Part Three – Resolution
The moment I stepped off the elevator at Martland Hospital, the stench of urine smacked me in the face. Someone had stacked dozens of dirty bedpans against the wall near the entrance to the ward. It was not a burn ward—no such ward existed in the city hospital. A dozen beds lined the walls on either side—men and women together in the same room.
My mother’s bed was the third one on the left. It shocked me to see her alert and sitting up. As soon as she saw me, her first words were an apology.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
How could I look at her without betraying the horror in my eyes? Except for her face and the top of her head, her body was black with char from her ears to her chest.
I shook my head. “Don’t apologize. Just tell me what happened.”
“I was lying in bed and had a cigarette in the ashtray on the table. The window fan blew the cigarette onto the bed, and my bed jacket went up in flames.”
I knew that was a lie, but I understood she couldn’t say the truth, that she was drunk and passed out with a cigarette in her hand.
“Are you in pain?” I asked. She must be in pain.
She shook her head. “I don’t feel anything, but I must look horrible. I haven’t seen myself in a mirror. How do I look?”
“You look okay,” I lied, hoping no one would hold a mirror up to her face. I looked around the room. A naked semi-conscious black man sprawled in the bed across from my mother’s, and a naked woman lay in the bed next to him. Mother, too, was naked, but a sheet covered her to her waist. I didn’t know what to say, where to look, how to act. It was hard to tolerate the smell of her charred flesh, nauseating and sweet, like nothing I’d ever smelled before. I couldn’t bear to stay any longer; I had to leave.
“Before you go, ask the nurse for ice chips. They won’t let me drink, but my throat is so dry.”
No one was at the nurses’ station, and no nurse or aide was anywhere in sight. I should have searched the corridor, but I escaped into an elevator and ran from the hospital.
The next day, my mother was no longer sitting upright. She lay in the bed in obvious pain and distress. Does she have pain medicine? Why do her burns not have dressings? Who is her doctor? Why isn’t Wally here? Who is in charge here? I should have asked those questions. I was twenty years old, no longer a child. But I was immature, and too timid to question adults. I couldn’t take charge of my own life, let alone my mother’s
“I’m having trouble breathing,” my mother said. “Please find the doctor.”
I am so ashamed of what I did next; I fled the hospital without alerting anyone. How could I have done such an unforgivable thing? I have asked myself that question dozens of times, but I have no sane explanation. To admit that I didn’t believe her looks now to be ridiculous, but at the time I thought she was exaggerating her distress, seeking to garner sympathy from me just as she had my whole life. All of her lies, her exaggerations, bombarded me at once and I turned away.
I was angry at her for causing the fire, and at myself for not stopping on my way home from work to make certain she was okay. What if I could have prevented this from happening? I berated myself for not having the courage and compassion to ensure the doctors gave my mother better medical care.
On the third day, a tracheotomy, a surgical procedure that enabled her to breathe through a hole in her throat, assisted my mother’s breathing. She hadn’t exaggerated, she couldn’t breathe. The guilt just kept piling on top of me.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, my mother seemed unaware of my presence. I stood by her bedside for several minutes, then left.
The next day, my mother’s other sister, Aunt Frances, was leaving the ward as I was going in. I didn’t know Frances well. I was in her company a few times years before when she had visited my grandmother. She and my mother did not always get along, but their relationship was not as volatile as the one between my mother and Aunt Marge. There were times my mother said she hated Aunt Marge, and she made me swear I would never, no matter how desperate I may be in the future, ask Aunt Marge for money.
“I just saw your mother,” said Aunt Frances. “She’s in bad shape.”
“I know. She wasn’t conscious yesterday when I came.”
“She is now. I was just talking to her.”
When I entered the ward, I didn’t see my mother. An elderly white woman who lay so still I was not sure she was breathing, now occupied the space my mother’s bed had been. I spun around, my eyes searching the other beds, and found my mother on the opposite side of the room. She lay with a sheet covering her body up to her neck.
“Mom?” I whispered.
She didn’t acknowledge me. Her blue eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling above her bed. I looked up. There was nothing there, just the white ceiling, yellowed with age.
“Mom?” I said again.
Her forehead creased, and her eyes looked frightened.
“Hail Mary,” she said. “Hail Mary, full of grace. “
“Hail Mary full of grace… Hail Mary full of grace…. Hail Mary…. Hail Mary…. Hail Mary….”
What did she see? She focused her eyes toward the ceiling as if she could see through it at something or someone not of this world.
Her tone was pleading, insistent. “Hail Mary! Hail Mary!”
Was she seeing the Virgin Mother?
I lingered at her bedside for several more minutes, not knowing that would be the last time I was to see my mother; that she would die over the 4th of July weekend while I escaped to the Jersey shore. If I had the same choice now, I would never think of leaving my dying mother’s bedside, regardless of whether she was conscious. I would not allow her to die alone.
When I arrived home after the weekend, my father told me that my mother’s body was still in the hospital’s morgue awaiting my decision.
“My decision?” I croaked. “I don’t know what to do, or how to make funeral arrangements.”
I telephoned Wally. He said he had no money, and that as far as planning the funeral, I should be the one to decide.
I turned to my father. “I don’t know how to do this, Daddy.”
