When my mother died, her pain was so severe that she could not clench her fist. She was unable to utter a cry for relief. The morphine, finally given, produced a drug stupor which allowed for rest; a temporary respite before the lasting permanent sleep of death. I never bothered to ask her what was on her mind during that last day of her life. She would not have been able to articulate her thoughts. While she waited to die, I talked to her of her grandchildren, and a tear formed in the corner of her eye. She could hear. I read to her from the Book of Common Prayer, and she mouthed the memorized words of the communion prayers. I felt as if the poetry of the Sunday service would bring her peace. I never thought to ask what she would want to bring her comfort in those last moments.
Now as I contemplate my thoughts when I die, I know what were my mother’s last dreams and her dearest memories. Mother loved Frank. He was not my father. Frank was the bad boy from her youth. He was handsome, self assured, and drank in college. No one discussed drinking publicly, nor was it allowed on campus in the late 1930’s in DeLand, Florida. However, everyone drank at the Stetson University fraternity parties. Frank drank a lot. He was not a man to follow the rules.
My mother told a story of a date with Frank on an Easter Sunday. She recalled with a smile how pretty she looked in her new blue suit with fur trim on the collar and cuffs. She was slim with thick brown hair, and she loved clothes. Frank had decided that she was too cute, too confident, or perhaps not paying enough attention to him. He scooped her up in his arms, and placed her in the middle of a large mud puddle. Forty years later, mother laughed as she remembered that day. I was too young to understand why this would be a fond memory.
Frank named his airplane, Little Bit; his nick name for my mother. Little Bit flew many missions during World War II, and earned Frank the rank of colonel. One morning in North Africa, Frank emerged into a hotel lobby wearing a woman’s dress. His colonel’s uniform was worn by his female companion. Because of his impressive record in Little Bit, his rank was reduced to that of a private, and he was discharged from service. Although no further action was taken against him, Frank returned to Florida and submerged himself in alcohol.
He never married. Mother and Dad would talk about the late night calls from her college boyfriend. Frank is dead now. I never knew him. I know that the passion my mother felt for this bold young man, who abandoned rules and who loved her until his death, accompanied her as she followed him away from this world on the day she died. She was 74 years old.
I would have wanted her to think of me that day. I wanted her to remember me as an infant, cradled in her arms on the day I was born. In reality, my mother did not hold me. I came two months early, and was whisked away by hospital staff to an incubator, where I lived until I was healthy enough to go home. I was the fragile miracle of the family. Now that I am older, I know that her last memories were not me at my birth. I know what was in her heart, unclouded by morphine in those final hours. She left existence with the memory of Frank. As I read words from the Prayer Book, Frank held her hand, ignoring what was proper, and took her way for one last time.
Will I think of my children, fragile and helpless on the day they were born, as I lay dying? Will I smell their sweet skin again at those last moments? Will I feel their softness as they nuzzled against me for warmth and milk, joined breast to mouth as one? Will I remember their tiny hands, just hours old, instinctively grasping my fingers? Or will I remember the passion I felt to be loved and touched by the bad boy who was not my husband; the man who broke the rules and, for a brief while, wanted me as completely as Frank wanted my mother?
I talk to women who at the end of their lives still cling to the memories of their passions for the young men from their youth. They hunger for the intensity of a body’s attraction to another and the joy of having that intensity shared and returned. The names of their young men are private. Their feelings are always the same.
If granted the luxury of time at my death to hold a memory with me as I depart existence, I know it will be one of love. If it becomes an expression of agape, then I will think of my children when they were born. I will recall my own innocent and perfect creations, and how I loved them without reserve. If it becomes a spiritual love in anticipation of what will soon be, then my heart will soar like the vaulted ceilings in Chartres Cathedral. However, if the intensity of passion is what I remember, then I will leave with the memory of a physical attraction to a man I knew a long time ago. If I am truly blessed, I will be surrounded by all three forms of love, ushered away by a type of trinity. Perhaps as my mother heard the words from her daughter reading scriptures in her final moments, she left embraced by a trinity of love. She loved her daughter, her god, and she loved Frank, who was reckless, loved her, and made her smile.