Actor Michael O'Keefe reflects on visiting with his mother who had just passed away
Editor’s Note: The below is written by Michael O'Keefe, an Irish American actor known for his roles as Danny Noonan in "Caddyshack," Daryl Palmer in the Neil Simon movie "The Slugger's Wife," and his Academy Award-nominated performance as Ben Meechum in "The Great Santini."
One need only witness childbirth to reaffirm the mysterious nature of human life. The birth of my son caused me to remark, “It’s enough to make you believe in God.” There before you appears a human being, emerging from another human being, and the baby itself comes from the mingled essence of the parents, who brought only their desire for each other, and conjugation to the table. Next thing you know, “Bam!”
Plus, appearing as a built-in feature, that child has ancestors, lineages, and relatives back to the beginning of Time, The Garden of Eden. Miraculous!
Since my mother died, at the age of 91 recently, I’ve been swimming in a sea of memory, contemplating her life, my life, which obviously came from hers, and the larger issues attendant to birth and death that are constantly at play in us all.
In the case of Mom’s death, pneumonia had set in, brought on by a variety of causes, after surgery to repair a broken femur. Then her kidneys failed. She tested negative for COVID-19. And though those are some of the medical facts accompanying her death, I pause to wonder what else brought it on, because after the surgery she seemed to have lost the will to live.
I’m no expert on my mother, and of my mother’s seven children, I don’t know her as well as some, but it was clear she’d endured bone-crushing pain, influenced by weeks of quarantine that left her isolated, but for the daily visits of caretakers, and my sister, who unfailingly devoted herself to my mother’s well being for the twilight of her life.
Mom may have had something to live for, but I don’t think she would have concurred.
Perhaps it all had been brought on by disorientation from medication, and the kind of weariness one must experience as a nonagenarian. Frankly, I think she felt an understandable desire to move on. When death came calling, I wonder if Mom didn’t leave solely for a change of venue, allured by that "Undiscovered Country", to explore anew all the mysteries out there. Because the ordinary mysteries here, her family, grandkids, great-grandkids, her friends, her memories, and her enduring good qualities, must have all paled in comparison to the wonder of one more journey to take, and one from which she wouldn’t have to return to all the pain, and problems she faced here at home.
Upon making my way to Room 176 on the Medicine B floor of Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, CT on Sunday, July 5 at around 11:40 AM, I was struck by the lack of people in such an architecturally broad space. The design of the hallways, which hung over an open space from the lobby floor up several more stories, was devoid of humanity, save for me, and a courteous young nurse named Brie. Brie was sent down from Mom’s floor to escort me up. I guess they do that when you’re visiting your dead Mother, I thought. Because I had never received an escort for a hospital visit before.
Our voices didn’t echo, but they might have if we’d called out to try the dynamic of the empty space.
Seeking some kind of an emotional anchor, after knowing that my mother had passed about thirty minutes before I arrived, I made some small talk with Brie.
“How’s it been going?” I asked, understating the question but implying “how’s the pandemic been for you?” which Brie got immediately.
“Oh, it’s been something,” she said, sending her eyes upward, a gesture enhanced by the fact that she was wearing an N95 face mask and a blue paper one over that.
“I bet,” I said, struggling for casualness. “Are things trending down?”
“Well, they were. But…”
“The holiday weekend?” I said.
“Yeah, and graduation. You know. People do party.”
We wound around a corner, passed a nurses station, where everyone was preoccupied, and then abruptly we’d arrived at Mom’s room.
The door was opposite, and on the other side, my dead mother was waiting for me.
Brie opened a closet in the hall, got me a yellow gown, another N95 mask, though I had my own, helped me don it all, and gestured me into the room.
“Oh,” she said. “You’re already wearing gloves.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m prepared,” the irony of which was not lost on her.
Then she was gone, and everything got a bit more real.
I moved at the same pace, but the air was thick with portent, and the door seemed to open twice as slowly as it might have had I been there for a friendly visit to check on Mom and buoy her spirits.
Before I could get to her though, there was my sister, as always, she was the one organizing caretakers, and had to field dozens of phone calls from Mom about the same topic, sometimes as many as ten calls a day.
“Why am I in so much pain? When will it end? What have I done to deserve this?” were constant queries my sister had to endure.
For me, and probably for her other kids, Mom put on her brilliant disguise, and attempted to be a bit more together, a bit more whole, even if she was crying in pain for some of those final calls. But for my sister she let it all hang out, and it was Ann who had to help Mom parse it all.
