ralph robert moore
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Copyright © 2001 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2001.
the front of winter has not been kind to us
december 1, 2001
The front of Winter has not been kind to us.
In November of 1991, I learned long-distance my mother needed to go into the hospital for cancer surgery. Up until then, as parents often do, she had never hinted to me during our calls anything was wrong. This may have been, in part, because she had the cancer in the one place on her body a mother, paradoxically, isn't supposed to, her vagina. Although the surgery was a success, she never fully recovered from it. Talking to her on the telephone afterwards, I'd notice more and more places in the conversation where she'd lose her train of thought, or ask me a question that would give me a small dread of fright, because the question made no sense. It was just a jumble of nouns and verbs jammed against a question mark. Mary and I came in laughing from gardening one Saturday afternoon, reeking of mulch, sweaty hair around our foreheads, ready to get some cold beers from the refrigerator. The phone was ringing. It was my mom! I said a happy hello, but lost my smile as soon as I heard the agony in her voice. What was wrong? It turned out she was calling to apologize for something she believed she had done wrong years and years ago (she was agonizing over the fact that during one of the times Mary and I visited the family, she had forgotten to give us extra blankets. I didn't remember the incident, it may not have even ever occurred.) I reassured her everything was all right, we weren't mad at her (it astonished me she thought we were). More and more, that year following her surgery, she would become confused, as my father reported it to me, getting mail from my parents' mailbox and then throwing it down the wooden front steps, and telling my father of the conversations she had daily with 'Mary' and 'The Tall Man'. Her younger sister's name was Mary, my mother's father was tall. Both had been dead for years. Is that who she was talking to? Or was it the Virgin Mary and an angel? Or my wife, and me? Or something else? Or nothing? And how would you know?
In November of 1992, my father had my mother declared incompetent, and placed her in a nursing home. He believed she had come down with Alzheimer's. There was no way to confirm if in fact she had, because Alzheimer's is one of those few diseases which cannot be diagnosed until after the patient has died, and the brain tissues have been thinly sliced and placed within glass slides, examined under microscope. That was the strangest situation of all. My mother was still alive, but I could no longer talk to her. In honesty, we never talked about anything compelling during our long-distance phone conversations-- I think children rarely are honest when they talk to their parents, regardless of the ages of both, and it's really just as well, that screening has to be in place on both sides-- but I always did enjoy hearing her voice, and going through the rote of how our car was, and how the weather was, and how my health was, and Mary's, and how my job was doing, and Mary's. But from November 1992 forward, I never again ever had that type of conversation with her. I called her once in the nursing home, and after a long, long wait, a woman came on the phone and started talking about the nurses. I didn't recognize the voice. It sounded coarser than my mother's voice. After listening for about ten minutes-- it was a monologue, not a conversation-- and after saying good-bye several times, which was ignored as completely as if unheard, I quietly laid the receiver back on its rest. Was it my mother? I assume it was, but I'll never know. If it was, it was the last time I ever spoke to her. After about a million conversations.
In December of 1997, we received a letter from Joe, Mary's dad. For the past twenty years or so, there had been an ongoing correspondence between us, Joe and Joan at one end, Mary and myself at the other. The letters are postmarked from all over the United States, as both couples, independently, moved around. They tend to be long, about five or more pages, and well-written, filled with humorous stories about how our lives were going (I really should post them here, some day).
The receipt of a new Joe and Joan letter was always an occasion of joy for Mary and me. Since the four of us got together less frequently because we now lived farther apart (Joe and Joan used to live in Sacramento, Mary and myself in the San Francisco area, but over the years, they moved to Washington state, then Milwaukee, while we moved to Maine, then Texas), each new letter was an opportunity to stay in touch, to let the other two know what was going on.
I handled the letter-writing chores for Mary and me; Joe did the same for him and Joan.
As was usual whenever we received a new letter from them, we sat at our table in the breakfast nook. Mary opened the envelope with a flourish, lowering her head to the first page, grinning with happiness.
Here's how that December 14 letter started:
"Dear Mary and Rob:
"Joan is undergoing chemotherapy after having been diagnosed with cancer. Don't panic-- there's hopeful news to come-- be patient. We put off telling you, waiting until we could give an upbeat report. There seemed no point in distressing you before the situation clarified."
