For the last five years, Mother’s Day has been bittersweet for me, as it marks the anniversary of my mom’s death. I wrote this back then, but have never published it, until now. Cherish your mother, while you still have her.
Part 1: Murder of Crows
Everyone was nesting. Nesting and fighting. It was that time of year. Specifically, it was the day before Mother’s Day. Mother’s Eve.
On the day Mom died, the crows outside were teaching their young to fly. The babies were good sized but scruffy, sporting a bad case of bed head not unlike that favored by my own pubescent boy. The most airborne they could manage was a two-foot hop on spindly legs. They bobbed like awkward adolescents. As if fledging weren’t difficult enough, there was also the small issue of survival. Robin sized, the young crows were getting too big to hide safely from critters looking for a lunch — dogs, hawks, cats, coyotes — which meant for Ma and Pa, the transition to independence was an exercise in volume. Crows are awesome nags. Over the past week the constant loud cawing had become background noise to me, drowned out by the sound of my own troubles.
Then my aunt pointed them out, as we sat around, waiting for the mortuary to pick up Mom’s body. “There’s two baby crows out there; we’ve been watching them all week,” Colleen said. “That’s their parents yelling now.” I tuned in, and sure enough, they were making a hellacious racket amid the careful silence of the senior community where my mother spent the last 19 years of her life. I looked out the kitchen window and the young ones appeared more like grackles than crows, skinny and awkward, feathers not sleek and shiny like tar but matte and ruffled. One had gotten its way to the top of a tall shrub, but finding nowhere else to go after this herculean task, it was afraid to jump down. “Fly fly fly!” parent crow yelled. “How how how?” tween crow cawed back. It was a generational standoff, there in the shrubbery groomed by men in wide-brimmed hats to provide a green privacy curtain for the community’s gray-haired residents.
The crows were something fun to show Cole when he got there, something besides a dead human body, his first. After her stiff, lifeless form, so skinny, bereft of everything, mouth and eyes open in her forever last breath, how alive and animated the crows seemed, like comic, slapstick silent movie stars — though not silent at all. When I was growing up, we had an 8 mm reel of a short starring Heckle and Jeckle, two animated male crow buddies: classic avian bromance. We used to watch this black-faced odd couple prior to viewing family movies, on those rare occasions when my dad would set up the movie screen and projector and we’d gather to share family memories: that time when a brush fire almost took our Valley home, which I don’t remember at all because I wasn’t born; or our first pet, the runt mutt Tinkerbell, who I do remember, so fondly — clapping, “I believe.”
After he had given me a big hug, and then given the sobbing Jerry a hug that I’m not sure even registered with Mom’s devastated beau, and looked at Mom, and felt I don’t know what, Cole went to see the crows. He loves animals. At Mom’s there was almost always some fauna to see: rabbits to pretend hunt, lizards to catch, or lately, birds to watch at the feeder/bird house we had given Jerry. That was one of the first things my son did actually, was climb up on a step ladder and look into the porthole doors of that handmade wooden house, checking for chicks.
At some point that morning, when time seemed to pause forever and yet I wanted it to never resume, it dawned on me that the crows were even louder than usual. Looking out, I saw two small white dogs chasing one of the young ones. At first, I thought they were Colleen’s twin Westies, enjoying a bit of naughty untended fun, but then I realized they were someone else’s errant pooches. The crow was hopping desperately down the street while the dogs lumbered lazily after it, tongues lolling — big fluffy idiots. Overhead, the parents screeched and dove. Here lies the problem with making a perennial racket: When you really need folks to hear you, they can’t because they have tuned you out. You’ve cried, er, crow.
Looking in vain for an absent owner, I chased the dogs away from the poor bird, which seemed terrified and exhausted. The predators acted hapless, like their goal had been not so much to kill as to have a bit of harmless play: canine rebels without a cause. The adult birds were in a state of apoplexy, screaming their heads off. I doubt they ever realized that I had saved their offspring; at that point I was just another tormentor who had entered the scene, another demon from which their child had been saved by their noisome agitation in this period of parental hell.
