My mother died last week. She spent the last month in the hospital and her last days surrounded by her adult children. I am glad I was able to be with her. She would look up at me through her oxygen mask with her clear, brown eyes sometimes searching, sometimes scowling. Occasionally, she would try to speak.
I remembered a photo of her as a young girl standing on a sidewalk in the afternoon sun, squinting at the camera. If you didn’t know her you might think she was pouting, but it was actually a family stare, a kind of Sicilian “show me.” I took it out of the album one night and studied it. Sure enough, it was the same person I had just left lying in a nearby hospital, dying.
My mother was the last of her generation, having survived the deaths of her brother, two sisters, one of whom died in her mother’s arms at the age of twelve from tuberculosis, and my father. They say that when your parents die you feel like an orphan no matter your age. Honestly, though, I don’t feel that way, not yet. Maybe it will catch up with me in days, weeks, months. Right now I wouldn’t say I am numb–we knew this was coming–but I find myself not interested in much of anything anymore.
Truthfully, I shouldn’t say anymore. I was beginning to lose interest in things before my mother’s death. And when I say things, I mean trivial things. The problem is that as you get older the list of trivia gets longer and longer until, finally, you’re left with one topic to talk about with two friends over three beers. Maybe that’s just the way it is for me or men in general. I don’t mind, though. There’s already too much talking in the world (see Enough Said).
Something else happens as you get older and people around you start dying. You have less tolerance for things that aren’t Good or True or Beautiful. You learn how to discern, how to separate the wheat from the chaff. You’ve seen just about everything under the sun in one form or another. You don’t want to waste your time anymore, not out of disrespect for others but out of respect for yourself. I am already experiencing this. Rather than being anxious about missing out, I am more concerned about being forced to fit in. I don’t want to fit in anywhere but with myself.
The girl with the squinting eyes taught me that, which makes her suffering even more poignant. For you have to know yourself before you can discern the wheat from the chaff. But my mother had dementia and thus only a jumbled sense of self. The hell of dementia is not merely that you are lost but that there’s not even a “you” to lose. In my mother’s case it came and went in flashes of lucidity and bouts of delusion. Having a conversation with someone in that state is like trying to light a match in the wind. Eventually, your talk is reduced to things like the pillow, the angle of the bed, the beep of a monitor whose battery has run out, the film noir detective movie on the tv.
My mother liked to tell the story of how she attended a summer camp for sick kids and teens in upstate New York. She went there to recover from scarlet fever and fell in with a pack of tough girls from the Bronx. They referred to her as a wisecracking “long-drink-of-water” because she looked like “Olive Oyl” (her words). They did their share of mischief and nearly got kicked out of the camp. When I think of my mother, I remember that story and imagine the lake they swam in. I picture it now as quiet, still, glowing with a setting sun.
I’m not sure why, but I believe lakes connect me to my mother in some mysterious way (see The Hand of God). This lake is the perfect spot for me to go when finally I have lost interest in everything else. I’ll call it Lake Dontwanna.
Image credits: feature by Travis Walser. Order your copy of The Gringo (2011), Laura Fedora (2014), and Nine Lives (2016) here or go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” This post is dedicated with love to the memory of my mother, Josephine Frasula Brancatelli (1936-2022).