Friday, April 16, 2010

The Hour of Lead

"This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow
First - Chill - then Stupor
Then the letting go."

Emily Dickinson

I know very little about my mother's taste in poetry. She was a first–grade teacher, and she had a poem by W.H. Auden on her desk at home.

Actually, I know a lot about my mother's preferences in things like music and movies — but other than the Dr. Seuss books she used to read to me when I was small, I have little knowledge of the poems — or most of the books — that moved her, that had special meaning for her.

(And, if I'm going to be honest, I can't be sure that Dr. Seuss meant much to her. I was probably about 4 or 5 the last time she read it to me.)

There are some things I do know. For recreation, I know she liked to read the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie. When I was a teenager, she introduced me to the political novels of Allen Drury. She also played a significant role in my fondness for the works of Mark Twain, Theodore White and James Michener.

She loved classical music and folk music. As far back as I can remember, she was a fan of Simon and Garfunkel and John Denver. Later in her life, she was fond of Neil Diamond. But she had some country in her as well. I remember once she wanted to see the Willie Nelson movie "Honeysuckle Rose," but no one else in the family could be persuaded to see it with her — and Mom always seemed to hate going to movies by herself (I guess that's where I get that inclination).

Anyway, Mom asked me if I would go to the theater with her, and I agreed. Several months later, on Christmas morning, after all the other family gifts had been opened, she took me aside and handed me a gift. When I opened it, it turned out to be the soundtrack from the movie — which included Nelson singing the Oscar–nominated tune "On the Road Again."

That was a double album. In those days before CDs, a double album was considered quite an extravagance, so it is fair to say I was somewhat stunned to be receiving one. And then I saw a handwritten note from Mom that had been taped to the record. It said, "I loved seeing this with you."

The memories of these things are precious to me now — particularly on this day because it was 15 years ago today that I last saw my mother.

April 16 was Easter Sunday in 1995. I was living in Oklahoma at the time, and my parents were living here in Dallas. They had been living here for many years. It was the place where they grew up, and they came back here to live after my brother and I were grown.

For much of that time, I lived in Arkansas. Then I moved to Texas to go to graduate school, after which I moved to Oklahoma. Although I always arranged to spend Christmas with my parents, I didn't always spend Easter with them, and, to this day, I don't know why I came to Dallas that weekend. I didn't even attend church with Mom that day. I stayed at the house with my father while she went to church with some family friends.

But after church, she and the family friends came back to the house, and we all had lunch in the backyard.

I remember it vividly, but I only have one picture of Mom from that afternoon. If you look closely, you can see her to the left, mostly hidden in some shadows and blocked from the camera by my father, who was slicing some ham.

When we had all served ourselves, my mother read a column from the morning paper that discussed why Easter was a "moveable feast" — which apparently inspired her to serve lunch outdoors. The weather was nice that day, ideal for dining al fresco.

At the time, I guess we all treated it like one of countless such gatherings we had had over the years. The two families did many things together when I was growing up. It was nothing special, as far as we could see. But we were wrong. We were so wrong. We couldn't have foreseen it, but we were still wrong.

April 16, 1995 — as it turned out — was the last time we were all together at the same time in the same place. Nearly three weeks later, my parents were caught in a flash flood on their way home from having dinner with some friends. My father was injured but survived. My mother was swept away. Her body was found a few hours later.

Not long after she died and I came back to Dallas for her memorial service and her burial, I stumbled across the poem by Emily Dickinson that appears at the start of this post. It seemed to express what I was feeling — although it was more appropriate to say (as I observed at the time) that my grief seemed to come in waves. I would feel normal and then, out of the blue, I would be overwhelmed with emotion.

From time to time in the last 15 years, I have heard the phrase "the hour of lead" or it has popped into my mind, and I think of Mom — although, while I know she was familiar with some of Dickinson's poems, I don't know if she ever read that particular poem.

Really, I suppose, it speaks more to those she left behind, the ones who had to deal with the pain and shock of her death. I heard a lot of talk about closure at the time, and I made a sincere effort to find it wherever I could, but, eventually, I had to conclude that closure was a nice concept but far from a reality.

That truth came rushing back to me a couple of years ago when one of the family friends I mentioned died suddenly. His son is a little older than I am, his daughter is a little younger. And I remember calling the family home here in Dallas and speaking to the son a few days after his father's death.

Initially, our conversation consisted of ordinary exchanges of pleasantries. His mother and sister were out, he told me. Then, he asked me, "When does it stop hurting?"

I guess different people would answer that question differently. Some people have abusive parents. Some have neglectful parents. For them, I suppose, the grieving period is quite brief, if it exists at all.

But I was very close to my mother. I can't know how close anyone else is to his/her parents — my father once described the experience of my mother's death as "devastating" — while I know my brother was in a lot of pain at the time of Mom's death, I don't know how frequently he thinks of those days now or whether he still mourns for her in any way at any time.

My friend's grief a couple of years ago seemed genuine. It didn't appear to be the kind of thing that would be easily discarded once the funeral was over.

I did not feel that his question warranted a platitude–ridden response. I felt compelled to tell him what my experience had been in the previous 13 years.

So I told him there was a lot of truth in the cliches you hear about the healing power of time. When someone close to you dies, the grief can seem all–consuming. It hovers over you in every waking hour — and sometimes it invades your dreams. As time passes, it hurts less.

But it still hurts. It hurts at obvious times — on birthdays, on the anniversary of the death, on Christmas, etc. — and it hurts at less obvious times, too.

Even today, 15 years since I last saw Mom, it still has the power to sneak up on me. It may only have me in its grip for a few seconds, but when it does, the memories of those days are as intense as if the events were happening for the first time.

I guess it is an individual thing, this Hour of Lead. Each stage requires a different length of time with each person. I've been through the chill and the stupor — but I'm still struggling, at times, with the letting go part.

Maybe, on second thought, that closure thing is possible with some people.

But if you've found it, can you tell me how you accomplished it?


Anonymous said...

Thanks David,

You made me cry again.
You know I adored Moldie.


May said...

Thank you for sharing your precious memories and for expressing filial love so beautifully.

As a mother, I hope that my boys will feel as close to me as you were (and still are) to your mother. I would give my life for them.