Apple Pies and Cotton Candy Skies

I couldn’t bring myself to practice this week…I just couldn’t do it. Every part of my physical and metaphysical body feels tired and I could barely muster up the energy to plod my way to my few in-person (but socially distanced) rehearsals. Picture this: feet dragging, the tips of my shoes dipping to taste the asphalt courtyard of the music campus as I “zombie” my way from building to building. I feel like I am moving through quicksand with a hundred-pound chained wrapped tight across my chest (Q: is it COVID or anxiety?). I would write another metaphor, but alas, I just don’t have the energy.

Tomorrow (10.02) marks eight years since my mom passed. I always write something in memoriam on this anniversary. Sometimes it’s a short acknowledgement, sometimes a thoughtful anecdote or sacred memory, or sometimes it is a long-winded lament on loss and grief and overcoming, such as this might be.

I am writing this from my office at school: a cave-like sort of cubicle enclosed by wooden sound panelling and totally devoid of any hint of existence of an outside world, ie. no windows. I have a not-near-full-enough bookshelf and a desk which faces the door (I don’t like having my back to open spaces). I have a fridge which currently only shelters frozen veggie “chicken” nuggets and a bottle of Twisted Ranch, a microwave presumably from 1975 and perfect for a quick lunch of spongy ramen noodles – to which I am currently treating myself, not out of hunger, but of sheer procrastination of any actual productivity.

I rolled out of bed Monday morning a curmudgeon. I intentionally slept through my first class, unable to bear even the thought of opening my eyes for the day when my alarm sounded at 7:45. I stumbled half-lucid to the bathroom at around 10:15, cranked the shower faucet, and sat down on the toilet while I waited for the water to come to temperature.

This is my routine lately. I force myself out of bed at some time before noon – due purely to my commitment to my responsibilities, rather than of actual desire to participate in the world. I may eat something, I may not, but I will definitely consume some sort of caffeinated beverage (usually coffee, but I have been known to take what I can get, depending on how participatory I intend to be on any given day). I will then either make my way to my office, or slog around the apartment in search of a comfortable-enough place to Zoom.

I always try to enjoy fall. Historically, it’s my favorite season with its drying, rubescent leaves, crisping air, pumpkin-spicing beverages, sweaters, soups, hoodies, boots, scarves. I just love the coziness of it all – or at least, I love the idea of the coziness. For the better part of a decade, though, this slowing and introspection and funneling of the calendar year toward its culmination has initiated the twanging of memories that no longer sear with white-hot pain, but rather assert their presence with their dull and perpetual throb, like the slow and rhythmic strumming of a dampened ‘C’ string of a cello. [Insert slam-poetry reference, followed by finger snaps]

Autumn is a hard time for me. It reminds me of the many nights I would totally forgo sleep to ensure my mom would stay in her bed, which was a hospital bed situated in the corner of the living room of the small three-bedroom apartment where we lived. She was always a strong woman, too strong for her own good, in some (most) cases, but particularly near the end of her life. Her spirit remained steadfast in spite of her rapid physical decline. In her mind, she was as physically strong as she had always been – a U.S. Marine, a nurse, a single-mother, wrangler of four willful and opinionated children, manual transmission driver…the list goes on. And she was stubborn. She would lay quietly in her bed, passing the hours by watching through half-closed eyes some prosaic (and yet cathartic) reality-TV show on TLC. Once everyone had gone to sleep, she would sneak out of her bed in an attempt to exercise what little independence thought she had left.

Well, truthfully one attempt was all it took for me. I slept on the couch near her bed in the living room so that I could keep as watchful an eye as I could on her. One night, the only night, I allowed myself to be overcome by sleep and woke to her cries from the floor. She had tried to get up on her own to use the bathroom, completely oblivious to her limitations, and fell face-first onto the floor – which, although technically carpeted, was really just concrete.

That was the last night I slept – over a period of time that never made itself quite clear to me. Was it days or weeks? A month? I would stay awake and as the sun began to peak its face on the horizon, I would step outside to breathe in the crisp, autumn air. I loved fall.

I vividly remember those last days with my mom, sitting and sleeping literally right by her side, watching her chest rise and fall, holding my own breath each time she seemed to hold hers. They play on loop on the interior of my eyelids like a projector on the screen of a movie theater. I hear her soft, scratchy voice calling to me, sometimes. “My angel,” she would say. I feel the weight of grief bearing down on me at the most random moments, but particularly when the sun retreats and sets the sky aglow with soft, cotton-candy-like hues. We would always call each other when the sunset was particularly stunning. We would call each other when we would see the first red-breasted robin of spring. We would call each other when we were feeling silly, or down, or irritated, or just to talk about our days.

