January 2012 was the worst month of my life. It started off well enough, celebrating New Year’s in Little Washington with my wife and kids, teaching a writing workshop for teens at the Rust Library, and then flying to Hawaii for a conference. We had a free day in Hawaii, so I headed over to Pearl Harbor to see the USS Arizona, which still lies just below the surface of the water. I was on Pacific time, but I attempted to call my Mom, who lives in New Hampshire so that she could experience, at least vicariously, treading upon such historic soil. But I couldn’t reach her, and I sensed right then that something was wrong.
My Mom has been fighting cancer for the last two years. Her chances of recovery were never good because the cancer was already Stage IV when the doctors discovered it. But she took their chemo and their radiation and their hormone pills, all the while praying for a miracle. She had two strokes last summer, and on the day that I was at Pearl Harbor, my Mom was lying on the floor of her small cabin, having suffered a massive third stroke. Somehow, she managed to crawl to her phone and call her brother-in-law. My aunt and uncle rushed to her house and my Mom was taken to the hospital. She seemed to be improving at first, and the one thing she insisted upon was that I not be told because she didn’t want to spoil my trip. Thankfully, my uncle ignored this advice and called my wife. When I called to check in that night, Rachel told me what had happened.
My first instinct was to come home, but like I said, my Mom wanted me to stay for a presentation that I had to give later in the week. So I stayed, worrying every second that I wasn’t going to make it to New Hampshire in time. I ended up returning home on a Thursday evening, and then flying out of Dulles less than 24 hours later. I passed from Honolulu to San Francisco to Washington to Amissville, back to Washington, then on to Boston. From there I drove to Durham, NH where I spent the night with a co-worker. In a 48-hour period I crossed then entire width of this great country and went from 80 degrees in Hawaii to 11 below in New Hampshire.
I spent a little over a week with my Mom at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire. In spite of her initial improvements, she began to deteriorate quickly. Jet-lagged and heartbroken, I watched as she slowly lost the ability to eat, to speak, and even to stay awake. I was grateful to my aunt and uncle as well as my cousins, who all took care of me while I watched my mother dying. Back home in Virginia, my wife dropped in at the comic store to pick up my books. She sent them to NH so that I would have something to read as I sat up through the night.
We ended up transporting my Mom to Weeks Hospital in Lancaster, New Hampshire, just a few miles from her home. She was still unconscious, but I’m happy to say that all of the people that needed to see her, that needed to say goodbye, were able to pay their last respects. After the friends and family were gone, Saturday the 28th passed into Sunday the 29th. I had been sleeping poorly for that entire week, so I was awake at midnight. I sat up reading the comics Rachel had sent. The book that really stood out to me was Locke & Key Volume 2: Head Games. I was reading this book at 4:45 am when my Mom’s breathing stopped. The silence was so eerie, and I’m not being dramatic when I say that I can still hear it.
I spent a few more days in New Hampshire, camping out at my Mom’s house and going through her things. I found, among other things, five unpublished novel manuscripts, a handful of short stories, and about 150 poems. I knew that she had been writing up there in the North Country, but I had no idea how prolifically. She was a regular Emily Dickinson.
As you’re probably aware by now, this post is not a review of Head Games. But I will say that I was happy to have that book with me when my Mom passed away. I was happy to have a piece of fiction (a good piece in my opinion) to ease the pain of saying goodbye. Fiction tells us things about ourselves that non-fiction cannot. It’s truer than the truth, do you know what I mean? It can cut us when we’re least expecting, but it can also sooth a broken heart or unlock a door to a place where we can escape for a while. I think that my Mom, who had a Master’s Degree from George Mason and studied with John Gardner, would probably appreciate that.