I recall that my mother was lovely, even in the closing days of her life, as she sat in her wheelchair and spoke in ways unfamiliar, arms bruised from a fall and her mind an expanse of whispers and shadows. Perhaps she was even lovelier then for the hardships she endured with such grace. On the day this image was rendered in my mind, my mother had been placed in a common room in anticipation of the family’s arrival, one of those institutional spaces they try to make less dreary with odd bits of decoration — an aviary being their main point of success.
The nursing home where my mother lingered, Country Villa — which was neither in the country nor did it vaguely resemble a villa — actually benefited from the enclosure that housed an array of unfortunate birds. Cheerful? No, but the atmosphere was at least a bit more bearable for their efforts, chirping green and yellow creatures there to ease our collective sorrow. The aviary was the first thing I noticed, arriving on the grounds rather late, as my mother concluded her second day at the villa.
As my aunt and uncle chatted with staff, I slowly approached the woman who had once known me so well, able to do no more than greet her as a stranger bearing a few casual pleasantries, as if we had never met or had simply known each other in passing. She replied, in a voice of broken whispers, that she was awaiting someone else.
The box of shadows was open.
Songbirds felt like such a strange presence at that moment, at once soothing and a bit of a nuisance, as I tried to understand my mother’s new language and way of being. After our initial greeting, we said little else, as the young man who had arrived earlier to play classical guitar gathered his belongings to depart, doing his best not to notice us. This was the only occasion on which my mother and I met in the common room to face the aviary and sort through the remnants of our less than amiable relationship. So much transpired in that brief time.
Although, on certain days, darkness would give way to warm silence as the staff made their rounds, on other occasions, it would remain unrelenting, as it did during the hour I signed those release forms, the ones required to have my mother placed in restraints and — in clear terms — simply be allowed to die at the appointed hour, never to be resuscitated or given a feeding tube.
During the remaining two months of her life, we made what progress we could, having our closest moments in the silence to which she would soon surrender, as throngs of sedated people, wheelchair-bound, sat in the adjacent hall, abiding their own moments as best they could. From time to time, I would venture to the nurses’ station and marvel at the number of young people who filled the nursing home, some injured by gang violence, others having barely survived car accidents, all existing in close proximity to the aviary.
As I look back on my mother’s closing hours, now, from the distance of many years, I recall the images of her life according to a few old photos and the songbirds she knew at the very end.
In Loving Memory of Ruth O’Bryant Palmer
for Her Grace, Warmth and Wisdom,