Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Evening of August 13th, 1999

I had just drifted off to sleep when I heard a loud knock on the backdoor. I knew immediately that something was wrong. My wife and I lived in an apartment on a desolate stretch of road in the Connecticut River valley of western Massachusetts in the town of Whately. The houses on that road were spaced far apart and most of my neighbors were farmers. I knew that who ever was knocking had to have driven and if someone spent the time to drive out to my house, it must be urgent. I peeked out the window and saw a Massachusetts State Police cruiser in my driveway. I had left my wife an hour earlier at a food festival in Northampton where we sampled food from some local restaurants and had a few drinks. Did she have an accident? Did I hit something on the way home and not know it? In my heart I knew what it was.

I opened the door. "Are you David Sullivan?" the female officer asked with an ultra official voice that only a statie commands. "Yes", I groggily replied. "Is your mother Cecilia Sullivan who lives at the Walter Salvo house in Northampton?". My peripheral vision was lost; the officer appeared to be at the end of a telescope. "Yes", I replied. My eyes quickly welled up and I went numb. "Mr. Sullivan, I'm sorry to tell you that your mother died sometime in the past few days. Her body was found in her apartment by a friend in the Salvo House." I stared blankly at the officer. Her male counterpart broke my concentration. "Are you OK sir?". I was holding on to the door jam for support. "What happened? How...was she..", was all I could get out. I felt like I was falling into a deep, dark hole with no end. The male officer was moving his lips, but all I could hear was my own breathing. "...call him with any questions", he handed me a card with a phone number of the detective in charge of the case. "Are you going to be all right Mr. Sullivan?", the female officer asked. "Yeah...thanks" I creaked. I turned and shut the door.

The police detective was matter of fact, "she died on the toilet, the way we found her she was probably trying to pull herself up with her good arm using the bar, but something happened, heart attack, whatever. There was no evidence of foul play, but we found a bunch of empties by her chair and a bunch of medications, she was on a lot of medications, huh?" "Where is she?" I interrupted. "She went directly to 'Pease Funeral Home' over by the hospital. There was no need to go to the hospital she was there for three, maybe four days." "I talked to her on Tuesday, so it wasn't more than three." "Well, she was in bad shape. It was hot up there and I'm surprised that no one complained about the smell earlier." I was numb to his insensitivity and wanted to hear more, however painful the details. "Can I see her?" "You'll have to call the funeral home in the morning, but you don't want to...I mean...you shouldn't. Its bad. Just remember her like she was the last time you saw her."

That was easy.

I took her to her favorite restaurant, The Bluebonnet Diner, for lunch on her birthday, August 7th. She didn't seem right. She only ate half of her meal and was very spacey. She had been disabled since the age of 35 when a brain aneurysm burst, causing her to have right side paralysis and no hope of getting out of the hole she dug for herself by marrying at age 17 and having 6 kids and a divorce by the time she was 24. The last time I saw her she was getting out of my car at her apartment after lunch at 'Bluebonnet'. I put her wheelchair next to my car and helped her transfer from the front seat to the chair. I tried to help push her to the front door. She had a hard time disengaging the brakes. "Ma, push the brake up, I can't move..." "All right, all right. Leave me alone!", she snapped. and wheeled herself to the front door. I chided, "Bye, Maaa" in a sing, songy voice hoping to get her to lighten up. She responded by waving an arm in the air, irritated, without turning around. I got in the car and my wife and I laughed at how stubborn she was. I never laid eyes on her again.

I called my brothers and sisters after I got off the phone with the detective. By this point shock had settled in and I have no recollection of my conversations with them except that I was surprised by the lack of emotion in their responses. Her death was expected, exactly when was the question. She had been given last rights dozens of times over the years, but always pulled through. Maybe their lack of discernible affect was not shock, but relief that the years of self loathing and self destructive behavior was over. She could finally stop running from the demons. My wife came home and I gave her the news. I saw my devastation in her eyes. I realized that her face was mirroring mine and that realization caused me to break down. I didn't cry again until days later when I was carrying my mother's casket out of Blessed Sacrament Church. I faced my brothers who were holding the other side of the casket. They both looked like they did when they were little boys, vulnerable and needy. My face was mirroing theirs.

Soon after my wife got home we went to bed. The next few days were going to be stressful at best and if I stayed up I'd just be torturing myself with memories of Ma and me swimming at the lake, playing catch in the backyard or her rubbing my head as I lay in her lap, watching television.

As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, I was comforted by the thought that my mother was with her infant son Derek who had died 29 years earlier, her sister Rosemary and her mother in a place better than this one.

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