It was a Thursday night.
Mom lay in a coma, in a hospital bed, in the tiny, always-coveted front bedroom (it had an outside door). Our brothers had gone home hours ago; all still lived within 30 minutes of our childhood home. Carmie was sleeping in the finally-finished basement. Sara, sitting post in the antique wing chair, had fallen asleep reading. Linda and I were on the living room sofa drinking tea and watching a movie, attempting a mental respite from painful reality. Actually, I was watching the movie and poking her to stay awake. I wish I could remember the movie. It feels important to remember. Maybe Linda does.
We four daughters were exhausted from worry and sporadic sleep. Sara and I are owls like Mom; the other two are larks (although Linda likes to burn the midnight oil as well). So one or both of us would stay up until all hours, reading. Every few pages, we would glance up to be sure Mom’s chest was rising and falling. If we fell asleep at 4:00 or 5:00 am, we knew Carmie and/or Linda would be up in an hour or so, and Mom wouldn’t be ‘alone’ for long. I do remember the books I was devouring during those few weeks: Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, escaping to other eras, other family dramas, avoiding the waking nightmare of our own.
She had been lucid up until a few days before: talking, telling stories, making jokes. Linda had asked her to send us a reassuring sign when she left us, and she promised she would. Her taste buds were shot, but her nose was in perfect working order. “What is Marianne cooking? Tell her she burned the garlic.” She had soldiered on as she always did, without complaining, insisting the pain wasn’t too bad. Carmie was the last to arrive. As the oldest, she knew Mom the longest –perhaps the best– and must have seen past her brave face. After she spoke with the hospice nurse, morphine started to gently carry our Mom away. So we were getting used to the idea it was just a matter of time. A few days, maybe a week.
I gave up trying to keep Linda awake and also dozed off. It seemed like hours, but was probably only 20 minutes later when a noise startled me awake –some type of alarm or buzzer– as well as cold tea spilling in my lap, from the mug in my slack hand. My heart was racing, yet I felt glued to the couch. Linda woke, rubbed her eyes, and immediately stumbled towards the kitchen. “Mare! C’mere, hurry!” I jumped up and ran to the kitchen, dark but for the florescent fixture illuminating Mom’s eclectic assortment of treasures on the little shelf above the sink. We stared, puzzled, at the buzzing stove timer. There was nothing near it; no pots, pans or anything remotely touching it and triggering it, as our dear sister-in-law Roseanne had washed and dried the dinner dishes, and stored everything away. I turned the timer off, but it started again. Linda adjusted it forward and then back to the off position, and it stopped briefly, but then started again. The third time we apparently turned the knob to precisely the right spot; it did not buzz again. We looked at each other quizzically, brows furrowed, and spoke in whispers, relieved the commotion had not woken our other sisters. With our tea warming in the microwave, we stood side by side in silence, facing the dark dining room that led down the hall to the bedroom.
Wide awake, mugs in hand, we returned to the couch. Linda picked up the remote and was just starting to channel surf when suddenly Sara rushed in and said “Lin! Mare! Come quick. I don’t know what she’s doing, but something’s changed.” I called down the stairs to wake Carmie. She was racing up in a flash, as if she hadn’t even been asleep. We four sisters gathered at our Mom’s bedside as she breathed her last breaths. I swear you could visibly see her spirit leave too, like a mist or curl of smoke rising up from her body. I was holding her left hand, and I remember being surprised by how quickly it began to grow cold in mine. A few of my hot tears fell upon it, and I kissed them before gently placing it at her side.
Our sweet mother Antoinette. She loved people, studying the Bible, and nutrition. She was musical, with a mezzo soprano voice and piano fingers so talented her teacher recommended her to Julliard. Child of the Depression, she was resilient, resourceful, remarkable. In the 1940’s, she made baby food from scratch and pancake syrup from apple peelings. In the 1970’s, she made yogurt, cheese, bread, and bought bulk food from a co-op. Baking was her passion, and our house was warmed with the tempting aromas appropriate to every religious and ethnic holiday –not just Italian Catholic ones. She packed me lunches like fried eggplant sandwiches on ‘brown’ Roman Meal bread, with an apple and a tiny Tupperware of raisins and nuts for snacks. It took me years to realize I was the lucky one, the lone outcast who wasn’t eating Oscar Mayer or marshmallow Fluff on Wonder bread, with sides of Frito Lay and Hostess.
Mom loved coffee, road trips, late night TV and changing the wallpaper on a regular basis. She longed to travel but kept her feet firmly planted and grew seven children instead. She ached to dance, but contented herself with dancing in her heart, as she shared their joys and relished the role of Grandmother. At weddings, she would giggle as she sipped a single amaretto sour, thinking herself quite decadent. She attended a Messianic Jewish Church the last ten years of her life. She nursed her husband through cancer, her parents through old age, and as she lay dying, was most concerned for the epileptic sister she had helped care for since she was a teenager. While her liver failed her physically, I believe she died of a broken heart, having lost her two lifelong best friends in December 1995 and July 1996.
There is a snapshot in my mind of the shelf above the sink. Throughout that cramped kitchen’s many incarnations of wallpaper and paint, comfortably familiar glimpses of Mom’s life cycled on and off that shelf for decades. A Palm Sunday cross tucked between recycled jars rooting Spider plants, Philodendrons and Wandering Jews. A dried out wishbone or two, a peach pit, a spool of thread with a needle stuck in it. A Veteran’s Day lapel poppy, a bottle of vitamin E oil, and a prayer card from the most recent funeral –or six. Her rings, if she was kneading bread. Underneath, a milk carton with eggshells, coffee grounds and vegetable scraps for her compost pile; and a red ceramic frog with yellow speckles (painted by yours truly, age 10), perched on the side of the sink, his open mouth holding a plastic mesh scrubber. Convinced the automatic dishwasher was wasteful, outside of holidays she used it most often as a drying rack.
Mom was a farmer’s granddaughter, the daughter of a grocer, married to a farmer’s son. She loved to plant, gather, forage, harvest, preserve, cook and bake. She lived to nurture everyone she encountered, doling out heaping helpings of food, proverbs, nutritional advice, compassionate understanding, and her sunny disposition, until she was certain a body was full, body and soul. How fitting she chose the stove, the modern-day hearth and heart of the home, to let us know her time on Earth was done.