On dying, death, and the American dream

On dying, death, and the American dream

It was just after Labor Day 1980 when Mom was declared terminal.

Oh, her doctor never said it in such harsh language, but that was the essence of his diagnosis, which set the countdown in motion.

I was 25 at the time, just beginning my career in journalism. I had my own apartment, a loving girlfriend and was driving a 1969 Chevy Impala, a graduation gift from my aunt, who lived in South Bend and was instrumental in seeing me through my college years.

So I wasn’t a child in any sense of the word, save one: I was still my mother’s first born.

She and my father married late in life, which set them apart from most of their contemporaries, most of whom had been wed in their early 20s. By comparison, my parents were both in their late 30s when they began their life together.

Not to be outdone, I was 52 when I finally settled down.

We all travel our own roads, I suppose, and are very lucky indeed if we find a willing companion to share the journey with.

Mom and Dad seemed to me to be very fortunate in that regard. Though like any married couple, they endured their share of stress. My rather rebellious nature created some of that discomfort, but I always felt supported, no matter how badly or often I’d messed up.

They faced that final challenge with the same resolve and equanimity that marked their marriage, making decisions together and always including their three children along the way. Those were some very difficult weeks, full of chemotherapy and other long-shot options, but we all understood what the end would be.

Mom, not surprisingly, was the most sanguine of us all.

“How do you like my pirate look?” she asked me one afternoon that fall as we sat at the kitchen table, the scene of so much family history. Owing to the radiation treatment, her hair had mostly fallen out, necessitating the need for a bandana around her head.

“It suits you,” I said. “You look like an old hippie.”

“Peace and love,” she said, flashing two fingers and smiling.

If she was scared, she never let on, not in front of me, at least.

Of course, I didn’t do much in the way of heavy lifting as the air grew chillier and the summer faded away. That load fell directly on my sister, who handled duties like bathing and feeding Mom when things began their final slide, and I was grateful for her strength.

I tended to stay on the sidelines, hiding behind work and softball, bowling and my social life, and that didn’t make me feel very good. I knew on some level my occasional kitchen-table visits were sufficient to ease my guilt, but what my sister did humbled me.

Always the arrogant “wretched flea” — just one of my mother’s sobriquets for me — I spent too much time in bars and in the bedroom, just trying to deaden the pain and escape for a little while.

I hadn’t had much firsthand experience with death. By the time I was aware of relations like grandparents, two of them were long gone, and the other two died before I was in the second grade. I’d been to their funerals but just out of family responsibility.

As an altar boy, however, I had many up-close and personal intimate interludes with grieving families. Those funeral Masses served to remind me that however well things might be going, there was always the possibility life could end at any moment.

Mom, like so many of her generation, had smoked cigarettes for most of her life. I can remember many family get-togethers when the air was filled with smoke, my aunts and uncles lighting up as the liquor flowed and the jocular conviviality increased.

There was laughter as stories were told, bits added here and there to make them even more outlandish, and I enjoyed being on the periphery, absorbing the atmosphere, quietly reveling in its sway.

The men had served during World War II, and the women had carried their children, the American Dream realized in Irish and Polish homes spread across the Midwest. They were Democrats, mostly, and fans of Notre Dame football, mostly, and they saved so kids like me could attend universities like my alma mater.

Catholics are taught from an early age theirs is the one true faith and other religions, while certainly admirable in their own way, don’t quite measure up to parochial standards. It makes an impression that never quite fades, that theological arrogance.

Death, in that belief, is only the beginning of eternal life, providing you do your time in Purgatory and haven’t eaten too much on Fridays or brutalized too many of the Ten Commandments. There is a reward waiting for those who show faith, love and charity.

I have no idea if any of that’s true: No one does. If I fail to make the cut on heaven’s varsity team, I’ll probably blame it on conversations like the one I had at the kitchen table with Mom.

“You mustn’t tell your father,” she said, lighting up another coffin nail, adjusting her bandana and exhaling a bluish cloud of smoke.

“I won’t,” I said, firing up one myself, knowing any God who would punish me for that bit of mendacity wasn’t worth a darn.

Mike Dewey can be reached at Carolinamiked@aol.com or at 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. He invites you to join the fun on his Facebook page, where sinners of all stripes are welcome.

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