Whether you’re 15 or 50, losing a parent is never easy....

Goodbye Was Really Hello

by Donna J. Wade (July 1997, a revised version published as a featured "spirit story" at http://www.shirleymaclaine.com/stories/spirits/story-224)

Like many of the world’s citizens, I was glued to the television set watching the media coverage of the tragic death of Princess Diana, just as I had in 1963 when another of my heroes, President Kennedy, was buried amid much pomp, questionable circumstance, and mind-numbing grief.

More than a few times, commentators asked, "what must those boys be feeling?" as the world watched two stoic young princes follow their Mama’s coffin to Westminster Abbey. Anyone who has ever lost a parental figure in their lives knows what those boys felt, and realizes that the emotional toll doesn’t end after a "suitable" period of mourning.

mama.jpg (68621 bytes)Watching Diana’s boys struggle to maintain composure brought back feelings I thought I’d resolved after my own Mama’s passing two years ago. As much as time can erase the pain, and dull the memory, it seems to have had the opposite effect in this instance. I remember it as though it were yesterday...

It was a typical chilly, rainy December day in Georgia. For the locals, anyway. I was feeling more like a character in a Twilight Zone episode that awoke to find herself in an alternate dimension. The faces in the gathering were all vaguely familiar, distant memories of a reality no longer relevant, assembled to pay homage to a person who had impacted the lives of all she met in countless ways. For me, it was my second experience with saying goodbye to one who gave me the gift of life. My first encounter of this sort happened in my adolescence, when my biological father (often less-than-affectionately referred to as my sperm donor) decided to sever all contact with his daughters.

I heard the words "ashes to ashes, and dust to dust..." and watched as my real dad, the step-father who helped guide me through my difficult teenage years, sprinkled holy water over the casket. Although a non-believer, he went through the motions of that religious ritual only because he believed it’s what Mama would have wanted. I remember thinking it curious that even the most unbelieving rely on archaic customs and rituals to help them deal with the unknowable in the hope that they are wrong, that there might indeed be life after physical death.

I had flown into Atlanta after receiving the phone call I had hoped never to receive, praying it was another false alarm, that the old gal would beat the odds just one more time. My youngest brother Butch met me at the Marta train station and whisked me to the hospital. The medical staff had been instructed to resuscitate mama only until I had seen her and had said my goodbye.

She was so heavily sedated that her only acknowledgement of my presence was a slight squeeze of my hand as I held hers. As I spoke to her, I got an eerie sensation -- this is how I’ll look at my life’s end -- and I felt an odd kinship with her, realizing that this was probably how she felt when saying goodbye to her own Mama seven years prior. She looked much frailer and more weathered than her 58 years, and I sat with her in silence for a while, drawing strange comfort from the sound of the machine that now forced oxygen into her bloodstream through lungs turned the consistency of cardboard from 30 years of smoking.

Surprisingly, when I returned to the hospital that afternoon, she was awake. The doctors had decreased her medication to allow her brief moments of lucidity in which to communicate with those she loved. I asked Dad to have the ventilator tube removed so that she could speak, if able -- she’d been on the machine for weeks. He said if they removed it, she would die. I thought it more than a little cruel to rob her of an opportunity to actually say what was clearly on her mind; but then, his focus was on keeping his precious wife alive for as long as possible.

In many ways, it was probably a relief to him that she couldn’t speak. It was difficult to watch her frustration as she struggled to mouth words that simply would not come, but her eyes said more than all the words in the English language. She enjoyed two lucid days surrounded by family and old friends.

On Saturday, my sister-in-law and I went to see mama around midnight. Dozens of her old friends and co-workers had been by to visit her throughout the day, and she really looked worn out. I kept telling Mama to close her eyes and rest, that she’d need her strength for another day, but she just shook her head "no". Mama always said she didn’t need to sleep much because she was afraid she’d miss something.

I’m a pretty decent singer, as was mama in her youth, and she always loved it when I sang for her. Rarely had I prepared for a visit home without a reminder from mama to pack my guitar. So, I sat on the side of her bed, careful not to disengage the octopus of tubing running through and around her. I stroked her head, and sang her to sleep, struggling to sing through my tears many of the depressing country songs she loved so much. She never woke up.

After returning to the house, my sister-in-law Mickey and I conducted a Native American thanksgiving ceremony, burning sage and sweetgrass, thanking Great Spirit for mama’s life, and asking Spirit to give Daddy the courage to let her go. My siblings said we were practicing "Indian voodoo". An hour later, the hospital nurses called and said mama was gone.

