A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the fourth and final installment of an essay that begins here.
Within a year of that fabulous long week on the hill in Truro, I gave my parents a stack of paperbacks. They were new copies of books that I had read recently and that I loved for one reason or another. My giving them the books was my way of sharing with them who I was and who I was becoming.
The stack of books included a copy of Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb. Significantly, this was the only piece of nonfiction in the group, and I realized my parents might have some difficulty believing MacLaine's experiences and appreciating the beliefs that had developed as a result. I knew it would be more comfortable for them to absorb the spiritual messages of the novels in the stack. Still, it was a good book to give my parents. Maybe it would help them understand my mindset.
And, more than anything, I wanted my mother to read what amounted to about two pages somewhere in the middle of the book. The couple of pages were about Peter Sellers, about an anecdote he had shared with MacLaine.
Just prior to making Being There, Sellers had a heart attack, and it was serious. He had recounted to MacLaine his emergency room experience, his soul leaving his body and floating above it. While disconnected from his earthbound self, Sellers saw that which they call the “white light,” and it beckoned. But, he didn’t answer its call. He knew he had other things to do within the body on the table. And so he returned.
My parents were visiting me in New York, and my mother and I were sitting in my apartment chatting. I asked if she had enjoyed the stack of books I had given them. She said they had. I asked if she had read the Shirley MacLaine book. She said yes.
I then took the opportunity. “What did you think about that Peter Sellers anecdote? His experience in the Emergency Room?”
My mother’s eyes lit up. An energy enveloped her. She had permission. Permission to tell me about her own experiences – floating above her body, seeing the white light. Returning.
She’d been there. She’d done that. And for years, probably, she assumed it was all an hallucination. An experience that could not be shared, an experience whose other-worldliness would never be understood or validated.
Several years later, I was visiting my parents in Virginia. It was during my unhappy marriage years. I left the unhappiness in L.A., and took a flight back east sans mate. Mom and I were up late one night, sitting in the kitchen. The soft light bounced off my ring’s sapphires and diamonds as we sipped our martinis, smoked cigarettes, and so engaged in a bonding experience that is unique to WASPs.
She told me that night about the graduation ceremony in early June, 1969. The dutiful faculty wife, she was in attendance, sitting quietly among the well-wishers. At some point during the ceremony, a man behind her (a graduate’s father) had a heart attack, “made a noise,” and died on the spot. The noise, it turned out, was the “death rattle.”
A week later, the Accident occurred, and my mother was in the Intensive Care Unit. She had tubes up her nose, tubes down her throat, and tubes in places where there hadn’t been holes two days before. She was outside of her body, floating above it. She had seen the white light.
Then, she heard a noise, and she recognized it from the week before. It was the “death rattle.” But this time it was her own. Hearing it forced her to make a decision.
Something told her to cough. But, with all those tubes in there, she couldn’t. So, she began to pull them out, one after another. Furiously pulling tubes, furiously coughing.
Witnessing this, a young nurse turned to the Head Nurse on duty. “Mrs. Gates is pulling out her tubes!” the young nurse said.
“Oh, just let her,” the Head Nurse replied.
The Head Nurse was Mary Lou – a friend of the family. Her response to Mom’s actions reflected the resignation of a professional who could do no more. A medical professional who was disgusted by the inevitability she was witnessing.
"Oh, just let her,” Mary Lou had said.
So Mom pulled out those tubes. And she coughed. And she coughed. And she coughed. And whatever was blocking her future from her past was released suddenly. In a few short moments, she went from dying to living.
“Wow,” I said to Mom, having heard for the first time about the man at the graduation ceremony. “Do you realize how connected you are to that man who died?”
“Hmmm?” she said.
“He died so that you could live,” I said.
“Oh,” Mom replied, with her graceful innocence. “I guess I never thought about it that way.”
It would probably be pushing it to ask my mother why she chose to return to her body – why she chose to live. I’m just not sure she could answer that. But, maybe I’ve never asked because I don’t want to hear the answer. As long as her answer is a mystery, I can supplant it with my own:
Mom had to come back for me. How could she not? Could I even have reached eighteen without her? And, who would have been there to hand me a ring that was far more sophisticated than I? Who would have dared to give that ring to me? Who would have thought to tell me, through that gift, that I was worthy of its brilliance, that I might someday rise to its level of class and elegance?
Over the years, I’ve looked at my hand – the hand with the ring on it, and I’ve watched it become my mother’s hand. I am more than a decade older than she was when the Accident changed her life. I am older than she was when she passed along the ring to me.
I have no daughter with whom to continue the tradition, but that’s okay. I don’t think I want to give away this ring just yet. As long as it’s on my finger, I still have more reasons to become worthy of it.
More years to gather sophistication.
More years to acquire class.
More years to become the person Mom envisioned when no one else – not even I – could.