09/08/2006 04:20 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2012

Mother's Day

May 11, 1997

It is Mother's Day. I am exhausted, spent -- emotionally drained. Mom has sunk into some kind of childlike state that I can't identify. She acts and speaks like she is a three-year-old child. Does anyone come back from a state like this? This panics me, but all I can think of this morning is that I have to get her to eat or drink anything. She hasn't in days. She can't. The chemo is ravaging her far worse than the cancer on her liver.

Dad is somewhere else. New York City. He still thinks he's there for their future here in L.A. But there is no more future for Mom. There is only this moment -- me sitting on the end of her bed begging her to just take a sip of the orange juice. Her blood sugar is dangerously low, and she needs it. Like a bratty child she shakes her head and refuses. I can't blame her; she probably can't taste anything anyway, or keep it down.

But I beg anyway, "Please Mom, please just a sip."

"No!" she cries and clamps her mouth shut.

I act strong. "Well, I'm going to have to call the paramedics then, and take you to St. John's. Is that okay?" After a moment she nods and takes a small sip.

This is the last thing I say to her, at least the last thing that she probably will remember. "Drink your orange juice or I'm calling the paramedics." Not what I would have chosen as my last words to her. But that's the thing with being in the middle of a crisis -- there is no grand moment or time to reflect. It's just do. Do now what needs to be done this second. And in this second I believe, or at least want to believe, that getting her to drink some orange juice will make it all okay. Of course it doesn't.

Have you ever been to an emergency room on Mother's Day? There are children, many, many children. And they have all been making mommy breakfast, and they have all burned, or cut or scalded or scrapped themselves in the process.

By the time the tired, overworked ER resident got to Mom, he was in way over his head because she was going down and going down fast. One minute, me and my husband Bob are with Mom and she's alive, and the next minute her blood pressure is dropping, heart rate racing, pulse thready . . . they're taking her into a room to get an x-ray . . . doctors shouting . . . code blue . . . nurses rushing into her room. I watch all this, and yes, it is in slow motion . . . nurses racing in with carts . . . more shouting . . . I turn around, walk through the doors outside, and scream, "No, no, no." This is not happening. This is happening to someone else. My mother is not dying. This is not how it is supposed to happen. This happens much differently -- it's quiet, serene, we're all holding hands, peace, love . . . No. Not this. Not now. Not today.

A nurse rushes out. They've revived her. She's on life support. She's alive. Kind of, not really. It's that place where their bodies take on air and blood flows around the arteries, but the person's gone. She's gone.

Dad is on his way. He's on a plane. He'll be here soon. She has to hold on at least that long. It is like a dream. I'm not real, Mom's not real. This hospital is a figment of my imagination. And yet, deep, deep down, something is shifting. And washing through me. Terror. I am facing the terror. Rage. I am feeling the rage. Sorrow. I am standing in the sorrow. It is all very real. And I can feel a place within myself that is very real too. It is me.

At five o'clock Bob and I take a limo to the airport to get Dad. During the ride back to the hospital, it is quiet. Dad tells me that while on the plane he watched the moon and Venus rise together, and he knew that it was over. That this is good-bye.

The ICU is not pleasant. Mom is hooked up to every possible device and her eyes are open in a very disturbing way. She is not looking at anything. She is not conscious. Dad has not seen her in over ten days. She is very yellow, very bloated, and bald. He tenderly cradles her face in his hand, kisses her, and says, "Oh, Brenny, oh, Brenny." And then wipes her eyes with a tissue. Two years later I will find this tissue in a box of mementos with a note in my father's handwriting identifying it as the tissue he wiped her tears with on that last day. His love is huge. My love for him is too. At 10:38 PM we say our good-byes. They turn off the machine and she is released.

May 12, 1997

I have spent the night at my parent's house, and I shower in my old bathroom. I am wracked with sobs and in a state of shock, trying to let the water soothe what it can, when all of a sudden these arms come around me from behind and just hold me. And then I hear my mother say, "You are going to be okay. You will be fine."

Now even with all my Shirley MacLaine experience, I'm not one who really believes in shit like that. I mean I want to, but there is a part of me that really wants to see some scientific proof too. But whether it is her or my mind, I feel her presence and words and arms and it is incredibly powerful. At this moment I know that, yes, I will be okay. I can get through this. And I once again feel that something I felt when she died at the hospital. A shifting inside. A light being turned on. A door being opened. I have become someone different. I am brand new in this moment. Undiscovered, and just freshly unwrapped.

May 15, 1997

I'm in a daze most of the week, just doing. Next foot forward -- music? Words? There is a memorial to be planned. My dad and I spend hours playing music and drinking beer in his studio office. A clear sign that Mom is gone already -- we're both drinking together in the middle of the day. Not heavily but just enough to soften the enormous blow of our new reality. He's making a tape of songs that have for him some connection to mom. Songs they shared and some that were only meaningful to him -- when he'd hear them he'd think of her. For me it is a glimpse into a private part of my father I have rarely seen. I can see the deep connection he had to my mom that 36 tumultuous years had naturally eroded. For a short time, this connection has been restored to its pristine state.

During these hours of listening to Doc Watson, Spanky and the Gang, Kenny Rankin, something heals between us. My father becomes whole to me: the man of great intellect which he proudly shows the world, but also a man of deep feeling and connection, a part that the world knows little of. Suddenly he is as deep as he is great to me. And this scares me a little because it is uncharted territory for me. The safety I feel with my father has always been based on him being the rational one, not the emotional one. Does he know how to venture into this dark place and get out? I hope so, because I can't be his guide. I have my own dark places to go now.

May 16, 1997

The morning of the memorial is very eerie for me. I'd always imagined that if my mom died, they'd have to heavily sedate me and then put me in a straitjacket in a rubber room. I just knew that I would fall apart. For years I've had fantasies of it while driving on the 405. But on this morning, I wake up in a state of complete serenity -- the kind Zen masters dream about. Every cell of my body is alive and twitching, yet my center is as solid as the very earth I stand on. I am the earth.

My father with Moe (my mom's dog), Bob and I sit together in the front row out in the garden of my parent's front yard. When the services begin, I can feel the reality of grief in the air. It is overwhelming. But then Kenny Rankin comes up on stage and sings, "When Sunny Gets Blue," and my heart melts. All I can think is, "Shit, this is going to be a great fucking memorial." Kenny is singing mom's favorite song for those moments of floating melancholy that she was so prone to, that I'm so prone to. The words fill me with such grief, and yet there is that realness again.

And then, as I get up to speak and look out at the sea of faces, these beautiful faces, I know exactly who I am and what I am here on this earth to do. Although this feeling is very alien, like some other person has taken over my body, I have never felt more like myself. I am no longer distracted from who I really am, I no longer have to hide. I can tell the story of my life as it is happening. And so I speak of Mother's Day and how it will never quite be the same for me anymore. I speak of love and how it is the only thing that can survive death.

And then I speak of my mother's philosophy of life and so I use the words of Joseph Campbell because, well, he describes it so eloquently. He talks about how the first step to knowing the wonder and mystery of life is in recognizing the monstrous nature of life and its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think that they know how the universe could have been if they had created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, well, they are just missing the point. Life is sorrowful, inequitable; and so it will always be. So he says the only way to live in this life is to participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. And that's what my mother did: she participated joyfully in the sorrows of her world.

And I know this sounds strange. I know I'm not supposed to say it. But that day, that day of terror, that day of rage, that day of sorrow brought me to this, the most beautiful, fearless day of my life.