Our relationship was unique, and as I get older I look back with as much fondness as curious speculation on how we came to know each other in the manner we did. There were times – great stretches of time – when we were all each other had to navigate our crazy life. There were times in our relationship where I, at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, cradled her in my arms as she emptied the depths of her soul onto the bathroom floor in great heaves of despair. There were so many moments when she wanted to take her own life, and I was there to hold her hand and keep her here.

I had always kept her here, and these cooling nights remind me of the first and only period of my life when I knew I could not.

When it comes to saving a person, there is no amount of love great enough to keep a person grounded on this Earth when the Earth has become a prison, when it is their time to go.

This lesson began for me on the fourth of July. So many times I had seen my mother in her skirted bathing suit, looking outrageous in her wedge flip flops and buggy sunglasses, smelling of chlorine and coconut-scented sunscreen. This summer, however, something about her, many things about her, made her appear less-than herself. Maybe it was the weight she had lost. Maybe it was the lightness of her skin from the many foregone opportunities for sunshine. Maybe it was the two now-visible fentanyl patches on her shoulder blades that provided just enough respite from the pain of her parasitic cancer to spend a day with her family at the pool, just one last time.

We ate hot dogs and hamburgers, Lay’s ‘sour cream and onion’ potato chips, and a several-gallon barrel of cheese balls from Costco. My siblings and I took for granted our healthy stomachs as we ate to our heart’s content. My mom, on the other hand, managed a few bites of a cheeseburger before once again emptying the contents of hers privately in the bathroom.

There is nothing glamorous about cancer. There isn’t a single color of ribbon that could make the horror of watching someone you love waste away in front of you worth it. It still amazes me how quickly things changed, declined, devolved, degenerated. Just a month later, we were ghost hunting around the apartment. Lucidity became fleeting. “There are people in my house,” she said. “There are people here.” The five of us – my mother and my siblings – were the only people in the house. She took me by the arm and hobbled from room to room with her cane where I was ordered to check under the bed, in the closets, behind the curtains to root out the intruders. Two weeks prior, we celebrated her forty-third birthday. We ate green cupcakes and smeared the icing on our lips to wear as lipstick.

The celebration was a surprise, she thought we were taking her to King’s Dominion…but actually we just reserved a shelter at the local park for a cookout. Sorry mom… But all of her friends from work came, and our small but whole family was there. We had buckets of fried chicken and a smorgasbord of non-negotiable southern sides: biscuits, mashed potatoes, crockpot ham & green beans, mac and cheese…there might have even been an ambrosia salad somewhere. We were a family who loved to eat.

It seems she declined in phases. There was one particular phase (which I now recognize as the “rally”) when she appeared healthy, normal. She had undergone a blood transfusion which had made her right as rain. So right, in fact, that I took a gig opportunity back in Richmond to keep my rent in good standing. Before I left, we sat together and talked. I forbade her from dying while I was gone. It was mostly a morbid joke, but a sentiment I felt very strongly about, nonetheless. In times such as those, you had to find thinks to laugh at, and a morbid sense of humor is something I pride her for gifting me with. She took my hand into hers, and through glassy eyes, swollen with unreleased tears, she said to me, “I want you there, holding my hand.” I promised I would be, kissed her goodbye, and left to play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was a nice change of pace for a few days, and my bills got paid. I don’t regret it.

Yeah, this time of year is tough. There is so much dissonance in my brain. I try to diffuse my memories of grief and helplessness by remembering the many times we smiled and laughed, and by reminding myself constantly how much we loved each other, which can for-sure be a double-edged sword.

The last of our days together was the most difficult of all, as one might expect. We had been discussing (me, refusing) moving her to the hospice facility…against her will. She had made it clear she wanted to die at home surrounded by family and friends. Not alone in some cold hospital room. Although at this point, her ability to express her will was long gone.

I hadn’t slept in, days, maybe weeks. I was a mad person, refusing to leave her side, refusing to let anyone take her. I became the mother hen to fiercely protect her brood – pecking and squawking at anyone who came too near. It took my grandmother and a team of hospice nurses to impress on me the importance of my own health. I needed to sleep, and I needed to resume being the child, not the caregiver, the protector, the fixer, the savior. What I needed was to sleep and to spend our last few moments together just being her child. It took hours of convincing, but I relented under the condition that I could ride with her in the transport vehicle.

When the hospice team arrived, it was time to tell mom she was going for a ride. I pressed my hand into her shoulder and at my touch she heaved open her leaded eyes. Her mouth, caked with dried spittle, moved to form words, though no sound escaped. She knew. “We’re going for a ride, mom,” I admitted. She knew. She started to raise her arms, as if preparing to hoist herself out of bed, but they collapsed under their own weight. She tried again, and then again, to no avail. The team moved in and, in no time at all, transferred her swiftly onto the gurney and we began to wheel her out to the vehicle.

