Life’s Narrative

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My mother, Mary Hughes “Mickey” Carmichael Birdseye, 93, died at 6:26 a.m. on Thursday, March 5. I was fortunate to be at my sister’s home in South Carolina with family for her last eleven days. It was intense. The world shrank in time and place, other things seeming inconsequential in comparison to a life closing down. The experience is mostly now a mental blur of sleep deprivation, measuring out medications, counting breaths and irregular heartbeats, living with constant questions hovering over the house. What stands clear in my memory are rich moments of joy and tender heartbreak:

 – My nephew, Andrae, and his girlfriend, Korin, playing Irish waltzes and ballads for Mom. At first I thought the music had put her to sleep, but then I saw her right index finger moving in time with the tunes. She was conducting. 

 – One day, after a trail run in a nearby state park, I went, still slick with sweat, straight into Mom’s room to check on her. We had a short conversation, and I said I needed to do the world a favor and go take a shower. She nodded, then pinched her nose and pointed at me and smiled. Wit survived even as speech was fading away.

 – Soon she spoke only in whispers, and tiny movements of her gnarled hands. Still, she rallied at one point and told me she had a story for me: “A duck crosses the yard in the rain.”

 – She wanted to hear stories, too, bedtime stories of when we were kids. Mark told of the time he ran away, and was able to identify himself to the police only by showing the name tag Mom had sewn into his underwear. (All three of us kids had name tags sewn into every article of clothing we owned.) Ann reminded her of how she taught her to pump the swing by herself, then “let the cat die” to stop. I recounted the time some mischievous friends and I built a campfire in a storm drain on Dellwood Drive, and my dad, who was mowing the lawn, saw smoke coming out of the manhole cover in the side yard. When he shouted from above, “what are you boys doing down there?” it was as if it were the voice of God. The fire went out in a hurry.

 – Near the end Mom was gasping for breath, air rattling in her chest. Her head was laid back on the pillow, eyes closed, when she rasped out a few words: “I want . . .” We kept trying to figure out what she wanted, and then I noticed her hand moving as if she were holding a pen. We got her a clipboard and pencil, and she wrote — with head still laid back and eyes still closed — a full page. It was all completely illegible, and so leaves us guessing — me: the duck story, my sister: a To Do list — but watching her try so hard to get her thoughts on paper was in its own way very satisfying, as well as poignant. Afterward, when she lapsed into a deep sleep, I stood there holding what were her final written words, and wondered what I would write in the same situation. One last revision? Or the beginning of a new story?

Rest in peace, Mom. You will write no more scenes in your own story, but the narrative of your life lives on.

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