During My Mother’s Dying
Early July 2006. My Mother lays ill in the last cycle of her life after battling metastatic ovarian cancer for three years. Her name is Dorothy Elizabeth Ussery Bass. Most folks call her “Dot.” Although my home has been Seattle, Washington for quite some time, I am again in Virginia, the land where she gave birth to me, and feel compelled to write down the following impressions and chronicles:
Last night I slept ten and a half hours, awaking from a heavy dream combining aspects of Mt. Rainier, the Appalachian Trail, and my friends David and Tina from Richmond. The night before I slept only 3-4 hours. I got out of bed early and went for a walk, rambling around the farm and across the land. Did push-ups on the concrete apron of the old cow lane, my hands pushed down where cow shit used to pile up in boot-sucking quantities. Now the concrete runway’s been washed clean by the rains and bleached by the sun.
The most beautiful songs burst forth from songbirds perched up in treetops and on the barn roof cupolas. We don’t have songbirds much out West, they tend to thrive East of the Great Plains – they need deciduous forests. Astounding arrays of bird songs fill the morning air. The Virginia country air feels so cool in the morning, so cool but only because warm air is cooler than hot air. The temperature later shot up to a sweltering, humid 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Damn. People slow down. Dayum. Day-yumm. You walk with deliberation and a sense of conservation. People say it is unusual for such temperatures so soon. That’s August weather. Global Warning (sic, yes). Amid the dying of a matriarch I hear the songbird singing trail off into the blazing, hot Void.
I’ve been enjoying the nights. Stars and familiar constellations thru hazy skies. Watching the moon grow. I love the zip of myriad dragonflies darting and hovering into the evening, transmuting softly into floating clouds of blinking fireflies as night settles. Mid-day it’s June bug time. The giant emerald-brown beetles rumble in swarms above bushes and treetops. As the cows are gone, the lack of flies is noticeable. A few ticks though. I picked only three off me after a hike across fields and down a wooded ravine. I’m staying with my sister and her family down on the lake. I really like it there. Peaceful. Quiet. I like the silence where time seems to slow wayyy down. Makes me rethink things – do we really want a second home on Lake Wenatchee with stunning views but jammed between other homes, or would we rather have free ranging open spaces for kids to run and play in right outside the door? I find myself become reattached to the land I came from, as perhaps only a farmer’s son could.
Yesterday I stop by the cemetery on my way to Richmond. My father’s grave is a year and a half old now. The little animal figurines placed along the gravestone are faded from the elements, as are a vase of flowers. I clear away one wilted rose so I can read his name: William Merritt Bass. My mom’s name is already there, the grave ready to receive her when the time comes, the only thing missing the date of her death yet to come. I have a little conversation with Dad.
I walk over to the graves of my great-uncle R. Aumon Bass and his beloved Mary Scott Bass. He was deaf and she a deaf-mute, the terms used then. She died 33 years ago, and yet I remember her so clearly. They were the last to live in the old Bass Farmhouse. For months after her death we could stand outside and hear 90-year old Uncle Aumon wailing, mourning her loss. We could hear him crying all the way down the hill to my parents’ house. As Aumon presented himself in public as a taciturn man of composure and dignity (unless he lost his temper), the rest of us where taken off guard hearing him grieve. We didn’t know what to do.
It made us all uncomfortable. So we avoided the issue. If he talked about her death at all, how much he missed her, I just listened quietly not knowing what else to do. Don’t quite remember anymore. Except that he followed her into death 9 years later.
Robert Augustus Masters, one of my current mentors, writes in Darkness Shining Wild death is the last thing to come out of the closet. In our culture we now talk about sex and money, race and religion, politics and the environment, everything else but Death. We don’t know how to be with death. We often spell it Death. We don’t do that with birth, do we? Death lives in the closet, but not really.
When one becomes present to death it is right there in our laps, sitting next to me in the car, hovering over my mother, flowing between trees and headstones and flowers and livestock. I drove passed a dear burst open along the side of the road. My second day here while driving the back roads a deer ran out right in front of me and vanished into the woods. As I topped the hill six more deer stood grazing in a hayfield.
My God, it is hot. But I drive with the windows rolled down to feel the air blasting me but really for the smells. I love the smell of rural Virginia. Every state has a distinctive smell, each region of the country does, and Virginia smells different from Florida from Vermont from Iowa from New Mexico from Oregon. From Washington. Just like, I would imagine, Tuscany smells different from Norway and England from Bavaria. Death has its own unique smell, too.
