Death of the Matriarch
by John F. Dillon
I loved our home in the country. My father purchased the land in the early part of the twentieth century. There was one long, dirt road that ran from the main road to the north west corner of the large tobacco field where the farmhouse was located. front It was a typical two-story, wood-framed, country dwelling with a wide front porch and surrounded by a white picket fence. Before we connected to city water, my father had a well dug in the middle of the front yard. He framed the well with wood and covered it with a poorly constructed thatch roof that leaked whenever it rained. Yet, for a short time, before the city ran electricity and a water line to the house, the well and a open wood barrel, used to collect rainwater, was our only source of water. The large handle and a rope tied to a bucket suspended below the top of the well were regulated to adornments when later replaced by a water pump and underground water pipes. At mother's insistence the spigot attached to the well's side to water the lawn and wash cars, was set at such an angle so not to be visible from the house or the entrance road to the property. Despite mother's objections, a plainly visible yellow hose seemed always attached to the spigot exposing her attempt at subterfuge.
The lower level of the house contained a kitchen and the family room with a big fireplace along the back wall. Adjacent to the kitchen was the laundry room. An outside entrance and a door below the stairs leading to the second floor accessed the coal burning furnace and bin hidden beneath the house. The furnace provide the building's central heating but, for the longest time when I was a boy, we relied on the big fireplace in the living room and the potbelly stove in the kitchen for warmth in the winter. The building's single bathroom at the top of the staircase on the second level contained a tub, a toilet, a sink below a small mirrored medicine cabinet and was the cause of many disputes among us kids. Sometime after the city ran electricity, gas and water lines, an additional toilet and sink was added alongside the laundry room.
Winter evenings were spent laying on the floor with my chin in my hands as the family gathered about the radio in living room. My parents spent summer evenings in wicker rocking chairs on the porch, drinking sweet tea while watching the children chase fireflies.
Our family never worked the land...except for the small vegetable garden on the side of the house. After my father's untimely death, Mother leased the field to share croppers.
My brothers, Will and Ralph , sister Rose, and I remained in house until adulthood. In due course, one by one we left and Mother was alone. Will the oldest, was the first to leave. He joined the Army after high school and married shortly before his discharge. He and his wife moved into a small, single family house in Richmond.
Rose married after graduating from nursing school, and moved to town. Ralph left for college and, except for an occasional visit over the holidays, seldom returned. I was the youngest and last to leave. There had been others in the family; an infant that died suddenly before his first birthday and a brother I never knew that gave way to Leukemia before I was born.
A little over a year or so ago, Mother had a stroke. While still in the hospital she suffered a heart attack. Upon leaving the hospital, we moved her from the house to her sister, Lucy's home in town. Her health continued to decline. During another hospital stay, she gathered us about the hospital bed and told us she had lived a full life and it was time to go. "I do not want to die in a hospital," she said. "I want to go home."
Her long life had indeed been full with a mixture of joy, laughter, sadness, and many tears. Through the years she had become captive of a large body succumbing to pains of age. Her mind retained fond memories of long gone close friends, family, and children. With each passing year, her longing to be with those that passed before her increased. So, with the concurrences of her doctors, we acceded to her wishes and took her back to the house for her final days.
Aunt Lucy and Rose followed the ambulance from the hospital. I came later in the day. Will, his wife and son arrived on the second day. Ralph and his wife Helen pulled in later that evening. They left the infant with Helen's mother.
It was late spring and all of us were in that house again quietly waiting. The chirping of birds and scent of the fresh plowed earth masked the fact an end was near. Hospice arranged for a special bed in the living room and friends and neighbors came to say goodbye. A surreal atmosphere ensured. The stroke had not affected Mom's speech or her sense of humor and she seemed to relish sitting in the tilted bed and greeting everyone that came to visit. Most of the time she slept while we sat silently in overstuffed chairs or on the large sectional sofa along the far wall and stared at the fireplace. Mother's leather recliner was never occupied. Evenings were spent sipping sweet tea and talking in hush tones on the porch as fireflies scurried about unnoticed .
On the final day of Mom's life, I woke to the scent of bacon and brewing coffee wafting from below accompanied by the seemingly steady hum of muted speech and footsteps shuffling about the wooden kitchen floor. I permitted the luxury of idleness to slowly rouse my eyes and gaze upon the window. The white laced curtain served as a delicate outline to the presence of a brilliant sun shining day. Birds were in full song in the big tree outside my window and although I searched while waiting for the bathroom to empty, the branches had matured to their seasonal greenery, and the birds were well concealed in the foliage.
Rose's husband John had called earlier in the evening to say there was a five car pileup on the Route 231 Bypass, so we weren't concerned about his absence. Sometime during the early morning he arrived with their son Sean, his wife Pat and their two-year-old son Matthew. The boy had slept though it all and was bursting with energy when they arrived.
Will was sitting with wife Janice when I came down to breakfast. Helen was in the vestibule whispering to her mother on the telephone.
