The last time I saw Mother alive was when I had gone to Olympia, Washington to be with her and Dad and three of my sisters when they were scheduled to bring her home from the hospital for the last time. Before the ambulance brought her home, Dad and I hauled some gravel and shoveled it into the depressions in the leafy dirt lane that led from the highway to their haven almost hidden in the forest of surrounding trees. Dad wanted to make sure that the lane was as smooth as possible for Mom's journey home. My dad and sisters and I had gone (not so bravely) to the medical supplies store to rent the necessary equipment for caring for someone with a terminal illness--hospital bed, bedpans, walker, and other items that the knowledgeable store proprietor knew we would need. He told us that, mercifully, the rental periods were usually brief, information of small comfort to us at that moment.
Mother asked that I ride in the ambulance with her when she made her final trip home. I assented, knowing this journey would be our last one together. We talked of many things on that brief ride, none of which I can remember now. My mind was in a fog because of the unreality of knowing that she was dying. She stayed perennially upbeat. I had reminded her earlier, while she was still in the hospital, that her turn in life was not yet over. Because she had enshrined hope above all else in her being, I was told later about how she had mustered every superhuman ounce of energy just to walk a few short yards and then return to her hospital bed. I was filled with turmoil and sadness on this last trip together, and I reflected on the fact that I had seen my parents only a few brief times since they had moved from Penrose in northwest Wyoming to Olympia, Washington in 1968.
After that ambulance ride, I returned home to Colorado and then we waited, knowing that I would likely never see my mother alive again. I wrote letters. I talked to Mom on the phone while she could still muster the strength to visit. I talked to Dad and to my sisters. And we agonized until the terrible cancer ran its inevitable course.
And then, on an early September day in 1981, she died. That early autumn day was a sunny one, with streaks of sunshine filtering through the sea of leaves on the trees in the dense forest that surrounded her bedroom windows, the shadows from the dancing leaves flickering cheerfully across the walls by her bed. During her last two weeks on earth, she had written numerous letters to her family, so I know she had thought about all of the members of her family one final time. Could she possibly have remembered the ancient Kodak photograph imprinted on my mind that was taken when I was about six, middle tooth gap prominently displayed, when she stood with her hand on my towhead, with Louise standing by her other side and Liz, in her best Sunday dress, inexplicably making mud pies on the ground?
Mother died far from the Penrose valley where she had spent the first sixty-one of her seventy-four years, far from the sounds of the nearby river waters. She died far from the stubborn Penrose soil from which she had successfully coaxed row upon row of multicolored gladiolus and dahlias, far from the badlands bordering the valley and the howling coyotes with their eerie serenades penetrating the still Wyoming nights. She died with an aching homesickness in her heart for Penrose and Wyoming that had never vanished during her thirteen years in Washington. But she died knowing that she had never, ever, given up on the pledge she had made to Dad in the early days of their marriage during the darkest days of the Great Depression to work until "we find the land of our heart's desire."
September was an inconvenient month in which to die. The garden must be cleared, and the raspberries must be pruned and tilled. No longer did she need to worry about the Monkey Ward and Sears catalogue orders for enough clothing to outfit her brood for another school year. But she knew that September always means that winter is not far off, and that the shiny translucent Indian Summer days would be a fickle mistress, sending signals of false hopes and failed promises of things ardently and passionately hoped for.
She knew that the wet dews on the morning grasses and leaves would soon turn to frost and that the chlorophyll-rich leaves would quickly be transformed into multi-hued yellows and oranges and browns, tumbling to earth. She was aware of the fact that winter would be the ultimate victor, and that she could not make life pause to redeem her innermost hopes merely by refusing to turn the calendar pages. She knew that the trees would soon become stark and bare with their bony arms waving madly in the winter winds and that life and death would both work their irrevocable wills on our recalcitrant and disappointed souls. And she could hear and see and touch countless fragments of her life, illuminated on that September day not only by the light of the glorious Indian Summer, but by an even brighter light, one that she had never before seen and that she did not yet understand. And this is what she may have seen and clearly remembered.
To be continued . . .