I thought maybe Dad would offer to help, but instead he suggested I look in the phone book and start calling funeral parlors. So that’s what I did. But I was resentful as hell, especially when I found out that Aunt Marge was still on vacation and refused to cut her trip short to help with arrangements.
After making a few phone calls, I learned just how expensive funerals are, and that the funeral homes all wanted money up front. As a last resort, I called People’s Burial Company. Their yellow pages ad advertised low-cost funerals. I scheduled an appointment and made Wally go with me to make the arrangements.
I declined the director’s offer to let me view my mother’s body before the casket (the least expensive one—the blue one that looked like cardboard with faux velvet material covering it) was closed. I could not bring myself to look at her.
While discussing the arrangements, Wally informed the funeral director that my mother did not have life insurance. We had no choice but to ask Aunt Marge for the money; she was the only one in the family who could afford to pay for a funeral. I thought back to the promise I had made to my mother that I would never ask Aunt Marge for money. I disobeyed my mother’s wishes, but what choice did I have? There was no insurance money, no savings, and nowhere else to turn. Aunt Marge grudgingly came up with the money, but she never let me forget she did so.
Back then, Catholicism still indoctrinated me. I still believed in Heaven and Hell and worried about my mother’s soul. She had not confessed her sins, and did not receive Last Rites. Would the way she lived her life doom her to spend an eternity in Hell?
The funeral director arranged for a Catholic Mass to be said at her funeral, and I listened as the priest read a passage from the “Book of Wisdom:”
For if in the eyes of men, indeed they be punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them,
and found them worthy of himself.
I clung to the hope that its message meant God had used the fire to cleanse my mother’s soul. I reasoned that if God forgave her, I wouldn’t have to.
For several years after my mother’s death, I had a recurring nightmare in which a stranger told me that my mother was still alive, and he gave me the address where she was living. The route I followed was complicated and unfamiliar. I drove for hours on twisting, winding roads. When I stood before the wooden door of her apartment, I knocked once, then twice. No one answered. I knocked again and again, but my mother never came to the door. I awakened with a yearning for my mother that I could not shake.
On and off for several years I worked with various therapists, and during one session, my therapist suggested I try putting my mother in an empty chair. “Using an empty chair differs from using your imagination,” she explained. “The chair keeps your mind from drifting away from its purpose.”
The next day, I did as she suggested—I invited the ghost of my mother to sit in an empty chair facing me. I pictured her younger than when she died, with smooth skin and shiny auburn hair. I imagined she felt suspicious, maybe even frightened, by what I might say to her.
I cleared my throat and began.
“Mom, I invited you here to talk about the past, and I need to warn you I have very few good memories to share. I need to tell you my story, the parts you played in it, and parts you didn’t. Whether you were in my presence, you influenced my every move.” I took a deep breath. “There had been so many times when I wished you had aborted me.”
I talked for a long time, holding nothing back. I told her how much she had hurt me, and how I had longed for her to be a mother to me. I wept, allowing myself a few minutes of self-pity, and then sat quietly until a sense of peace enveloped me. Of course, I didn’t hear my mother’s voice speak to me, but I imagined I felt her sorrow and her regrets. I understood that my mother’s intent was never to hurt me—her alcoholism did far more harm to her than it ever did to me. The time had come for me to let go.
Before putting the chairs away, I said, “I forgive you.”
Not long after the empty chair session, my recurring dream returned one last time. I drove the same convoluted route along the same winding roads. When I reached my mother’s apartment, I ran up to the door and knocked. Then I knocked again. This time my mother opened the door and took me into her arms.
There are still times when I feel a sense of longing, but I no longer dwell on those feelings. Over time, the memories have become less important. Forgiving my mother has been like shining a flashlight in a dark stairwell. Blame was too heavy a club to carry, and to be rid of it has been liberating.
It has been many years since I lived in Jersey, over twenty since I visited. The old neighborhood looked the same. Although the signs in the store windows are now written in Portuguese, security gates now protected the entrance doors to Grandpa’s old tavern, and iron grillwork covers all the first-floor windows. Cuccazella’s grocery story is now Torrie’s, and in one of the third-floor windows of the apartment where my friend Butchy Napurano had lived there is a For Rent sign.
While in Jersey, I stopped off at Holy Cross Cemetery, where my sister Susan’s casket is entombed in a mausoleum. My birth mother is also buried at Holy Cross, but outside, in the oldest part of the cemetery. I had not been to my mother’s gravesite since 1965, the year she died.
Finding my mother’s unmarked grave was difficult. How sad, I thought, for her to lie in a grave with no marker, as if she mattered to no one, as if I had never loved her. Was anyone left, other than me, who even remembered her? I made the sign of the cross, prayed the Hail Mary, and said goodbye to my mother for the last time.
When I drove out of the cemetery toward the highway, I passed several businesses selling gravestones. I turned the car around and parked in front of one of them.
“I want to order a gravestone,” I said, once inside the office. I thumbed through a catalog showing different styles of headstones. “This one,” I said, pointing to one I thought she would like. I told him her name and the dates of her birth and death. “One more thing,” I said. “Above her name, in large letters, I would like the stone to say MOTHER.”
I had now come full circle to a place of forgiveness. Erecting a monument to my mother has proven to be the final catharsis—whether for her, or for me, I’m uncertain, but it feels right.