Of Frances and Abby

At Christmastime, 1993, my younger sister called to inform me of the discovery of my mother’s inoperable cervical cancer.  She was 79 then.  The condition had been kept a secret between Mom and her Christian Science practitioner while they prayed and prayed, until it was too late.  The next seven months, my two sisters ministered to Mom, helping her through the radiation treatments, all in vain.  I waited in Japan, visiting just once briefly, sadly, in March 1994.   She was changed, now quieter, her great natural ebullience gone.  But she was brave too, and resolute; I did not do a good job of being the same.  I think she was a little glad to see me off — I remember her resigned expression as she was driven away from the airport, steeling herself for what was to come.

When I returned that August, it was for her last days.  We brought her home to rest in her sun-filled living room and gathered around.   I said nothing worthwhile and probably seemed like a lost boy to her.  We could not speak together of her death, as overhanging everything was Christian Science, which forbade any negativity or limitation of God’s power to heal.  A miraculous healing in this situation is something a Scientist seriously contemplates and works toward spiritually.   But I felt the religion itself took her away from us: she had prayed secretly at home and on the phone with her Christian Science practitioner until the flow of blood was so frightening that she called my sister and they went together to the hospital.  Had she gone at the first signs of trouble, the disease, which moves more slowly in the old than the young, could have been caught in its early stage, and more years given to her.

Though she was not told the truth, she certainly sensed it, and toward the end I heard her say, “Christian Science has lost all its beauty to me.“  But I suspect that while I saw her without courage to talk of her death, she saw me as the frightened one.  So we lost our chance to find a heart-path to each other.  The only service I finally did, near the very end, was to read from Psalms to her as she lay in morphined semi-consciousness.

 “…He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; He will cover you with his pinions, and under His wings you will find refuge…Those who love me, I will deliver, I will protect those who know my name.  When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue and honor them.”

I tiptoed through Psalms, skipping its promises of vengeance and blood.  Mother, from far away, moaned gratitude, and her aching thirst for the simplicities of faith.  Her spirit was resonating with words thousands of years old rather than to Mrs. Eddy’s intellectualizations.  On that hot August afternoon, I felt for a time enclosed in a tribal circle, a Jewish family briefly unified again, intuitively acting out a ceremony dating back millennia.

When she finally left us that Saturday in August, I remained alone with her for a few moments before they came to take her.  Her expression in death could only be described as triumphant: a trial had been put before her, she had borne its weight and it was over.  More than that, there shone fierce pride in a life well lived, one in which she gave so much and expressed so much joy.  Recently, I found words by Coleridge that approximate what I saw that day.

   All look and likeness caught from earth,

                  All accident of kin and birth,

                  Had pass’d away. There was no trace

                  Of aught on that illumined face,

                  Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone

                  But of one spirit all her own;

                  She, she herself, and only she,

                  Shone through her body visibly.

I put my hand on her dear forehead and said the only two things I could ever have said to her anyway, the two essential things our mutual fear of this moment had made impossible: I said, “Thank you, Mom,” and then I said “Goodbye.”

The gathered members of our family instinctively trooped off the half-mile or so to Berkeley Marina, where we wanted to stand on the dusky shoreline, remembering Frances and watching darkness fall over San Francisco Bay.  But before we left, forgetting something, I had run back into the house and accidentally put my hand on the most remarkable thing.  It had come in the mail that very day — a brochure for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre.  They were producing a play called, “Angels in America,” but I saw only the stark, grainy black and white photo on the cover.

It was of a young woman, all in white, with huge angel’s wings, striding regally past gray, out-of-focus San Francisco buildings, a ghostly Bay Bridge behind her, her head turned up in exaltation and clarity.  The woman looked about forty years old, and her face was precisely that of my mother when she was that age.  Where did this come from?  Why did it fall into my hands at that moment?  It was she!  Perhaps even as I held the photograph in my hand, her spirit was striding in solemn reflection through the city which bore her name, Saint Francis.  October Fourth was her birthday, and October Fourth is the Day of St. Francis himself.  Her Jewish parents certainly did not name her for a 12th century priest.  Something here ran deeper than Jew or Catholic.  There she was in my hand, moving forward and rising up, her face shining, enfolded in victory.


And so back to Japan.  The Golden Gate Bridge wheeled magnificently below us as we banked over the Pacific, the City agleam in the morning sun.  A perfect landing in Los Angeles and then an easy connection to a Varig 747 jetliner.  I clambered into my window seat over my Asian row-mates with friendly sumimasens  and daijobu’s,  thus alienating two Korean businessmen.  I was an hour out of L.A., blue sky everywhere around me, getting on with my life but feeling empty, when I turned in the Times to “Dear Abby” and found a headline of interest.

Munching on a piece of steak, fifty years after the Holocaust and just as far from my cultural roots, my eyes caught the words “Yom Kippur,” and I remembered what day it was.  I had no Orthodox guilt about the steak.  Still, it felt as if Yom Kippur was being brought to my attention courteously, with a touch of the divine finger on my heart.  There followed a prayer quoted by Abby to comfort a reader in the loss of his mother:

I remember thee in this solemn hour my dear Mother.

I remember the days when thou didst dwell on Earth,

and thy tender love watched over me like a guardian angel.

Thou hast gone from me, but the bond which unites our souls

can never be severed; thine image lives within my heart.

May the merciful Father reward thee for the faithfulness

and kindness thou hast ever shown me.   May He lift up the light

of His countenance upon thee and grant thee eternal Peace.

My eyes brimmed over.  “I remember the days when thou didst dwell on Earth.”   She’d only been gone a week, but now, yes, I would be remembering her through all the years to come, as much a reminder of my own mortality as of hers.  Cleansed somehow, I flew on, my ninth flight across the Pacific amid especially transcendent views.  A thousand cotton-ball clumps scattered across the vast ocean, each little cloud exploding up from its base in popcorn perfection.  Flat white throw rugs drifted by at various altitudes, majestic thunderheads sat like mountains on the far horizon.  Yet the huge panorama represented only a miniscule slice of the great Pacific.

It was like grasping at infinity’s shadow.

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