By ice rivers
Mary was born on Christmas.
I was her first born son, 25 years and five days later.
Mary's father died when she was sixteen.
She raised her two younger sisters and younger brother.
She was with them all on their death beds after they had lived interesting, productive and full lives.
Mary was married to my father for nearly seventy years.
She was at his deathbed as well, which in fact was the bed they slept in as he was determined to make it home to die.
He did so in her arms.
My brother, my sister, my wife and my children were at her death bed.
She was spared the opposite. She wouldn't have to sit at ours.
The lessons at her bed were profound as her death was so much the opposite of her life.
She was diminished, dementiated, starving and morphine ridden.
Yet she held on even while muttering over and over again;
"I can't breathe"
"I can't help you"
While she breathed and helped us all to confront death and learn its lessons.
Each time I visited, I was pretty sure this would be the last time.
The last time, I was sure it was the last time because her physical resemblance to the fierce, funny, reliable, self sufficient,woman she had always been had all but disappeared.
Still she hung on.
In what I thought was going to be my last moments with her, I told her the story of California.
When I was young, many of my friends moved to California.
Little did we suspect at the time, that we would never see one another again. Going to California might as well have been death.
I named those friends to her, those kids we never saw again.
She remained silent, eyes closed.
Now was the time for me to do the thing that the oldest child is supposed to do.
Give her permission and encouragement to go.
I tried my best.
I told her that she would be going to California in my mind where she would see her Mom, her Dad, her brothers and my father.
I said We would be fine, my brother, my sister and our families. She had done a great job.
Then I said "You can go, we don't need you anymore".
She opened her eyes and said "Oh yes, you do"
Then she shut them.
We were all astounded.
We went home as the vigil continued.
That night, she died.
Those were her final words to me.
She was right.
She was right and she was wrong.
We did need her and continue to need her forever.
She was right about that.
She had said she couldn't help us.
She was wrong about that.
She got me through this essay.