. When I went to bed in the room in which I lived as a child and teenager, I lulled myself to sleep with classical music on my iPod.

A family of men and one woman: me, my mother, and my two brothers in 1986 or 87.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007



Well, when I first visualized writing this series on the five days following my mother's death, I figured I'd be done with it in a week or two. Obviously, that hasn't been the case; a couple of issues have been slowing me down. First, I'm finding that I can't just sit down and whip these posts out. There's a lot of story to tell, and I want to tell it right. I can't do that haphazardly, so they're taking longer than expected. Second, they're not easy to write. I definitely have to stop to cry, multiple times, which isn't really all that surprising. Yeah, it's some good catharsis, but it's also easy to put the whole thing off, purposely delay, because I know it's going to hurt.

And now I'm about to take a road trip back to Kingwood for my younger brother's wedding this Saturday. That's going to be a bittersweet affair, let me tell you, coming so quickly on the heels of Mom's death. Anyway, the point is that I've never been able to be focused enough to blog on the road, which is why I'm going to delay my Grieving Notes series even more, with the next installment coming maybe next Monday.

At any rate, normal blogging will resume here. Someday. Hopefully before the new year.

My mom at some point in the mid 1960s.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Day Two: Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Part One: Morning and Afternoon

My drinking the night before made waking up difficult.

The first thing I recall was Becky telling me that there was a call for me. Half dazed, I took the phone. My older brother wanted to know when I wanted to leave town. It took a moment, but I remembered: "Oh yeah, mom is dead," I thought to myself.

I had been working under the assumption that I wouldn't be flying back to Houston until the evening, so I hadn't bothered with packing or setting Becky up with a key to my apartment to take care of the cats. I reminded him that he told me my flight was probably going to be tonight. "Okay," he said, and hung up. I tried to go back to sleep.

After dozing some twenty minutes or so, Becky woke me again handing me the phone.

"Is 2:45 okay?" he asked.

"No, no. I've got to get my stuff together. I need more time than that."


Again, I tried to sleep off my drinking from the night before. He called back a little later to tell me that my flight was leaving at 5:45. I told him that would be great. I don't think I was able to sleep after that. I went to my place to pack; Becky was going to meet me there later.

Everything seemed new. I was in a new universe, one in which my mother existed only as memory. I was a new person, in new circumstances, doing new things. I mean, yeah sure, I've left town plenty of times, but not because my mother was dead. This was unique in my experience.

Becky had gotten keys made early while I slept, so all I had to do was prepare for my trip. I was alone in my apartment for only a couple of hours, but it was enough to start thinking about Mom. I tried to keep busy, but she kept creeping in. After all, everything I was doing right then was about her. I was packing because she was dead. I was setting up my cats because she was dead. Each pair of underwear I set
out, each shirt, my old suit and tie, was because she was dead.

So I packed and cried and cried and packed.

Becky arrived after a while. We made sure the keys worked, and I told her about the care and feeding of Sammy and Frankie. She called a cab for me to take to the airport. She hugged me before I left.

I've ridden in cabs before, but I can count the number of times I've done so on one hand, so the ride did nothing but add to the newness of it all.

Newness or surrealism. I haven't really decided which it was yet.

The driver, a Pakistani named Ibad, asked me where I was flying to. "Houston," I told him, "for a funeral." We chatted a bit more; I showed him the restaurant where I work as we drove by--he seemed to approve of waiting tables as a profession, a nice moment of working class solidarity between the two of us I thought. He asked me if I was only going to be out of town for a day or two. "No," I said, "more like a week; my mother died yesterday."

The driver's tone changed from chipper to reverent. "You know, I'm a Muslim," he said. "We're not Christians, but we do recognize the Christian and Jewish prophets."

"I know, I know," I replied, "all three religions are 'of the book.'"

"Yes, yes, that's right." He went on, "In the Muslim tradition, there is a moment when Moses is talking to God. Moses' mother had recently died, and God wanted him to know that He would no longer be turning a blind eye to Moses' misdeeds. In other words, Moses' mother, who was specially loved by God, was no longer around to protect him. Losing one's mother is a very significant event; that's why this story is remembered."

I had never heard this before, but it rang true. Moses lost his special protector; I lost my special protector. Moses was on his own, a man, responsible for his own life. I was starting to feel the same way myself.

We chatted some more. I told him about the Pakistani students I taught in Baytown, and how much I liked them. I told him how much I hated our awful wars against Muslim nations. I thanked him for his words of wisdom and kindness. We shook hands at the airport, and he told me he would pray for me.

