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 endnot
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 mothers living that
I discovered meaning in the face of
I landed in L.A. that
pretty Thursday afternoon thinking about
the 25 years since Id lived there.
Moving there with Mom in 1977, Id
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
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
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 cant 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 shes 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
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. Id
call every few weeks, like always.
I began to call every
night, at first out of guilt, not willing
to see her in my minds 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
At 4:00 a.m. Pacific time on a
Sunday morning, 10 days after I had flown
into California, I woke next to my
mothers 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. Moms
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 Id 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
(TaNecha), Gram, Toby, Danny,
Bernie, Sam, my dad, her dad, Beepa,
Estelle, Herma, and dozens more excitedly
awaiting her arrival. I knew her time was
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.
Well 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
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 youre
going, Mom. Look at them all, so happy,
so excited, and so giddy. And its
all because they get to have you now. God
would be upset if I said I wanted to go
with you, so I wont say that.
"See, Mom, I want
you to go ahead. Its okay.
Its all right. Theyve been
waiting so long now. Its been
seventy years since your dad died. He was
only 37, and he adored his little Dotty.
Remember how you told him you
werent ready for school yet, so he
let you stay home until you were seven?
stay home much, though. He let you come
to the store. What could a six-year-old
girl do in a mens 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.
Thats why I can say these words,
Mom. I cant 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. Im
letting go. You can too. I give you
permission. I give you permission."
Were my words merely
trendy, fashionable, "New Age"?
I couldnt believe that it had come
to this: my not doing everything in my
concrete and spiritual power to hold on
Two tears appeared. I
could not be certain that Mom was hearing
what I was saying. Perhaps I was
performing this monologue for Gods
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.
Moms breathing was becoming more
labored. I was holding her hand tighter.
God was noticeably out
of the room. I wasnt thinking of
God much now. The vividness of the other
side, all of Moms 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 GodI believed in
God, well enoughbut in the future
of life in ones death.
I didnt worry
about Gods absence. While holding
on to her withered hands, I didnt
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 mothers first name as I
had many times before, jokingly, but now
with the intensity that I needed to reach
her: "Dotty, Dotty, its time,
my darling. Youre 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. Ill be okay. But I want you to
go now. I cant keep you to myself
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
Daddy sang bass
(Mama sang tenor),
me and little brother would join
right in there,
Singin seems to help a troubled
One of these days, and it wont
Ill rejoin them in a song
Im 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
Farewell, for now, my
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.