Look what came out of the pumpkin patch! It’s the grandtwins — Hardy and Jillie.
It’s surprising, when the person is gone, what objects or possessions have meaning. With Mama, I wanted some of her kitchen things, like bread pans and muffin tins and cookie sheets and a jelly roll pan. I brought home her two dresser lamps and put them in my bedroom. I have a candy dish, an antique sugar bowl she used every day for her tea, and a framed Irish Blessing. I also kept her pink chenille robe. I slipped it on yesterday morning and pulled it close around me, and when I stuck my hand in its pocket, I found a hair net. Mama was big on hair nets and the very sight of it crumpled me.
My son was the first to set his eyes on one particular piece of furniture that best defined his grandmother — a butcher-block table in the middle of her small kitchen. Mama had it made back in the Seventies, before the grandchildren were born. She took an old desk from the school where she was principal. She painted it and applied wallpaper that matched the kitchen walls to its sides. Then she had the lumber company make a butcher block and glue it to the top of the desk. It was put together with layers of wood and protected with cooking oil.
For forty years, Mama made bread, cookies, pies, jelly rolls, and cakes on the butcher-block. Every meal was either prepared or served here. When the grandchildren began to come along, each one had ample opportunities to stand on a little stool and help Mamaw knead bread or cut out biscuits or cookies. Even my dog had a turn; every time we’d visit, the cocker spaniel would stand with both front paws on the tabletop and watch Mamaw fix each dish.
Mama loved that table and wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world. Now it is in the kitchen of my son. He removed the butcher block, sanded it, and built a new base and legs. He applied a copper patina basecoat and antique black crackle topcoat. He put wheels on the bottom so they can move it around conveniently.
The butcher-block table has new life in a new home with two new babies. Two more little children to grow up watching their mama and daddy carry on traditions — the passing of the spatula to a new generation.
The twins are now six months old — pretty, sweet, and smart!
Saturday evening at dusk I am sitting on the couch eating a bowl of chili fresh from the crockpot and watching Brady Bunch reruns because there’s nothing better on TV. The dog is beside me, intent on getting at least a bean. I hear a faint noise, a familiar hum that I haven’t heard in a while, and it comes to me that my garage door is opening. I used to listen for that sound every evening about 6:30 when it was time for my husband to arrive home from the office.
How could my garage door be opening? Who is opening it? Why? I can see the interior door to the garage from my spot on couch, I set my bowl down, and I rush through the kitchen to open it and check. Yes, the garage door is wide open and the light is on, meaning that the door has just opened within a minute or two. I close and lock the door, I race to the back door in the family room and lock it and secure the doggy door. I grab the phone and call my son in North Carolina.
“Something just happened. My garage door opened for no reason. I’m kinda freaking out here. I don’t know if someone’s in the garage or not. Stay on the phone with me, I’ve got to go outside and check it out.”
“Okay. Where are the garage door openers?”
“In the cars.”
I exit the front door into the front yard and look into the still-lighted garage. It is dark in the yard; the spots are not on yet. No movement, no sign of any intruder in the garage. I check all the doors of the car parked in the driveway. All locked.
“Do you see anything?” he asks. “You need to get a flashlight and look around the perimeter of the house and yard.”
“I’m sort of scared, I’ve never been scared here, but I am now. I’m afraid to go in there and look. Should I call the police?”
“I think you need to check it out, but if you’re too afraid, then call.”
“Okay, well, let me go, I’m gonna call Todd and see what he thinks.”
Locked in the house once again, I call the other son in Mississippi. “I was sitting on the couch and my garage door opened for no reason. I’m a little freaked out.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. Anybody who has the ability and the technology to open your garage door wouldn’t be trying to get in your house; they’d be in Belle Meade.”
“Should I call the police?”
“No, I’m sure it’s fine…”
“But I’m afraid…”
“Well, then, just call and see what they say.”
I do and within ten minutes an officer rings my doorbell.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
“I’m a little freaked out,” I say. “My garage door just opened for no reason. I’ve lived here 15 years and that’s never happened before.”
“How many openers do you have?”