It seemed only fitting that I, her first-born, had ushered her from this plane of existence. Until that phone call, I think Dad had clung to hope, so much so that I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to let her go and terminate life support. He had forbidden us to talk to mama about dying, a request I honored only when he was in the room. He seemed to think she didn’t know what was happening to her. I felt she was hanging on for him, because she knew he couldn’t let her go. But during her lucid moments, she made her peace with her children and we with her, and I sensed she was ready. Funny how, at that moment, one forgets all the vindictive, hurtful things said and done to one another. All you feel is the love. So I encouraged her to go, assuring her we’d take care of dad. In the early hours of that cold December morning, she crossed over into the light.

I was her first-born (of three, then five when the family "blended"), but I was also the black sheep of the family, because I happen to be a lesbian. No brag, just fact. This has never set well with my family. In fact, the first night I was back in Georgia, my step-brother Bobby and I got into a major fight over why I would never be accepted by my family. He said he was speaking for all the family, even if they didn’t have the courage to confront me with it. He even expressed reservations about allowing me around his small children.

I’ve educated hundreds of police officers about gays and lesbians, helping to change their attitudes and break down stereotypes, but I could not get through to my own brother. After several hours of heated discussion, I gave up and went to bed. Unknown to me, Dad called my brother aside and told him to back off, that he was pissing me off. Dad was right.

Mama died early Sunday morning, December 17, so most of that day was consumed with funeral arrangements. I find traditional funeral rituals not only archaic but also somewhat gruesome, so I left most of those details to my siblings. I could care less what kind of box they’d be planting her in, what color pillow would support her head, what she should wear. I stayed home alone, meditating on her spirit that still filled the home she had built over 30 years. I focused on fulfilling my role as the dutiful oldest daughter in this time of emotional crisis, notifying friends and family of Mama’s passing. True to southern tradition, food began pouring in with the neighbors and friends, so much so that I was glad for the cold weather, because some of the food could be placed in coolers outside on the porch.

Monday was the public viewing day at the mortuary. A rather ridiculous, morbid ritual, if you ask me, but no one did. The next day was the funeral, conducted by a Catholic priest, even though mama hadn't been a practicing Catholic for over 30 years. The priest my sister contracted to officiate had never met Mama, and from his eulogy. He kept calling her Betty, her given name, but everyone had called her BJ for as long as I can remember.

The organist played Amazing Grace, and How Great Thou Art, and all I could think about was how mama used to make me swear I'd sing "Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox If I Die" at her funeral. That recollection, coupled with well-intentioned words of sympathy from someone who hadn’t even a clue as to whom he was eulogizing, had me stifling a giggle. Focusing on not laughing distracted me from the torrent of tears welling up inside me. Above all, mama would have wanted me to keep up appearances, and not let others in on what I was really feeling. Although it had been stormy outside at the beginning of the service, when they pushed open the chapel doors to take the casket to the hearse, the sun was shining brightly. Leave it to mama to have forced away the rain for just long enough for us to get her planted, I thought.

The cemetery was only a mile or so from my parents’ house, so after the graveside service, I decided to walk home. After all, all I’d seen for four days had been the inside of the intensive care unit, a funeral home, and my parents’ house, which itself seemed like a morgue. I needed to smell the Georgia pines, feel the breeze in my face, have a few private moments to collect myself and reflect on the fact that I would never again see my Mama. How I longed to hear her call her children "ungrateful vultures" one more time, or for her to phone me in California at 4 AM because she’d forgotten the time difference.

As I walked down the road through the subdivision, people would stop and ask me if I wanted a ride, which I declined. One was my brother, and after I refused his offer, he drove off in his pick-up, laying rubber.

Next came one of Mama’s best friends offering the ride. When I told her I’d rather walk, she asked if I wanted company. I said "Sure, but only if you’re wearing flats, because I’m not going to watch you hobble on heels for a mile and a half." She got out, and we walked arm-in-arm talking about our fondest memories of mama’s often-mad-cap antics. I told Fran if she was going to walk with me, she had to sing, too, because I hadn’t lived up to my promise to mama at the funeral. We walked through the subdivision singing "Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox" until tears flowed from laughing so hard.

Dad drove me to the airport the next night for my flight home to LA, assuring me that Georgia was still my home, that I would always be welcome. I had had some reservations about that because he was not related to me by blood, and Mama had been the cement that had held us together all those years. He told me that Mama had "suspicioned" that I was gay when I was in high school, but Dad had told her she was imagining things. When I came out to them, it came more as a shock to him than it had to her. It was not something we ever talked about, because as long as she ignored it, it wasn’t real.

