Mid November my mother was moved into a private room, which to me heralded the immediacy of her death. One morning I found her dozing in a patch of sunshine. I put my face close to hers. When she opened her eyes, her face lit up with a beautiful smile. She said my name and I started to cry. She was shrunken and wrinkled and glowing an unearthly yellow, but she looked happy and beautiful. She had the face of a ten year old. A ten year old who had already been damaged by life but had not yet had the chance to damage me. For the first time that I could remember, I wanted to look at her face because it was lovely.
“I am used to your face being angry and unhappy,” I said. “I always wanted you to be happy and now you seem to be.”
She seemed surprised to hear that. But all she said was, “How are you?”
I said, “Oh, you know. I’m just living my life.”
“That’s a good thing to do.”
This did not sound at all like the mother I knew.
I showed her a picture of her family, her parents and her seven siblings. She named them all. I told her that she was going to see them, along with all of us in the family. I didn’t believe this but that was hardly the point.
She perked up, “Are you going to be there?”
I said, “Well, not right away. I have to die first.”
She laughed. “You’ve been so good to me,” she said.
Did she believe that or was it hardly the point?
Her hands were cold so I held them and sang “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,” “Shall We Gather at the River?” and “This World is not my home, I’m just a passing through.” When her eyes were opened, we looked at each other while I sang. I felt an almost unbearable tenderness for her.
Then she looked at my low cut T-shirt and said, “Why do you have to show your breasts like that?”
That made it easier to leave.
My friend, Nina, had driven me to Olympia for this particular visit. I asked her to come because of all my friends, she was the one most able to face down a priest. I didn’t want to run into him. The chaplain didn’t want me to run into him either. He lived in a perpetual state of alarm that the two of us might make an ugly scene in his care center. I had already been briefed that if the priest ever bothered me when I was visiting my mother, I was to call security.
Nina sat in the waiting room and intercepted anyone in a robe to ask them if they were visiting Mary Richmond. She was prepared to tell them to come another time. The priest didn’t show up, but I loved Nina’s willingness to indulge me. The faces of many of my friends were taking on a patient, possibly pitying look whenever I started a new rant about the priest.
I learned from the nurses that the priest, having lost his funeral rites, was now demanding the last ones. He had informed them that he needed to be called when my mother was dying. This just infuriated me. Him and his ancient rituals that needed to be performed exactly as proscribed. I was utterly unimpressed. I also knew that my mother didn’t care about last rites except to the extent that the priest might be offended if she refused them, which struck me as comical. However much she might idealize the “devout” priests of her childhood, my mother did not believe she needed a priest between herself and her God.
Washington State law gives preeminence to the grieving family. If I wanted to, I could sit with my dying mother and make the priest fume outside the door for days. I was fully capable of that, such was my crazed state of mind. A week before my mother died, I found a hospice in Tacoma that had an available bed. I toyed with the idea of having her moved. She’d be closer to Seattle, so conceivably I could see her several times a week instead of just once. But the real satisfaction was in the thought of snatching her body away from the priest. As long as I was thinking like this, the chaplain had reason to worry about an ugly scene.
The only scene that took place was reported to me by the nurses. When the priest learned I had taken him off the call list, he reportedly became bellicose and demanding. The nurses were fantastic. They went about their work with patience and calm. They had seen plenty of arrogant clergy and hysterical daughters. They were unendingly kind to me and they seemed to genuinely like my mother.
“She announces to everyone that she’s dying,” they told me. “She seems proud of it.”
My memoir 99 Girdles on the Wall opens with the death of my mother. I describe the walk I took after getting the phone call from Hospice, how my mother found me a few blocks from my home and how love saturated I felt by her presence.
I came home from this mystical experience to get right on the horn and call the funeral home: I wanted the body picked up immediately. I was convinced the priest had a mole at the care center who would call him in for the last rites. Scoring over the priest had become an obsession with me. He was a useful object, a repository of my rage, something I could hardly have directed at that shrunken, frail creature I last saw propped up in a wheelchair.
Next: The Burial