“Three. Two are locked in the cars. One doesn’t work and it’s in the house somewhere.”
“Could something have fallen on them?”
“No, they’re attached to the visors. Have you ever heard of this happening?”
“No, maybe it’s just a fluke.”
“Will you please check in my garage for me? My husband died and I’ve got all the stuff from his office stored in the garage under tarps and covers and I’m afraid someone might be hiding.”
“Sure.” He takes his flashlight and looks all around and under things, checks doors, checks the cars, gives it a thorough going over. Nothing. No logical reason for the door to have opened. I try to convince myself it’ a one-time thing.
Later, it comes to me that it was probably mama. She died two weeks ago.
Sunday morning my son calls.
“I’m still alive, the door hasn’t opened again, I figured out it was probably Mama.”
I tell him the story. Decades ago, Mama had told it to me.
Mama had a favorite sister-in-law. Marge. Marge was Bill’s wife and five years older than Mama. They were best friends. When they were young women, someone told the story about two people who were wondering about life after death and thought they’d resolve that question once and for all. They each told the other, “If you die first, you knock on my front door, and I’ll know it is you and that you are still present and able to communicate after you die.” Much later, one got a knock at the door. The other told the story about life after death.
Mama and Marge laughed and scoffed and took up the joke. “Okay, Marge, if you die first, you come and knock on my front door, and I’ll know it’s you,” Mama said. Marge returned the challenge with sarcasm. Marge was a chain smoker and died of lung cancer in November of 1970. I had just married and moved to Texas, but Mama made a point to call me.
“A knock came on our front door the other night. I answered it and no one was there. Your dad and I looked up and down the street and around the house and could find no one. I learned that Marge had died that night.”
“Oh my gosh, she remembered, she came and knocked on your door! Just like you two planned it!”
Then I took it up. “Okay, Mama, when you die, you come and ring my doorbell.”
“Naaa, you don’t want me to do that,” she always said.
“Yes, I do, I really do, you better come. When you die, you come ring my doorbell.”
We laughed and talked about this many times over the years. The last time I mentioned it was about a month ago. But when Mama died, I was at her house with her, and she did not have an opportunity to fulfill that promise. So two weeks later, when I am home alone, and finally still and quiet, she comes…and my garage door opens?
My son listens to the story and then softly replies. “You know, um, you do have a doorbell for a garage door opener.”
I stammer around and attempt to follow his train of thought, and all of a sudden it becomes very clear. Beside the door that opens from the garage into the house is a doorbell-like fixture. You push on the button, like ringing a doorbell, and it opens the garage door, or closes it.
Mama was just trying to ring my bell like I’d told her to. Only this doorbell was connected to a Genie Blue Max garage door opener.
“You are now at a crossroads. This is your opportunity to make the most important decision you will ever make. Forget your past. Who are you now? Who have you decided you really are now? Don’t think about who you have been. Who are you now? Who have you decided to become? Make this decision consciously. Make it carefully. Make it powerfully.” [Anthony Robbins]
The 21st Southern Festival of Books, October 9-11 at War Memorial Plaza and the Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville is now one for the history books. It went from a tornado warning on Friday to a cool, crisp Saturday to a perfect, sunshiney Sunday. The Council for the Written Word displayed books of its members in Booth #3.
Manning the booth above are Sally Lee, Bob Gross, Kathy Rhodes, and Nancy Allen. CWW members who displayed their titles were Bill Peach, Kathy Rhodes, Nancy Allen, Ginger Manley, Sally Lee, Max Sanders, Bob Gross, and Currie Alexander Powers.
On center display was our new council anthology, Gathering: Writers of Williamson County. Shown above are Dave Stewart (2007-2009 CWW Vice President) and Kathy Rhodes (2007-2009 CWW President).
Gathering was sold at the big book table in the signing colonnade, shown above next to Bill Peach’s new book.
At noon on Sunday, Madison Smartt Bell, Currie Alexander Powers, Kathy Rhodes, and Bill Peach led a session on Gathering. Attendance was good, surprisingly, as it was so close to church time. We each read from the book and discussed CWW, Southern writing, and how Williamson County has influenced our work. Then we proceeded to the signing colonnade and sat behind the long row of tables to sign a few copies.