Still, over the years, I had taken my companion home to visit and spend time fishing on their houseboat on Lake Lanier, and we always felt welcome. Most of my parents’ friends knew the story, and it didn’t seem like a big deal to them either. They all seemed to look forward to my yearly visits, whether alone or with someone, so much so that I didn’t feel uncomfortable talking about my life, my political activism, or when confronting homophobic comments made in my presence. I got more raised eyebrows when I confronted racial remarks than I ever did challenging homophobic ones. Which is probably why I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

I called to check on Dad every week after Mama’s death. I knew he’d be okay as long as there were people around, but it would be the quiet times alone that would hurt the most. I had told friends at the lake that I would be back in time for the Olympics, and was hoping to make the trip with my life partner, so that she could put faces to all the names she’d heard and the people she’d spoken with on the phone. But when I called and mentioned my intentions to my sister, she said I was welcome, but not my partner and that Dad concurred with this. I didn’t want to believe it. After all, my sister is 38, divorced twice, still living at home, without much of a job, much less a career. She'd had some integrity issues in her work life, and I didn't consider her a reliable source of information.

So, I ignored it. Until Dad himself called and said I was welcome, but not my partner and that I had been tolerated only because Mama had been so delighted to see me, no matter who accompanied me. But now that she was gone, he didn’t have to accept it any longer, and never would, because he was too old to change.

That one threw me for a loop. I told him I was profoundly disappointed because I thought we’d worked through all this 20 years ago, but he replied that that’s just how he feels, and it’s still his house and his boat, adding that I "flaunt it" when I’m around. I asked how talking about my life, or even holding hands with my partner, is flaunting it, yet when my step-brother openly tongue kisses a woman who is not his wife, there is no comment. His only response was that I only come home only every so often, but he has to live with those people every day. So we’re back to what the neighbors might think.

I told my Dad I would respect his wishes and not bring my partner to his home or his boat, and that, regrettably, I’d see my family when they came to Disneyland. While I will respect his wishes, I will not have my partner or our relationship disrespected. I guess Thomas Wolfe was right, "you can’t go home again."

A funny thing happened on my flight home from Georgia after the funeral. Because of all the rain, my flight into LAX was delayed, and my luggage didn’t arrive until the next flight from Las Vegas, so I was a bit later than my scheduled 3:20 AM arrival. Deb, my partner, was, of course, asleep. She tells me she was awakened by sensing a presence in the room, and was going to congratulate me for not waking the dogs or rattling our noisy front gate when I came in. But when she opened her eyes, it wasn’t me she saw, but a glowing spirit presence standing next to my side of the bed.

I got home half an hour or so later, and was disappointed that I hadn’t been there for Mama’s visit. I figure she was either checking to see I’d made it home okay, or she was telling me she was fine, and that, despite my dad’s belief that once you’re dead you’re dead, there is something more.

I have known for many years that there is a life after this one. Fifteen years ago I had a car accident, which ejected me from my vehicle into the path of the guy who hit me, whom promptly ran over me. My doctor says I’m the only person he knows of admitted to the hospital with tire tracks across their face and head and lived to tell about it. I had one of those near death experiences people are beginning to talk about, so I am not afraid of dying, I see it as the next step in my spirit’s evolution.

Mama and I used to have discussions about whether she believed spirits return to the earth plane. The conversation started with my asking her if she believed people can communicate with the dead, and she immediately answered "yes, Mom saw my dad standing in front of his closet every morning until she moved out of the house." I knew this to be true because I, too, had seen my grandfather years after he had died. He still visits on occasion, although the only way I know hes around is I start to smell "Old Spice" after-shave.

Mama blows through here from time to time as well. Our animals get weird and won’t come into the living room, or whine and start sniffing and scratching at the front door. Then usually, something falls off a wall somewhere, closely followed by me hearing her voice inside my head. I particularly felt her presence after Dad dropped his little bombshell, and I sensed she wasn’t at all pleased.

It’s been nearly two years now, and I foolishly thought I’d be over it. But I miss her more today than I ever have. All I need to be reminded of her is to look in the mirror, because I’m a near carbon copy of her at my age, in physical appearance as well as attitude. That was very apparent at her funeral, because some of her older (in age) friends were visibly startled when they saw me -- like they were seeing a ghost. For much of my life, people thought she was my older sister, not my Mom, and the older I get, the more like her I become.

I doubt I could have survived my life’s path without the strength of will (ok, stubborn streak) I inherited from her, and another of her vital lessons, to not take myself so seriously, has helped me weather many emotional calamities. So, nearly two years later, I’m still trying to say goodbye, to the one who gave me life, and to my home. Mama was one of the most remarkable, willful, fun-loving people I've ever known. I may eventually be able to verbalize what her loss has meant to me, maybe not. But as long as her blood and her spirit flow through me, her memory stays alive. For her grandchildren. For my siblings. But most importantly, for myself.

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Donna J. Wade
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