Letter from Katie: In The Garden

Looking for traces of my mother.

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

In the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport, the pace was hurried—almost frenetic—on an early November night. Motorized carts wove in and out of crowds of pedestrians, their horns loud and blaring, peoples’ voices raised in a polyglot of languages. The throng of travelers came from South America and Mexico. I had pictured cowboys in Dallas in 10-gallon Stetson hats, but no, these people were smaller, their clothing plain, their shoes, cracked and broken. The loudspeaker announced flights to places like Buenos Aires and Caracas. One man stopped his passenger cart to give me a ride through the terminal. He was singing and laughing. “I like to sing to my wife,” he said. “I’m in good voice tonight.”

I was flying to see my mother in South Alabama. She had been ill for some time and she had fallen and broken her hip, and I knew that was the death knell for this 90-year-old woman who had sworn she’d live to be 100. When she contracted pneumonia after her fall, I was anxious to get to her.

Lost in thought, I almost missed the gate to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I boarded an American Eagle for the next leg of my trip. My seat mate was a sweet woman who settled in for a chat. I didn’t mind the intrusion; it kept my mind off Mother. I hoped she wasn’t in pain or frightened, and that I’d get there in time to see her conscious.

My niece, Mother’s granddaughter, was her executor, her power of attorney. She had decided not to authorize hip surgery, and had placed a “do not resuscitate” note on her chart. These decisions were straightforward, based on what Mother had requested years ago.

Since my sister lived in the same town as my mother, she was the original executor. I remembered the day they went to the lawyer’s office to have the will drawn. Mother was giggling when they got back to the house.

“Now don’t just pull the plug at the first sign of trouble,” she warned my sister and laughed. My sister said, “You’d better be nice to me from now on.” We all laughed when Mother pantomimed being extra nice to my sister. We were happy to be together. Pulling the plug was something far away, not even a reality to us then. Certainly, my sister’s death in 2013 was not anywhere on our horizons either.

While the plane flew on in the dark, I thought about Mother’s younger self. The most important thing in the world to her—after church—was music. She loved to listen to my radio show on WNKU, Music from the Hills of Home, but since she lived in Alabama it wasn’t easily accessible. I made tapes and sent them home to her, but then my brother-in-law, John, who was our resident computer geek, fixed up the old machine in her den so that she could stream the radio show live. After that, as soon as she got in from church she could take off her shoes, lean back in her recliner, “mash” a button, and listen to three hours of bluegrass and old-time country music from 500 miles away. It was a happy memory for me. I’d always get an e-mail from her saying, “Good show.” Every week she wrote the same message: “Good show.”

When we landed, I almost lost my way in the airport, but the crowd moved toward the baggage carousel and I followed. No one was waiting for me there, nor did I know how to reach anyone in my family. I had a cell phone with a weak battery and an old address book packed deep in the recesses of my suitcase, but I couldn’t find either. I was about as prepared for this trip as a 10-year-old Girl Scout running away from home. It was totally dark outside at 9 o’clock, and I could feel the Gulf Shore warmth all around me and smell the sweet scent of the Southern air, but the airline workers were going home for the night, and it looked as though I might have to sleep on the floor.

My brother-in-law, John, strode in just as I was about to cry, and whisked me off to Fairhope, where my mother and my niece were waiting.

“She’s had a turn for the worse,” he said. “We have to hurry.”

On the long drive, I talked to Mother twice on John’s cell phone. Neither time made much sense. “This has been a bad day,” she said to me, and I could see her long, thin face in my mind’s eye.

“Have you had a bad time?” I asked, but she wasn’t communicating any more.

Mother was a role model in her old age, but she had not always been “cool.” She had married when she was 16, and for the first part of her life she was in the shadow of my charismatic father. When he died, she fooled us all by coming up with a second act: taking a job in the public library. She learned the Dewey Decimal System, she stamped return dates on volumes of fiction, and was lenient with overdue fines. She visited the musical venues in Branson, Missouri, and Opryland in Nashville, and by the time she was able to apply for Social Security, she was ready to “roost.” Her traveling days were done.

