We hardly ever received messages on Isla. We had no cell phones then; nothing ever collapsed at home, except once, during our late February vacation, 2003. Then I returned from strolling to town and found that the “Office” at Posada del Mar had brought a message up to our room. The assisted living, where we had transferred my mother six months before, had called: she was in the hospital. Trembling and terrified, I gathered as many Mexican pesos as I could and returned toward town to a pay phone.
It was strange to stand with sea breezes ruffling my hair and a sandy street under my feet, while the faint voice of the assisted-living administrator told the story. My mother (three months shy of turning 95) had not been well for a number of days, pale and weak and eventually passing blood in her urine. They’d taken her to her doctor where the nurse hadn’t been able to “raise a pulse.” This should have been an immediate sign to send my mother directly to the hospital. But no, the nurses and soon the doctor proceeded. Here, Reader, you must forgive my anger and bitterness: these medical professionals, who professed to be skilled in geriatric care, insisted against her wishes on inserting a catheter into her bladder. What other enormities of medical interference they perpetrated I’ll probably never know. But I do know what happened eventually: they sent her back to the assisted living facility, where, appalled at her weakened, almost lifeless condition, the facility called an ambulance and had her taken to Roper General Hospital.
During the five hours that she slowly expired, the two women who had taken care of her, first at home, then in assisted living, took turns sitting beside her. She died with a familiar hand stroking her hair. And she died quietly, after the intrusions of the doctor’s office. The hospital had enough sense not to try and resusitate a body so clearly shutting down. When I phoned again, several hours later, I was able to talk to my sister who had tried valiantly to reach her side from Boston, but been held up by a connecting flight in Charlotte.
During that second call, I decided, without any agonizing soul-searching, that I would leave the funeral to my sister. Though we’d done a fine job of sharing our mother’s care during the five years of her slow decline, we had quite different ideas about how to put her in the ground.
I had already said good-bye to Mother three weeks before, at the end of January, when I’d spent a long weekend with her. As I’d entered her room in the late afternoon, she was still lying asleep in her long afternoon nap. Sitting at the end of the bed, with light filtering through closed blinds, I saw death in her face. Her pallor matched her white hair; her features were somewhat sunken. It was as if an invisible, but palpable arm was gently reaching through the closed blinds and drawing her away. I was attentive, noting the awareness that transferred itself to me in that shrouded room. My intuition hadn’t been prefigured by any “rational” thought, yet it was as clear as an certainty, framed into words, could be.
I decided not to put myself through the rigors of changing my flight and attempting to fly from Cancun, probably via Miami, to Charleston. My sister could arrange the funeral as she wished. Our mother, with her intensely practical attention to detail, had planned it all in advance.
Yet, I had to pause and attend her passage. Make some homage formed of Isla’s beauty and my own sorrow. Later that initial sorrow would mount into true mourning, when for months, I would sit in the sunlit front rooms of our second floor and weep. That kind of grief whose agony cleanses our souls, that kind of grief doesn’t come immediately. What I needed immediately was a pageant I’d remember through the years to follow. A ceremony of sorts when I could gather sky and sea, flowers and birds to help commemorate her life and waft her on her way.
Putting on my swimsuit, though I rarely swam on the “bikini” beach just beyond Posada del Mar, I passed through the lush green of the Posada grounds. Many hibiscus had dropped their blossoms as new ones appeared. The green grass was littered with red hibiscus. Gathering up the fallen flowers, I headed toward the beach which faced north, across the Gulf of Mexico toward the Atlantic, toward Charleston.
It was, as always in late February on Isla, a beautiful day, with billowing white clouds spiraling into brilliant blue. The water, shallow for a long ways beyond the white sand, was warm and friendly as a big dog, lapping my ankles, then knees, then thighs. Still carrying the blossoms, I lowered myself into the green depths and slowly drifted toward the north. Whether sun-bathers watched me, I do not know. I kept my eyes on the northern strip of land on the Cancun mainland, and let the water carry me. Slowly the flowers left my hands and bobbed on little and bigger waves. Some were caught and went further out toward the channel until I lost sight of them. Others like friendly stewards of my grief stayed close, bobbing and reappearing, their fuzzy stamens pointing toward the sky, their petals catching drops of water and sometimes submerging.
I was aware only of sending my love with the flowers toward her, as if an invisible stream flowed through the warm green water north directly to where she was. Overhead almost as high as the clouds, the zig-zag shapes of frigate birds elevated my thoughts. Gulls flew over, lazily flapping closer to the water. Gradually some of the flowers, further out in the channel, completely submerged and were gone. Others remained close, still rising and falling with the gentle waves, still keeping me company.
I must have made some sort of pact with myself–that I would swim and loll, weep and remember as long as the red tips of flowers still accompanied me. Who knows how long it took as the north tugged at my desire to communicate across the miles to the watery coast where she would be buried. Each red flower was like a small boat, an emissary, bobbing with me, moving with the gentle force of wind and waves, finally losing its contact with me and going on its own way.
Eventually the flowers had wafted too far north for me to track and it was time to return. It seems to me now, looking back, that I scooped up one or two still floating around me and carried them back to our second floor room where I lay them on the balcony rail, my last flowery homage. It seems the perfect gesture, the perfect goodbye to a woman who loved flowers to the very end of her life, who grew camellia bushes far taller than herself, which at this time of year in her beloved Charleston yard were covered with wide, waxy red blossoms, with gold crowns in their centers.