July 14, 2004
I felt a great air inside, a bubble forming. It was rising, first in my stomach, my rib cage and then my throat. I was on the metro in Rome. It was balmy, crowded. I had to get away. I thought I might escape out of the window.
Debbie whispered, “Are you okay?”
I clasped my hand to my mouth and shook my head; afraid the bubble would explode and my body, fold in on itself.
“We’re almost here,” she said.
All around, the kids in my Art History program were staring. I wanted to spoon their eyes out. The train slowed, slowing, slower. Hurry up! Open the door! Voices rattled inside my head, like falling marbles.
Finally, the doors opened. I bolted out, running down an alley behind a market. Debbie was trailing behind. My body melted into the stucco wall.
“I’m, I’m, I’m trying… I can’t, I… I, I.” The bubble obliterated. A long, primal wail pushed out like a screaming train. I became a child, shrinking into the cracked pavement. I felt my stomach push down through to my knees and I stayed in this way for what felt like eternity…
“What happened?” Debbie said moments later.
“I don’t know.”
“What set it off, do you think?”
“Maybe it’s just travel jitters. I’ve never felt like this before.”
“Come on. We’ll get some gelato after dinner,” she said.
“Thanks, Debbie.” I took a deep breath and a step…
I felt better at dinner. Our instructor made a deal with a local restaurant owner to feed us every other night. I loved the olives. We were low in the bowl. Giuseppe came over to refill it.
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Fo’get about it,” he said much to my delight. I slapped Debbie on the knee.
“What?” she said turning around.
“A real Italian in Italy told me, ‘Fo’get about it,’ ” I gestured like he did.
“That’s hilarious!” she said taking a healthy swig of her wine glass.
Across the long table we were engrossed in chatter, laughing over clinking wine glasses, twirling spaghetti in white sauce, dipping soft, doughy bread in olive oil and vinegar.
After dinner, we walked down to the gelato stand several blocks from the restaurant. I had caramel and Debbie, blackberry. We strolled back to our apartment licking gelato, our bellies full of wine and pasta, a soft breeze flirting around us in the oldest city in western civilization…
July 15, 2004
Debbie shook me awake. It was 4 o’clock in the morning.
“It’s your Dad,” she said handing the phone to me in the dark.
“Hello?” I said.
“It’s Dad… Mom is here in the hospital… she won’t be coming out.” His voice was like silk sliding on cotton. Mom was awake, but unable to speak…
July 18, 2004
I was sitting at a dining table in a Red Lion Hotel. My brother was talking to Uncle Bill. I sipped my sugar-coated coffee and wrote down the dollar amounts we would all contribute to bury my mother.
Mom had always said she wanted to be buried near her beloved grandmother in San Bernardino, California. She was the only person Mom truly loved with every part of her being. ‘Gram’ as Mom called her, had adopted her own grandchildren after their father shot his wife.
There was no dispute among us. Mom would be buried in San Bernardino. My brother made the arrangements. Dad was an empty specter. It would cost another $3,000 to fly her to California. None of us had the money and besides, we all agreed, Mom never liked to fly. She would travel in her casket in my brother’s Ford Explorer.
Once we loaded the coffin in his car, it was too high for my brother to see over the top of it on his right side. So, I would follow him; he would signal, I’d get in the right lane – he would look for me in the side mirror and switch lanes. We drove in that way from southern Oregon to southern California.
Like a dark caravan, we drove down Interstate 5 until the sun was low in the sky. We made it to Williams, California and stayed overnight at a Best Western. Uncle Bill’s wife didn’t sleep well. The idea of Mom inside a coffin outside our hotel room gave her the creeps.
The next day we had to be at the funeral home in San Bernardino by 5pm. We didn’t have much time. My brother averaged 90 mph the rest of the way, stopping twice for gas. We pulled into the back of the funeral home five minutes before they closed. It was a good thing to. Mom may not have fared well another night out of a freezer.
I still dream about Rome, how it vanished overnight, the long 10-hour flight, staring at the sun moving through clouds the moment my mother left this world. I still recall the last words I said to her over the phone at 4 o’clock in the morning, “I love you, Mom. I’m coming home. I’ll see you soon.”
Two days after the funeral, I had my 30th birthday. I wrote my mother’s obituary for the local paper where our family lived for many years. I spent $500 of my student loan money to pay for its publication. How tragic one must pay to honor a life.
You never know when someone you love will die. Things just happen. And sometimes you have to drive 1,000 miles to bury your mother with the reassurance in knowing she never liked to fly.