Our panelists are listed on the “big” official signing schedule in the colonnade.
It was a fabulous experience!
Visitation for Mama is tonight. Judi and I went to the funeral home this morning and set out pictures and added special touches to the room.
Mama was the solid rock of our family. This house is not the same without her. I feel the balance of my world shifting, and I liked it much better when I was the young mother with babies, and I had a mom who would be with me forever, and I had a grandmother who was healthy enough to walk the wooded paths on the family land.
Mama’s funeral is tomorrow. Afterward, I will leave Cleveland, and it will never be the same. I will come back again a few times to take care of business … but this town, this place that is so much a part of me, will be lost to me forever. The tears finally come with that thought.
I’m washing her good china in the sink — thick Palmolive suds and fine white china. I have to do something. I can’t just sit. And wait. While the dishes are air drying, I wipe her mouth and lips and tongue with lemon glycerin swabs.
We are close to the end.
I don’t even recognize her now. Her appearance resembles nothing of her former self.
My sister and I have gone through this before, with Dad. We should not have to do it again, with Mama. It’s just so … wrong. Dad died three years ago of end-stage dementia, which means he died of starvation and dehydration. Mama has cancer. And she can no longer eat. It has been 5 days without food or water.
In the back corner of the china cabinet I find a blue pill bottle with PROPO-N/APAP, TAKE 1 TABLET TWICE DAILY FOR PAIN, dated June 1, 2009. Four months ago. This was Mama’s treatment for bone cancer. Pain pills.
Nobody could figure out why she had pain. She went to a handful of doctors over the course of two years with all the tell-tale symptoms: chest pain, difficulty swallowing, cough, congestion, weight loss, shortness of breath. And phlegm. How many times did she complain about that and go to the doctor for that? So for lung cancer she was treated with Benadryl, Chlortabs, Sudafed, Mucinex, Flonase, and other OTCs and prescription drugs.
Her cancer is not only in the lungs, but in the space between the lungs, in the adrenals, and in the bones, and probably in the brain, and now, everywhere. It must have metastasized two years ago because she has been in intense pain since the winter of ’08. She couldn’t ride in a car because of the jarring of the bones, she has cut the waistbands out of all her pants because she couldn’t stand anything to touch her, she has sat in her chair on a heating pad for days on end.
A few months after I called her doctor’s office and left a message requesting a CT scan to find out what was wrong — and my call was never returned, it got so bad that my sister hauled her to the emergency room one Friday night where she got 2 CT scans and 2 more with dye and X-rays and spent 10 hours and left with a diagnosis of “constipation” and got suppositories. Mama told me the next day that the technician said, “Your lungs are full of stuff!” What stuff, and why was nothing else ever said about that?
That was May 1. And Mama took Tylenol and PROPO-N/APAP (Darvocet) all summer for the excruciating pain of bone cancer. And we kept on taking her to the doctor, asking What is wrong? We didn’t learn about lung cancer until the last of August when we put her in a Senior Care facility and said, Find out what is wrong. We didn’t learn about bone cancer until September 2.
So while I scrub dishes and keep an eye on Mama’s breathing pattern and squirt morphine in her cheek and swab her parched dehydrated mouth, my sister goes to the hospital and gets a copy of Mama’s test results from May 1, the results that were sent to her doctor to be discussed at a follow-up visit.
It’s all there. “Several worrisome signs for malignancy, colon cancer, or lung cancer.” “Minimal left basilar airspace consolidation/atelectasis.” “Something eating away at T12 vertebrae, possibly a mass…” “Destruction of the T2 vertebral body and there appears to be involvement of the right pedicle suggesting that this is a metastatic process…” RECOMMENDATION: A PET/CT would be ideal…A bone scan.”
Nothing was ever mentioned in follow-up visits. Nothing was done to address these findings.
At the very least, she could have been kept comfortable the last years…months…weeks of her life. But she wasn’t.
Now she has hospice, and she is getting good care.