Earthly Purpose


Leigh Curran

I plant myself firmly on the edge of my mother’s bed.  She’s 92, in a bad mood and aiming it at me. We have a history of setting each other off.  The years have mellowed us but not completely so I refuse to say goodnight until we work our way through the static.  Her mind is sharp – eyes so defiant I look out the window.  Her bedroom smells like mildew and Mentholatum.

“I know I’m difficult,” she mutters.

 “My whole life I’ve thought if we could just come together,” I say, “and stay there – then we’d have served our earthly purpose.  But if you die when we’re angry at each other … the way you and your mother did … ”

My mother moves her hand on top of mine – skin soft – grip firm and urgent.

“We won’t let that happen,” she says.  “Let’s promise.”

We promise.

The next day she wants to be sure I remember where she keeps her important papers.  I point to a black satchel wedged between her bureau and the wall.  We review who will preside over her memorial – what music will play – what poems will be offered as her ashes are scattered over my father’s grave.  Then we write her obituary and because my mother was a professional proofreader we end it with: Her name was Barbara Griggs and she approved of (and edited) this message.  And when we’ve sufficiently amused ourselves imagining the reactions of assorted readers, I ask her what she thinks life is like after death.

“Darkness,” she says, “Total darkness.”

I’m stunned.  This is the woman who took me at age two to hear Krishnamurti speak in the oak grove not far from our home in Ojai.  Who pointed to the stars the night my father died and said: “That’s where Papa is now.”

I fill with unnerving visions of my mother lost for all eternity in a black and barren netherworld – so I tell her about an out of the body experience I had that convinced me this life is one of many.  But she’d rather have me read her a New York Times article about pacemakers and how she can ask for hers to be turned off without incriminating her cardiologist.

“When my time comes,” she says, repositioning her walker, “don’t let me become a vegetable.”

“No,” I say, “I won’t.”

Two years later – shortly after her 94th birthday – my mother calls my home in LA.  She’s had “the feeling something dreadful is about to happen.”

Shortly thereafter, I’m in the ICU of the Sharon Hospital in Connecticut.  My mother’s bleeding internally and putting on a brave face.  I find her doctor.

“The battery in her pacemaker is wearing out,” I say, “but if something happens she doesn’t want you to jump start it.”

The doctor looks at my mother then back at me.

“Well, if that’s the case, why are we giving her blood transfusions and antibiotics?”

And in a firm, clear voice my mother says:

“I don’t know because I want to die.”

So she’s disconnected from tubes and monitors, wheeled upstairs, and given her first dose of morphine.  After five minutes she says:

“I’m not feeling it.”

“You will,” I say, “but before you go under – you’ve been the best mother – ”

“Oh, not really,” she says.

I pull away – she’s scared – I can’t imagine how scared.  I leaf through her address book.

“I should probably call Ann,” I say, “She might like to say goodbye.”

“I don’t know.  What if I linger?”

“You won’t – I’m your champion, remember?”

She shrugs like: do what you must.

I leave the room – call Ann – a close family friend for over 70 years.  And like stolid New Englanders, we break down then suck it up.

When I return, my brother has arrived – is giving my mother a kiss.

“Your sister’s being dramatic – getting everyone all worked up telling them I’m dying.”

I’m stymied – criticism at a time like this?  I don’t take the bait.

“Did you hear what I said?  She’s being maudlin.  Getting everyone all – ”

And suddenly I’m in her hard, beady eyes and I don’t give a flying fuck what we promised each other about anger and death or whatever!

“Why is it, when we’re alone we get along so well – but as soon as Stephen – or anyone – walks in the room you start putting me down?  If this is how it’s going to be then I’m telling you right now I’ll walk out that door and never come back!”

Her eyes glide shut as the morphine hits.  My brother can’t believe what he’s just witnessed.  I know he thinks I’m a hateful bitch.

I tuck the cover around my mother’s feet as she continues to sink.

“I’ve never understood why she was so mean to you,” my brother says quietly.

I smooth the blanket – not sure I heard right.

“Wow, all these years I thought you thought I was mean to her.”

He shakes his head No and inside I tumble with: Why didn’t you say something?  When doors slammed, tears exploded, and she belittled me because my “head was too small for my body” – what was that?  God!  My whole life I’ve been terrified of having children – demeaning them they way she did me and her mother did her and on and on and on.  So I decided to stop the madness – I turned toward her – I hoped … I don’t know – we’d transform … our … selves – so we’d have – I don’t fucking know anymore – peace!

My brother’s voice breaks into my flash attack.

 “She’s one-of-a kind,” he says thoughtfully.

I take a deep breath, turn myself inside out and we reminisce about the woman who is our tricky, devoted, widowed-at-37 mother.

The following day is rainy.  I sit in the stubborn darkness of my mother’s hospital room – our promise in tatters – my angry threat to walk out and never come back driving me into a darkness of my own making.   Friends stop by to tell my mother of the difference she’s made in their lives and because she’s unresponsive they tell me how lucky I am to be her daughter.  Inside I wish they’d leave but I was raised to be a good hostess so we watch my mother’s life in pictures on the digital photo frame I gave her at Christmas.

By 9pm, shame and despair have rendered me as immobile as my mother.  My brother arrives to spell me.  We look at our mother’s barely breathing body.  I bend over to kiss her goodnight because even though we blew our promise she’s still my mother.  As I approach her face she moans.  I mutter: My sentiments exactly.  But when I touch her cheek, her eyes circle under their lids.  Her forehead scrunches into a frown.  Her lips fret like a baby bird as she fights to surface.  I’m about to ask my brother to call for help when she whispers:

“I’m so glad you came.  How long will you stay?”

“Um … until I’m not needed anymore,” I stammer.

Then she floats off to wrestle with total darkness.

I sit in the echo of what will be our final words – numb heart fluttering with the unexpected arrival of shared tenderness.  My eyes catch the digital photo frame that gave my mother so much happiness even as her eyesight was fading.  I pause it on my father, adjust it so he’s looking at her – a twinkle in his eye.

My brother and I get the call at 2:20 in the morning.  By 2:30 we are at my mother’s side.  She’s already cold but her eyes and mouth are wide open in an expression of surprise.

 “I bet right before she died,” I say, “she opened her eyes – saw Papa in a blaze of light at the foot of her bed, inhaled in amazement – and bid the darkness goodbye.”

My brother puts his arm around me.

“I hope so,” he says.

We stand in the silence of our loss – family elders now – sharing the unstable freedom of a bottomless turning point.  And in a moment so still it could have slipped by unnoticed, I know deep inside, for everything my mother and I were and weren’t to each other, in our final moments we stopped the madness with our best and truest love.

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