On Death

(A clarification for concerned friends: No, I'm not dying. I'll go if called, but in the meantime, I have way too much to do while I'm here.)

23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me

(King James Bible, Psalms)

8:6 Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

(King James Bible, Song of Solomon)

1:17 And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: 1:18 I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.

(King James Bible, Revelation)

Know then that "life" hath a twofold meaning. The first pertaineth to the appearance of man in an elemental body, and is as manifest to thine eminence and to others as the midday sun. This life cometh to an end with physical death, which is a God-ordained and inescapable reality. That life, however, which is mentioned in the Books of the Prophets and the Chosen Ones of God is the life of knowledge; that is to say, the servant's recognition of the sign of the splendours wherewith He Who is the Source of all splendour hath Himself invested him, and his certitude of attaining unto the presence of God through the Manifestations of His Cause. This is that blessed and everlasting life that perisheth not: whosoever is quickened thereby shall never die, but will endure as long as His Lord and Creator will endure

(Baha'u'llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 41)

Last Thursday morning, in front her physician and several medical personnel as witnesses, my mother signed a "Do Not Resuscitate" (DNR) order. I was at work. But my sister called me and told me that since I'm Mom's conservator and executor of her "estate" (she owns practically nothing of her own; everything but her Social Security check is co-owned by my father), I had to let the hospital know if I consented with that action. With reluctance, I called and told them that I will abide by my mother's wishes.

How do I feel right now? As I'm typing this, I don't know. It takes me awhile to figure out my true feelings concerning anything. I automatically go numb during emotionally stressful situations. Then after I do some prayer and meditation, I get in touch with my feelings. So I'm still at the numb stage at this moment. Maybe after I finish this blog, I'll feel differently. I hope so. I'm a little tired of doing my life on automatic pilot and using my old coping mechanisms. So, God willing, this is another test for me to pass without resorting to any self-destructive habits.

But this is not just any test for me. This is my mother, and she's dying. How does someone deal with the awful reality that her mother, the woman who gave birth to her, is pulling up her life force and looking to re-join with the Almighty? Part of me is happy for her. She has suffered through a myriad of illnesses for the past 15 years. I can't recall how many times her doctors have pulled all of us aside and said something like, "We just don't know if she's going to make it. She's a very sick lady." We would get scared, say prayers, and then almost overnight, she would be get better. Until the next time, of course. Then it's the same old scenario all over again. Family rushes to the hospital, gathers around her. Doctors shake their heads and say they can't say for sure. And maybe they couldn't. Only Mom could. And now, she's tired of trying. Since she's come back with my father from Mississippi, she's been in the hospital more than at home.

So the waiting has begun. How do you wait for someone to die? I don't mean to sound glib, but is there an instruction manual out there somewhere? I don't know how to do this. Do I act like everything is just fine, life as usual? I've already missed two days of work this past week because I had to be at the hospital. I've been thinking that I should go in to my job and just be my same old happy self. I feel useless at the hospital. I know Mom wants me at her bedside, holding her hand and all that, but I can't seem to do that.

So I'll do what I do best. I'll tell my mother's story.

My Mom, Mary Ellen Graham Shortt, is a very complex woman, to say the least. She was born on October 15, 1934 in Leesburg, Florida. Her mother, Amy Smith Graham, had a mother who was half Black, half Indian (tribe not determined as of yet). Her father was half white, half Seminole. Her former husband, my granddaddy, James "Buddy" Graham, told me his people were Geechee, originally hailing from the South Carolina Islands. Mom said that wasn't true; Granddaddy liked to tell more than a few tall tales. Personally, I see nothing wrong with having Gullah blood in my veins, but then again, I didn't grow up in the Deep South. I have no concept of the social implications of being known as Geechee, while my mother clearly knew all about the negative connotations. She always seemed to be worried about what people thought about her and her family.

