Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Mother: Rest in Peace

On May 26th, just over one month ago, I posted a blog post entitled The Ride of a Lifetime in which I ruminated about life, death, mortality, and my own coming of age as an elder. In that post, I paid homage to my recently deceased father-in-law, my newly widowed mother-in-law, and my deceased step-father, whose ashes sit in a makeshift urn on my mother's kitchen counter.

Not sixteen days later, I received a phone call from my sister that my mother, a relatively healthy 78-year-old woman with several well-controlled chronic health conditions, had suffered a serious stroke. A Juilliard-trained classical pianist, my mother was giving a recital with some of her students that afternoon, and in keeping with her desire to "die while playing the piano" (as she had often wished), she continued to play with her right hand as she lost all control of her left. Rushed to the hospital, she lost consciousness in the ambulance and was declared brain-dead by early evening, a ventilator maintaining oxygenation of her vital organs while our family made some important decisions. My sister and brother-in-law held vigil at her bedside for almost 12 hours, friends coming and going, bringing food and offering solace and prayers.

Arriving to Atlanta from Albuquerque at 2am, I arrived to the hospital to join my sister and her husband at the bedside, and we made the mutual decision to disconnect her from life support. We held her hands as her heart slowly stopped beating, and the life force left her body completely at 5:15am. Knowing that she would never have wanted to remain "alive" artificially, this decision was relatively easy to make.

I stroked her hand for some time in those early morning hours, marveling at the smoothness of her skin and remembering with my fingers all of those arthritic knobs that never seemed to compromise her musicianship. She was a consummate musician, and she would be thrilled to know that her final act on this earth was playing the piano as she encouraged young musicians to pursue their dreams and develop their talents.

Losing one's mother is a loss like no other, and I'm still digesting the fact that she's gone. Writing is not easy for me right now, and thus my output here on Digital Doorway (and elsewhere) has slowed to a crawl. Meanwhile, my grief comes in waves, and while I rejoice for her freedom, I recognize and honor the loss that I and my other family members have suffered.

Here is a copy of the eulogy that I read at her memorial service on June 15th in Atlanta, Georgia. Rest in peace, Mom. I love you.

It will come as no surprise to anyone in attendance today that our childhood had a soundtrack. From Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to Beethoven or our mother’s original compositions, the music flowed throughout our lives. Whether we were attending one of mom’s many concert performances, serving as her ersatz “bodyguards” at Jersey Shore nightclubs, or listening to her practice as we did our homework, the pervasive soundtrack continued as a constant reminder of both our mother’s musical genius and her passionate vocation.

But in as much as my mother’s life was informed by music (and our lives by extension), the other parallel soundtrack was one of love, kindness, and unconditional support. Especially in my adult years, it became ever more apparent how my mother accepted my many incarnations with unperturbed aplomb. Whether I was announcing my desire to study yoga, travel to Europe, marry a single mother, or attend nursing school, she and Tulane both reacted with similar equanimity and words of support and enthusiasm. (But I must admit the one-way ticket to London at age 21 was likely the most difficult thing for her to accept, let alone my 11-month absence long before the days of cell phones and email, not that my mom ever mastered the use of a computer!)

Nonetheless, support and caring were indeed the ingredients that were essentially my mother’s modus operandi when it came to her children’s and grandchildren’s endeavors, and she personified unconditional love in my personal experience of her, especially in the final years of her life.

In her four years as a widow, mom was lonely at times, of course, and I very recently noticed the marked joy and surprise in her voice when on the receiving end of a telephone call. “Keithie!” she would say with childlike joy, “How are you?” She would never fail to tell me what she’d most recently been up to (oftentimes repeating stories that I may have already heard, perhaps during one of her very long voicemail messages), but also never failing to ask “And how are Mary and Rene and Bevin and Tina?” (Referring to my wife, my son, my daughter-in-law, and my dog).

Characteristically, she showed as much as interest in the welfare of our dog Tina as she did in any of her grandchildren (sorry, kids!) but the reality seemed to be that she saw dogs and grandchildren as equals when it came to doling out her enormous affection and interest, and Tina was as deserving of her grandmotherly curiosity as any of the kids in the family.

As a mother, a grandmother, a musician, and, I must add, as my lifelong friend, my mother was a force of Nature. That said, it may take me some time to digest the fact that her unconditional support and love will no longer come in the form of newsy telephone calls, thoughtful cards, and those ubiquitously long voicemail messages. I’ll miss her voice, the way she listened so intently on the phone, and the way she would hold my hand so very tightly with her piano-strengthened fingers.

Like any death, hers brings with it great sadness, a modicum of regret, and the sense that a life well lived has been rewarded with the ultimate peace that God and Heaven offer, especially as I imagine her being welcomed by an angelic Tulane, her loving husband who left her only four years ago. I can just picture a heavenly host gathered around a snow white concert grand as Tulane cajoles her to play The Moonlight Sonata. She’ll oblige, of course, and the tip jar (generally an over-sized brandy snifter if it were left up to Tulane) will be overflowing with the blessings and prayers of those who love and adore this remarkable and elegant woman.