Kathleen Purcell

Life Slices

By Kathleen Purcell

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A Death In The Family

My father's mother was the last of her generation in our family. When she died, my parents rotated into the next vacant positions on the line which divides life from death, and I and my siblings fell in behind them, all of us now one row closer to the front.

More so than birth or marriage, death defines a family. Modern practices like step-families, foster-children, surrogate parents, egg and sperm donors, and the possibility of cloning, have introduced complexity to what ought to be a simple matter. People related by blood have never met, while people without a single common chromosome are bound nevertheless by the ties of family..

Death sorts out the confusion. Everyone attends the party when you get married; it's family who is there when you die.

In my family, there's a timeless and unspoken order to aging and death which descends from our European ancestors. Our traditions have survived the generations untouched by modern social movements and political fashion, their precepts inviolate, their need unquestioned. They guide us today just as they did two centuries ago, when my great-great-great-grandmother laid her husband to rest in a rocky grave in Ireland. In the natural order of things, the men die first and are buried by their wives who are in turn cared for, then buried, by their daughters. In a changing world, this is our unwavering rock.

I wasn't there when my father's mother died. She was in a nursing home two hundred miles distant from me, close to my aunt, her daughter. But when my mother's mother was dying, I often accompanied Mom to the nursing home to help her attend to Grandma's needs. During these visits my mother maintained a steady stream of instructive chatter. "Check the closet to make sure her things are in order. Brush her hair; she knows when her hair isn't brushed."

I understood these directives were my preparation for the inevitable. Mom might as well have said, "When I get like that, do it this way for me. Brush my hair. Prop me up when your brothers come to visit. Brighten my room with flowers. Hold my hand when I die."

My grandmother's stay in the nursing home was a concentrated period of instruction, but the lessons began years before when my grandfather died, leaving Grandma alone. My mother and her sister stepped in immediately. They supported their mother physically and emotionally throughout the funeral and the months of mourning that followed.

As my grandmother grew older, her needs became more complex. I often went with Mom when she took Grandma to the doctor's office or the hospital in response to some emergency. While the three of us waited nervously in the examination room, my mother would focus on her mother, and I would pace, oozing bluster and bravado.

This, too, is part of our tradition. My mother's role was to ease her mother during her decline. As granddaughter, my job was to erect the curtain of denial which held death at bay. If the grim reaper could not be evaded, he could at least be insulted..

My task was easy. The difficult work fell to my mother, the daughter. If the doctors had good news it was announced directly to my grandmother. "You're fine, Elizabeth. Have your daughter take you home."

Bad news was always preceded by the dreaded question, "Are you her daughter?" At those times I was glad to be the granddaughter..

Watching my mother care for my grandmother was a glimpse into infinity. Within her actions I saw the reflections of countless women who had gone before her uttering the same words of comfort, performing identical rituals. Their collective memories simultaneously resounded out of the past and echoed off future generations. All of this has been done before, they said. All of this will be done again, came the reply..

Since my grandmother's death, my relationship with my mother has shifted perceptibly. Where before she had all the answers, she now turns to me for advice. Where her will was once strong, she now requires encouragement to bolster her resolve..

These days she regales my sisters and me with tales of legendary relatives who died in regrettable fashion. She would not like to die like Aunt Margaret, who was allowed to linger on a breathing tube for years. She envies Uncle Leo, who retired for the night and passed in his sleep. I recognize these parables for what they are: continuing instruction on how she should be cared for when her time comes.

Sometimes my sisters and I gently tease my mother. "Be nice to us or we'll let your sons arrange your funeral," we say. It's an idle threat. While we have never spoken of it, my sisters and I understand that when the time comes, we three women will share the responsibility and honor of caring for an aging mother..

My grandmother's death was my graduation from granddaughter to daughter; from third generation to second. The next time a white-coated physician utters the words, "Who's the daughter?", I will be the one who steps forward. There will be no mother to absorb the blow for me, no one to receive the unwanted news and filter out the reality before passing it along. That's now my job..

It will be my daughters who bluster at the doctors, my daughters who challenge the dangling Sword of Damocles. And when the day comes when I lay my mother's body to rest in the family crypt, it will be my daughters who step forward to lift the yoke from my shoulders and place it on their own. And it will be their daughters who will take up the echo of past generations and carry it into the future.


KATHY PURCELL is a professional newspaper columnist and mom who is active in the Internet writing community...

For comments to the writer mail to:ampersnd@inlink.com

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