Life comes in waves. In crests that exhilarate and tows that drag us into the abyss.
My mom passed away just after Easter. I have not yet allowed myself to grieve.
She was three months shy of her seventieth birthday, one year removed from a fall and lifetimes removed from (very) early onset Alzheimer’s dementia. Her last weeks were spent in hospice, mentally alert and aware yet trapped in a body that could not move. Her neurological degeneration had spread to her limbs, esophagus, and, eventually, to her diaphragm. Her eyes became black holes that cried out at everything in sight. Every day for three weeks I drove across town to sit with her, to hold her hand, to tell her things I never had the courage to say when it actually mattered. Some days I brought my kids, who fed her small spoonsful of pureed meatloaf, chicken dinners, and pudding in-between sips of thickened water and stared at her, unsure of what to do or say.
Once after midnight she fixated on me — mouth agape and eyes wide — and forced out more than she had in weeks:
I don’t want-
I don’t like it.
And when I told her the time, “You should go go go go go. Goodnight.
A fitting last word. Cinematic, if not tragic.
Also: devastating. Terminal lucidity is a cruel imposter.
Days later I asked her if she had seen heaven in her sleep. Her eyes widened, like I had asked her the damnedest thing. She raised her brows and frowned.
I told her about a time, back in 2010, when I temporarily moved in with her and dad after my divorce, and how I was ‘sad’. I sobbed like a child and asked if she knew about my lifelong struggle with major depressive disorder and its accompaniments (I won’t spell them out). I always figured that her motherly instinct at least sensed it, but her expression told me otherwise. I didn’t say anything further. But, I wanted to. I guard secrets for self-protection.
I was alone in the room with her when she passed. Her breathing had slowed, her eyes remained closed. My dad and I were bedside, in wonder of how long that middling state could last. I figured six hours. With that, he left to grab lunch. He wasn’t even out of the facility before I texted him to come back. Mom had waited until he was gone to draw her last breath. Air, clearly not meant for us.
It was fitting that she wanted to spare dad that memory. I’m glad she did. I’m also glad that she didn’t spare me. She was cold, skeletal. Had the skin of a woman two decades her senior. But, she left us wearing a wry smile.
Suckers, all of us.
Mom always had a sense of humor, even when her mind and body failed her. She was the kindest and most loving person I have ever known.
I wrote a poem after she had taken a turn, which was published in After the Pause in the fall of 2019:
It starts with a slip
It starts with a slip. A forgotten word. A clean slate in clovered plains. A sawgrass blade across
the brain. Memory stretched through walls of bone — frost-white plumes unearthed like
foxgloves, sons abandoned for lavish harvest — lyred flues neither reaped nor sown.
The spread weeps slowly from a distance. Canopies of bloodwoods shadow bright summer fire.
It wilts, leaks, this brain marrow faucet. Dead neurons ghost snapshots. Warm winds rake brittle
limbs. Fog lifts just enough to recognize grandchildren —
their doe-eyes — arms flailing as they pull on your shirttail, laughing, pleading for sweets. But,
you no longer bake or drive or stand without swaying. The faucet drips, like tears in your eyes
when you begged dad to forgive you for an affair you never had.
Fast forward three-and-a-half years, and I am writing her obituary and eulogizing memories of her that span more than thirty. In preparation for this, I spent an afternoon sifting through thousands of photographs, most of which my mom had taken herself and stored in the basement. It was then that I realized — for the first time — that my mom was an artist. She was humble and private. I had no idea that she had such a keen eye for capturing life at its most majestic.
The majority of the visuals in Issue 22 are digital renderings of old Kodak print photographs that have been collecting dust for decades. Memories of life and family and travel, at all stages, in all formats, in all color arrays. My mom took the cover photo of my dad and me, sneakily and from a distance, on the beaches of northern Michigan’s Lake Huron in August, 1984. It is a picture worth ten thousand words of my childhood and adulthood in one, of life at its most cyclical, with even balance in muted saturations before a glass horizon.
Other photos include: navigating a Lincoln through Quechee Gorge in Vermont, 1982 (The Debt Collector); a cardstock of the Greenfield Village Ferris wheel, 1972 (Atlantic Sunburst); mouths of Mammoth Cave, 1983 (My Father Carved A Hollow In My Mother’s Throat And I Inherited Her Grief); my elementary school auditorium, empty before a a performance, 1989 (Sometimes I Think of You As a Cowboy); a fitting match to the cover photo in Regrets I’ve Had As a Father; and others from Cape Cod, Thunder Hole, Clingman’s Dome, Niagara Falls, Virginia Beach, West Palm Beach, and various other destinations east of the Mississippi.
Somehow, decades later, these visuals fold seamlessly into the palms of the stories and poems within these virtual pages. Barren Magazine Issue 22 is special, both on an personal level and because some of the content is our best to date. I don’t say the latter lightly. Please absorb all of it, on your own time.
♥ This issue is dedicated to my mother. May the world bask in some of the light she left behind. ♥