My sister wasted no time. Once the decision was made, she started packing boxes and house-hunting. My family drives me crazy that way. Instead of brooding, they act. I’m more like Hamlet: I can’t make up my mind, can’t commit easily. But I have learned from my family that by the time a situation reaches the discussion phase I had better be ready or my head will turn around three times on my neck, and I’ll be left behind.

They found the perfect house, just what she wanted. It was a small blue cottage in Huntsville, Alabama, a little like an illustration from Beatrix Potter. It had a white fence and rabbits. You could see the bunnies emerging from the bushes like rabbits coming out of hats. Mother never had trouble luring her grandchildren or her great-grandchildren to come to see her; they adored visiting the bunnies.

It was a perfect storybook house for holidays, too. My sister had Christmas. It was sophisticated, glittering with LED lights and fabulous things to eat, but Thanksgiving belonged to Mother and tradition. She began cooking a week or so before the holiday. She preferred to be alone when she was making something tricky. When it was time to cook the boiled custard, for instance, she chased all of us out of the house so she could lay out the same utensils she’d been using for 50 years, which she regarded with something close to superstition. She came to her task concentrated and alone, like a wizard.

Boiled custard was similar to Floating Islands. The danger was that it could cook too fast and “fry” the eggs. So, Mother poured the milk and cream and eggs into the top of her ancient double boiler and simmered the mixture on low heat for a seemingly endless time. When it was done she poured it in her own mother’s custard jar and stored it for a while on the fenced-in porch outside the kitchen. When it was sufficiently cooled, she put it in the refrigerator with stern admonitions about what would happen to anyone who might dare to sample it before Thanksgiving. But her mouth was curved in a half-smile, and her brown eyes twinkled.

When we pulled into the driveway of my niece’s house, my brother-in-law got out and slammed the door. “Go, go,” he said. “I’ll get the suitcase.”

Mother was still awake, and she smiled at me, the biggest smile, which grew bigger the closer I got. She knew me! She hid shyly behind my niece and smiled at me almost as if she were flirting. But It was hard to find traces of my lovely Mother in the face before me now. Her white hair was uncombed, there was no color in her face, and her nightgown was askew. The hospice nurse explained that her body was shutting down. She looked a little like a feral animal, wild, in pain, her eyes rolled back from time to time. I was stunned.

My niece, Rebecca, filled me in. Mother had been fine up until that day, and then she began to struggle to breathe. She had oxygen, but it didn’t seem to help, and Rebecca had been left alone with morphine and Ativan to administer at her own discretion.

My niece hadn’t slept the previous night. Someone had to sit with Mother because she insisted on trying to get out of bed. I immediately took over and sat until 3:30 a.m., recalling old times as I kept watch over the woman who had kept watch over me so many years ago. My niece tried to sleep but couldn’t, and at 3:30 a.m. she stumbled back to sit beside me. I went to bed and slept for three hours in the same clothes I had worn when I arrived.

The next morning we were exhausted, but Mother was still panting, still trying to get out of bed, still fighting. My niece gave her morphine and she settled down for awhile. We played music, hoping to ease her distress, and it actually worked for a couple of hours. We sat by the bedside, listening to old tapes of family reunions back in 1988.

We heard the tinkle of glasses, the sound of laughter, heard my father singing “Darkness on the Delta,” playing a sock rhythm on the guitar. A year later, in 1989, he would be dead of cancer.

Mother was trying to get out of bed again, and suddenly there was no more time to indulge in memories. Rebecca tried more oxygen, more morphine, more Ativan. When she had charge of her own life she wouldn’t take so much as an aspirin, so I was amazed to see her tolerating these drugs. Rebecca called the hospice nurse, and this at last produced some results. The nurse had been held over in her last assignment, but when she arrived around 1 p.m., in uniform, her long blonde hair loose in waves down the back, she was all action.

