Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Chapter 3

The death of a parent - for anyone who knows their parents, whether they like, love or loathe them - is a right of passage. The primal role one plays in life is that of off-spring, child. When your parents die you're done with that role, or more aptly put, the role is no longer available to you. It's not a choice.

I did not visit my mother's grave for years. After they lowered her into the ground I turned and walked away, didn't look back. I had not seen the headstone my sisters picked out to be delivered at some point, after the funeral, after the mason made the cuts, engraved the names and dates. I knew whatever they were putting under that dirt, under that headstone, it was not my mother so it didn't matter.  None of it mattered.

A few years later I decided to move hundreds of miles north of my mother's grave to San Francisco to be near my sister and try to get into graduate school, to be in a City where I could exhale and start anew.  "Chapter 2" I called it.  A restart, a clean page, a jump in the narrative where the details between that place and the new one could be intimated and inferred instead of detailed.  Chapter 1 was the "heretofore" I was happily abandoning and Chapter 2 was the unbridled "and then."  It became part of my vernacular, "Chapter 2," a rhetorical affirmation that what was behind me was in fact behind me and what lay ahead would be different.  And after saying it again and again I believed it.  And in many ways, more ways than not, it was different.  It was new.  I left much behind, happily. 

It was only after I decided to move north that something drew me to visit my mother's grave before I left.  Years had passed since the funeral and when I arrived at the cemetery on a sunny July day I had no idea where in the consecrated ground my mother's body lay.  I stopped at the office and was given a map with a circled plot number.  The staff politely explained the directions and I nodded.  It was all very serious and dignified. I wondered what it would be like to have a job that dealt with death everyday, a job where solemnity was required. 

After counting my way through the plots of dead strangers, I found my mother's grave. I read the headstone, "Donna C. Rainwater" and the words were sadly comforting.  And then the dates - November 25, 1937, my mother's birthday, her beginning.  The date was familiar and warm, it was birthday cakes and presents after a special meal, a celebration of her beginning, her existence.  And then November 30, 1989 - a mnemonic for grief - a personal 9/11 or a "where were you when Kennedy was shot?"  The date that changed the trajectory, changed the fundamental composition of things.  This date, too, had become familiar.  But the two dates, carved in stone, next to each other, it  punched me, hard, coldcocked me as though I'd just turned a corner and ran into an angry usurer who landed one in the solar plexus, as though I was over-due in paying the debt of reading those dates in succession, carved in stone.  There it was, fixed and permanent, beyond argument, the beginning and the end. 

Ten days before my mother died I took her to a divorce attorney.  She was on the brink of ending a miserable marriage but the financial picture the attorney laid out was not good.  She would lose the house, a house that meant everything to my mother, stability, upward mobility, home.  She was raised in a trailer park and as a young child spent a good amount of time sitting in the family car at night, waiting for her mother and her drunk father to emerge from the tavern and head home.  That house grounded her, assuaged some of the chaos of her youth.  Losing the house and living alone threatened something so primal in my mother I think she simply left the planet instead of facing it.  I think she looked around, saw five good kids, grown, relatively happy, on their way to something better, and she felt done.  Done enough.  She simply left rather than face her biggest fears.

I remember vividly the last time I saw my mother, a few short hours before she died.  I was juggling school, work, and falling in love for the first time and I was generally exhausted.  It was the afternoon and I was due to work a swing shift at my security job in LA. I had fallen asleep on the couch and she came home and woke me asking if I shouldn't be on my way.  I jumped up, panicked, grabbed my gear and was off.  But I remember her face when she woke me, she was concerned, vulnerable, extra sweet, calm.  I remember noting her demeanor as I drove my truck north on the 405.  Three hours later she was dead.  My mother's story was over. 

When I looked down at my mother's headstone that afternoon I understood in a way few other experiences could have conveyed: Mer, there's an end to this thing, so figure out what you want to do.  After my visit I turned and walked away for the second time.  Chapter 1 - The End.  I then literally bullied my way into a grad program and San Francisco seduced me and made me fall in love with her and a long honeymoon was ours (I still don't think it's over...maybe it's true love).  Some of the best years of my life, so far, were those years in grad school, living in the City, living the beginning of Chapter 2 when everything felt possible. But with any good book, any good story, the conflict emerges and the arc builds and so it did.  I left the City, settled down into something, and peaked Chapter 2 with a story line so ridiculous I don't tell it anymore, not the craziest parts. It's one of those truth is stranger than fiction sorta things.  And I give myself a few points for creativity.  But now it's done.  Chapter 2 - The End.  That's what I have decided.

I am five years shy of the age my mother died.  Not that I think her fate is mine.  I don't.  And I pray I am right.  But to remember my mother's story is a reminder to get on with things, to not be hobbled by fear and uncertainty.  And so, Chapter 3.