Yesterday in Richmond I hang with David Wilson and his wife Tina Ennulat. It is a joyous reunion, almost tearful. We are the best of friends from our VCU grad school days, they have four beautiful children, and I haven’t seen them since the summer of 2001. What makes it special is that we all became buddies as separate individuals, I was especially close to Tina, and then she and David became a couple. So we’re all “equal” friends rather than one tagging along just out of spousedom.
Gwen, they say “hi and hugs” to you, and Kristina, they can’t wait to meet you. And see our kids. Tina is an author and an editor on staff for a couple of big, glossy high-class magazines, while David is a schoolteacher. He lights up with a passion for children and learning. He loves teaching kids. That’s his purpose.
We drop off their youngest son at a kiddie birthday party. I fit right in with the parents. They are so Virginia with that strange and unique blend of hippie and preppie from my generation. Gwen, I bet you know exactly what I’m talking about. Right in the middle of the city is this gigantic old farmhouse on a double city lot. They’ve turned the yard into gardens and flowerbeds amok with red clay and vegetation. The two pet guinea pigs are taken out of their hutch and put in an open pen to get some exercise. The kids are spraying each other with constant streams of water.
Water is everywhere, sprayed up in the air, on the slide, on the grass, on the trampoline, squirting straight up from hose-toys. Kids run crazy, laughing, not seeming to notice it is a hundred frickin’ degrees. Us adults either explore the gardens or hang in the shade of an enormous wrap-around porch with old-fashioned wooden rocking chairs. It turns out three of them have traveled to Seattle and up to Vancouver, BC, on business!
We leave and go on an air-conditioned driving tour of The Fan, the Bohemian core of Richmond anchored by Virginia Commonwealth University and The Village Cafe. The James River is gigantic in flood. A rushing, raging tumbling mass of brown and white water roiling thru trees. It seems almost a full mile across. So many rapids. Enormous flood stage rapids. Scary fun.
And sure enough, a train of big blue rafts followed by a flotilla of kayaks barrel down and dance thru the wave trains and drop over ledges into churning holes. For many years I kayaked rivers across North America and got skilled enough to tackle Class V horror-beauties. I feel the tug of the river, the lure of the paddle, remembered the eros of liquid movement, and decide I’m quite happy just to watch.
We return to the birthday party to pick up Tina’s son. Other parents are arriving. One mother brings her dog. Off leash. Suddenly we spot the dog with a guinea pig in its mouth. No violence. Just holding it in its mouth.
We rush forward; the dog drops the guinea pig, which tries to crawl away. The Dad of the birthday boy picks up the guinea pig and cradles it against his chest. The guinea pig dies right there. Heart attack? Maybe. We suspect a broken back. Shock. Trauma. Heat. No blood. The little boy is quite distraught.
Suddenly the dog is back in the pen after the other guinea pig. The architect yanks the dog out by the collar as its owner comes rushing over.
“Go put Wilber up in your room right now!” the mother of the birthday kid yells at her son. He does so, in tears. He is angry and splutters threats.
The father is stern but matter of fact. “He’s just a dog. That’s what dogs do.”
The woman who owns the dog is embarrassed and blubbers all over herself. “I’m so sorry,” she cries. “I’m so sorry my dog killed your little boy’s guinea pig.”
Over and over again. I watch it all in slow motion, more just holding the space. All I can really think of is the presence and the immediacy of death. Death comes fast and unexpected. One never knows. We may never see each other again. I feel the point is really to take on the practice of being aware of death and dying and learning how to accept it and be with it so when it comes it comes and we can grieve with it and support one another openly without whispers and discomfort.
I remember, Kristina, it seemed to me you didn’t quite know what to do when my dad died and I reached out to you as my lover and life partner for support. We all talk about an interdependent web of life all too conveniently blind how interwoven that web is with death. Death can bring the living closer together in life as well. I feel it important to support one another thru the dying and the grieving not leave each other all alone as my Uncle Aumon was.
Yes, we really do need one another. Death drives home that social aspect of our humanity. Somehow “need” has become a bad word, the opposite of that good word “independent.” Just as the 4th of July comes. I would love to see Earth celebrate an Interdependence Day.
