The Ongoing Vigil

by Sven Birkerts

I’ve taken boxes and boxes from my mother’s apartment. Photograph albums are easy enough to shelve to be looked at some time in the future. But everything else, all the things long forgotten, that had receded into some original inertia—any one of them is now liable to come alive for me. Her things and his. This hammer was the hammer that my father kept in the fold-top Schlitz beer carton with his other tools. I picked it up the other day to hang some pictures—it was the weight in the hand that flashed me right back. I see the box and I can very nearly rejoin myself standing there in the hallway closet. And here’s my mother’s handwriting on a birthday card to me; and the patterned Latvian sash—called a prievite—that somehow turned up in the back of my car after our move. Not everything signals to me, of course. Rather, it’s as if the sensations of loss collect into certain objects, not others. And there’s no telling which ones or why that should be.

These blink-of-an-eye occasions have two simultaneous effects. One is the immediate recollection—the closet, my sense of standing there. But right along with that comes the realization, ever repeated, that that past is gone and my parents are gone. After which—like a shadow of a shadow—comes the obvious extrapolation that everything else has been carried away, too. Where is the boy who was sent to bring the hammer to his father?

It’s never just the simple recognition that my mother and father are no more, of course. Both deaths are recent enough that the difficulties of their last years, their physical decline, are still with me, part of the same visitation. But there is another simple truth to be considered. Parents are a kind of advance party in the scheme of things. Going first, they provide so much reality for their children to contemplate, and this can be profound, especially for those of us who were there to witness their last years. We take in and deeply absorb what it means to get old, and then to be old. That was such a profound education for me—the daily first-hand view of what happens in those later years, and how much character plays a determining role.

The onsets of things are hard to pinpoint. So often they are a matter of degree, a slow progression toward the various tipping points along the way. My parents moved to the Boston area from Michigan about ten years before my father died. They came, as they admitted, to be near my sister and me—already a signal, a distant drum, for they had made no such motion in the many years that came before. It’s easy enough to imagine their reasoning: being close means having support nearby for when support might be needed.

At first, there were few, if any, additional signs. Taking the proceeds from the sale of the Michigan house, they bought an apartment in Wellesley. They downsized to one car, but at that point they both still drove. They shopped, entertained—mainly family and several Latvian friends—and my father stayed enviably busy bringing his capstone project, the Latvian National Library, to conclusion. In his eighties, he still flew to Latvia at least once a year to consult with his team.

But then came the little increments. My mother started to complain about her vision, but—typically—it was some time before she had her eyes checked and learned that she had macular degeneration. It was a terrible and sad irony: the loss of sight was happening to the one person in our family who had always had exceptional vision, who would amuse us on family trips by deciphering road signs before we could even spot them in the distance. This was a cruel, and worsening, disability.

My father, too, began to slip. He got progressively less stable on his feet and eventually started making use of a cane—which he did with style, combing his long silver hair back and playing the “artiste,” using the thing as if it were a prop he had just picked up. But then, not that much later, came the accidents. Little ones in the beginning, silly events that he liked to spin out over cocktails, almost as if they were adventures. “I took a little fall yesterday—nothing to worry about but it took your mother some doing to get me back up … ” He described the logistics in detail. Pillows, applications of the laws of physics. Sitting beside him, my mother would make a predictable exasperated face. We, the family audience, went along with the script—professing our concern, but also applauding the ingenuity required for an old woman to get an old man off the floor. Still, the writing, as they say, was on the wall.

My father fell, and fell again. He had, in a fairly short time, become the frailer of the two. Once he fell hard enough that we had to take him to the hospital to get checked out. Whereupon, as so often happens, other grounds for concern were found. Elevated blood pressure, swelling in the legs, other issues that had gone unattended. I compress many events to get to the next stage, for as the falls got more serious, my father began what would turn out to be a series of stays in rehab.

To this day, the word “rehab” fills me with despair. There’s no mystery here, rehab—the sequence of my father’s stays in one particular building, one wing in different rooms—was my first real introduction to the remorselessness of decline, the undermining of everything of life en route to death. I’m not sure how many stays there were, two or maybe three. But so much else is clear, preserved far too precisely in the cells of memory. I went there every other day for months, the good son, knowing how depressed he had to be, but also because my mother insisted that I take her. The call would come every morning, at the same time and with the same words. “Are we going to see Dad today?” I couldn’t possibly go every day, though she couldn’t understand that. My sister and I arranged to do alternate days. Even so, the whole business was excruciating to me.