I can understand why she would have that concern. Her mother, my grandmother Amy, was tall and extremely beautiful, with long wavy hair that reached the small of her back. She also had a vicious, violent temper and a legendary love for hard drinking. Granddaddy said it was all that Indian blood in her, another "tall tale" that my mother has disputed. She told me, "Mother didn't drink and act up because she was part Indian. She was just that way." She pointed out that my great-aunt Chippie, my grandmother's sister, didn't drink and went to church faithfully.

But my Uncle Hardy, my Mom's brother, laughed when I told him what my mother said about Aunt Chippie. "Mary don't know. Chippie went to church every Sunday mornin', and she was cussin' folks out as soon as she stepped out the door." I love my Uncle Hardy, I have to say that. He's as funny as Dave Chappelle. Last I heard, Uncle was sitting up in his house listening to some 50 Cent. At 75 years old. I ain't mad at him.

My grandparents had four children together, Alma, Melvin, Hardy and the baby, my mother. They didn't have an easy life, apparently. My grandmother's alcoholism apparently prevented her from being a loving and understanding mother. My Aunt Alma left high school and got married at 16. My Uncle Melvin just left, at 10. He found work and never came back home. My Uncle Hardy was the family comedian, and that apparently helped him cope until he was about 12. Then he began "following the seasons" (picking produce up and down the East Coast) with my grandfather. That left my mother alone with my grandmother, who didn't do much more than drink and beat on her when she wasn't fishing.

Amy didn't limit the beatings to her offspring, either. She ran the sheriff off her swamp land property (this was the 1950s, and sheriffs in central Florida were always white), and she nearly chopped her second husband's right hand off. It was hanging by a tendon when neighbors ran over and bandaged it up. It grew back as gnarled as an old oak tree. People living in Leesburg right now still tell stories about the outrageous things Amy used to do. Taking all that into consideration, it's no wonder my mother has some of the issues that plague her to this day. Her mother was the source of her pain and humiliation, and she swore that when she got married and had a family of her own, she would never do the things her mother did to her.

And she fulfilled that promise.

My mother never drank. She rarely cussed, and while she was the authority figure and disciplinarian in our family, she certainly never beat us bloody. A few welts that faded in a couple of hours, that's all. We had it easy compared to most kids growing up during the same time period. She insisted on absolute obedience and perfect manners from her children. We had a schedule to follow each day, daily chores (which I will admit, I did my best to avoid), and a curfew that we tried our best to meet. It didn't matter if we were in the middle of a really intense dodge ball game and our side was winning. When Mom called, we had exactly thirty seconds to get inside the front door. Or else.

Compared to her mother's parenting style (or lack thereof), my Mom was light years of improvement. I'm grateful for that, and the fact that all those etiquette lessons did have some value, eventually. I hated them, but when I'm in business or social situations, I do know how to act. And believe me, it's Academy award level acting in my case. I'd rather not do any of that stuff at all, but it's sometimes necessary. Mom always told us, "I better not hear about any you all actin' stupid in public like some old ignorant person from the streets. I'll grab you and beat you all the way home. "

Needless to say, that never happened. My sister Tam and brother Ricky and I knew better. Mom had just enough Amy in her to make her a formidable threat in our minds. Looking back, it kept us in line.

She told me once that she was worried that she wasn't a good parent. I told her that she didn't need to worry about that. She was the mother that three potentially rebellious hellions needed to have. Lord knows what we would have done if she hadn't kept us in line. We barely got away with some crazy stuff as it was.

Now, at the end of her life, I keep wondering why she keeps hanging on. Her body is worn out by disease and chronic pain. It's difficult to see the woman who's loomed larger than Superman in my mind in this condition. Why stick around? For us? We're fine. She's done her job. The problem is my father. He doesn't want to let her go. He vehemently objected to her signing the DNR order. "What about my wishes? Don't I have anything to say about this?"

I think that's incredibly selfish on his part. But then again, I've never been married for a long time. They've been together for 50 years, most of them stormy. But here they are, still together. And Dad's afraid of being left alone. As always, my mother eventually gives in to his wishes, even if it inevitably harms her. It's the aspect of their relationship that I'll never understand, no matter how many Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings I attend. All I can do is practice acceptance. And pray.

Prayer is powerful.


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