We were stunned. It was the last thing in the world we expected to read.
Joan improved. It looked like she had beaten the cancer. It looked like this was just a bump on the highway. Joe called us late one night in November of 1998, less than a year later, to tell us that during a routine check-up, it had been discovered the cancer had reappeared, and had, in fact, spread to Joan's brain. The situation was hopeless. A few days later, he called to tell us she was dead.
We flew to Milwaukee for the funeral, staying most of the week.
Back home, I started going through the messages on our answering machine. One was from my dad. "Mom's not doing well. She's taken a turn for the worse." I called him, our suitcases still in the front hallway, unpacked. My dad's voice in my ear, from two thousand miles away. "She's dead, Bobby."
In late October of 2000, on an otherwise nice Friday, I went into work as I always did, unlocked my office, flicked on the overhead light, turned on my computer, and another senior person in the office followed me in, handing me a letter from the main office in Columbus, Ohio. After eleven years at this job, the longest I had ever worked at a job, I was being laid off, along with a lot of others, because of a recent acquisition.
A month later, on November 30, 2000, the cat we had had the longest, Elf, was put to sleep. We had her for precisely one decade. We brought her home November 30, 1990, and held her as the drug to end her life was injected into her on November 30, 2000.
Elf had feline leukemia. We went through years of trying to prolong her life, taking her in for chemotherapy, hand-feeding her raw hamburger (just about the only thing she could eat, towards the end), showing her all of our love. The morning of November 29, we knew there was something wrong with her. She didn't eat, just lay on the kitchen counter like a sock without a hand inside.
We drove home at lunch, and she was in the same place we left her in the morning. The water bowl was empty, so we filled it, carried her over to it. She kept drinking and drinking and drinking from it, drinking and drinking and drinking, until we both knew something was terribly, horribly wrong. We took her to the vet that afternoon. Instead of her regular doctor, who was out, we got another vet, who was optimistic about her recovery. But we had to leave her overnight. The next morning, I got a call from her regular vet. "Her internal organs are calcified. They're shutting down. We can't bring her back, this time. We've run out of options. We need to think about putting her to sleep."
We buried her that same day, in our backyard, under a tall, spreading Oriental pear tree. We put her there because years and years ago, when we first built our home and moved in, and she was still so healthy, Elf used to love to bang against the breakfast nook windows, watching the butterflies flicker over the yellow lantana we had planted.
This afternoon, we went out in our backyard, lit a couple of cigarettes, opened a couple of beers, and reminisced about our darling. As we laughed and cried over her antics over the years, an ice cream truck went by, playing 'Rock-A-Bye Baby'. After we finished our beers, we laid over her grave a monument stone we bought of a small cat in curled repose.
People get through life a lot of different ways. There's family, humor, familiar places, drugs, booze, routine, cynicism, religion, anger, atheism, but more than anything else, there's memory.
In memory, our minds, and therefore ourselves, are free to travel through time. So there's always going to be this nowness, but even in this now, there's the very real evocation of my mother, her hair still dark brown, sitting on my bed, asking me in her own, old-fashioned way if I'm having trouble in high school, and at the time I was embarrassed, I thought how so grown-up I am to where this conversation was no longer relevant, but within five minutes I was talking to her, really talking to her; the very real evocation of Joan forever pulling out of the oven on a cold, cold Milwaukee night the absolutely perfect ham, eyes behind her glasses glittering with happiness, Joe with his sweatered arm draped over the back of a chair in their breakfast nook, drawing on his pipe, grinning, about to hoarsely add just the right, droll comment; the very real evocation of Elf scampering-- and yes, that was exactly her movement, scampering-- into our bedroom as we pulled up the sheets, purring and whirring around our pillowed heads, bumping her whiskers against Mary, ducking her head as Mary lifted the sheets for her to wiggle under, reverse, huffing and puffing in happiness, so that the top of her head lay under Mary's loving palm.
Somewhere, forever, my mom is telling me a dumb joke. Somewhere, forever, Joan is confidently raising a finger in the air, correcting the three of us on a quotation. Somewhere, forever, Elf is nuzzling her snout against Mary's lips.
Somewhere, forever, everything is good, and everyone is happy.
