By Mary Heller
I believe it was the last trip she took. In all the years I had lived in the Bay Area, my mother only came out twice. This was the first time she and my father came as tourists. My father seemed amenable to wandering, so we traveled around northern California with brief jumps to the coast, then retreats inland.
But it was the ocean my mother wanted. She wanted to sit and stare at it, alert, waiting, seemingly attuned to a rhythm that took her outside of time. Growing up in the Midwest, my mother had lived a landlocked life, fenced in by parents, children, house and husband, unaware of her own yearnings for more. For her Lake Michigan had offered horizon enough, stretching big enough to give the illusion of life without confinement.
On her last day here, she seemed restless, dissatisfied, as if her trip were somehow unfinished. She had a hard time naming what it was. Then she told me she wanted to see the ocean again. We went to Ocean Beach by way of the park. I kept hoping for the fog to clear out, or at least to lighten up, but it remained a white breath circling through huge pines. I had wished to give her the bright, bountiful ocean, dancing diamonds of light on water. Instead the foghorn complained repeatedly, its voice roaming through the park.
At the botanical garden we walked some. The magnolias were in bloom, some of them quite glorious in their color, in the magnitude of their blossoms, others more spare, either just about to bloom, or finished with the show, their now brown petals littering the grass. Their branches curved in cupped shapes, and imitated the flowers. They might have been heralds of the splendor, or they might have been their skeletal remains. We both stood with our heads back as far as we could stretch, looking up among the blessing of the trees. I felt like reaching out to seize their grace. But how would one hold awe?
We drove to the ocean then. The sand seemed faded, grayish beige. The sea was gray, neutralized, the waves rendering their white undersides over and over. They made a great noise, pouring in, backing out: useless noise. After standing in the wind a few minutes watching dogs and children run randomly, fast, the energy of the waves converted into action, my mother said she was cold, wanted to sit in the car.
We sat there for minutes, many minutes, and I felt her struggling for something. Now I might call it a struggle for perspective. The horizon was a merging of gloomy clouds, colorless fog, the estranging sea. I heard the fog horn again and again. It seemed unable to reconcile with the formidable dullness, or the despair.
“Tell me what you think of this dream” my mother said suddenly. “I was in a room, almost like a hospital room but it wasn’t. It made me think of one though, because everything was white. The walls, the floor. The table, there were a couple chairs I think, maybe only one. They were white. But there didn’t seem to be a door.”
The image of the room plunged me into fear, but I managed to remember that the dream and the room belonged to her. I asked how it felt to be in that room. Her response was unexpected: it was not charged. “Oh, it felt fine. I didn’t feel afraid or anything, it was just quiet. I didn’t have to do anything, just be there. Maybe I felt safe. Maybe even saved… …What do you think it means?”
I looked at her, and then I couldn’t. “I think it’s about death.” The waves overtook the shore and then withdrew. Their crashing happened far from me.
“I do too,” she said calmly. “I think I’ve had several dreams about death lately. I don’t worry, though. I understand it, I think.” She didn’t say more. We sat awhile longer. The fog never budged.
My mother was well then, but a year later she became very sick. She died in six months. Then, she had been afraid, edgy, and anxious, despite her determination that she shouldn’t be, that she should comfort in her belief in God. She was angry at my father, perhaps in part because she was going first, cheated of her expected freedom. Eventually, her body composed itself, quieted, and died; but I didn’t believe that inside she was at rest, that she had been able to inhabit that calming white room.
There were several times in her dying that I remember her dream and the ocean behind it. That dim gray wall of fog and sea. I wondered if the ocean had let her down that day. I wondered if it had told her anything after all. Sometimes I thought of that day as yet one more way I had let her down.
It wasn’t until years later that I also remembered the magnolias.
Copyright 2016 Mary Heller: All Rights Reserved