August 5th 2014 Evening -- The island of Chios -- Greece
The honeyed glow of the evening sun bathes the modest fields of stubbly grass and golden, baled hay. It floats over the low and dense dark-leaved citrus orchards, the beige crumbling stone walls that dissect the meadows here as the town of Chios recedes and the lush vegetation of Kampos, meaning a plain in Greek, takes over.
The sun's rays still have the power to warm me as I gaze out from my expansive balcony, my eyes skimming the horizon of undulating trees. The amplified chant of the priests wafts over the landscape. Its discordance and nasal drone, instead of grating on my senses, is actually comforting. The litany now tranquilizes me, but on this day 34 years ago, trying to stand, propped up on this very balcony, the chanting tore my heart apart. For the before, my father had died from an embolism caused by a fluke accident. Now I was faced with death again, that of my mother seven months ago.
The death of two parents spread over such a chasm of time reassures me that I have grown up. Two such different deaths. That of my father crippled my feelings and emotional judgment for many years. Calamity swirled through my life and that turbulence had lasting effects. With my mother I had anticipated the fathomless void and the loss of my heart's anchorage during her last few years as dementia claimed her slowly but with relentless cruelty. When she died, I had the composure which only endless mental rehearsals can bring. I still feel her death as at a distance, as if I were inside a gelatinous envelope which numbs any impending hysteria and clogs my tears.
Most of my summer is spent in Mykonos, an inhospitable rocky outcrop of an island pulsating with celebratory energy, famous for its decibel defying parties and Bacchanalian revelry.
The transition from the clamorous ebullience of Cycladic Mykonos to the verdant orchards and cloistered estates of Chios in the Northern Aegean where our family grave is sobered me up literally and psychically. I was dreading the hierarchical transition to my mother's room from my smaller one next door yet this was a long and deeply sustaining experience. The view was more encompassing from her room and it was as if she welcomed me there. My sleep is always fitful, yet those days I slept soundly, as if she were sitting beside my bed, smoothing away my concerns and worries, a tender guardian.
Resisting my obsessive compulsive urge to tidy and sort every object as well as thought, in my life, I didn't remove her summer belongings from the closet. The faded beach slippers and slightly dilapidated straw bags are where she left them, happily co-existing with my collection of outsize handbags. In the languor of the solitary afternoon I savored, as I do every year, the deliciousness of having the house to myself with the soporific heat and humming of insects seeping into it.
Every evening as I sat on my bed sorting my jewelry for the evening, I crept into her delicate shape, inhabited her calm posture. It was a unification with her, sublime and blissful. It made me miss her less.
It also made me aware she was gone. My eye caught a blue twisted plastic ornament made by my children at a summer camp in the rain sodden Scottish Highlands. It dangled forlornly on a painted wooden cupboard which used to disgorge a treasury of cosmetics and pharmaceutical wonders. From here our mother would dispense Aspirin, a Bromley rose geranium soap or a French shower gel from Harrods which always produced gasps of wonder and delight from her children and grandchildren.
My mother was from Syros and my father from this larger bustling island which has spawned renowned shipowners and commercial traders. Chios is famous for its fortress villages and its mastic gum which grows nowhere else on earth, and she adopted it as her spiritual home. A widow for 34 years, spending every summer in my father's resting place sustained her. Visiting the black pebbled beach of Mavra Volia or sitting by the "mangano," the traditional wheel which channels water to the densely planted citrus orchards pulsating with garrulous crickets, she could feel and remember his love for Chios and for her.
I still remember the panic attacks which would overcome me in the aptly named dead of night when I lost my father. There is a desolation in that inky black 5 a.m. time slot. No voices to resonate in your ears, no distractions from the gnawing void that churns between heart and stomach.
With my mother, my grief is a calm one. I begin to understand that I shall never speak to her again. I shall not even have our lopsided conversations where I humored her and played a repetitive court jester while my mother remembered nothing at all. I am an expert at self-delusion, yet even I had to recognize her dementia. However, we had our cherished daily routine, her vacant stare at the television tirelessly playing for hours, her gnarled but still beautiful hand holding mine. We both missed her lost mind but we could still be together.
I had feared the brutal spectacle and harsh rattle of death. I had feared being alone with her at the final judgmental moment of leaving, feared I would abandon her and not offer a last comfort, that split second of reassurance as she left.
Yet none of those fears came true. She died with her children and grandchildren holding her. She was transported with our love and prayers.
Her death as her life, was delineated by grace and dignity. The aura and whole atmosphere of death is still with me, its noxious fear, the paralysis caused by loss. Yet setting it down in words has been as it always is, cathartic.
Missing her still stirs my sadness yet her love for me and my knowledge that she is at rest and happy somehow assuages it. I doubt though it will ever make it go away.