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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
368 pages
Jan 2004
Broadman & Holman

Once Upon a Gulf Coast Summer

by Susan Oliver

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



Before September, I’d never seen a real person die. I grew up on an urban homestead with concrete pastures and silos made of glass-fronted skyscrapers with spinning restaurants on top. In the city we don’t generally tolerate death in broad daylight. We even take our fading pets to discreet staging areas where death can be administered in a civilized manner, properly out of sight. At 61, then, I’d rarely ever even seen a mammal die.

Once, as I walked through my neighborhood early enough on a weekday morning to get home and showered before work, I spotted a bright-colored heap lying along the curb about three blocks from our house. As I neared, the outline of a husky man took shape. I knew it instantly as an “it” rather than a “he” because of the way it was positioned in the street – the face straight down, nose first, without any concern for bones or ligaments or breathing. The corpse’s orange and royal blue nylon running suit contained a wallet that identified its owner as 73-year-old Nathan Grossman, who’d lived two streets over. After a few shaky misdials on my cell phone, I managed to summon all sorts of flashing vehicles to the scene of my gruesome discovery. Still, I hadn’t actually seen Nathan Grossman die.

So when my mother’s nurse told me that it was time to take her to the hospital to get her the help she needed to “pass,” I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t doubt the outcome; Mother had made it quite clear that she did not mean to dally here any longer. But I couldn’t imagine how she would pull it off. Mother had never been a very courageous person. And when I saw how she sauntered right up to this hardest feat in all of life, I wondered, “Who does she suddenly think she is? Shouldn’t dying require some minimal level of competence, some threshold of bravery or goodness or badness – something?”

What followed silenced me. It surely wasn’t a common thing – what I saw happen to my mother.

If it were, human history might have a very different shape.

* * *

In a crisis, my mother normally withdrew to the periphery and let clearer heads and stronger hands respond. As she receded, she would ooze superiority, as if to say, “I need not be capable in such things, for they are below my station in life.” Preferably, one of the strong-handed people would first take the time to escort her to the sidelines, safely out of danger, before joining the fray. She was like a queen sequestered in an impenetrable underground fortress or flown from one undisclosed location to another during times of national insecurity. And the rest of us generally played right along.

But on Mother’s last afternoon, when I tiptoed into her room after talking with the nurse, she pulled herself up slightly and nodded at me very deliberately, the way a fifth-grade teacher might nod at the class clown hoping to discourage his antics before they began. I, of course, trotted up to her bed and sat down anyway.

“Mother, Nurse Simpson says you need to go to the hospital. Do you really think you’re ready for that? I mean, we’ve already brought in all this stuff to help you do your business.” I waved my hand toward the portable toilet, railing, and oxygen tank that were lined up against the far wall, ready for action. “There’s absolutely no reason to go before you’re ready,” I managed, my firm tone breaking up and fading to a plea somewhere between “go” and “before.”

Mother didn’t so much as cut her eyes in the direction of the expensive medical equipment that I had ordered on the morning ten days earlier when Dr. Lawless had disclosed what Mother apparently already knew but hadn’t yet bothered to share with me: the cancer was back. Back, and busily gnawing away at every conceivable healthy cell in her body. Things would move along quickly now, the doctor had said, perhaps as quickly as four or five months.

I had done what any other helpless daughter would do in similar circumstances. I’d arranged for Mother’s last months to be as comfortable as possible. I would ensure that her dying was not too unpleasant. She’d have everything she could possibly need to peter out slowly while I somehow warmed to the prospect of a world without her.

But Mother had rebelled from the start. What a time for her to tap into her belligerent streak. She always did know her own mind, even when she chose to disregard it. This time she knew she had no interest whatsoever in moving from bed to toilet and back for the next five months. Or four months. Or three. Or even two weeks. What queen would?

As I sat there on the edge of her bed waiting for some reply, Mother just gazed at me. It seemed that she was struggling to hold on to something. I reached out and put my hand over one of her gnarled, arthritic claws, her fingers jutting out diagonally from swollen knots of knuckles the way palm fronds flatten landward during Gulf Coast hurricanes. Her transparent, pore-less skin felt so delicate against my own straight, pink fingers. I wondered how much longer it could cover those knuckles without tearing and letting the unruly bones fall right out.

“We don’t have to go before you’re ready,” I repeated, willing her not to be.

But she nodded again – the nod I’d never seen before today.

Then she waited. She even closed her eyes for a minute, as if to give me some privacy. Or perhaps it was all part of her holding on. When she opened them again, her yellow-red lower lids that had begun to hang lazily off her eyes the last few days were stretched full of tears. I felt responsible. Was I really going to require this of her before I would stand down and allow her to attend to her real business?

I kissed the face. I tasted the salt that slipped generously down her saggy cheek. And as I laid her head gently back on the pillow, she loosened. Her eyes let me go and refocused somewhere beyond me. She had quit holding on.

I told Nurse Simpson to call the EMS, and my husband Eliot and I followed the ambulance to Houston’s Magdalene Memorial Hospital. Along the way I called my brother Clay and my daughter Samantha. They agreed to pass the word along and get everyone to the hospital as soon as possible. As we pulled into the “Emergency” driveway, raindrops were just beginning to clutter our windshield.

* * *

It was a terrible storm – so terrible that my grandson Patrick couldn’t get a flight in from Austin where he was a freshman at the University of Texas. He wanted to try driving down instead, but by the time he realized that all the flights would be canceled, it was 11 o’clock and we didn’t think Mother would last another three or four hours while he sped exhausted and grieving through the dark rain. He might as well come the next morning.

