Spring 2005
Volume 5, Number 2

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Joe Postove

Although my mother had two daughters and two sons, I was her only child. I never married. And never quite grew up. When I got the call from my brother Jack that her cancer had recurred and she would die soon, I borrowed the money for the trip from my friend so I could be with her at the end—not knowing that I would be responsible for taking her past that point and into death itself. I spent three and a half weeks out in California, but it was in the last two hours of my mother’s living that I discovered meaning in the face of dying.

I landed in L.A. that pretty Thursday afternoon thinking about the 25 years since I’d lived there. Moving there with Mom in 1977, I’d expected the rarified air of glamour and wealth that permeated Hollywood to carry me off immediately and joyously. Two years later, a hundred pounds heavier, and with failure tattooed upon my very being, I returned home to Virginia. My mother was glad to see me go, I was sorry to be alive, and our relationship was broken.

Home in Norfolk, my father took me back from the foolishness of California. He was right, of course. If I was going to be a bum, it was at least simpler to be one back home. Once in my own haunt, I began to level myself, never reaching grownuphood but attaining a sort of midlevel maturity. I could become 40 without those things one normally associates with 40: wife, family, career. I would not trouble anyone with my trouble. But alone in the world, I was free. And even God will tell you that through freedom flow all possible roads.

I was not okay, though. My relationship with my mother had been corrupted. Although we saw each other through the years and spoke often, it was not until she fell and nearly died three years ago that we became less mother and son and more very good friends.

After her fall, my brother Jack put Mom into a nursing home, despite my ardent protestations. "This will kill her," I said. "This will signal to her that we have agreed to oversee the end of her life. You can’t take away her self!" I went to L.A. to inspect the facilities for myself; to my amazement, they were clean, the staff was friendly, and Mom was happy. I returned to Norfolk satisfied that this would do. That Jack was right. And that Mom was happy.

But how happy can a woman be when she’s not in charge of her life? My mother, who had sold clothes at the tony Bonwit Teller in Beverly Hills for years, was now part of the ongoing soap opera of a convalescent home.

What could I do? I was in Virginia. I was helpless. Besides, what did Mom care? We had a nice relationship. Why fool with it by trying to get too close? I was going back to Virginia. Let Jack ignore her. I’d call every few weeks, like always.

I began to call every night, at first out of guilt, not willing to see her in my mind’s eye gazing at the phone, hoping that even a telemarketer might call. Then out of habit, as we began to engage in long conversations about family: How was it, for instance, that her father was a communist and my sister an Orthodox Jew?

And then with a smooth transition that flowered almost incidentally, out of a deep respect and friendship that was not so much reborn as newfound, I discovered an audience for my rotten jokes, an ear for my troubles, and a voice I was beginning to recall as the one that had soothed me as a child.

One day, about halfway through our regular evening phone session, Mom asked me to forgive her. She wanted me to forgive her for not saving me in California. She asked repeatedly, but I refused every time. I said my breakdown was not her fault. She said she should have tried harder to understand. I said I was a horrible person to live with, and she was right to move away. She said I was her son, and she should have stood by me when I needed her most.

She had me there. I had been harboring that exact sentiment for over 20 years. She was right. I wanted to forgive her. And I believed it was a fair exchange: my forgiveness for her peace of mind.

At 4:00 a.m. Pacific time on a Sunday morning, 10 days after I had flown into California, I woke next to my mother’s bed in the nursing home. The most absolutely terrifying thing I could ever imagine was about to come true. My mother would die.

The days after Mom received her sentence and then entry into hospice care I had spent wandering the long halls of her nursing home. I saw people who needed to die and would not. And I saw even more who wanted to die but could not. What they saw when they looked at me, I cannot say. I began to feel the necessity of a place "afterward." And that could not be just a hole for bones. Mom’s eternal life would be a return to her happiest place. And to be with those who had made it so. I had not come to Los Angeles to watch my mother simply wither and die. It was my responsibility to help her to that "happiest place."

When I awoke that Sunday morning, she was breathing heavily. Just the night before, her face had been distorted by the cancer. Now her face seemed relaxed, even youthful. Her gulped breaths of air were trading evenly with what seemed a mindful repose. She was shutting down her old machinery as best she could. But she needed help.

