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.