By Neva Knott
My mom has cancer, and she’s going down fast. You’d think I’d be used to death by now. My dad died when I was 15. All of my grandparents are gone. My partner, Adam, died suddenly in a car crash seven years ago. I’ve lost a few friends along the way to drugs–not so uncommon, given my generation. Still, my heart breaks as I look at my mom in her hospital bed.
The first fissure is for my mom. She said to me the other day, “I didn’t want this to happen.” I don’t even know what she meant. We all die, some time–as my dad explained to me when I first encountered a death in the family, my great-grandmother Blanche, “everything dies, even the oldest trees have to die.” I’m sure it was not the issue of death to which my mom was alluding.
My mom, in her grace, has a huge heart and is generous. She can also be difficult, and I have struggled my whole life to find an inroad with her, having often been slapped down in childhood by her harsh words, her inability to understand me. Yet, she has triumphed over more than one woman should have to–divorce, the loss of two husbands to death, rape, abuse, addiction. At times, these last few days, she has even seemed incredibly strong to me. This is why my heart breaks for her. I think by “like this” she meant she doesn’t want to die having so many regrets, having such a burden on her soul. She attunes to beauty, and I think this is how she would prefer to die.
The second crack is for my family. Both sides, the paternal Knott and maternal Cooper, have fallen apart. There is no center, just memories of a time before. The time when dad was alive, when Grandma and Grandpa were still here. When holidays mattered, when we marked each other’s birthdays with cake and pictures and laughter. My mom values family so much, but the dirty little secret is that she drove a lot of us apart with her drinking, her high drama, and her vicious tongue. I should have known how to fix all of this, but I didn’t, I don’t.
And then there is the crevice within myself. I have never had an easy time with my mom. She has never had an easy time with me. We are completely different people, except for our love of beauty and family, books and travel. We are the kind of different so that we rub against each other until raw. Even so, I would have done anything for her these last few years as she lived alone, unable to keep up her house, cloistering herself in the darkness. At least now I have the chance. I have the next few weeks to be a daughter to my mom. Gone are the hopes of the mother-daughter teas, of the long heart-to-heart talks, of having her guide me when I’m lost. But at least I can hold her hand, give her a warm washcloth for her face, bring her myself as many days as she has left–as we have left.
It has been said in my family–and maybe in yours–that we’re great with weddings and funerals. Everyone drops everything and shows up, somewhat remorseful that it’s been so long. In the past few days I’ve reconnected with everyone I love, and it makes me sad. I want them to be part of my life, not just my disasters or at obligatory major life events. From all this I’m learning lessons–of what I have inside me to pull people together. Of what I am willing to set aside to be present for my family. Of what I need to feel connected, whole, and grounded.
Today, I came to the realization that in death, sometimes, come the lessons we cannot learn in life.
Just a few days after we moved mom into the nursing home, I had the nurses dress her so that my aunt Darlene and I could take her outside for a stroll in her wheelchair. We walked the grounds, each of us commenting on the flora along the way. Mom had a memory of she and dad walking with me as a very little girl along the adjacent road–the nursing home is very close to the house my parents build as newlyweds.
As we walked, I paused in my mind to consider my mom sitting there, in a wheelchair. Dressed in striped grey jersey pants and a zip-front cotton top—matching, of course—and her new head turban. She’d grumbled today that when I’m not there the nurses just throw any old thing on her, “They just don’t know how to put together an outfit,” she’d said. There she sat, no longer the Olympia High School Homecoming Queen, but definitely lookin’ as good as good gets with brain cancer.
Darlene and I wheeled mom back to her room and stepped out to the corridor to let the nurses get her back in bed. Mom’s cousin Marvis was coming our way—the family resemblance undeniable. I hadn’t seen her for years, and every time I do see her, I attach the memory of her mother pinching my cheeks a little too much at church. Marvis is a sweet woman. She and mom, the parallel daughters of Elmer and Hazel (my grandparents) and Alfred and Hazel (grandpa’s brother and his wife). Two Montana farm boys, two Hazels, and the little girls Lenice and Marvis, starting a new life mid-Depression. Coming to Olympia to set down roots and raise families. Today, it’s clear that mom’s and Marvis’s lives are much like the Robert Frost poem, “two roads that diverged in a yellow wood.”
