Friday, December 19, 2014

Passing, Pets and Potato Pancakes

My senior employee Bryce's mother passes away and I attend the service at Forest Lawn. There are wakes, viewings, novenas and other events I'm invited to but I opt only to attend the service with another of my employees. I contrast the extravaganza of this death with the simple service held for my dad. After my mom 's slow unraveling the connections she'd had were either dead or distant. I marked her passing only by sending a few notes informing the last vestiges of friends and relatives that she was gone. My employee is Filipino and my colleague and I are the only white people in the crammed chapel. The casket is open but fortunately not visible from my seat in the back row.

Bryce has worked for me over 25 years. We like each other just fine but I have never been to his home. His free time is devoted 100% to family, which is huge, extended and primarily comprised of households of three or more generations. We understand that this is not necessarily harmonious but just the way it is. Bryce never reports, “I saw a friend from high school” or intimates any social interactions with non-relatives. The SRO service is led by a Filipino priest. One of Bryce's daughter's sings and the other recites a psalm. Bryce eulogizes his mother. During her medical decline and after her death, Bryce is absent from work many days. I confess to being a bit resentful about this but when he speaks, through tears, about his mom, I feel guilty for having begrudged him this time off.

The parents move to Los Angeles from the Philippines when Bryce is a toddler. His mother doesn't drive and newly arrived in Los Angeles she is dependent on public transportation. When Bryce is five or so he accompanies his mom to run errands and she takes the wrong bus. They end up stranded at the freeway bus stop on the 101. Mom has no command of English. She holds Bryce's hand tighter. He senses how frightened she is as she tries to hold back tears and reassure him. She closes her eyes, prays and determines to try to walk home. Despite feeling his mother's fear, Bryce remembers feeling certain and secure that his mom would take care of him. Her prayers are indeed answered and a lady stops for them and offers to drive them home.

Bryce's mom undergoes a number of procedures before it is concluded that further life saving efforts are futile. Still stifling sobs, Bryce goes on to describe his mother's last days in the hospital. He holds her hand and encourages her to be strong and fight for her life. Finally, he has a sad epiphany. His desire for his mother to soldier on, despite the odds, harks back to her clasping his hand on the freeway. He is accustomed to his mother's firm grasp and her prayers but he realizes that his pep talks come from a selfish place. It is time for his mother to be at peace and time for Bryce to let her go.

After two weeks of liquids, my stitches are removed and I am given the green light to return to solids. I have salivating dreams about hamburgers, although I almost never eat beef. I head straight from the dentist to The In-N-Out and order the #2 combo. I've done stuff like this before and still haven't gotten it through my head that food that I don't make myself is almost never as good as I imagine it. The burger is gristly and the fries are lukewarm and limp. Fortunately, it is Hanukah. Although I hate making them and particularly spending a week cleaning the grease out of the kitchen, homemade latkes and donuts do not disappoint sense memories and I will likely pass on the Weight Watcher's scale this week.

Joe College is home. This is the first time he's been there without Spuds or Girlfriend In-Law in many moons and he is quite chill and remarkably studious, working arduously on some paper with Himself, having made it clear that the subject matter is well beyond my meager grasp. I ask him if he wants to learn to make latkes and he is indifferent. “But who,” I ask, “is going to make them when I'm dead?” I'm not sure if he's just trying to placate me or if he realizes that there might be a point after I am gone that he might actually want some latkes and in that the current inamorata is a shiksa, it might be prudent to learn. He peels and grates the potatoes and pays attention to the frying process and confers in me a slight sense of immortality.

In his first concentrated time stuck with us, the boy is getting a sense of our devolution. I don't think Himself has left the house in over two weeks and I often work from home for a couple days in a row. We hardly ever go to movies or eat out. We watch a lot of TV and dote on the remaining dog and cat.

The last couple of weeks are dedicated to encouraging Gary the cat, who has been relegated to our bedroom for over a decade, to come downstairs, despite the presence of Opie, the dog. The cat sequester was due to Rover and Taffy's failure to master cat etiquette. With the two elder gents gone, we decide that perhaps gentle Opie is young enough to learn not to chew up a cat. At first I bring Gary down and hold him swaddled in a blanket and let him and the dog sniff each other. We leave the door open and after about a week, Gary ventures down to the living room on his own volition. We talk about this for days. Even more miraculous is the day when Gary not only descends into the living room, he actually jumps into Himself's lap. Joe College is indifferent to the cat/dog integration project. A friend comes to watch a movie and sits in Himself's chair. Gary not only comes downstairs but he jumps into our friend's lap and cuddles. Himself and I shriek like little girls at this miracle. Joe College rolls his eyes and suggests that perhaps we should get out more.

Bryce is back at work now. He's been helping his dad go through his mother's stuff. Someday I guess my kids will be going through mine. I have a couple of big purges every year and try to get rid of that which is neither functional or beautiful, but there is still a lot of crap. I remember my irritation at my own mother's accretion of junk. I try to be a better steward but there are all those nearly empty bottles of shampoo, underpants with stretched out elastic and funky little jars of makeup. Who will discard these sad worn vestiges? I grow more and more mindful about making my passing less of a nuisance for the sprats. I don't want to cloud their memories of how much I love them. I hope the dumpster full of my garbage is disposed expeditiously and that the kids never have a Chanukah without latkes, despite the greasy mess.

Illustration by Paula Rego (again...)