December 24, 2013 5:15 am.
The Don CeSar Hotel, St. Petersburg Florida.
Our mother died an hour and a half ago. Sissy, Gale and I were there at the hospital. I will tell you more as time passes. Not now.
As the long day slid into night on December 23rd, it was just us three camped out, waiting to see how Mom fared after emergency surgery.
After she passes, we sit, numb, on the curb outside the hospital. “Scata,” I think. Pronounced skah-tah, it is the Greek word for shit. I’m not fluent in Greek at all. But our Irish Mom had spent plenty of time amongst our people and used to amuse us with a fabulous parody of Doris Day. She would twirl around the kitchen with a dish towel for a hankie and sing.
“Que scata, scata. Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. Que scata, scata.”
I hum this and Sissy knows what I mean. Gale does not as she came along way after Mom’s first marriage. I turned in her direction.
“It’s all shit,” I say. She nods. As much devastation that just reigned down on Sissy and I, it was Gale who had the most visceral physical shattering in those final moments. If I live to be a thousand, I will never be able to forget the sound of her little heart breaking, the shards tearing up through her throat. It was the sound of a small gentle animal caught in a stainless steel bear trap. That’s another story for later on down the line.
“Are we going to cook dinner?” Sissy asks.
“YaFuckinARightWeAhh!” I answer in perfect Bostonese. Mom would be very angry if we let the dozen Christmas Eve lobsters in the garage die along with her. My brain doorman has checked out and in his place left a robotic autopilot to manage the Tilt-A-Whirl. Act casual, say nothing, pretend it isn’t happening.
Dad had finally gone home in the early evening. We’d been at the hospital since the morning and all we could do was wait to see if Mom survived the night. At ninety, he was faring as best as he could and yet he was pale and shaking so we bullied him into leaving. We did not realize he might have additional issues. This week in March 2014, we discovered that Dad had suffered a mild attack sometime in the past few months. Back in the winter, it was nothing but a blip in his impending grief.
“OK,” Dad says when we call him with the news. We considered going to the house but we didn’t want him fumbling around in the dark to answer news he would already know as we rang the bell. Instead we made the decision to call.
“Do you want us to come over now?” Sissy asks.
“Ya. No. Later.” Silence.
That’s how he is. We’d sent the Big Kids away earlier after instructing them to say goodbye, just in case. It was too much for everyone except us. A job for the Old Broads. We, the not faint of heart. After reading this far in the blog, you may think we would have made a scene – everyone sobbing, screaming and running in hysterical circles.
We only do that on regular days.
In times of crisis, we are a fierce army that grimly mobilizes itself. That Bad Thing had prepared us and in the beginning disbelief stage of mourning, we are all fighting back. Act casual, say nothing, pretend it isn’t happening.
We drive to our respective hotels because we don’t know what else to do.
Our parents’ home is not big enough for all of us, so the last few years we had taken rooms at nearby hotels. The Big Kids are now truly adults who secretly call us the Old Broads. Mom and Dad finally realized this in the past few holidays and not only stopped begging us to stay at the house, but embraced the practice of off campus housing.
A few years ago, Christmas vacation
“Where do you think you’re going?” Mom asks Baby J and my son at ten in the evening.
“We’re going dancing!” Baby J adds a few more bracelets and a lot more mascara.
“What?? It’s late at night. You’re not going out! Nancy Grace says nothing good happens after midnight! You go to bed!”
Dad harrumphs in agreement. He is preoccupied with his investigation into the identity of the offender who has clogged up the toilet. “Every goddamn year one of YOU PEOPLE clogs up the toilet! You’re using too much paper! I’m not made of toilet paper, you know!”
I love Nancy Grace, I do. I am surprised she isn’t a member of my family although I suspect she is a Republican. It could be that in Atlanta where HLN is based, only bad things happen after the clock strikes twelve, but our kids are Los Angeles and Miami folk. Many clubs don’t even open until eleven. I’ve grown used to the late night clubbing. I do much of my grocery shopping late at night as well. Every place is open, well, mostly always. The only thing I hate about visiting Boston is that after eight at night, the only thing open is the local VFW post. I’m a night owl. But in my parents’ house, their rules have to be respected. Forcing our offspring to respect them is the least we can do to try and make up for our own past shenanigans when we completely ignored them.
The Big Kids dutifully went into the bedroom, shut the door and the two twenty-somethings climbed out the window. Unfortunately they broke the screen on the way back in five hours later and woke Mom who roused Dad who was definitely nothappy. It was at that point Sissy and I decided it was time to visit our parents with a hotel as a home base.
There’s something about that particular bedroom. Back when Sissy was ’round about fifteen, Dad caught her and her best friend climbing through the very same window in the middle of the night, swinging a very cheap bottle of vodka. To this day I believe Dad was torn between punishing them for their sneaking out and underage drinking or complimenting them for being thrifty in their liquor choice.
Now we stay in hotels and as I am the Clark Griswold of my people, I bring just a few holiday decorations. The basics. Christmas window decorations. Garland. Colorful throws. Stockings. LED faux candles. Cookies. A four-foot fully lit blinking incandescent pink holiday tree. The basics.
Our parents’ house is fully decorated but I like everyone in our hotel rooms to go to sleep and awaken with the full holiday experience hovering over them. Some people think I overdo Christmas.
“I wonder if this is what it’s like to be on Santa Claus Ecstasy,” Sissy says one year, sounding muffled under her Rudolph blanket as the cheap Walgreens gadget projected Chevy Chase onto the wall.
“Is that a real thing?” I ask. Pink lights blink across my face.
“I don’t know but if it is, then this is it!”
December 24, 2013 5:15 am.
The Don CeSar Hotel, St. Petersburg Florida.
Sissy and I sit in our fancy room, saying nothing. The pink lights blink. On the floor, something flitters back and forth from the corner of my computer bag. I reach down and carefully slide it out.
Two letters. The first reads “TO MARGO BRANDT” in Mom’s curvy handwriting. The second she addressed to me.
I hold it up so my sister can see. It is the letter Mom wrote to herself almost twenty years ago for our Time Capsule. The same letter I had planned to read with her at Christmas Eve dinner later this day. Over the red skeletons of ravaged Maine lobsters and the aroma of salt-sweet melted butter, I was going to reach under the table, pull it out and hand it to her.
I remember now what Mom said when she penned her message in 1995. “I wish we could open the letters now and see what they say.”
“Mum, 2005 isn’t such a long time to wait!”
Mom smiled. “I hope I don’t miss it,” she said quietly.
I hold up the envelope – my mother’s message to herself. Sissy nods and I carefully break the seal. Mom’s unseen People must have whispered to her way back in ’95, telling her what we would desperately need by the time her letter was found. Because here is what it said:
Author’s Note: I’ve breached Mom’s privacy because I was not sad to read it. In fact, for a brief moment, it eased the pain and I smiled. You smile too, OK? We’re so lucky to have this. The Time Capsule was an amazing project I urge you to try, while you still can.