Change into another state is not death -- only the ending of this awareness."
I was raised a devout skeptic. My father was an atheist, my mother was an agnostic, and if you couldn’t touch it or see it or quantify it, they didn’t want to talk about it. I plagued my mother with questions about what came after outer space until finally she barked, “At the end of the universe is a red brick wall!” and that was the end of that. Another time, I suggested the possibility that none of us were really here — maybe we were all just dreaming this life.
“Come over here,” said my father. Dutifully I stood before him in his armchair. “Give me your hands,” he commanded. I complied. And he whacked them. Really hard. “Did you feel that?” I couldn’t answer. “Now you know you’re here.” I never broached the subject again.
Except for birthdays and Christmas, my family wasn’t big on ritual, so we didn’t have a funeral when my father died. I didn’t attend my college graduation, and at age 21, I stopped talking to my mother.
I moved to New York to become a famous actress. Acting seemed the most honest thing I could do because everybody knew I was pretending. My first year I had a roommate who was Catholic, and I wondered how somebody as intelligent as she could perform rituals that my father (who now resided in my head) would have declared were silly superstitions. Except for getting up on a stage and pretending I was somebody else in a made-up story, ritual embarrassed me.
When my best childhood friend died, it never even occurred to me to make the trip to Maine for her funeral. She was gone. There was nothing. Just pain.
Many years later, long after my father’s death and my best friend’s death and several other deaths, after my mother had moved to the city and we had become best adult girlfriends, I took her to see a collection of short plays called Talking With by Jane Martin at an Off-Broadway theater. At the end of a monologue by a character whose mother was dying, a chalice of clear glass marbles was overturned, and as the little balls rolled off the stage and into the audience, my mother and I dove for them. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but from that day on, we kept our respective marbles in our change purses — my marble meant that my mother was always with me, and vice versa. Except for periodically asking, “Do you still have your marble?” we never discussed them, we never looked at them.
My mother and I rarely spoke of things you couldn’t see. Such matters made her nervous. I still kind of wondered about things I sensed but couldn’t see — say, for instance, love — but any belief was balanced by equal parts skepticism.
Nine years later, just before I left my mother’s hospital room, I looked in her purse for change for the bus. Seeing the marble, I spontaneously grabbed it, shoved it in her face, and with a ferocity that surprised even me, I hissed, “Just remember, this is me! I’m with you even when I’m not with you.” Those were the last words I said to her conscious self. About a week later she died. I could no longer see her or touch her or smell her. There was nothing. Just pain.
I collected her things from the hospital. As I threw out the ratty coat she’d worn, I realized that my mother, who dressed to have coffee in her living room, must have known she wasn’t coming out of that place. I put her rings and marble in my jewelry box, stuck a five dollar bill in the empty zippered compartment of her key case, gathered my dogs, and prepared to go clean out her apartment.
As we strolled across the park, I felt as if there were electricity in the top of my skull, a pleasant sensation, but I didn’t think much about it. When I got to my mother’s apartment, I left the dog leashes and her key case on the buffet at the entrance.
For years, my mother, who wrote advertising copy for cosmetics, tried to give me all the newest goop, and I always said, “Aw, Mom, I’ll never use that stuff.” So it was out of character for me to become suddenly transfixed by shampoo and eye shadow and blush. For several hours I cleaned out the bathroom cabinets and dressing table, loading up on five years’ worth of shampoo and every cosmetic known to womankind. It was like being set loose in a high-class drugstore, and by the time I was finished, I had a 50-pound suitcase and two dogs, and it was getting too dark to walk across the park. “God,” I thought, “I’m really glad I brought money for a cab.” And then I’m not sure what happened.
I picked up my mother’s key case, and as I opened the zippered compartment to get the money, the whole thing bobbled, and a marble seemed to fall out of nowhere, bouncing on the buffet and hitting me hard on the wrist. I was standing in the middle of an empty room. No shelves with stuff on them. No stuff. Just me, the dogs, and the bare buffet. I assumed the marble had come out of the key case, and I said out loud, “How did that get in there?”(My marble was home in my change purse, and my mother’s was in my jewelry box with her rings.) Then a bolt of electricity shot through me, and I knew. “Thank you!” I wailed, falling to my knees. “Thank you! Thank you!”
As I raced out with the dogs and the 50 pounds of goop, I thought, “I’m crazy. I must be crazy.” I jumped into a cab, thinking, “I’m nuts.” I ran up my four flights of stairs, thinking, “Now I’m going to find out just how insane I really am.” I flung open my front door and tore open my purse on the dining room table; my marble was there just as I’d left it. I dashed into the bedroom and dug through the contents of my jewelry box; there was my mother’s marble, right next to her rings.
As far as I know, neither of us had told anybody that we each carried a marble to signify the other’s presence. It would have been too silly. But a third clear glass marble fell out of nowhere. I could touch it and see it and keep it. And it released me — she released me — to believe in the unseeable, to touch the untouchable, to know the unknowable, and nothing has ever been the same.
We had a big memorial party for my mother. I wore a flower print Laura Ashley dress with pearls and matching shoes because I knew it would please her, and everybody had a really good time.
I have written a new book about what follows this story called Conversations with Mom. Click on the link to see more about it.
And in February 2015, my mother, Edna Robinson, gets to speak for herself through her posthumously published novel, The Trouble with the Truth.
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(Copyright © 2013 Betsy Robinson. All rights reserved)