As with taxi cab riding, I rarely fly. Airports are strange places to me. Being there, at Louis Armstrong International Airport, upped the surrealism level. I found my way to the gate, ducked into a news stand, and bought a copy of Atlantic Monthly. I sat, and read, and tried not to think about why I was there, about how odd and bizarre the most mundane tasks seemed to be in this new motherless universe.

I got on the plane and found my way to my seat.

My mother, my brothers, and me, 1973 or 74.


Thursday, November 01, 2007


Day One: Monday, October 15, 2007

The transition from grad school to real life hasn't been easy for me. I've been struggling with anxiety and depression for weeks as I try to establish myself here in NOLA. There's no need to go into great detail on this; suffice it to say, things have been tough since August. That's why I had been meaning to give my mom a call for three or four weeks. In short, even though I'm 39 years old, I needed my mommy. But there was no hurry. I knew I'd get around to it. I knew she'd give me the vital emotional support she had always given me. I wasn't dying, after all; I was just really stressed out.

I finally called her Monday evening, around 7:30 or so. No one answered the phone at home, which was a bit strange, I thought. No church on Monday night, but whatever, my mom was a very social person. Maybe she was out with friends. What was weird was that my dad wasn't home, either. He doesn't like to go out as much as my mom did. Maybe they were just getting some Mexican food or something.

So I ironed a shirt for work and watched Monday Night Football. I posted here at Real Art what would end up being my last real post for the next two weeks.

I got the call around 9:15.

You know, you spend years wondering what it will be like. Wondering how you will react when you get the call. Will I be stoic? Will I cry immediately? Will it take time to sink in? How will I feel? It ended up going pretty much exactly as I had expected.

"Ronald," my dad said, "Your mother is..." His voice cracked, only a bit, and in that split second, I knew. Everything was on script. She was gone. "Your mother is dead."

Somehow I ended up on my knees, alone in my apartment, pro football on the TV, trying to take in what seemed utterly impossible. I said the most stupid thing: "but...I didn't get to say goodbye to her!" She died so suddenly; nobody got to say goodbye to her. I guess what I meant was that I was supposed to be telling her how freaked out I was being here all alone in a city where I knew almost no one. I was supposed to be listening to her reassure me, hearing her tell me how wonderful she thinks I am, how much she loves me, how everything's going to work out alright. I guess what I meant was that I didn't get a last chance to be her child again, and for her to be my mother. How could this be?

I don't remember what my father said. Something to the effect of "she's with God now, which is exactly where she's always wanted to be." He was crying, too. I asked how she died, wandering without direction through my tiny apartment while he talked. He told me he wasn't sure, maybe a heart attack, but he had been assured that she felt no pain. My older brother, who had driven down to Houston from Austin that afternoon, got on the phone to ask me if I was going to be okay.

I had no idea what to tell him.

I was crying, but I told him I would manage. He told me they would make flight arrangements for me on Tuesday. He told me he loves me. Then he hung up.

And I was alone.

Not knowing what to do, I called the restaurant where I work and tearfully explained the situation. They were extraordinarily cool and sympathetic, and took me off the schedule for the next week. With that taken care of, I wandered around, mindlessly calling out "Mom!" What do you do when you're all alone with devastating information stuck in your head? I still have no answer for that one. You just do whatever occurs to you.

What occurred to me was that I simply couldn't deal with this situation all by myself, so I went over to Becky's place. When I told her the news, she started crying. Becky and I are no longer a couple, but, like nearly everyone who ever met my mother, Becky loved her, too, and was shocked and blown away. She lost her father when we first started dating so many years ago and had a quick remedy: she took me into the French Quarter to have some drinks.

This turned out to be a pretty good idea.

We saw a small jazz/rock combo play in one place. We drank at another place and traded jokes with the small number of Monday night patrons about MTV's horrific new reality show, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, which was playing on the bar's set. We hit another place where a Grateful Dead wannabe band was jamming. We toasted my mom, Becky's dad, and all our cats we've lost over the years. Absolute grief and frustration slowly turned to celebration of wonderful people no longer among us.

I was able to smile and laugh, and it had only been a few hours since I had gotten the call. I observed that New Orleans may very well be the best place in the US to grieve a lost loved one because of the way that jazz was born here: traditional NOLA marching bands would play dirges as they marched down the street in funeral processions; at the end of the line, the sad music would abruptly change to happy, celebrating the deceased, referencing the eternal afterlife in paradise. This celebratory music eventually evolved into what was later called jazz.

And there I was in the cradle of jazz mourning and celebrating my mother. It was terrible and beautiful all at once. I felt more acutely alive than I had in years.

We made it back to Becky's place where she insisted that I stay the night, that I shouldn't be alone. I agreed. Eventually, my drunkenness helped me get to sleep.

My mother as a little girl, 1947 or 48.