My mother, whom I adored, died when I was in my early twenties. She had a degenerative disease of the brain, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, PSP. It’s rare. You’ve probably never heard of it.
For some years, she was misdiagnosed. As her words began to slur and her eyes to water, a colleague in the hospital where she worked accused her of being drunk. Later when she began to stagger, fall, and had trouble with her eyes, dizziness, and swallowing, the doctors installed a shunt into her skull to syphon off the suspected brain fluid build-up. After this misguided surgery, I crawled onto her hospital bed as she recuperated. I burrowed against her, and wished her healthy with every fiber of my being. My whole body radiated love with such ferocity that now I recall this moment as golden, elevated, transcendental. I dipped my forehead to her bandaged skull and she smelled like Betadine, lavender, and that wonderful scent that was hers alone.
I know it sounds fanciful but I think I know her smell deep, deep down, at the core of my being. Maybe it became part of my very DNA when I was forming in her womb. A mystical evolutionary design to bond mother and child. It is the smell of pure love.
The eventually correct diagnosis was bleak. My mother didn’t want to die the way PSP was going to take her. Degraded, reduced, immobilized, choked, and in pain. She decided when the time came she would euthanize herself. The etymology, by the way, is a “happy or good death.” In Australia, where she lived, this was and still is illegal. I’m going to tie that conversation down for another day, other than to say, when my dog was “put to sleep” in our arms, we sang him back though the star gates. Such dignity, love, and companionship was not afforded my mother. The barbarity of that makes me want to go berserk, marauding and smashing Viking-style.
Because euthanasia is illegal, I couldn’t be with my mother when she died. So came the day when we needed to say goodbye. I was beyond tears. We were together on the deck of her little white house with my then-fiancé, now-husband standing further off. It was late afternoon and all the world went quiet. We held each other and kissed. The last words she ever spoke to me were the truest. She said, “I love you.”
Somehow my man managed to lead me away and tuck me into the car. Looking up at my mother, I pressed my hands to the car window as we reversed down her driveway. She raised one arm high and the other was pressed to her heart. Her smile was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.
Out of sight, my tears came. They tore me in half like thunder sent by the devil. I screamed out like an animal being torn apart. My bones, wracked by grief, became loose in their joints.
A few weeks later I stood over her coffin and pressed my thumbprint to the brass plate bearing her name. I whispered, “Thank you for being my mother, I’m so very proud and grateful that you were.”
Her death felled me. I was so bereaved that my whole world, my whole self, dimmed, but as the Queen of England said, “Grief is the price we pay for love,” and all up, I’m ok with that.
After about a year of feeling little internal sunlight, I was driving, listening to the radio. A dated nondescript ballad was playing, and some peculiar alchemy occurred. The lyrics lifted up and became so alive to me that I had to stop the car to breathe. The singer crooned about eternal love, and as he sang, the simple, spectacular truth of this bloomed within me.
I began to weep, not tears of loss but of love. A great realization was dawning. My mother was dead, but I still felt her love as acutely and as viscerally as I ever did when she was alive. I still to this day actively feel her pride. I am still inoculated, led, strengthened, and comforted by her presence. Sometimes at night I feel the weight of her sitting down on my bed and her hand stroking my hair. And if I listen with my heart I can hear her deep honeyed voice intoning wisdom and solidarity.
Death was no match for our love.