Five days later, I was back at my home near the beach in San Pedro. I heard the familiar hacking cry and looked up to see a good-sized hawk being chased by a crow. There was something about this bird’s call that was not a threat but a summons, and sure enough, other crows appeared from all directions. They immediately perceived the bird of prey that had landed in the top of my neighbor’s palm trees and proceeded to turn the tables on it, making it their victim, repeatedly dive bombing the beleaguered raptor as it slid down a frond, trying to find shelter from these avenging black missiles. There were eight crows; who knows if they even knew each other, or if they just instinctively answered the summons, that caw of “Hawk! Hawk! Hawk!” raising their protective hackles, sending their adrenaline surging as they flew to defend one of their own. Had it already stolen a baby? Or had it just been casing the joint? There was no forensic evidence, no corpse in its talons or feathers in its beak, as it perched in that treetop, trying awkwardly to hide from these annoying adversaries who were inferior in size, intelligence, and beauty, but at this moment, superior in number and volume. For at least five minutes, the crows swarmed and the hawk cowered. Gradually, lesson delivered, the black birds peeled off one by one, until just a lone sentinel remained, on a window ledge nearby, keeping an eye on this ruffian and occasionally sounding a harsh warning: “I see you. I’m still here. Don’t you even try it buddy. Let this be a lesson to you.”
A brief moment of peace, and then the hawk flew away, sailing right over my head, its underside a geometric portrait in brown and white, one lone crow in pursuit.
For the past few weeks Jerry had been obsessed with the birds that came to the bird feeder/house, which I had bought for Mom’s birthday: a wooden, ramshackle bungalow with a short platform around it for seed, hand crafted by my neighbor. It had taken months for Jerry and Mom to figure out how to make the cute but not necessarily practical structure work. At first, when we placed it on top of the wall around their patio, it had been quickly overrun by squirrels who, like the crows attacking the hawk, suddenly converged out of seemingly nowhere. For a long time after that, it sat empty; a couple of times, they tried to get me to take it back — another item Mom was casting off, as she unloaded earthly possessions. Even before she was dying, Mom constantly denied herself pleasures — she was part of that stoic martyr generation of women who came of age in the 1950s, when women were taught to subordinate their needs to the household’s. You’d offer her a drink and she’d ask for a cup of warm water then sit and sip happily.
Finally Jerry’s tenant put the rustic house on a pole and voila, birds galore. The creatures weren’t particularly interested in taking up residence, but they loved to hang out and have tea, so what we had thought was a bird house with a feeder accessory became a feeder with a domicile backdrop. Little birds, big birds, brown birds, red birds: they came every day like clockwork. Jerry didn’t know what kind they were, so Cole gave him Sibley’s bird guide for his birthday in April. Even then, Colleen and I had to look them up for the onetime teacher. My brother and I were frequently amazed by the seemingly simple, everyday tasks that seemed beyond this Word War II veteran’s grasp. Maybe it was because he was so old; then again, you would think that after almost a century on this planet, things like ordering food for delivery would not be completely novel concepts that he had never encountered, in his strange, sheltered life as an only child and confirmed bachelor. Jerry constantly blamed Mom for infantilizing him because, it was a tired refrain, “she did everything for me for almost 20 years. I’m helpless because she wouldn’t let me lift a finger.” But once she was no longer around to scapegoat, Jerry started to realize that maybe, in fact, she had been doing everything for him because at 93, he was no longer capable of doing much himself.
Flipping through Sibley’s, Colleen and I were quickly able to determine that the small brown birds with the red heads and chests were house finches. There was a family of these, parents and two young ones. They were the friendliest of the feeder’s guests, flying in to snack even if you were out on the patio watering Mom’s succulent collection, just inches away. There were towees too, and one day a mourning dove, and then the last time I was there, a crow, perched right on the patio wall, eyeing us up. While Mom was still alive, Jerry would go out in the morning and whistle, and the birds would come, and he would give them food. Sometimes they would even follow him to his car. They were quick learners, these gated community birds; they knew to follow the hand that feeds them. Feeding the birds was one task he took care of himself, while Mom, in serious decline by this point, sat in her armchair, watching and smiling. During that last month, Mom and Jerry would perch in front of the sliding glass doors and look out on their winged visitors, enjoying the patio view and each other.
