For fifty-five years, death has lived side by side with us in this house. In my earliest memories it lurked behind stories never told, about grandparents stolen by the Holocaust. By the time my brother and I were eleven and thirteen, the unwelcome guest took on a more ominous shadowy presence when our father experienced his first heart attack. It seeped out of our closets, growing steadily through each successive medical crisis, and subsequent intervention.
Eventually, hanging ever present in the air, death sprinkled fine particles of fear, dread, and an occasional note of good fortune, onto birthday cakes, and inserted itself in special occasions. It held a place at the breakfast table with my parents every morning for the next sixteen years, until dad finally succumbed at the age of sixty-four.
During the years after, while we continued building our lives, for a moment or two, death graciously relinquished the position of seemingly permanent residence it held in our family home. It seemed through marriages, the birth of grandchildren, life’s ups, downs, and a few very close calls (9/11, breast cancer, a pancreatic tumor) we all breathed a little easier. It would visit once in awhile through the devastating loss of a beloved friend, family member, or neighbor, but always left of it’s own accord each time grief began to ease.
Over the course of the year I moved home, we began to face the unimaginable about mom’s best friend since kindergarten – Ruthie. It was at that time, that death began slowly reinstating itself. While at Ruth’s graveside, the tombstone with the name Zwecher was clearly visible over my mom’s left shoulder. It was a haunting literal image, during mom’s MOST devastating time of loss. Death followed us back home that day, and has once again become a constant presence in our house.
Only this time, our house-guest seems to have matured. It is certainly still demanding of our attention, but in a far less obtrusive and destructive way. No longer a harbinger of something awful, or hurtful, it is now more of a guide towards a great mystery. Perhaps we have grown more comfortable with each other over time. Daily, mom and I speak openly about the presence, or, what she has come to call “the inevitable”.
Recently, after posting the blog about mom’s new health developments, I began to give thought not just to the event, in some unspecified esoteric way, but to the details to be negotiated before, during, and after the time when she is no longer here. Mom has told me that she wants ‘deli’, and from scratch, ‘home made Bethie baking’ (because she knows the act of creating these delicacies will help anchor me), and a celebration back at the house. We have filled out the form for her military service commemorative plaque, and placed it with the documents that will be needed in the moments immediately after she is gone. Beyond that, she has asked me to give thought to what I want to have happen, because as she put’s it “let’s face it, I won’t be there. It’s more about what you and Mike need to heal”
After months of an extensive search I recently landed on the song we will either sing, or play, that will anchor the ritual of mom’s passing. Now hear me dear readers, there was an immediate sense of relief and happiness, yes HAPPINESS to have found this. It is a beautiful piece by Jennifer Berezan called “Fall Down as The Rain”. The first time I played it for my mother she cried. Then she told me two things, first – “it is beautiful and very comforting”, and then – “I am not sure people will get it”. Even as I write this I smile again, and remember reassuring her to give them more credit. All of which leads me to the reason for such happiness and the point of this particular post.
Everyday there is another phone call or message, that reminds us that our particular herd continues to thin. And while these stories are often sad, they are also quite beautiful and quite simply, most often stories about love, courage, grace, and dignity.
On the way home from Pilates yesterday, while singing along to this song I did burst in to tears and sob for the few minutes that it took to get to the bottom of Bacon street. I was thinking about all the people I was missing in that moment. As the light turned green I thought of my sister LaDonna and called her to share a laugh. Our conversation yielded the belief that if I stand on a foundation of this song today, it will already be familiar and comforting when the time comes.
I arrived home nostalgic, and definitively happy. Mom and I shared lunch and then began looking through her small green file box of ancient recipes on faded smudged index cards. As I read the recipes to her, she recounted stories of events where each one had been served. I asked her if she could pick two today which ones would she want me to bake. She looked very young and sparkly as she selected an apple cake (from someone in her family), and poppy seed cookies (that her cousin Sylvia always made).
After a quick ingredients check, I called my ever ready special baking buddy – Hailey who was more than happy to experiment with me. While waiting for her to finish lunch, I peeled and sliced the apples, and found a memory of my grandmother.
As a child I had watched in wonderment the first time I saw her peel an entire apple in one long continuous peel. This is now something I do, with precision and care exactly as she did, without a second thought. I was smiling along to the very satisfying sound that is particular to slicing good apples into thin arcs. Tossing them in a bowl with a ridiculously decadent amount of good cinnamon and sugar, brought me immense joy.
As Hailey was putting the finishing touches on our masterpiece, we talked about a time in her future when she will be baking for her own family, or friends. She wondered how she will remember the recipes. I told her that she could copy the recipes, or if we are very lucky she will be able to email or call me, and we will share a memory about the first time we made this particular cake. And I could feel death there, right behind me whispering in my ear, “that is, if you are still here”, but this time it was like sharing a small joke with a life long companion that fortunately, is not needed by my young friend, just yet.
Mom dozed while Hailey and I chatted between projects before beginning the delicate poppyseed cookies. Mom said the kitchen smelled delicious, but we were making too much noise. I loved watching Hailey, who with a sense of high ceremony, meticulously dipped the glass in cinnamon and sugar to carefully press the cookies thin.
The cake was apple luxurious, with a hint of ‘nana’. The cookies perfectly thin and crisp. By that time, Hailey’s mom Erin, had joined us. The air was filled with a sense of celebration, as it often is in the presence of such company. I sat on the red ottoman watching mom’s face as she sampled our efforts. I was filled with gratitude for Hailey, bent in concentration over her slice of apple cake. In the background, I heard the distinct sound of our other guest, the one we all try hard to ignore. It was a gentle voice, singing softly, that come to think of it, sounded a lot like Jennifer Berezan*.
*check out Jennifer Berezan’s work at edgeofwonder.com