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Chapter 29

On a drizzly day in March 2002, I leaned in and placed the doll beside her, turning the angel slightly inward in an embrace. Then I memorized the face that had looked on me throughout my life, our life— with wonder, love, and trust. This was the face I always looked to first for strength, for answers. These were the arms that held my babies when I was a young and nervous mother, the arms that I held steady when she was old and frail and breathless. I’ll never forget you Mom.

These last months had been a special time for us—sad, both of us knowing I would not have her to turn to for comfort, and glad, both of us proud that we had come so far in our lives and shared so much. The moment I’d dreaded was here. Courage, don’t fail me now.  I would have the dignity and strength she taught me when Grandma died. I looked away to my own daughters, standing back from the casket, their eyes brimming with tears, and knew that someday this scene would be replayed. Let the lessons begin.

Goodbye, Mom. I will carry on. It was a pitifully brief goodbye, considering all we had been through. It was all I had to say.

As I straightened and turned for the door, I looked at my brother. The pain seemed to pull at his face, drawing it downward and making his body lean unsteadily as if a great weight pressed upon it. There’s a new weight on us, now.

There once was a family that stood straight and tall. Then storms came, and we all bent the way the wind blew us. Some of us cracking, parts of us shearing off, leaving the best or the worst behind. That’s what we did.

Then I walked out into the mist, while somewhere a leaf slipped into the river and began its new journey.  I left my mother for the last time and kept going, on my own.P1110482 cleaned up

—End of Dancer in River. Stay tuned for the last installment of Tall Timbers AnthologyMy Back Pages.—

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Chapter 28
The flesh now hung off my mother’s arms, incredibly wrinkled and gray. She’d pull on the loose skin and laugh, “No way, that couldn’t be my arm!” Breathing and walking became so difficult, she could only take a few steps. Sometimes I’d find her staring off into space, as if she patiently awaited whatever might happen next, no thoughts in her way.

In early March 2002, Mom took her meals in her room for a few days. She just felt out of it, she said. She didn’t want to go to the hospital, but agreed to go to the doctor in the morning. I stayed later than usual, slightly alarmed because it seemed so odd that she stayed in bed throughout my visit. I sat at the foot of the bed.

“You turned out good,” she said quietly, clutching her blanket, her hazel eyes overflowing with love.

“I had a good teacher.”

Her jaw quivered, my eyes blurred. She said she’d done the best she could, but was it good enough? I assured her she did just great.  So many times since then I wish I had taken just a few more minutes to tell her how much I admired her for never giving up on love. For the willow she was, bending in the wind through all the storms in her life.

Tomorrow would be another day. I tucked Mom in and headed out of the apartment.

“I love you,” she rang out as I reached the door.  I went back to her bedroom, peeked in and said “I love you too, Mom”.

Little knowing there were only 14 hours left.

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Chapter 27

Today Dad talked about the war. He never used to talk about it until we got him a tile at the Washington State War Memorial. A Patriot Who Served with Courage, that’s what you are to me, Dad. Now, thanks to me, he opened up and relived the pain.

In his wheelchair beside his bed in the nursing home, he told me the worst memory for him was hunkering down in a trench in Germany with all his buddies. He made me hear the deafening belch of the guns, the screeching, ear-piercing scream of bombs and human pain. Dad told me when it was all over; he was the only one in the bunker left alive.

Toward the end of the war, young Private First Class Harry rolled through town on a tank, in the land where his mother was born. I wonder what it felt like when his worlds collided. He would have relatives here somewhere, was he shooting at them?

He told me there was a sniper in a bombed out building. His buddy, “the Italian guy”, whirled the 50mm gun around and shot out a window that had somehow survived. The shooting stopped. Dad and the others climbed through the window to make sure the sniper was dead, and found only a woman with a rifle in her hands. She was blown to pieces, said Dad, but they could tell she was alone and about 85 years old.

There was a photograph of the young soldier Harry—a picture his mother kept on the old radio, touching for luck while offering a wordless but heartfelt prayer for his safe return. Dad was nineteen–a grinning and proud military man who bore a resemblance to the Dad I know. At nineteen he still had hair. All hope and pride, he was. Ready to march off to war and save the world, not foreseeing the heartache and fear that would lay him low for decades.

Young Harry could not have imagined me. Did Young Harry dream of children? How strange that I, someone he had yet to meet when this photograph was taken, would someday be the one trying to save him from the ravages of heart and kidney disease.

Dad was so weak. They had to pull him up to sit and eat, and they had to pack pillows all around him or he’d fall over. His head lolled. I asked him how he was today and he said he was pretty good. The unsinkable Harry.

Dad was too weak to swallow. Friday night they did a chest X-ray to see if he had pneumonia, but it was heart failure again. He was too weak to cough up the fluid in his lungs and he choked on his unswallowed food.

Nearly sixty years after young Harry survived the war, he died of heart and kidney disease. At 86 pounds, all he talked about when he was strong enough to speak, was love. He loved me, my brother, my husband, the grandkids. He thought he heard Mom outside talking to the nurses, but I had to tell him Mom couldn’t make it but sent her love.

Before he died, tears rolled down his face, and he said, “I wish I was your real Dad.” I broke down, too, and said from my soul, “You are my real Dad.”

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 Chapter 26

The house was empty.

I’d scrubbed floors, sink, tubs, and toilets; carried out six truckloads of trash and ripped out the smoky carpets; soaked the smoky mini blinds until they were white; and washed the windows. I’d gone to the dump, salvaged sentimental things, and donated. My family helped me pull hundreds of staples out of the hardwood floors which I then waxed by hand, on my knees. Five gleaming coats of wax and a fresh coat of paint on everything, over the sealer to keep the smoke from seeping out of the walls.

I walked out of Mom and Dad’s house backwards that last time, carrying a five-pound weight in my sinuses and the last of the cleaning supplies. If it felt like the end of the world it wasn’t far off – it was the end of the world as they knew it. The end of home, where none of us could go again.

I wished some neighbors would come out and acknowledge my parents for the fine neighbors they’d been, but there was no drama tonight.  In spite of 35 years of good neighborliness, all windows were shuttered, all porches empty. For them, Mom and Dad were long gone already.

I thought I could see my face in the window waving goodbye, and recognized my deep fatigue. If only time could overlap, I would see me looking out, thinking and wondering about the future.  But there is no one there, not even me.

I hoisted my bag, left it good, and let it go.

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