All the kids now tell their friends "I love you." Girls my daughter's age, 12, all say "I love you." And so, sometimes, do boys my son's age, 10. They say it when they part ways after school. They write it in e-mails, in text messages, on Facebook. "I love you." They even say it to their parents. "I love you," they say, and then head off to the movies. "I love you," they say, and then climb on the team bus. It's not something I did at their age, all those years ago, saying and writing "I love you" all the time, and it's not something that the other kids did, either, particularly not outside the home, the family, where love, as we then defined it, didn't exist. Outside the family, people 'liked' each other. Now they love each other. And they say so. Sincerely. With feeling. I've heard it. Authentic feeling. You can think it's a fad, but I've heard it: it's said with feeling.
Three weeks and three days ago my mother died unexpectedly at 71. She was in Iowa, visiting her boyfriend, which she did every year when the state fair was going. One morning he found her on the bathroom floor. She couldn't speak. Her eyes were open, but barely. An ambulance came and drove her to the hospital, to Iowa Methodist in downtown Des Moines (a city that is beige across the board and has terrible traffic at certain peculiar moments but then seems to empty out entirely), where someone ran a CAT scan and discovered a 'sizable mass' in her brain, behind her eyes. A surgeon went in and found an abscess there, 'encapsulated,' sealed off from other tissue, and immediately he drained it of built-up fluid and then bathed the area in antibiotics. The fluid, infected with something, was sent for tests. Hours passed. Night came. My mother remained unconscious, breathing with noisy mechanical assistance. A nurse said she saw her blink when spoken to sometime between four and five a.m. and rated her coma an optimistic '11' on a scale -- an official coma scale -- that runs to 15, for some reason, and starts at 3.
I got there a few hours later from Montana, fighting with my girlfriend the whole way. We fought while we packed, about which supplies to bring and what size containers of liquid -- three ounces or five -- can legally be carried on to planes. We fought on the plane over who was more uncomfortable trying to sleep bolt upright without a pillow. We fought all the way down a hall and up an elevator and down another hall to the CCU, accusing each other of failing to use the sanitizer dispensed from little pumps near all the doorways. Sometimes the sanitizer was a foam, other times it came out as a gel. I liked the gel. As it dried, it cooled my hands. It felt effective. The foam felt weak, a pleasantry.
The right side of my mother's scalp was grey and shaved and there was a run of black staples where she'd been cut. My brother and his wife were standing over her rubbing her wrists and stroking her smooth bare ankles. Everyone was saying the right things. Everyone sounded sweet and stressed and brave. Everyone sounded perfect. We amazed ourselves. We amazed ourselves in the way that people do when they find themselves rising to a grave occasion that they've always known would come someday but didn't practice for out of superstition, because to practice for it might attract it. It turned out that we didn't need to practice, though. We were natural born virtuosos of the deathbed.
Oh God, we were good. It kind of made me sick.
We all went home around eleven that night. My girlfriend and I had a room in a vast Marriott built around one of those plunging central atriums that ought to provoke more suicides than they do and are awkward places to eat breakfast, with all that disquieting space above your heads. I took an Ambien when I laid down and a few minutes later I had a vision of my mother walking behind my girlfriend at a distance of a foot or two but then, as the two of them passed by the TV set, closing the distance and merging with my girlfriend. It was a vision, not a dream, because I described it the instant after it happened to my actual girlfriend, who was awake and who responded by reaching behind herself to feel the space where my mother (I insisted) had physically, or at least visually, entered her.
At six in the morning the phone rang right on schedule and my brother right on schedule said get over here -- don't eat, don't shower, don't think, get over here -- and we, right on schedule, raced over in our rental car and there was the surgeon, all scrubbed and right on schedule, asking permission to go into the skull again and suck out more junk again, more goo, more fluid, he frankly didn't know what it was this stuff (necrotic brain tissue? ordinary pus?) but he sure as hell wanted it out of there this minute ("Your mother will be, if not entirely paralyzed on her left side..." That was in there too somewhere) except that we, the loved ones, right on schedule, and in accordance with the Health Directive kept by my mother always in her purse (she'd worked as a nurse all her life, she knew the truth; the tubes, once they go in, they tend to stay in) told him to please go away and let her die.
Right on schedule.
Which she didn't do.
First she punished us for a while with perfect vital signs until I started laughing, proud of her, proud of her savage creaturely momentum, her mad ungovernable pendulum persistence. Who knew that, despite her pose as my dear mother, my dear autodidact Gibbons-reading mother who once went to Hungary, then crossed it off her list, and then went to Egypt and crossed it off her list, and then learned Italian and crossed it off her list, and Latin and French and The Lives of the Impressionists and the Bob Dylan Songbook and Naguib Mahfouz, was actually, underneath it all, Lou Gehrig, a being of pure brute Newtonian pump and suck.
When it's over you go in a room and sign some papers with people who do their best not to let on that they did this only half an hour ago with people just as brave as you feel you are. (And maybe you are, but if so, then bravery's easy, not a virtue, a reflex, like drawing one's first breath.)
The test came back Streptococcus intermedius and I am afraid I have it and you do too and that it is one of those new mysterious bugs that most of the the time does nothing, just sits or circulates, but that some of the time (and perhaps more often of late, since everything bad seems to happen more often of late) can collect in your brain and destroy you in two days.
Which is why all the kids say "I love you" all the time now, even though, if you ask them, they don't know why. They think it's normal. They think it's what kids always said. It isn't, though. I was a kid once and I remember: We said other things.
Lots of things.
For Mildred Irene Kirn (Stein), 1940-2011