The rest of us huddled all night long round Mother’s bed: Eliot and me; Clay and his wife Lillian; my daughter Samantha; my son Seth, his wife Gretchen, and their two younger children; and Clay’s sons Jonathan and Max, who had flown in together from Dallas before the airports had closed. We had never met for such an occasion as this, and no one seemed to know quite how to act.

I should have realized sooner that it would not be up to me to smooth it all out. When the driver of Mother’s ambulance had pulled her gurney from the back and was asked by a young ER attendant why she was there, Mother had assessed her own condition for them in the simplest of terms. “I’m here to meet the Lord,” she’d said. Not knowing just what to do with that answer, the young man just nodded and wheeled her inside.

The emergency room doctors looked her over and confirmed her self-diagnosis. With very little fanfare, they admitted her and assigned us a small private room at the far end of the cancer floor. The room was homey and lamp-lit, devoid of medical stuff as if not much healing was expected to happen there. Even the bed seemed misplaced in a room where a doctor might walk in any minute to peak at a chart or administer a drug. For one thing, it was wide enough for a person to sit comfortably on each side of the patient. Dark green sheets and a paisley bedspread further set it apart from the narrow, white-sheeted beds we had glimpsed through the open doorways on the way down the hall. This bed had no wheels on it. Only its tiltable top half hinted that it lived in a hospital. We were in the Dying Room.

But I don’t think Mother even noticed the setting. This had all been staged for the rest of us, and I for one was grateful. An orderly lifted my shrunken mother off her transport gurney and laid her on the deathbed as effortlessly as he might have a child. Then he left and took everything else that was stark white with him.

Rain hammered the one small window in the room. Pulling back the drape, I looked out at the vague, yellow office and streetlights that dripped like liquid down the outside of the pane. “Damn, damn, damn,” I thought. “She won’t even get a last clear look at the city where she spent her whole eighty-five years!”

“Oh, Mom, I don’t think Gammy will care. She isn’t worried about out there,” Sam said softly from a few feet behind me. Apparently I had spoken out loud.

I turned on her. “How do you know what she’s worried about?”

“I don’t. But whatever it is, it isn’t out there.”

“Oh? So, how do you know so much about what runs through people’s minds before they die?”

“Please, Mom, I wasn’t contradicting you. I was just trying to help. Don’t take this out on me. I’m scared too, you know.”

It was just then that Mother first lurched off the sheets and contorted her wasted little body in a way that I thought would have killed her instantly. For hours after that she twisted and strained toward something that only she could see, flopping back now and then to rest before heaving forward again like a younger woman caught up by contractions. These finishing contractions seemed to utterly enthrall Mother. She labored to admit them, refusing to be distracted even by her children and grandchildren who attended her throughout the night. If she was fighting a battle, it was not against death. I’m sure she was trying to leave. But that’s not even quite it. I think it truer to say she was trying to go.

Or maybe she was simply being ravished.

Every year, millions of cicada nymphs burrow up from subterranean Houston where they’ve incubated for thirteen years around the roots of the pine trees. Almost en masse they shed their old, dried up skins in the dead of night and leave them cleaving to doorframes and perched on sidewalks all over the city. No one ever sees what this new life as fat, winged grasshoppers costs them, but we hear their cries all through the spring. If we judged only by what they left behind, we would think them sad creatures indeed.

At about three in the morning another line of severe thunderstorms moved into our part of Houston – no doubt a bright red patch on the Doppler radar. Gretchen had long since taken the kids home to bed, and the men had all staked out couches and chairs in the lobby down the hall where they sprawled snoring and sputtering uncomfortably. Lillian, Sam and I stood guard at Mother’s bed, finally getting used to her pitching back and forth. A tremendous clap of thunder that reverberated through the building and shook the windowpanes woke my brother Clay, and he stumbled back down to the room. Seeing Mother still laboring, Clay wrapped himself around her as if to siphon off all her fight and absorb it into his own body.

In a last flash of coherence, Mother whispered into his rumpled gray hair, “I’ve never died before.”

He rested her on the pillow and whispered back, “It’s okay Mother. You can do it.”

After a moment she had returned her gaze to the invisible place and tried to pull herself up again, but she was wearing out. That’s when I went for help.

The nurse who I dragged back with me managed to listen to Mother’s breathing while I cooed in her ear to keep her quiet. Then the nurse straightened up and looked intently at each of us.

“Would you like me to make her more comfortable?” she asked.

“Just like that?” I said, wondering where she had been all night. “Yes, of course.”

“It will make her sleep,” she warned vaguely as she pulled a vial and syringe from her pocket. Clay held Mother, and the nurse gave her the injection.

About twenty minutes later, Mother settled down and closed her eyes. She tugged a few times on her blue cotton nightgown as if she didn’t need it any more, and then forgot that struggle too. From my perch on the side of her bed I watched her inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Her breathing grew softer and more jagged. At six-fifteen, Mother failed to take another breath.

I laid her ravaged hands, one atop the other, on her still chest. They were loose, like knots about to come untied. Mother had won – finally she was free of them.

Outside, the remnants of the storm still pattered against the windowsill, in no hurry to desist, and the streetlights were snapping off in the dawn.

She’d done it. Whatever death was, my mother had done it.

* * *

Later, when I finally got around to cleaning out the bedroom where Mother had slept for the last few weeks of her life, I found a large, leather book in the top dresser drawer. On the first page, in a hand so shaky that I couldn’t have deciphered it without my sixty-year acquaintance, she had scrawled, “My Unraveling.” On the subsequent pages were journal entries written in steadier days dating from the previous October. I believe they reveal why Mother rent herself away from us on the night she died.

This is her story. And so, by necessity, it must be my story too.