The stages of inevitable decline were one part of it. They were hard to accept—mental confusion, physical indignity, and pain. I knew, my father knew, and surely at some very deep level my mother knew: there was no coming back to any former state, there was just waiting it out. The other painful thing, maybe the most painful of all, was the wearing away of his human stature. He had been such a fearsome figure, and in important ways an exemplar to me. To see him being handled by nurses, and to hear him spoken to in hospital talk, “How are we feeling today?” To which he was at least able to respond, saying things like “We? I don’t know about you, baby … ”

There are so many moments I have held on to. A key one is his recounting of a dream during one visit. I was there with my mother, as usual. We had navigated our way down the long corridor which was always lined with patients in their wheelchairs, most of them staring out blankly. My mother was on her walker, and I was hovering by her elbow. When we turned into his room, always a hard moment because we never knew what to expect—he might be sleeping, or getting changed, or shaving—we were surprised to find him sitting up, completely alert, and apparently in good spirits. He said right away that he could not wait to tell us his dream.

He found himself, he said, in a bright open room, where everything was white, almost blindingly white. Against one wall was a row of white boxes of different sizes. He saw them there and he knew right off—each was filled with things he no longer had to do or worry about. He felt as if a great burden had been lifted from him. He was radiant with the news.

My father left rehab at the end of what would be his last stay. The day before he had asked me to do him a special favor. Would I go out and buy a few boxes of the best chocolates I could find. I did, and the next day, when he was all packed and ready to leave, he had me wheel him along the various corridors and down to the nurse’s station. Whenever he saw one of his “ladies,” I would stop and he would motion her over. He would then, with some ceremony, present the chocolates and thank her. When we were back in his room, ready to check out, a group of his nurses and caretakers came to say goodbye. “We’re going to miss you, Big Pappy.” Big Pappy.

He lived on a few months more, with increasing physical problems, but it was agreed that he would not go back to the hospital or rehab. At the end, in the last days, he was in the care of hospice workers. To me, it seemed that he was living now in the wake of that dream he’d had. He had the ease, even in decline, of someone who has set aside the heavy weights he had been carrying and was finally able to walk unencumbered.

Where death was concerned, my parents could not have been more different. My father was remarkably—hearteningly—open and matter-of-fact about dying. He had been letting it be known for a few years that he was ready. Whether this was his conviction, or a way to get at my mother, I’m not sure. His level of preparedness—the arranging of documents, from his will, to insurance, to investments—argued that he was facing the facts and taking the rational course. My mother, by severe contrast, would tune out, or even leave the room, when the subject was brought up. “Gunnar, please … ” And so it went. In her own last months, even when hospice had been engaged, she made not one mention of the possibility: she acted as if she would very soon be up and about … I was with her a good deal throughout her decline, and never once did she concede to me that she was dying.

I can only guess at the deep-down panic she felt in her last weeks, when it had to be clear to her at some very primary level that she was dying. I feel such sadness when I think of it, which is often. My father faced things straight on all the way to the very end. He lay in the hospital bed that had been set up in their apartment and accepted doses of morphine, and it seemed to all of us who came to see him that he was calm. I felt he was offering no resistance when he was lying there. Our daughter Mara went up to him very close to the end and said “I love you, Opa,” and we saw that he whispered something back, but it was inaudible.

In the year before she died, my mother started having episodes of dementia. At first, they seemed to be short-lived moments of confusion. I would be driving her somewhere, and in the midst of whatever we were talking about she would suddenly ask, “Is Daddy getting enough to eat?” No use at that point explaining that he was no longer alive, that he was there in her apartment, his ashes in a wooden box high on her shelf. I took the easy road. “He’s being fed well,” I assured her. She would accept that, not asking me how I knew or if I had seen him.

But these visitations became more intense, lasted longer, and began to involve other people from her life. She would ask about her Tante Aija, who had been a kind of second mother to her when she was growing up, or Arija, her girlhood friend, or her mother and father. Our various assurances—lies accounting for their absence—still worked for a time. But then things worsened again. I would get calls from one or another of the caretakers we had hired to stay with her. “Your mother is sitting on the bed all dressed waiting for someone named Arija to come for a visit.” The caretaker would hand her the phone and I would explain calmly that Arija wasn’t able to get there that day and that she should just eat her dinner and get ready for bed.

