Enduring Memories

My sister-in-law’s husband’s mother died last night, not unexpectedly.

I only met her once at a wedding, but I’ll likely never forget the day. It was one of those crystal-blue days last summer when the mountains were out and I had the honor of marrying my sister-in-law to this woman’s son on the shores of a sparkling Puget Sound. It also happened to be my birthday and my two-year-old son fell out of a beached rowboat onto rocks near the waterline at some distance from me and began screaming, prompting me to race across the cantelope-sized, slick, green, round seaweed-covered stones deposited in the last ice age. In my haste, I slipped, painfully jamming  a toe between rocks and began to arc downward. Fearing having my face smashed in by the combination of gravity and polished, slimy glacial till, I semi-consciously performed a somersault at the cost of a fractured rib, bruised shoulder and skinned right shin. My heart pumping with adrenaline,  I come upon my sandy, damp, and shaken son, none too worse for wear.

She was a sweet, kindly lady generally experiencing one of the cruelest ravages of old age but was apparently having a more lucid day, and I chatted with her briefly about her family and the Northwest after the service over fruit. I spied her husband at one point watching her with one of those longing looks that only those truly in love have. I last saw her sitting in her chair overlooking the Sound, talking with family.

It was a good day.

The news of her death made me think of my maternal grandfather’s death. I was working a contract job at Starbucks headquarters, sitting in an open cube eating my homemade bean and cheese burrito with sour cream when I got the call from my mother. I sat at the end of the aisle towards the interior of the building next to a busy hallway almost constantly populated with highly caffeinated, generally chirpy people. It wasn’t exactly the place you’d want to be with tears running down your face into your lunch.

I was mourning, but I was also angry and relieved. I was angry at death in general and my mother in specific, and relieved that a once-vibrant man whose light had dimmed significantly in the past year or two was now beyond worrying about his impending end. But I was mostly angry.

Angry that I wasn’t there for him. Angry that I wasn’t told he was that close to death. Angry that he left in the company of strangers instead of with family.

Angrily hanging up the phone, I took my leave and raced north on Interstate 5 to Lynnwood, risking a speeding ticket, hoping to see him before he was collected.

I was five minutes too late. His room was empty.

Chasing down a nurse, I learned the staff of the funeral parlor hadn’t yet left and I briefly considered finding them and asking to see him, but I felt that would be too maudlin and in the end, pointless. He was already gone before I ever left to see him.

It was a bad day.

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