I held her hand while we rode. The paramedic inside took her vitals. Her blood oxygen levels indicated that hypoxemia was setting in, and the end was inching nearer. Nobody spoke during the ride. We sat in bumpy silence as we made our journey to the hospice in-patient facility. Once we arrived, we got mom settled into a cozy room lit amber by small lamps placed thoughtfully throughout the space. The staff was warm and kind. The timbre of each voice sounded as if they, too, knew we would not be there long. Butterfly art covered the walls.

Fall reminds me of all of these things, and these are just some of them. Some of my memories are much more sheltered, more gruesome. There are memories of infection, of vomit, of feces and adult diapers and soiled sheets. There are the pleas and cries that still haunt me from when we had reached the fulcrum of her freedom, the point at which her weakness became too great, and the trip to the bathroom too dangerous a feat. “Please, Marcus, I have to use the bathroom.” “It will be okay mom, you’re wearing a diaper. I will clean you up, please don’t worry.” “Please, Marcus…please…”

I shudder to recall these moments…

She died the later that night, after we had moved her to Hospice. As the hours passed by, we each took turns sitting with her, talking to her, telling her how much we loved her, how grateful we were for her, and that it was okay to let go. It’s such a strange thing, giving someone permission to die. For me, it was a plea. Close your eyes just one last time and free yourself from this worldly misery. You don’t deserve to hurt anymore, and I can no longer bare to watch – though I would give anything now to hold her hand for eternity.

A nurse came by and checked her pulse, blood pressure, and examined the tips of her fingers and toes, which were relinquishing their fleshy color for cooler hues, purple and blue. It was time to say our final goodbyes. So one by one, we did so. My grandmother went first, then each of my siblings, then her friends, and finally, I entered the room, shutting the door behind me, pulling up a chair beside her. “I’m here,” I told her, taking her hand in mine. I felt her breathing slow, I saw her eyes lose their life, I watched her skin lose its color, and I knew. I shouted for my family. It was happening. They rushed into the room and I held her hand, like I had so many times promised I would. Waves of grief heaved themselves from my body. I began to shake, feeling the whole building sway as if the very earth had cracked open beneath our feet. The room spun around me and I lost all reference to time, space. For a moment, it seemed the very balance of the universe had been disrupted. The quake of sorrow. And then it was gone.

The room had erupted in wails. Friends, a mother, children bellowed anguished screams in unison into an empty, hollow vacuum. I remember feeling a cool compress laid on the back of my neck. I remember clutching tightly the lifeless hand of my mother, conflicted by feelings of relief for the end of her unimaginable suffering and wanting her back, to open her eyes, to reveal that this was all a horrible nightmare, to hold me while I cried, to tell me not to be sad, that this too would pass, that the best was yet to come.

But she did not.

Eventually, sense of time returned and sobs began to soften to sniffles. Occupants left to allow the room to breathe. I, as promised, was the last to let her go of her hand.

We had known this day would come for a while, two-and-a-half years, almost exactly. Her diagnosis was terminal from the start, but no amount of preparation would dampen the blow. This was a tragedy, and that was that.

She chose to stop chemotherapy in April of that year, about six-months prior to her death. At that point, we began making the necessary arrangements: contacting the funeral home, paying deposits, choosing a casket. It was surreal. I can’t imagine what it must have been like preparing for your own death. She was never a very high-maintenance woman. She asked for little and demanded even less. She was clear about a few things though: the songs that were to be played, the performance I would give (Solo saxophone and Piano, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, arranged and performed by myself and my dear friend, Peter), and the most important “Fable of the Fork.”

In short, this was a story about a man nearing his death. When the priest came to meet with him to discuss the necessary arrangements, the man said he required but one thing: to be buried with a fork in his hand. Looking puzzled, the pastor asked the man, “Why on earth would you want to be buried with a fork in your hand?” The man replied, “Because, Father, you should always save your fork for dessert. For the best is yet to come.”

So, we did just that. We laid my mother to rest in the princess gown she had picked out, with a fork in her right hand.

I try to think of sweaters and pumpkins this time of year; of butterflies and dessert and our favorite apple pie. I try to think of our evening walks, when she was still strong; of the times before cancer, between episodes of mental illness, of sledding and snowball fighting, of sandcastle building, of pork chop frying, of school band concerts and football games and marching competitions and college touring and rock hunting and Doo-Dah-Day’ing and Apple-Blossom’ing. But no matter how hard I try, the first fallen leaves of autumn will always signal a time of profound reflection in me. These deep scars are part of me now. They are carved into the landscape of who I am and the rivers of my soul rush swiftly through them.

So as the air cools and the evenings darken, I will be watching the horizon with bitter fondness for the blooming of the cotton candy sky.

In loving memory of Sheri Redden, 07.13.1969 – 10.02.2012

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