Sometime after arriving in California, I had begun envisioning a marvelous gathering of dead loved ones: people, some of whom I’d never met, massing at the depot of an old train station, to receive my mother. All in color, as if on film, an excited group of disparate men and women were ready to take her from my hands into theirs. I could see Great-Grandmother (Ta’Necha), Gram, Toby, Danny, Bernie, Sam, my dad, her dad, Beepa, Estelle, Herma, and dozens more excitedly awaiting her arrival. I knew her time was near.

I took her hand and caressed it. I did not want to tear the old wrinkled skin. Her hands were clenched, but I eased my palm into hers and began to speak softly. I searched for words to assure Mom that her death would be a beautiful, simple thing.

"You will never leave me, but there is a great party waiting for you, Dotty. Look, there are all the ones you told me about. I want you to step lightly now, as we go. We’ll go slowly, but you will soon be there. And then I will turn you over to that grand gathering, waiting with great anticipation for the one they love so much."

Her breathing was light now, gathering in as much of the fresh air as her weak body would allow, and letting it out with a slight whisper of the lips. "I know where you’re going, Mom. Look at them all, so happy, so excited, and so giddy. And it’s all because they get to have you now. God would be upset if I said I wanted to go with you, so I won’t say that.

"See, Mom, I want you to go ahead. It’s okay. It’s all right. They’ve been waiting so long now. It’s been seventy years since your dad died. He was only 37, and he adored his little Dotty. Remember how you told him you weren’t ready for school yet, so he let you stay home until you were seven?

"You didn’t stay home much, though. He let you come to the store. What could a six-year-old girl do in a men’s shop? She could let her dad love her full time for a whole year before going off to the trenches of the first grade. Gram was furious, but she relented.

"And now he wants you back. I understand. I really do. That’s why I can say these words, Mom. I can’t stand to let you leave me, but I want you to go to him."

It was about 5:10 a.m., I was talking with what I remember as a furious quietude. I saw the eyes of the only person from whom I had ever expected, or received, unconditional love. Unconditional love is a concept difficult to understand or even believe in at times, but Mom loved me because I was good, and I was good because she loved me. To be loved by your mother is right next to being loved by God, I think. This is the cycle of loving-kindness that good people continue from generation to generation.

"I want you to hold me, Mom, as I am holding you. But you are slipping from my grasp. I’m letting go. You can too. I give you permission. I give you permission."

Were my words merely trendy, fashionable, "New Age"? I couldn’t believe that it had come to this: my not doing everything in my concrete and spiritual power to hold on to her.

Two tears appeared. I could not be certain that Mom was hearing what I was saying. Perhaps I was performing this monologue for God’s benefit. Maybe I was doing it only for me, and Mom, despite the breathing, was essentially dead. After all, she had not taken a bite of food for days and was deeply sedated. I continued on, even so, because I believed Mom could hear me. I believed we were giving birth to her death and thus her second life.

I was bearing down now. Mom’s breathing was becoming more labored. I was holding her hand tighter.

God was noticeably out of the room. I wasn’t thinking of God much now. The vividness of the other side, all of Mom’s people waiting and peering, looking sideways, with the expectation of a train rounding a bend, had converted me from an agnostic to a believer. Not in God—I believed in God, well enough—but in the future of life in one’s death.

I didn’t worry about God’s absence. While holding on to her withered hands, I didn’t think of God at all. He had stepped back for this time. A respectful Lord had allowed me to be alone with my mother in this sacred moment.

It was 6:10 a.m. I called my sister and told her to hurry. Using my mother’s first name as I had many times before, jokingly, but now with the intensity that I needed to reach her: "Dotty, Dotty, it’s time, my darling. You’re free. All the family are assembled and ready to receive you." Her hand clenched less tightly around mine. Her breathing was now a gentle but deliberate gasping. "Go, Mom. I’ll be okay. But I want you to go now. I can’t keep you to myself anymore."

Then I sang her a song (popularized by Johnny Cash and written by Carl Perkins) we had grown to love in our nightly phone conversations. She found it funny (I took both the male and female parts), but I knew she understood the poignancy.

Daddy sang bass (Mama sang tenor),
me and little brother would join right in there,
Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul.
One of these days, and it won’t be long,
I’ll rejoin them in a song
I’m gonna join the family circle at the throne.

I kissed her once more. Now with three slow inhalations and exhalations, my mother released my hand and closed her eyes for the last time. I had escorted her to death, and to her rebirthing.

Farewell, for now, my dearest friend.

—Joe Postove, Norfolk, Virginia is a former radio talk show host and occasional writer. His mother has been the most important influence on his life and writing.


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