After Mom died, Jerry fell out of the habit of feeding his feathered friends. When I’d go over to see how he was doing, or to take care of all the tasks that accompany death, or to spend hours seeing which of Mom’s hundreds of clothes fit me, I’d ask if he had put seed out yet, and he’d shake his head. “No, I just haven’t been doing that.”
It wasn’t just the birds that were breeding that spring. On Mother’s Day, I looked out the windows of my San Pedro apartment, on a world without my mother in it for the first time. The half-moon of Cabrillo Beach lies just across the street from our apartment, and the blue-gray of the Pacific fills most of our picture window. That morning, 24 hours after Mom drew her last breath, dolphins were cavorting in the bay, little babies and their parents, splashing a joyful riposte to the dreadful irony that that holiday will now always hold for me. They were calling to me. I put on my half-suit and ran down to the ocean. Our neighbor was there, picking up stones, and gamely jumped in with me. I know the water was freezing, because my generally tough, athletic companion told me so, but I suppose I was numb; it felt cleansing and glorious, with no apparent temperature, the salt water tingling and holding me up, baptism in an ocean of tears.
A couple mornings later, the dolphins were back, and I paddled out in my kayak to join them. They jumped, dove, and did back flips all around me, the little ones trying out all the ways their bodies can move in the water, the parents bobbing and dancing too — that kind of fun is contagious. I noticed that when they’d swim by, as they went back and forth through the kelp beds, one adult would always hang back, keeping sentinel, a black eye in a gray head fixed benignly but steadily on me. The babies stuck close to their parents when they traveled, so that you would see them come out of the water in tight pairs, one big one followed closely by one small. I sat there for a half hour among them, forgetting my sorrow, seizing the moment, grateful for their companionship, to be briefly let into this family.
Part Two: Commencement
My mother died the morning of commencement at the university where I had just been granted tenure. I could tell she had lost her iron control because she would have been pissed if she had realized her inopportune timing. Normally, I would have been — well, not happy — but would have seen getting out of having to attend commencement as a silver lining in a terrible storm. But this year, former President Bill Clinton was our speaker, and presidential candidate Hillary was in the audience, and Mom and I were both excited about my employer’s position in this important historical moment. A former history teacher, Mom could discuss the minutiae of American politics pretty much up until her dying day, brain tumors be damned. She followed our crazy election avidly — every debate, every news-show appearance, every Trump idiocy. She was convinced Hillary would make the best president not because she was a woman — though I know that thrilled her — but because the former Secretary of State and Senator had the political know-how and connections. “The president has to make hundreds of appointments in the first few weeks in office, and that determines her success,” she said over and over. “That’s where Obama got off on the wrong foot: He didn’t have the right people in place.” When Clinton wins in November, I thought on that first Motherless Day, it will be a bittersweet victory for me, because the woman who raised me to be a feminist won’t be there to celebrate.
It is never convenient to die, but there were other cruel ironies in Mom’s timing. Commencement for LMU students was commencement for me too: The last day of my commitment to the university for 15 months, as I embarked on my year of learning — my first sabbatical, and my first year as a newly tenured associate professor. I was one day away from being free to come see her every day, to take care of her during her last transition, to get some closure to our tight but often fraught relationship. Instead, I spent her last week torn between the frenzy of the end of the school year and her precipitous decline, leaving her in the care of others, almost failing to be there in the end. I missed her last breath.
Mom was first diagnosed with cervical cancer in October 2011. I found out a day before my birthday. I recall that the next day, not only did I have to go to work, but we had a dreaded department meeting. It was a dark, gray afternoon, and as we sat in the Dean’s conference room with its view out over Marina Del Rey, it was as if there were no membrane separating the leaden sky, the grumpy gathering, and the mood inside me.
Mom fought an incredibly long and heroic fight against her mutating, mutinous cells. But I think she knew from the beginning it was hopeless. She was diagnosed with a particularly virulent strain of cancer known as serous — serious without the I, but quite serious in fact. Normal survival rate is about a year. Mom lasted four and a half.