There is no such thing as “independence” anyway. It’s all an illusion, a ridiculous illusion. We’re dependent, co-dependent, interdependent…as individuals, as neighborhoods and communities, as cities and farms, as nation-states and stateless-nations, even as a planet. Our Earth is fully dependent upon Sol our Sun and the location of its orbit within our solar system. Now expand that throughout the galaxy, the universe, the multiverse, and on into the afterlife. Independence reflects the idiotic infantilism of social animals driven to slaughter each other in war. Argh, I must remember Love. I’m preachin’ again, dammit all, spouting forth my opinions and judgments. Ahhh, I must remember to come from love. LOVE! Yes. To Interdependence Day! With love.
I drive home from Richmond straight to see my Mom. She appears so comfortable and peaceful. Then a wave of pain hits. Or a burst of nausea.
Then she’s peaceful again. We hang out. I read an article to her from the paper. I show her pictures of my family life in Seattle. Lots of photos and videos on the laptop. She loves that. For now her mind is surprisingly lucid and clear. As the cancer progresses, spreads throughout her body, and invades her brain all that may change. Mom really wants to see all her grandkids again, Morgan, and Kate, even Talia. I say maybe October is a possibility, but I do not commit. She may be going home this week. And I ache deep down in my heart to bring my kids back out to Virginia to see their Grandmother. Oh, and they want to come. And I…just…don’t…have…the…money…available.
Beth has around the clock care lined up at $6,000 a month. Insurance will not pay for it. The necessary funding must come out of her cherished nest egg. She has an estimated five months left, but who really knows for sure. It could be 2 or 3 months, or a year, and the cancer will continue to exponentially spread, as it is no longer being treated.
Mom is so weak. Can’t walk much. Her legs are swollen, tight, dark purple, with oozing sores. She’s quite content to lay in the bed and bide the time. She claims she’s comfortable and just waiting for the end. Where as she fought to live with every breath she now seems to accept her own approaching death. Then suddenly she looks afraid, then sad, worries about dividing up the estate, and then moves on.
Then I remember…it is the Fourth of July. American Independence Day 2006. I decided to go celebrate our local-regional-planetary-solarial-galaxial interdependence by hangin’ out at the Farmville airport with my sibs Joe and Beth and their families. I love my nieces: Joe and Sally’s Lydia and Jessie, growing up too fast for being 3,000 miles away, and little Allison. Beth and Ray’s girl. We call her Alli. Each one reminds me of my own children. Lydia is too much like Morgan so similar in the way they’re worlds apart on religion (Lydia is a devout Baptist Christian; Morgan’s a determined Atheist with a taste for things Pagan). Jessie churns about laughing, jumping, running, squirming – so much like my own Hurricane Kate. And Alli, so sweet, oh so, so, so sweet, and adorable, and a little she-demon even when you’re lookin’. A lot like my Talia. Beth doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry so she ends up barking at Alli to “behave yourself or I’m gonna spank you!”
I don’t like spanking. But Beth limits it. At least in front of me. Tried it a few times. Didn’t work. Made ’em mean. All that violence people think ain’t violence, but it is, it is, and we see the results of it generation after generation after generation, from the Heart of Planet Earth and out of Africa all across the Holy Land all across our Mother Earth and beneath Father Sky, we see it in the great longing for peace and love and harmony amid all the horror and suffering and killing and maiming and hurting each other to show who’s BOSS without any sustained surrender to mindfulness and love and for mercy and compassion and for worship and adoration….
The fireworks begin…we sprawl about in lounge chairs amid coolers and picnic baskets and I stare all around the grassy pastures edged by sweet-smelling pine trees and husky oaks and fields heavy with corn…and I feel homesick just being home in my native land…I miss Virginia but suddenly I miss every woman I ever loved, every woman who shared her body with mine in moments of intimate rapture and divine nakedness…ahhh…and I meet old friends and classmates and girls I once wondered about dating but was too shy to back then and now I wish I had but some I’m glad I didn’t so I catch myself making judgments about people’s weight and dental care and whether or not they smoked cigarettes or drank diet ginger ale versus sneaking a little whiskey in their co-cola.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Fiiizzzzzzzzzzssssssss SPEWwwwmmm BANG! BANG! BANG! KA-POW!
Everyone squeals and hoops. Most folks love a holiday regardless of the occasion, and after Christmas in America, Summers are the Best, especially the 4th of July. We can put aside all our differences and celebrate whatever we want…with the Prince of Peace and Love even if our focus is usually mercy or mindfulness, with the floral bang of fireworks exploding even if we’re vegetarians who understand the deep, often invisible interconnectiveness of our interdependence.