“The thing is to give her the morphine before she needs it,” the nurse said. She showed us how to mix a morphine cocktail with Ativan. The Ativan, she explained, would quiet Mother in case she woke and didn’t know where she was. It would also suppress her breathing.

Later my cousin, Patti, came by. We were all watching Mother, sleeping in her narrow bed, oxygen tubes in her nose, her mouth open, her neck attenuated (one of the seven signs of impending death, my niece informed me). My cousin, whom I’ve known since she was a newborn baby, looked up at me and wiped tears from her eyes. “I love your hair,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said. “I haven’t combed it in two days.”

“The sign of a good haircut,” she said. And there it was, the compliment that made me know I was back in Alabama.

By afternoon I was so sleepy I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I passed out for a couple of hours in Rebecca’s large, luxurious bed. I fell asleep and dreamed of visiting my mother when we were younger. I was sad about something and ended up crying on her couch. Then that image was gone, and all of them were in the kitchen. Daddy was playing the guitar, Uncle Fred the fiddle, and Aunt Dot played the piano. Everyone was singing, and their voices rose straight up as if carried by the air. I stood apart from them and longed to be one of them again. Then I saw Mother climbing the curved stairs up and up until she came to a door which opened for her as if they’d known she was there. She was young again, straight and pretty as she’d been when I was a toddler. I woke up then, and my niece came to tell me that she had died while I was asleep.

We had only a short time to prepare for a funeral. Mother had wanted to be buried out in the country in Buchanan, Tennessee. You couldn’t fly there—the closest airport was Nashville, and the rest of the trip could only be completed by car.

The family gathered at the same Quality Inn where we always stayed when there was a family get-together. I had my own room, but I had a devil of a time getting on top of the bed. It was about four feet off the floor, and you couldn’t just throw your leg over like you did in a normal bed. I tried scooting up on my derriere but I couldn’t gain any purchase. I tried crawling up on my belly, but that didn’t work either. When I finally got my pajama-clad leg on top, I slept like a baby.

Everyone was dressed in hiking clothes at breakfast, and we set out for the Patterson Family Cemetery after we had consumed large quantities of coffee. John led the way. He knew this country well; he had been coming here for more than 40 years. I watched the trees, the maple, sycamore, and golden gingko floating past like splashes of oil paint splattered on a canvas, and the kudzu everywhere.

This part of Tennessee needed rain, and so the dust flew up when the cars pulled into the front of the old churchyard. The sky was gray and overcast. I had been feeling alright til then, but the lead-colored afternoon light brought me back to ground zero: Mother was dead. We were here to bury her.

“Look,” someone said. “Look at the wooden signs.”

“Cowpath Road,” one read, and indeed, it looked like a rural intersection. My old fascination with roads came to mind. How did a path become a road? How many years did it take to wear the earth down? How many steps, one on top of the other, did it take to make a rut?

“What’s the other one?” someone else asked.

“It’s Dogwood Thicket.’”

There were half a dozen headstones in the old cemetery, most of them from the 1800s. Children had died of diphtheria in those years; whole families had been wiped out by the typhus or Spanish influenza soldiers brought home at the end of World War I.

We took large bags of Mother’s ashes and poured them on the graves of her own mother, father, and brother. Everything was still and quiet.

My nephew began to play “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on the guitar, then he played “In the Garden” and another old hymn she loved. We all sang and when it was time, each of us recited a poem. I read “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes…” by Emily Dickinson, and my cousin Sandra read a poem my sister had written before her death—“She Bakes a Caramel Pie.” It was about our mother, and it turned out to be the pièce de résistance. It honored Mother’s resilience and her sense of celebration even in the wake of tragedy. It was a lovely poem. It had humor, family legend, and a story that was so true it went straight to the heart.

Finally, we drove across the road to my father’s family cemetery and scattered the largest portion of ashes on his grave, and on the graves of the other family members buried there. I thought of a line from James Joyce. “They lived and laughed and loved and left…” The joyous sounds of their voices, pianos, guitars, were silenced now. My world, my family, would never be the same again.

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