There was an unspoken sense of premonition as we sat at the familiar wooden table and, although each in turn proclaimed not to be hungry, we devoured the huge breakfast Rose and Aunt Lucy had prepared. At last, the women cleared the table and we all huddled about the lady in the hospital bed. Without a word being said, we all somehow knew this would be Mother's final day.
As the morning passed moved toward midday, I joined with the men that had moved outdoors to the wooden porch. Some stood by the railing, while others sat in wooden deck chairs or the large wicker rocking chairs with the colorful seat cushions. Some smoked, others absent-mindedly sipped at the remnants of coffee. Most, preoccupied, simply gazed at the expanse of cultivated land off the porch. Conversation, when it intruded, was sparse dealing with the trivial. Time passed and visitors arrived. More arrived throughout the morning. Some like the tenant farmer, Wily Roberts, and his wife and daughter drove up in their large, late model pickup with its gloss finish obscured by dust from the dirt road. All the woman carried woven picnic baskets that were opened a short time after noon its contents lavishly spread along with other food dishes filling the large wooden table, dominating the kitchen, to capacity, Somehow, against a refrain of, "Couldn't possibly eat... well ...maybe... just a taste." The tabletop was emptied by early afternoon.
And so it continued into the afternoon. Some visitors left and were replaced by others. Conversation remain almost nonexistent and we inwardly welcomed the antics of little Mathew, mother's great-great grandson, who had not fully mastered the ability to walk. Periodically one of women would appear behind the door screen and in a hushed voice, provide updates.
The men would nod, grunt, "Thank you," and retreat into silence. Sometimes the screen door opened and one of the women would ask if we needed anything. This was usually followed by a hushed harmony of, "No thank you," before she would return to her vigil.
Sometime later I went inside, crouched before the bed and whispered, "I love you, Mom," to the body whose functions had been slowly shutting down. I felt slight quivers of life passing from her hand to mine. She was very weak and I was unsure she could hear. In time her mouth formed a slight smile and, without turning her head, she softly murmured, "I love you too."
"Do you want a Priest?" I whispered.
I detected movement, a twitch in the corners of her lips. I lowered my ear to her mouth. In a voice that stopped and started and caused me to continue to adjust as it faded, she whispered, "Jackie, I always believed you paid for your sins here on earth. You and only you know what they are... Many wouldn't consider them worth mentioning...some slights, maybe something you did maliciously to hurt someone...one that once committed was easily overlooked by others. Yet, you could not forget. They're the ones that could not be forgiven. You knew.... And somehow you paid." She stopped and I thought she had finished. Her head moved slightly as she fought to fill her lungs. I was about to straighten when I heard, "No Jackie, I don't need some stranger in a white collar to tell me my sins are absolved." With those words her face softened and her eyes closed.
My eyes filled. I lowered my eyes and once more more sobbed, "I love you Mom."
Although she had slipped into darkness, I felt she had heard. I rose and left her with the women that monitored her every movement.
While the men remained on the porch and the women maintained their steady vigil, the day advanced with moderate temperatures and just an occasional wisp of a cloud overhead. In the late afternoon, one of the woman appeared behind the screen and summoned us with a hushed, "Better come in now."
After five minutes of standing about and watching, Rose proclaimed they were mistaken and Mother still had some time to go. I returned with the men to the porch.
In the early dusk of evening, we were summoned again. Word passed quickly and the room filled about the bed. The immediate family stood about the bed's railing while rows of distant relatives and friends assembled, most with bowed heads.
Mother's eyes were closed and her lined face relaxed, free from the pain that had plagued her later years. The quiver I felt earlier was gone and her hand was still. Occasionally, her mouth parted and there was the soft sound of air passing between her lips. A few seconds later, the air would expel in a soft puff.
I stood with my hand on hers. Then, as I watched I suddenly knew I just witnessed the final puff of life leave my mother's parted lips. As I gazed at the woman propped in the large portable hospital bed, I was reminded of photographs of Britain's ninetieth century monarch, Queen Victoria.
Although Rose leaned forward, delicately placed her fingers on Moms throat, and murmured, "It's over," I knew. And the certainty of knowledge left me numb. There were no words no sadness, no tears... no feeling. At last, I turned and walked outside.
Ralph and Will followed soon to be joined by others. We stood silently in front of the wooden rail and awaited the lady from Hospice. There I remained, in a stupor, as people came and left.
Night fell. The quarter moon reached its apex and seemed to hang over the entrance to the property when in a scene so surreal one could only stand and watch: dust rose from the dirt road and began performing a chaotic dance. The sound of a well-tuned motor preceded the oncoming headlights of a long white ,luxurious sedan that appeared out of the blackness. The limousine drove to the opening in the fence; entered, turned, and backed to the steps of the porch. It was mother's chariot.
I smiled. The Queen would have liked that, I thought when it took her away.
The following morning, I awoke thinking something would be different. There was the sounds of footsteps scuffling to the single bathroom, the bacon cooking and coffee wafting from below, and even the undistinguished sound of muted speech. The birds were still chirping from the big tree outside my window. Nothing was different except.... Mother was gone and nothing would ever be the same.
Sometime before Christmas, the family accepted Wily Roberts' offer to purchase the land...and the house.