“I miss Mom,” I said.
“Yeah,” Joe said, “I miss Dad, too.”
“Both would really love it out here,” Beth said. “We got perfect Summer weather right now.”
Beth is astounding. She is truly Momma’s steward and mastered the intricacies of the paperwork of dying and death. I tell her she could be a professional in this field and help distraught folks navigate between so many legal and financial positions. Beth moved back to the Bass family farm from Arizona in early 2005, soon after our father’s death. Her husband Ray, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was delighted to be back on the East Coast. He considered Virginia to be like Pennsylvania, all Mid-Atlantic. Us natives, however, knew better. Scarred by the stupidity and ferocious violence of the Civil War with the horrors of Slavery before and the misery of Reconstruction afterwards, Virginia was Southern. Upper South, to be sure, and Southern.
We weren’t like those crazy people way down in South Carolina who fired the first shots of battle. Just kidding. Big-picture historians would demonstrate the Civil War actually began in Bleeding Kansas back in the 1850s and spread to Harpers’ Ferry, Virginia and smoldered before bursting into flames so high the whole world was impacted as a nation was rent apart, burnt up, and welded back together.
My mother was from South Carolina, too. Born in Charleston, where Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter, where I once promenaded along the boardwalks with a Black girlfriend stationed nearby in the U.S. Navy. We didn’t marry, tho we discussed such a possibility. Our romance was all too short, but we were so in love for a few short, wild, and crazy months. But we were fearful of being attacked by racists of one color or another who disapproved of such mingling of love, sweat, and genes. Ahhh, we need more lovin’ and less hatin’. We need to spread more memes for forgiveness and community, for compassion and mercy, for unity and harmony, for Power together with Love and Love with Power.
“Hey, looky there,” Joe said as he pointed skyward and laughed. “Whoa, check out those fireworks!…..yeah, I sure miss Mom and Dad.”
In the shared silence of sibling love we three contemplated the dying of our last parent and a future ahead bereft of all grandparents and all parents. Later in the evening, lightning flashed deep inside dark masses of clouds stacked up over the stars in vast anvil-shaped thunderheads. Rain, wind, lightning, and thunder crackled and rumbled as Divine ruckus struck fear into the hearts of the wide-awake.
Tomorrow becomes today. I’m going to go visit Mom soon, and then visit more graves. Graves of relatives and neighbors. I’m suddenly present to the large numbers of people who played prominent roles in my life, especially as a child and young adult, who are now dead. Funny. The article I read to Mom from the paper regarded a breakthru in human genetics research. There are 6.5 billion human beings now, and every single one of them was able to be traced back to one single person – male or female is unclear – who lived sometime between the reign of Tutankhamen of Egypt to Alexander the Great to the time of Jesus.
That person lived somewhere in East Asia, most likely from either Taiwan, Siberia, or …can’t remember the other places. The lineages of every other human being alive at that time died out. So at some point all the ethnic and religious groups currently killing and maiming each other in war all shared the same great-ever-so-great grandparents. That is wild. Wild! And all those living today from remote tribes in New Guinea to the cosmopolitan streets of Paris and New York are all kin.
We are all having sex with people who are genetically our distant relatives. Kristina, we’re kissin’ cousins! And so is everyone else. This was done thru an amazing combination of genetics biologists, genealogists, and statisticians teaming up on a supercomputer inspired by the landmark work with the human genome project. And I don’t even know if all this is really true.
Time to go live, and someday, sometime, I will die.
The Afterlife, if it actually exists, and I believe it does, awaits as another adventure.
As does this life.
A couple days later….
Yesterday was 100 degrees again. Both temperature and humidity. Until wind, thunder, lightning, and driving rain drove me from old graveyards.
A few other things stand out from my journey here in Southcentral Virginia: obesity, sweetie, and Jesus. I’ve never seen so many people struggling with obesity and diabetes. My goodness. Truly round people. All calling each other “Sweetie,” “Honey,” and “Sweetie-pie.” And “Shuga.” Except the men never ever dare say that to another man less he become suspect.
At my Mom’s care facility in popped a young nurse named Dana. She was short and petite, a refreshing difference from all the roundies turning sideways to get thru the door. Dana had a full head of lush, gorgeous hair dense with tight, thick curls.
“Miff Bass, I’m here to draw your blood,” Dana announced.
“Oh, no,” groans Mom.
