My mother had wonderful hair, Jewish girl’s hair, thick and dark and wavy. She wore it up sometimes, but mostly I remember it down, tied back with a kerchief as she worked. Our favorite kerchief was a black triangle embroidered with gold thread that I believe she got in Israel. Sometimes she would wear her hair in braids.
When she got old, her hair turned bright glossy silver, like milkweed fluff at the crown. She always said it looked silly for old women to have long hair; that it made them look witchy. But my father preferred it long, so she usually let it grow. Her hair was the only part that still looked like her when I went to view her body yesterday. Her hair is in two long braids, and we told them to leave it that way. She looked so fragile, I was afraid it would fall off her scalp if anyone touched it.
If you had any doubts that death is final, you should go see my mother. She is on a gurney, lying like a mannequin under someone’s blanket, with ludicrously luxe maroon drapery as a backdrop behind her. There is a light-up cross mounted above, and she’s absolutely refusing to bathe in its cafeteria glow. Her mouth is all wrong, wronger than it was when I saw her strapped into a wheelchair padded with velcro so she wouldn’t scratch herself to bits. But her hands were worse than witchy. They are waxy and useless, twisted up past all repair. Hands of no return.
I’d seen my mother looking tired so many times before. This was the other side of tired: Gone. Utterly exhausted, as in used up, empty, finished. I don’t know anyone else who used up so much of her life.
No one tried harder than my mother to be all things to all people. A shy and bashful person who always let people in: Linda, the gravely disabled epileptic neighbor with a seamed and smiling doll face, who used to come visiting for hours at a time, telling endless stories of her childhood. Boisterous college students with nowhere else to go over Thanksgiving break. Random seminarians who showed up at our house thinking it was a book store. She let them browse and gave them three bean salad for lunch. She was an absolute magnet for strange and lost people, and although the last thing she wanted was company, she always let them come. The real trial for her was ordinary, savvy people who knew how to act and dress and what to say.
What she really wanted to do was pray on the dark back stairs with her icons, and read about evolution and quantum physics. She had a trick of reading so deeply that her tongue would come wandering out of her mouth and stretch further and further down her chin the harder she concentrated, which made us laugh and laugh until we broke her focus, and she looked up, confused and annoyed. “It’s always open season on Ima,” she would growl. But then she would read to us, endlessly, tirelessly, everything that she thought was good enough to belong in our heads, doing funny voices when it was called for. And at night, she saw visions: Glowing, wheeling fractals and gears. Which was migraines, no doubt, but also my mother’s brain beholding the cosmos from her bed.
Her other great desire was to hold the baby — any baby. She told me she had taken a personality test as a teenager, and the results said she was best suited to be a housewife and mother. Everyone who knew her laughed at this absurdity. She, Marilyn Susan Oguss, “Marxie-Suxie-Oxie” of Brooklyn, was the one who climbed telephone poles and dared her friends to touch the various wires. She met my father when they were both cutting class in college, and she was the one who painted a bright mural of Shiva on their apartment wall (a Shiva they tried and tried to paint over when they moved out, making way for a newly impoverished family. My mother felt so bad when the goddess kept coming through).
I just found out my mother (who carefully measured out a juice glass of supermarket wine every afternoon, for a treat) used to love LSD. Her brain was already a fairly psychedelic place, and you could not keep up with her. She could only really connect with very simple or very complex people, but everyday people were a mystery to her. This is why, when we talked, it was mostly about babies.
She did end up a housewife, as well as a writer, and a pioneer homeschooler, and she had eight children who lived, and five more who did not. I once heard my mother say to my father, “I used to be afraid of you,” and he said, “Yeah, now I’m afraid of you,” and they both laughed.
What is there to say. We loved her, and she loved us. My mother and I didn’t understand each other very well. I used to think I disappointed her, but finally caught on that she was afraid for me, which is different. She was glad to see me having children of my own, and she read to them, too, tirelessly, with funny voices.
When her mind started to go, she had to abandon her intricate system of calendars, lists, and reminders, and my father started making lists for her: Get dressed. Drink coffee. I found one that said at the end, “I still love you.” I hated her dementia, her mind blasted and her affectionate heart so fretful and wandering, and now that is done. I feel like I’ve already done the hard part of grieving while she lived, but we will see.
The funeral home director told me that he’d been to the nursing home, and those people didn’t seem to have much quality of life. But for the last two years of my father’s life, my mother sat in her wheelchair and prepared him to die, and by the time he died, he saw life as a gift. Then he died and stopped coming to see her and feed her. I imagine her saying, “Abba should have been here by now. I’m gonna go see if I can find him.” So she went.
This is all wrong. I haven’t told you how funny she was, what a ham she was when she was comfortable, how much she laughed, and how hard she laughed when she got going. One time, she met the president of a college, and, having just been at a science museum, she said, “Have you ever seen Archimedes’ Screw? Oh no, that’s a terrible thing to say!” and then laughed until she cried. She loved science, loved astronomy, loved poetry. Loved the Marx Brothers. Loved Jesus. Loved to slosh cheap salsa on leftovers and gobble it up for lunch. Hated bullshit of every kind.
She used to say that, when she died, we should put her in a garbage bag and throw her in the woods, but she changed her mind about that. She was always ready to accept that she had been wrong.
I went to see her yesterday, and she was well and truly gone. Even her mouth was wrong. They laid her out under the glowing cross with a brown stuffed dog at her feet. She hated stuffed animals. They collected dust, which aggravated her allergies. I suppose this dog was in bed with her at the nursing home, and the men who collected her body weren’t taking any chances about what was important and what wasn’t; so the dog came with her. We told them to get rid of the dog, but to leave her hair just as it was. She always had wonderful hair.