As we passed Dogtown road, my mind left highway 24 and turned south down the road I had traveled as a teenager—to the house where I had lived during high school and college. I was riding shotgun to Willie Tucker in a white stretch limo—nervous about his delayed reactions. I couldn’t carry on a conversation with my family seated in the back because Willie always thought I was talking to him—his hearing as impaired as his driving reflexes.
We were following a white hearse carrying my mother on her last trip to Klondike. The pallbearers, grandsons by birthright and by marriage, followed in a third white car behind us. Having those strong young men represent the future of the family and their bond with my mother and me provided more comfort than I would have imagined.
We passed the three bridges where my siblings and I swam with our father when we were children—the bridges where Star, my brother Eddy’s horse that belonged to us all, met his maker courtesy of a milk truck. That, like this one, was a sad day, but I had little notion of real sadness in those youthful days—the kind that can’t be cured by a hug from your mother. Now, I knew.
Daddy was gone, dead at fifty-nine. Eddy left us too, at only thirty-four. Now Mother. As we neared the old Reed place where I spent the first fourteen years of my life, the memories started to flow.
I had walked our gravel driveway and down Highway 24 to school at West Delta many times, giving me bragging rights about braving the cold wind, rain and snow to walk to school. I never measured it, but I would guess that school was no more than a mile from the Reed place and I usually rode the bus or in someone’s car during bad weather.
But I had hitchhiked to ballgames and practices from this spot. Those were bright memories, but looking down that gravel road to the old barns and the spot where the house once stood, the memories seemed bittersweet—memories seldom talked about at times like these. On second thought, maybe only at times like these.
Those memories are cloudy, like the picture on our old black and white television. Today, I couldn’t relish them like I wanted, because we still had a job to do. I felt that job getting in the way of the experience. I felt sure that I should be immersed in the past, but couldn’t get too far out of the present. Willie’s driving and the job at hand made sure of that.
The job, of course, was to bury Mother beside Daddy and her two sons, say the final prayers and let her go. We did that.
Jan and I made the same trip twenty-four hours later. I wanted to try once more to experience the things I felt one should experience when a last parent dies, remember the things one should remember. I couldn’t do that in the funeral procession. Connecting to them through remembering the past should somehow be healing.
I felt my breath come in short gasps and I got a catch in my throat when we pulled off 24 onto the old Klondike highway. When we entered the Klondike cemetery, Mother’s was the only new grave. No visitors were in the old graveyard.
As I left the car, the stark dreariness of the weather struck me. Yesterday had been sunny and cold, my kind of weather—thankful for that. Today, thin clouds blocked any cheerfulness or warmth the sun might have offered and made it seem colder than it was. The sky was gray and that grayness made the surroundings of the old cemetery seem even bleaker.
It was the dead of winter, though, and I had been here when the sun was warm and birds sang. Today, only a soft wind sang, interrupted regularly by the call of crows. Do crows caw, call, cry or sing? Lots of people don’t like their sounds, but I always have. They are lonesome, but peaceful, like the sound of a train whistle. I wondered if that was Mother’s or Daddy’s way of speaking to me.
I stared at the mound of dirt over her grave. Flowers covered part of it, but it was still ugly. If I had been looking at this old graveyard as a potential purchase, I would have called it just a sorry piece of dirt.
We had had several days of wet weather and the fresh dirt was muddy. This was the second coldest winter on record and one of the wettest, but that old clay still hung together in huge clods. Will they ever smooth out?
I always wondered why Daddy had chosen this place to bury his first-born son and his parents. It was called the New Klondike Cemetery back then. Now, calling it new seemed a contradiction, but the sorry piece of dirt had changed into a place of healing.
I was twenty-six when Daddy died. I tried to put time into perspective by comparing myself to my father. Daddy was twenty-five in 1936 when he and Mother lost my brother Richard just before he turned two. Daddy lost his mother only three years later.
Now, I almost understood their pain, but hoped that I would never fully understand. Helping to handle Daddy’s funeral arrangements seemed like a blur to me now. What he must have gone through to bury a son and a mother only three years apart.
I couldn’t help but picture Mother in that casket in her red flannel gown. It was perfect for her and she looked exceptionally pretty. It seems that in the absence of pain, her beauty had returned. But I couldn’t keep her fear of dying out of my mind.
I think her fear stemmed from having to leave her baby in that cold, damp ground sixty-five years before. I have heard her refer to the horror of that many times. I felt remorse for having left her here. I know there was no choice, but it didn’t ease the feeling of guilt. My faith told me that Mother’s soul and spirit were not there, only her body. But I loved that old, frail, worn-out body, too.
In the hospital a short two days before, as I watched Mother draw her last breath, our long odyssey rushed through my mind. More than a decade of various health problems, a crippling disease, broken hips, fractured bones, cuts, abrasions, surgeries, research hospitals and emergency rooms, nursing homes. We had another operational procedure scheduled if she had lived.
Her problems were overwhelming, her body was worn out, but at that moment and until now, I want to bring her back for one more genuine hug, one more conversation, one more I love you. I need her to say it to me as much as I need to say it to her.
I want to say I am sorry for all the times I was impatient and short with her—all the times I resented her for intruding in my life. I wish I could have been more compassionate, gentler, more consistently loving.
Jan said that in the minute before I returned to Mother’s bedside, a single tear rolled down her cheek. Was that just a physical reaction, or was it emotion or pain? Had she heard the myriad of conversations with doctors and nurses about how hopeless her condition was or the conversations about feeding tubes, insurance and Medicare and hospice care? We tried to speak out of her hearing, but we were all guilty of being careless. Did she decide she was too much of a burden and will herself to die?
As I went through the procedures of signing death paperwork and dealing with the funeral home minutes after her death, I irrationally expected to have one more conversation with her, to ask her about her final wishes. She had come back from expected death before.
I waited in the hall and watched as they rolled her out of the room, covered with a gray shroud. I followed as she went out the back of the hospital, and then got in my truck to follow the hearse down the street. Finally, I turned south to head home to call my sister and my children as Mother turned north. The road was blurry as I said goodbye to her one more time.
As the wind blew softly and the crows called, I stood before that mound of dirt where my Mother’s body lay. I thought, “She’s in a better place. I did the best I could.” But I didn’t. I could have done better. She told me many times how much she appreciated what we did for her and how she hated to be a burden, and I am sure that she is saying now that we did well.
Mother’s gift was unconditional love. But I think her last gift to me may be a lesson in living—be more patient, more compassionate, more giving, more loving and more expressive of that love.