She had major surgery within weeks: a radical hysterectomy, which means not just the ovaries and what was left of her cervix after a hysterectomy decades ago, but everything around them, including the entire endometrial sac plus some lymph nodes for good measure, were removed. I was with her at Saddleback Valley Hospital, and she was very brave and practical about everything, as always. She hated to be a bother to anyone, and had a way of finding the positive in everything, up until the end. I used to know when she was ready to conclude a conversation because she would proclaim, “It’s all good.” The phrase signaled the discussion was closed, happy ending assured verbally if not actually. Time to hang up. The morphine after the hysterectomy made her sick. “It’s all good.” Chemotherapy stole her fingernails and hair, but the latter came back a handsome dark brown, so “it’s all good.” In two years, the cancer returned to whatever remnant of her reproductive system remained, but the doctors were able to blast it with radiation, so “it’s all good.” Then a hacking cough turned out not to be a flu but spots on a lung, which a surgeon was able to remove along with only one third of that organ. “It’s all good.” A few months later, the cancer was in her lymph nodes. “It’s all good.” Before they could radiate those, they found it in her spine, a large mass so close to her central nervous system the doctors couldn’t believe she was walking. She had to cancel her trip to join her children in the Midwest — her first in 14 years — in order to have emergency radiation, but she was amazingly asymptomatic, so “it’s all good.” Only more tests revealed it was also in her brain, and so although after every treatment, she had sworn it would be her last, she would now follow the spine radiation with brain radiation. Nobody was even thinking about the lymphoma anymore; that was small potatoes.
Every stage was cruel, painful, a cavalcade of indignities and aches, but the pinpoint brain radiation was the worst. Mom wore a sort of harness helmet custom made from hard white plastic to fit the contours of her skull and hold her motionless, like some sadistic torture device. Her head was locked backwards into place with her mouth open, and she said it felt like she was drowning in her own blood and saliva — like she was being water boarded for 30 minutes. I went to all three of those treatments with her, and each time she came out crying and pale, needing to sit in the lobby and collect herself — my brave, strong, practical, stoic mom.
It’s all good.
There were good days, weeks, months, even a year at first, in between recoveries and relapses. She and Jerry flew to Japan and took a cruise of China, though she spent much of the vacation taking care of her nonagenarian companion, holed up in their cabin trying not to get sick like most of the rest of the passengers. We even took a weekend trip with them out to the desert, spending the night at our friends’ pistachio ranch. Jerry had given Cole a couple of old pellet guns and he really enjoyed sitting outside watching Bud and Cole shoot cans. And he loved the visit to the wolf sanctuary, where one large canine became obsessed with licking the top of Jerry’s head — maybe his gel tasted good. That was when Mom’s cough first sprung up. We thought maybe it was just the dry desert dust that sent her into a paroxysm of hacking. She had to sit down and missed seeing some of the beasts. I think that was her last vacation.
One year ago, after the lung surgery and before the lymphoma, we also got her out to one last show. Mom loved musicals. She had performed in them in high school and I think always harbored a secret dream of being a star of stage and screen. She used to sing, in the kitchen, doing dishes. Cast recordings occupied a prime position next to our record player, and by a young age, I knew all the words to Oklahoma, South Pacific, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Of course, I couldn’t sing like Mom could, as she rather cruelly told me the first time I auditioned for a show myself; I had a “sweet voice,” she said, but I couldn’t really carry a tune. That was one of the few times I can remember Mom ever crushing a dream of mine — well, that, and disabusing me of my adolescent dream of romantic love.
So almost exactly a year before she died, Mom, Cole, and I saw Matilda at the Ahmanson in Downtown Los Angeles. Mom was feeling good and looked amazing, decked out in a black-and-white shift — very Mary Quant — with a matching hat shielding her face from the midday sun. Not only could my mom sing, but she had an eye for chic fashion — she cut quite a figure before the students she spent decades teaching at a rural Midwestern high school. At her suggestion, before Matilda, we walked to Philippe’s, a vintage deli that she used to frequent, back when she was a young woman working at Bullock’s Department Store. There was no highway separating Downtown from Chinatown back then, and the stroll was much easier and more pleasant — LA was still a walking city, not the autogeddon fallout shelter of today. Now, you walk across endless concrete over multiple lanes of freeway that spew exhaust at you, with little greenery or scenery, just trash and the occasional homeless encampment.