We had a Winter storm warning in Dallas this week, which is rare anyway, but especially this early in the season.
Mary called from the road on her cell phone, saying she'd be late.
I opened our back door, walked outside. The sky was low and dark, wind whirling around the yard, bending bushes and tilting tree limbs down. It was exciting. Something interesting was on its way.
While I waited, I decided to get our dinner going. We were going to have grinders that night, meatballs and Italian sausage served in a submarine roll with sautéed onions and green bell peppers, all of it draped in melted provolone cheese, covered with spaghetti sauce.
I got out a pound of ground beef, pound of ground pork, massaged into it onions and garlic sautéed in olive oil, rubbed down on it a modest green snow of dried basil, oregano and thyme, added fresh chopped parsley, some grated parmesan cheese, a cracked-open raw egg, and half a cup of oatmeal. Once everything was mixed, I molded the ingredients in the bowl into meatballs, hopping each sphere palm to palm, then arrayed them on a flat cookie sheet, putting them in a three hundred and fifty degree oven for half an hour.
After they were done, I added them and four slant-sliced Italian sausages to a big pot of bubbling spaghetti sauce. I knew the rich, red smell of it would be the first thing Mary would encounter when she got home.
Then I decided it would also be nice to have a fire going in the fireplace, so after her long, cold drive she could smell the carbon of the logs burning, hear the snap and click of enflamed wood.
Along about here, it should be said that I rarely start fires in our fireplace. That's a task usually left to Mary.
I hauled four logs out of the garage, positioned them on the iron grate, and turned on the gas.
I was very careful doing this.
Years ago, on a cold Saturday afternoon, I also lit a fire. On that fateful occasion, I didn't sufficiently withdraw my head from the fireplace before squeezing the trigger on the electric lighter to burst the flow of gas into flames, so that I fell backwards off the brick apron of the fireplace with my hair on fire. Mary said that after hearing my yelp she ran out of her upstairs project room to lean over the loft's half wall, seeing me down below stumbling around with a tongue of flame rising from my forehead, as if I were a medieval saint.
Mary has lit most of our fires since then.
But I was careful this time, and the logs disappeared under a fluid upswell of orange flames without any damage to myself. I went back to the kitchen, feeling smug, to continue sautéing the onions and green bell peppers.
After a couple of minutes, I started coughing into my right fist with such a regularity I knew something was wrong. I put my wooden stirring spoon down on the white kitchen counter, going out into the living room, which was filling with a visible, albeit rather pleasant-smelling, smoke.
The smoke detector upstairs started beeping. I ran up the stairs, grabbed a cat pillow from Mary's project room, and started fatly waving it under the alarm. It stopped for a moment, then shrieked again. I rolled the leather chair in my loft under the alarm, stood in its seat with a pair of Mary's fabric cutting shears, unscrewed the smoke alarm, whose shriek this close was so loud and penetrating it crosses senses, to where it was not only deafening but blinding, and snipped the wires.
I ran around the house, both floors, yanking open windows. As I was struggling with the windows in Mary's room, I looked down and saw our CRV in the driveway, headlights on.
I ran downstairs, into the garage, yanking open the garage door.
Mary drove our CRV up into our garage.
I explained what had happened, still holding her cat pillow in one hand, her oversized cutting shears in the other. I admit I was a little wild-eyed.
Later, I asked her what she had thought, upon first seeing me.
She reflected for a moment. "It was like I Love Lucy."
Mary's website, Mary's World, includes a lot of pictures and comments on Elf, as well as a short audio of Mary encouraging Elf to meow for the microphone. You can access it here. Her site also includes a Flash 5 tribute to her mother. All of the artwork featured in the movie was created by her mom. The photograph used in the film is one Mary took in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, in the mid-eighties, showing Joe, Joan, and myself. The movie takes about eight minutes to download on a 56k connection.
Joe, Mary's dad, has created a tribute to Joan on his site, The Photography of Joseph Meier. You can access it here. In addition to dozens of photographs of Joan taken over the decades, his tribute also includes the complete texts, with color drawings, of a number of children's stories and poems she wrote and illustrated.
What I'm going to say next, I have more confidence she'll hear and understand now, than I did that she would in the last years of her life.
I love you, Mom.