Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Hey... I brought this to a summer meeting a few weeks ago and got some comments; I have revised some of the things relating to complaints about logicality (ie, "her whole life had been spent complaining to her children..." .. "did she have children since her birth?") and made a few minor word changes. Others, tell me what you think! This is based on actual events, though it is not wholly true.


My mother is dying.
My sister called me last night at about 10:30. When her name showed up on the caller ID I knew there had to be something wrong with Mom, because it was not my birthday, or Mary’s birthday, or one of the kids’ birthdays, or Christmas, or Easter, and the only other reason she ever has for calling is “something else is wrong with Mom.” It turned out that my mother had had another heart attack, and the post-recovery EKG had revealed congestive heart failure. We all knew she wasn’t a transplant candidate, and so that meant that the end was near.

Click on "Post Page" below to see the rest!

I know I sound horrible saying that, but if you knew my mother, you’d feel differently. She had lived her life for a good eighty-four years, and every minute of it had been spent complaining. After the birth of her children, the complaints became less general and more focused on how we didn’t care about her. It didn’t matter what we did; we could call her every day, visit her constantly in the assisted-living home, bring her flowers every Sunday, and still the only things she would say to us would be “the food here is terrible,” and “why don’t you come to visit me as often as Larry?” Larry, the prodigal son in every sense of the word. He lived two streets over from her his whole life, quit college to become a freelance photographer, got fired from his newspaper job for being lazy, and was too lazy to find a new one. Now he lives in her old house because there, he doesn’t have to pay a mortgage. She’s in a home now, and her house has been paid off since 1983. The one he still owes money on is on the verge of being condemned, painted halfway up the side and halfway remodeled on the inside in an attempt to make it sale-worthy. But he comes to visit her, she says; why don’t you?

Anticipating this reaction, I went to visit her as soon as they released her from intensive care, and it was pretty much the same as always.

“How are you feeling, Mom?”

“How do you think I’m feeling? I have tubes up my nose and a wire in my chest!”

“Are your doctors helping?”

“Those bastards couldn’t find their own asses in a dark room!”

“How was your lunch?”

“How do you think it was? This is a hospital, not a four-star restaurant!”

After a few more attempts at cordiality and conversation, I put the flowers Mary had cut for her in a vase next to her bed, told her to feel better and get some rest, and left. I didn’t bother asking if Larry had been to see her yet; on her bedside chair, I had smelled the cheap paint he was using to desecrate her living room.

Walking through the hospital corridor, I noticed a few people were looking at me. I must have seemed a little out of place in the bleached, shabby hallways in my newly dry-cleaned black suit, but I had come straight from work and I had had a committee meeting earlier that day. I smiled at the cleaning ladies who got into the elevator with me, who were also looking askance at my attire.

There were three of them, one pushing the mop cart, one carrying linens, and another who looked old from tiredness who seemed to be on her way home. The woman with the mops let out a long sigh and leaned against the back of the elevator as the doors closed and exclaimed under her breath,

“JE-sus Christ!” The woman with the linens gasped and said in a whisper to her in a shocked tone,

“Jean, that man is a priest!” The third woman looked confused.


“I said, Jean just took the Lord’s name in vain, and that man there is a priest!” She was pointing at me. I had to contain my laughter. “God will send her to hell for that.” The third woman’s face set into a mass of hard lines that told her emotional age and she said,

“There isn’t one.” The words oozed sadly out of her like blood from the dying patients she saw every day. The woman called Jean looked at her.


“There is no God,” said the third woman, staring into space resignedly. I didn’t quite know what to say. I realized I had become the unwitting catalyst of an existential meltdown. Would this third woman, had she not been under the impression there was a priest in the room, still have been compelled to exclaim out loud her views on the existence of a higher power? Or was today just the day that proved His absence to her? As I was not actually a priest, regardless of whether they thought I was or not, I didn’t feel comfortable inquiring. I am a professor of philosophy, not a spiritual counselor, and so I have no business being inside anyone’s mind except maybe my students’. Still, even without being intrusive, I could see that some sort of message of forgiveness was expected from me for the woman who had taken liberties with a common pair of names.

“Long day?” I said to Jean. She nodded. I smiled in what I hoped was a priestly fashion.

“I understand,” I said, and smiled again. I hoped this was enough. What do priests do to bestow forgiveness? I had never been in a church long enough to witness that particular part of their job. But the moment had passed; there was no point on trying to divine the answers to questions out of my realm of knowledge. The woman with the linens turned to me suddenly and said,

“So, that woman you were visiting is dying, I suppose.” I nodded, interested to hear her observations. She leaned closer, taking me into her confidence.

“I gotta say, Father, I gotta say I’m pretty relieved, you know, not to speak ill of the sick and all, but she’s a cantankerous one, you know, so I’m glad to see she’s being absolved of her sins, you know, because she needs that, you know, I think.” I smiled again, rather stiffly this time. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything other than “Yes.” Luckily, we had reached the ground floor and so I parted company with the trio, bidding them all a “blessed day,” as I expected a man in my supposed profession would have.

I walked through the parking lot and tried to remember where I parked. Though I knew I had a bad memory, after a few minutes fruitlessly searching, I realized that the problem was not impending old-man memory skills but the fact that I was completely distracted from actively searching by the strange resonance of the exchange in the elevator. To be seriously mistaken for a priest was something I had never experienced before, and to have someone tell me that my mother was an old bitch who needed to be absolved of her sins without realizing they were talking to this woman’s son was another new experience. Frankly, the very prospect of my mother wishing to be absolved of sins by a servant of God was quite funny to me in a rather dark way. Did my mother even believe in God? I didn’t know; I had never been in an elevator with her and a man mistaken for a priest to hear what she might be provoked to say under the right circumstances. There was no other occasion that would have inspired her to talk to us about religion. The only time I’d seen her in a church was when someone died. In our house, the only religions were food, yelling, and disappointment, and I had done my best to distance myself from those, as well. What would my mother even say if a priest came into her room to “absolve her of her sins”? Would she say, “Father, I’ve been a terrible woman and an awful mother; my children all hate me except the one who’s a lazy bum. All I ever do is complain, and I take everything good I have for granted”? No. What she would probably say if faced with a man of the cloth in her room to help her die without fear of hell would be, “Why are you here? Which one of my idiot children sent you? I can die without you, you know.” And that would be the end of that visit. Still, what she said would be true. She was perfectly capable of dying on her own.

Driving home, I had already begun to feel numb. What was left now but to wait? I knew the next time I came to visit she would probably be asleep, or otherwise unconscious, and if she weren’t, things would go exactly as they had today. Unlike many people, my mother was not one to be frightened into kindness by the prospect of a fast-approaching death; it was just something else for her to complain about. I suppose, in that respect, she was braver than all of us.

When the phone rang five days later at 6:30 in the morning, I knew who it was even before I put my glasses on to look at the caller ID.

“Is this Robert?”


“This is the Detroit City hospital, and I’m very sorry to have to tell you that Florence passed away about twenty minutes ago. Your sister and brother are on their way. Would you like to meet them here?”

I said I would. I didn’t wake Mary, but left a note over the face of the alarm clock.

When I arrived, my brother Larry was looking incredibly pained and my sister Grace was facing in the opposite direction attempting to look bereaved. I looked down at my mother’s face on the suspiciously clean pillowcase, and was afflicted with a strange combination of confusion, sadness, and relief.

She looked, for once, happy.