I talked with Marvis for a long time, sitting on a bench in the hallway. She didn’t pinch my cheek, but she did hold my hand for awhile, as if I was still small. At first the talk was, expectedly, about mom’s condition. Then it turned to what was in Marvis’s heart. There lay a sad tale of how hard she had tried to befriend my mom in recent years and mom had both acted badly and shunned her cousin’s attempts. As Marvis told her story, I began to see in front of me the cousin of my mom. A woman who has stayed true to her Lutheran upbringing; a woman who has had the usual struggles of life but who has borne them gracefully because of her faith and belief in family; a woman who sets her day to give to others; a woman who is the center and centrifugal force within her family; a woman who has cast a wide net of caring and compassion.
My mom says she talks to God every day, but sometime in the recent past when I suggested she go to church, replied sharply, “NO!” I encouraged her, at both the hospital and here at the nursing home, to meet with the chaplain. Again, “NO!” She says family matters, but has let all her ties to siblings, her nephews, any extended family, fall away. She’s a woman who sets her day on misery and holding on to the past and the pains it inflicted cruelly upon her. She is a lonely woman, isolated, alone. She, too, has cast a wide net—a net woven tight around herself by pushing all of us away so that she could stay in the dark with her ghosts.
When I saw this comparison in my mind, I immediately thought of Frost’s poem. Marvis took the more traveled path–the traditional Lutheran life, and my mom chose the road less taken. She did not intend for it to lead her to misery, but somehow, by setting aside her beacons along the way, it did. As Frost says, “way leads to way.”
I inherited, from both my parents, a love of the path less traveled. As I write this, I am coming to realize that it is not the path so much, but how it affects the traveler. It takes work in this modern world to stay true. I’m sorry for my mom, really.
From her hospital bed, mom forbade us entry to her house, but we disobeyed–all of us, me, my sister and her husband, her sons, my aunt and uncles. On breaks from sitting by her bed, we snuck in and cleaned.
The outside didn’t look so bad, presentable, even, except for the bed-sheet that’s served as a living room curtain for a few years now. The inside was horrific. I don’t know what was more horrifying–the filth or that mom had sunk so low. She was always house-proud. I have childhood memories of her oiling the furniture every Saturday while my sister and I napped. Her house was once the place of family gatherings. Now…now is a time when a writer makes a choice–write the raw truth, or keep the secret so you don’t embarrass anyone. I can’t bring words to the page to describe what I saw the first day my aunt Darlene and I walked into the house. But I will explain that mom had been smoking, heavily chain smoking, in the house since my stepdad died twelve years ago. I will explain that she had not cleaned house in probably that long. I will tell you that, after walking through the wreckage, I gagged and then cried. My aunt and I left the house and drove to the closest bar, shaking, and had a drink before we returned to the hospital. So, as soon as my sister arrived from the other side of the state, we took shifts dealing with the whole 1800-square-foot mess.
She’d lived there since 1984, and it was chock-full of stuff. Beautiful, ornate, hand-crafted furniture from our travels throughout Asia and the Pacific in the early 70s. The daily living kind of stuff like sheets, and camping gear, and toys, books, and left over pieces of no longer complete sets of dishes.
The first weekend, members from both sides of my family were here–from my mom’s side, and from my dad’s. The men took out some overgrown trees, my older sister culled through professional paperwork of our father’s and sorted books into piles. My younger nephew pressure-washed the deck, while my sister, Rachel, and I went room by room, pulling stuff to donate to our aunt Mary’s rummage sale for an animal rescue.
As we worked, someone would come across an item that prompted a giggle, or a memory, or some other sort of shout-out. I found, while pulling fake flowers out of a basket, the last remaining green and white noodle bowl, and it prompted a round of story-telling with Rachel and our nephew Andy about the hot sauce eating contests the three of us used to hold. We’d each have a noodle bowl full of ramen and, dash by dash, try to out last the other two in increasing spiciness. Fishing rods reminded me of how Andy and I, when we were any age under 6, would try anything on a hook to fish from our dock at the Chambers lake house–raisins, cheese. We figured if we liked it, the fish might, too. One of the big treasures excavated for the day was the manuscript of the story of the county in Iowa where our grandmother Neva grew up– prairie living in the mid-1880s. The loudest laugh came from the finding of peg-legged, acid-washed, elastic waist pants and matching jacket in mom’s closet. And then there was the noodle strainer that I couldn’t let go to rummage, since it is the object by which I learned the word “colander,” and with which I learned how to make mac and cheese from my Dad. As I pulled it out of the box, the image came to me of my mom veiled in steam as she poured spaghetti from the boiling pot into it. That strainer is coming home with me.