One day, I picked up to hear her voice on the line—her helper had dialed for her. Where was Mara, where had she gone, she was lost! There was real panic in her voice. I tried my usual reassurances—she was out with friends, she would be back soon—but nothing worked. My mother was getting more anxious by the moment. Then I got an idea. I told her to wait one minute, that I would call her right back. I texted Mara, who was living in Brooklyn, and asked her to call her grandmother to tell her she was safe at home. That seemed to work.

Aside from the times when she asked about my father or one of her grandchildren, most of her delusions in her last months had to do with wanting to go home. No use telling her that she was already home, or—what a laugh— that her apartment was cozy and had everything she could want. She heard none of that. When this happened when I was with her, she seemed to be looking right past me, and her tone was beseeching. She wanted to see Arija, or Tamara, or Larisa, her girlhood friends. She invoked my father less and less as time went on.

I wish my mother could have had a kinder end. The deep, unanswered longings surfaced again and again, and none of us found the right answers. Medication was the only thing that worked. She would be given an extra dose of her antidepressant, and in the last month, when she was under hospice care, a drop of morphine on the tongue. It was in this last phase, when she was calling and calling, that I fully realized just how much she had held back or pushed away all these years. This, I can say, made me sadder than the fact of her dying.

After death there comes such a dramatic shift of perspective. At the very end especially, my focus was so intensely keyed to the moment—breaths taken, movements, sounds or utterances. What a shock after that to have my parent, my mother, suddenly vanish into posterity. A matter of a single breath—here, gone. Nothing more. In a flash, the long cumbersome life becomes the life that was, there to be considered in full, questioned about its fulfillment, its happiness, and, however this can be measured, about its success. I’m not referring to any conventional markers, but asking whether each of my parents found what they wanted. And, if they fell short, as so many of us do, by how much? People say things like “He got what he wanted out of life,” or “Was she happy?” I don’t know.

I spent many hours in my mother’s apartment, especially near the end. For so much of that time she would be dozing in the chair by the window. I put on music, rotating between the composers she enjoyed: Chopin, Boccherini, Mozart, Vivaldi …. In the many long stretches during which she dozed, I just sat and let my attention wander around the room, from my grandfather’s painting on the far wall, to the bookshelves and all of the framed photos lined up there. I was more sharply aware than before of all the familiar things: the heavy black elephant sculpture, the Latvian adornments, the woven sashes, her old silver jewelry box on the bureau next to the chair where she napped, and, on top of the bookshelf, covered with a small Latvian tapestry, the box that held my father’s ashes.

At those times, I wouldn’t actively look, I wouldn’t study things. Instead, I’d cut the gaze free, letting it fasten arbitrarily on one thing and another. Sometimes I would feel the mood encroach and deepen, my sense of time and place become shadowy. I’m not sure how to describe this. It was the past resurfacing, not so much in specific memories, more as an atmosphere, a distillation of all the time we had passed together. The eras seemed to converge. The framed photo on the wall showing my father as a clean-cut young man not much over thirty. My grandfather’s painting of the lake at Cranbrook. A large Elsa Dorfman photo over by the door of us three siblings, our spouses, and four children that I can never look at without a sorrowful jolt. A smaller photo on the bookcase showing my grandparents—my mother’s parents—standing side by side. They are very much as I remember them.

The night my mother died, my sister and her husband, Harris, and several caretakers waited with the body. I had farther to drive and arrived last. My sister had thought to bring a bottle of champagne and we all offered a last toast. Our mother lay rigid in the hospital bed. There is no practice for these toasts and no way to read the silence after. What were we toasting? It was a silent and solemn raising of glasses. Were we wishing her safe travels, or just pausing to acknowledge the great inevitable? I don’t know.

After everyone left, I stayed behind with my mother’s body, waiting for the man from the funeral home to arrive. The bed was pushed against the wall and from where I sat I saw just the profile, the suddenly sharpened outline of her face. The room felt silent in a new way—it was not unlike the silence that reverberates when someone slams the door on their way out. The reverberation was all that was left. When the man from the funeral home arrived, he wrapped my mother in a sheet. He was a large man and had a deft and decisive set of moves. He had the body on the gurney in a matter of seconds. There was nothing for me to do but to thank him and hold the door as he wheeled her out.

I was alone again, and the room felt vastly emptier. I turned off the few lights. Leaving, I noticed on the table the tiny tin cap that fitted over the champagne cork. I put it in my pocket, though I’m not sure why. Later, when I emptied my pockets of tissues and coins, my fingers closed around the shape. I knew right away it was something I would not part with. I have it by me here on the shelf.

Published on December 15, 2021