“Oh, yes. You know we have to do it every two days, Sweetie.”
“Oh, God,” my Mom groans and moans. “Not again. The last two people stuck those needles in me and couldn’t get anything. Anything.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Sweetie.”
“Can you do it right?”
“Between me and Jesus, I tell you what. If I can’t get any blood out in two tries I’ll stop. OK, Honey?”
A few minutes later Dana is ready. She uses a baby needle as Mom has tiny veins. The first attempt fails.
Dana puts a Band-Aid on my Mom’s hand and comments, “Hey, now you’re bleeding after I done put that Band-Aid on. That’s not fair!”
The second attempt succeeds.
“See, Sweetie,” Dana says. “I kept my promise.”
Between “me and Jesus.”
Blood spurts onto the white blanket.
Dana left her gloves on the floor.
Some one will analyze my Mom’s blood to determine drug interactions and dosages.
I go on a tour of cemeteries.
First to visit the grave of Raffie Stokes, my first mentor even though neither of us knew that word at the time, at Bethel Grove Baptist Church. I had trouble finding the grave, and was a bit peeved at my self for being so self-conscious for being a White man in a Black graveyard. Man, it is HOT!
And I find the grave, marked by a little tin square on an aluminum popsicle stick: “Raffie Stokes 1909 – 1997.” That’s it. His grandson, murdered by an angry girlfriend with a car, has a nice fancy tombstone nearby. Plastic flowers and red clay soil. Then back to my Dad’s grave at Trinity Memorial Gardens. “Dad,” I say. “I finally understand the value of a dollar. I get it.” And back to Aumon and Mary’s graves.
And then on to Pisgah Baptist Church in Rice, an offshoot of Sharon Baptist Church in Sandy River. I walked into the enormous cemetery and am momentarily stunned by the size of my dead relations there. Knowing, too, it is just a fraction. I wander around the deceased elders and infants of my tribe. Basses, Gateses, Bruces, all intermarried, and their spouse’s families’ families.
The whole cemetery is somehow interconnected and not just by the crab grass. I want Kristina to see this so she can get an understanding of clan. In part to better understand me, and in part to prepare Kristina for her voyage of discovery to Japan where an entire nation is clan. Her father’s grandparents immigrated into Washington State from southern Japan in search of a better life. I want my children to stand in this cemetery to somehow get an appreciation for family history and the extensiveness of their clan.
Lightning flashes on the horizon. I notice black thunderheads piling up and moving fast. A wall of wind slams into massive oak trees and bends them over. I bow to the whole cemetery and abort my trip to Sharon’s graveyard. I think of relatives buried from New England to South Carolina. As I get into the car rain thunders down. I drive as long as I can without turning on the windshield wipers. Then I do. Leaves, twigs, branches litter the road. The rain hammers down. A gulley washer. I love this storm. Lightning forks jagged across dark skies and zips right in front of me. In two hours the storm clears and the air is clean and fresh. Graves washed clean.
I am grateful to all the dead people for their many contributions to my life since my birth. Their names and faces move in and out of my mind. Uncles and aunts, cousins and distant relations, close neighbors and church folks, the bad and the good, the upright and the eccentric. All in service. And now dead as someday we all will be.
William Dudley Bass
15 January 2007
28 February 2012
NOTE: This essay was originally published in my oldest blog, Cultivate and Harvest, on Monday 15 January 2007, at http://cultivateandharvest.blogspot.com/2007/01/during-my-mothers-dying.html, then revised and re-published here this February 2012. Thank you.
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Comments copied over from my old blog re events in this article:
9:31 am, Tuesday, January 16, 2007
“R. Aumon Bass… I am sure you know your great uncle was a very influential deaf man at Virginia School for the Deaf. He wrote a history of VSD and a building at VSD is named for him. I was touched by your memoirs of him crying at his wife’s grave. Shows his depth of emotion and also the fact that his world was very “deaf” centered. Deaf tell me he was a very strong Christian and a great influence on many deaf students at VSD.”
11:08 am, Tuesday, January 16, 2007
“This is Edwin Carrington, a historic deaf alarm clock researcher. I know your uncle through my research. He had his own alarm clock contraption. He call it “Big Boss”. I have picture of his work however I do not have much information of how it work. I am wondering if your family have that contraption somewhere or provide me more information on this. I am attempting to remake his contraption and post in you tube for everybody’s benefit. please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com Look forward to hear from you.”
Copyright © 2007, 2012, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.