On Monday I had a conversation about my mom with a fifty-year old woman who had also lost her mother. Her mother had been sick for some time, and she died peacefully in a hospice, holding her daughter’s hand. The woman told me her mother had had a stroke, but that somehow she smiled just before she died, and that she knew her mother had gone to a better place.
I said that it must have been very comforting for her, and tried my best to be polite and sensitive. She said that a good way to think about it was to think about a cruise ship. You’re standing on a dock and your loved one is on a cruise ship. You wave and watch the ship slowly drift over the horizon. You can no longer see the ship, but of course you know it is still there, and one day you will see your loved one again.
I told her that was, indeed, a lovely way to think about death. I smiled and tried not to cry and in my head I was thinking, “Shut up, you #$%@, &*(# F^+! piece of $#*^@. Just stop talking and leave me alone, please.” I pictured this kind and gentle person bursting into flames while we spoke, with her head melting like Dietrich’s and Toht’s at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I can’t seem to think of my mom’s death as if she is on a cruise, but after nine months I do have a nautical sort of handle on it. I think of my mom’s life as a classic, stately frigate. Maybe like the USS Constitution or a traditional pirate ship, weathered and worn but incredibly sturdy and strong and able to last forever, timeless if properly attended. And she is standing on the deck and I am on the dock, and we speak frequently. She is worried all the time that something is wrong with the ship, but I can see it is really a gorgeous piece of craftsmanship. She’s running around the decks touching up the paint all the time and mending the sails; she’s an incredibly gifted artist and does her best to keep it beautiful.
And then one day I see a leak, just below the waterline. The ship starts taking on water and it is a dire situation, although it is a slow leak and there is still plenty of time to fix it. So I start doing my best to put together a team of divers and woodworkers to help me patch it. She knows about the leak but there is nothing she can do about it because she can’t go belowdecks for some reason, so all she can do is keep sewing and painting and sweeping and swabbing and cooking and she is getting frantic but she knows I am working on the problem. And I am. Tirelessly. For months.
And the Coast Guard or the Port Authority or someone sees that the ship is taking on water and they announce that they are going to help and I am so relieved. But they really don’t care about the ship at all, and — as it turns out — by “help” what they mean is that they are going to scuttle the ship. And I am trying desperately to help and every time I turn around I see another cannonball fired from the big official buildings on the shore. And they leave huge gaping holes in the hull and start fires and I am panicking, and mom is panicking, and finally she just passes out from the fear.
And I do everything I can to make them stop but they don’t. I write letters and I call the Navy and the President and Congress and I ask all my friends for help and there are people who say they know all about the minor crack in the hull and how to fix it and there are other people who tell me how to get the authorities to stop shooting at her but it doesn’t stop and it gets worse every time I can catch a breath to look. And I know my mom does not want to die. I know more than anything she wants to keep talking to me and play with my son and sit in the sun and watch the water and I want to save her.
And then one afternoon — while I’m exhausted and passed out on the dock with a huge, massive hammer in my hand that I can’t possibly lift — the ship just sinks. It goes beneath the water with a thunderous crash, and it’s enough to wake mom from her stupor and her eyes open just long enough in fright as the water covers her and it wakes me and that is where I have been stuck since that moment: Eyes wide open and unable to scream, frozen and staring at her drowning and feeling that I am drowning, too.
And the cannonballs don’t stop.
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