After a couple of hours, I remarked, “This is about the point that, when I’m here alone, I cry, and then I get mad, and then I get sad, and then just keep working.” Rachel said, “I know.”
It seems, on the surface, such an onerous and dreadful task to clean out a dying person’s home. Especially in this case, when our mother insisted on her isolation. When there are so many good memories, but they seem so distant, so in the past. But also I’ve come to feel that this is an act of honor. Of honoring the life my grandparents lived (some of the stuff is theirs), of the blending of Coopers and Knotts, of the life my dad so diligently built for us, of the life lived in that house, of the two families my mom and step-dad brought together, of the blending of generations.
I don’t know where I learned of this concept, but I attribute it to Tibetian Buddhism, and I think I might have gotten it from watching Seven Years in Tibet. No matter, it worked for what was on my mind as I dug through the rubble at mom’s: that every step is a prayer.
I was brought to tears on occasion because I couldn’t do this for my mom while she lived here, but by doing it now, I know that caring for her precious artifacts is, in a way, sending out a prayer on her behalf.
After mom died, I moved into the house, to manage the estate and the remodel. I’ve been doing a lot of digging lately, in drawers and boxes and files. She’d not sorted much of my dad’s stuff, so even his check registers from the 1970s were still here. She sorted even less of what my step-dad left behind. She did tell me, while in the hospital, I’d find his guns, and I did—between the mattress and box springs of the no longer used king sized bed in the master bedroom. There they lay, unloaded, like steely metaphors for that marriage gone so wrong.
My parents planned a good life for us. The evidence in is the big drawer of dad’s desk. A folder for each category of his accomplishments that, one after another, lead him to jobs abroad, or overseas. First to Micronesia and then to Bangkok. We traveled frequently and to many places in between. While recently digging in that drawer, the magical drawer that can bring me close again to my dad who has been dead for 35 years, I found that he’d had even the next adventure planned at the time of his death. It seems he’d been investigating Costa Rica, even down to the detail of school choices for my sister and me. I don’t know what stage of planning, or dreaming, or spit-balling it was in, but the brochures are still alive in a manila folder, all these years gone.
I remember listening, long after I was supposed to be asleep, to my parents planning the house they’d build, using my painted wooden blocks to map it out on the dinette table. I know my mom was ruined by those plans, the ones that never came to fruition, because I watched her rot in her memories that were more alive to her than her own daughters living out their own dreams, or at least trying to.
All of this digging and sorting has been painful, but poignant, too. I found love letters my dad wrote to her. He was 44, mid-career and newly, painfully, divorced. I know that divorce was bad because my older half sisters, his daughters from that marriage, described it in vivid detail. Dad met my mom at work–he was the Land Chief for Washington State Department of Game and she was a phone operator there. Mom was 24, the beauty, the belle. Wrapped in with the letters from him, I found just two letters from her. Dad’s spoke more to his loneliness when she was away, and hers more to the future. It saddens me to think of my dad in some crummy little duplex, writing away his loneliness like that. I only knew him as larger than life.
I liked my step-dad. He shined some hope on the whole dreary situation that was our life after dad died. He was always up for fun, and really cared about my sister and me, though we were young adults when he came along. He made it bearable to be around mom again. He was a really different man than my father, something my mother never stopped running him down for.
I spent hours one day going through a huge pile of photos of my step-dad’s that had been left to accumulate in a chair. As I flipped through each packet, I saw the years move forward, and saw the evidence of all of that hope for a re-built family, and then saw all of it fade away. It was as if a line had been drawn in the sand. On one side of the line was an active, playing at happy family, boyfriends becoming husbands, grandkids coming along. Then nothing.