Inside the restaurant though, time had stood still. Philippe’s specialty is French dips; you order from a counter — beef, lamb, pork, pastrami — then take your lunch back to long communal tables or, like we did, upstairs to smaller wooden ones. Mom reminisced about her years as a teenager and young adult in LA, especially that period when Dad was off in the service and she was a graduate student at UCLA, earning a Master’s in Education — freed from her family, temporarily unattached. On the way back, we stopped in Chinatown and bought dragon fruit. Mom marveled at this bright pink produce that’s good for digestion and one of Cole’s favorites. Then we let the boys run and do parkour in Pershing Square and the fountains of the Ahmanson complex. It was a long walk — for LA — on a warm summer day, but Mom didn’t tire at all; she was always a fast walker. In pictures of that day, we are all happy and smiling. But she is tiny; I look ginormous next to her, and I’m 5’3″. Her lifelong health consciousness had turned into a sort of anorexia exacerbated by the disease eating her cells. At the end she was skin and bones.
Her body dwindled but her mind was strong. She staved off death for so long but when it came, it came much more quickly than we expected. Although she had been under the care of hospice nurses for months, she not only never left home, she never slipped into a coma, went on a morphine drip, used a wheelchair, or moved to a hospital bed. All those last stages of death from cancer that are so horrible for the sufferer and those who care for her, Mom mercifully missed. She was still using the toilet, still talking, still walking with assistance, up until the night she went to sleep and never woke up.
Five days earlier, she had fallen in the living room, cracking her head on a sharp edge of furniture as she went down. I got the call from Jerry as I was riding bike on a beautiful Sunday. It was a call I had anticipated and dreaded: Their efforts to maintain their independence were clearly over, if Mom had lost her equilibrium, or broken a hip, or worse. By the time I made the hour drive to the hospital, Mom was patched up and ready to go home. Amazingly, nothing was broken and there was no concussion, just a nasty wound clearly visible on the scalp that had never gotten its hair back after the last chemo.
Uncle John and Aunt Colleen came to stay with them, and on the days I didn’t teach, I spent the nights as well. It was a lot of people in a two-bedroom unit with little privacy, and Jerry — in denial about Mom’s condition up until the end — seemed slightly put out by this family he considered invaders. Under Colleen’s care, particularly the massages that brought relief and blood back to her legs, Mom briefly rallied. She was effusive when I talked to her on the phone on Wednesday. But by Friday, she could barely be roused. Hoping to make commencement, I had just returned home to San Pedro after two days with Mom when Colleen called and said she thought I better come back. I picked up fresh clothes and drove back down the 405. On the way I called my brother, Brett, who had booked a ticket a month ago to fly in from Minneapolis in a week. “I don’t think you should wait. You had better come now,” I said.
But Mom woke from a long nap and got up again after I arrived at her place. We walked her to the living room, where she sat in her chair, sipping one of the protein drinks that had been basically her whole sustenance for months. She was alert enough to be surprised that I was there. “What are you doing here?” she asked, confused but happy. “Why is everyone here? Uh-oh, is something going on?”
“No,” we assured her. “We just want to be with you.”
“No, something’s going on,” she said. But she seemed pleased, delighted, like maybe we were throwing a surprise party for her.
In her living room, we watched two of her favorite musicals: Funny Girl and Victor Victoria. It occurred to me how in some ways, these films represented her children: her unconventional daughter and gay son. She loved Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews and the characters they portrayed, funny girls playing funny girls. They were the kind of women she emulated, sharp and humourous and glamorous and loved, but mostly, independent.
Mom had slept most of the day but seemed so happy now, watching favorite flicks in the home she had made for herself after her divorce from my father. Were we indeed throwing a party for her? We tried to seem festive. As it got late and Jerry suggested going to bed, she slipped into a confused state. “Sure, we can shoot this scene later,” she said. Then, she began talking about costumes. Her closet was her wardrobe, filled with chic dresses, pantsuits, and satin robes, and Mom was getting ready for her final scene. Shirley McDonnell always wanted to be a musical star, and I like to think she went to sleep believing she was one, a dream from which she never awoke.