Ann stood before me, in the same colored hospital gown, same mask, and though sturdy in demeanor, she was clearly rattled by Mom’s death. We might have hugged but due to the pandemic I said, “We better not hug.”
So, Ann fist-bumped the air near me and smiled. Her good humor showing through even here, in the room our dead mother lay in.
And then I saw Stephanie. She was laying on her back, a hospital gown loosely covering her frail frame. Mom was only five-foot-four, but here she appeared even smaller. Her mouth was wide open, as were her eyes, with her head turned to the side. And her gaze went far, far out the window. Looking past the town, past the Long Island Sound, which lay due east of her, and onward still, to a place none of us knows anything about until we too leave this world.
“Oh, Mom,” I said. “Mom, Mom. Mom.” And for a brief moment, I thought I might cry, but it quickly passed, without any interference from me.
“She was like this when I walked in,” Ann said. “At first, I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping, or what. I thought I saw her breathe. But then it was clear. She was gone.”
“Yes, yeah, of course,” I said. “Mom. Mom…”
And I quickly sat, directly opposite Mom, my back to the window she appeared to be looking out of, and perhaps the exit she got out of her bed from and made eye contact with her.
Her pale, freckled skin was taut, and her demeanor was as if she’d been shocked, not just by her death, but literally shocked, as if an unexpected current had passed through her, a current that had been coursing not just today, but for weeks.
Then I looked in her eyes. My mother has had the bluest eyes. Like agate, they always retained a kind of glow, even into her nineties, even in her death. But now one eye looked out the window, and the other, her right eye, gazed upward as if beseeching an answer to an unanswerable question.
How could her gaze be in separate directions? I wondered.
Her lower lip had curled inward, it appeared…gone.
Someone told Ann, “Yeah, that happens when they go. The lip curls in.”
It gave her a terrible countenance. What was once a rare beauty now seemed a weathered husk of a plant no longer connected to earth and no longer filled with whatever it subsisted on.
And the tops of her lower molars were blackened. They appeared to have coagulated blood on them.
Ann noticed me looking at Mom’s teeth.
“Yeah, their teeth do that too. Black. It’s sad.”
Then I noticed Mom’s hair. To her dying day, if you’d asked my mother she would insist she never dyed her hair once. It had a light red hue, orange really, but we call it red. In fact, one of her childhood nicknames was “Red.” If you dared ask my mother if she dyed it you would receive the Paddington Bear Hard Stare. Mom’s eyes would narrow, and a slight guttural sound would emerge, as if she was saying “Really! What an impudent question.” And it was all conveyed wordlessly.
But now, Stephanie’s fair red hair had the violet dye that abounds in the hair of elderly women. And it was short, shorter than usual, and Mom always wore her hair short.
And God help me, I couldn’t help but start stroking it. I didn’t think about Covid-19, I didn’t think about my safety, of the safety of those I live with. I just started stroking my mother’s soft hair and began to pray. Silently at first, then at a bit of a whisper when my sister received a text she had to answer. I was saying The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, a Buddhist scripture, recited daily by monks, and used specifically for memorial services for the dead.
And I kept stroking Mom’s hair.
That was a gesture I would have never performed while my mother was alive.
Even if I had found Mom in bed with a fever, the idea of stroking her hair would have never occurred to me. My mother was too prim and proper for that kind of personal touch. She was too restrained, and presented too upright a demeanor to engender that kind of intimacy. But now, I just kept stroking her hair. And I kept praying.
I’d brought a miraculous medal with me. Do you know their elements? On the front is the Virgin Mary, her hands near her hips, turned outward, as if to invite you in.
On the back is the letter “M,” with a cross woven around it. Twelve stars adorn the perimeter of the oval, and two hearts, with different crowns, are under the “M.” The hearts represent the love that Mary and Jesus have for their adherents. And the twelve stars, though evocative of twelve apostles, may be best interpreted through a quote from The Book of Revelations 12:1: “And a great sign appeared in Heaven. A woman clothed in the sun, and the moon under her feet. And on her head a crown of twelve stars.”
I placed it in the pocket of Mom’s wrinkled hospital gown.
I have to stop touching her, I thought. But I couldn’t stop.
Then Ann pointed out that the priest, one of those fearless chaplains that are in hospitals everywhere now, had just said prayers and left a rosary on Mom’s chest. It was one of those phosphorous plastic ones. They kind of glow in the dark, if you leave them under light before the end of day.
Ann, grown weary of wearing her mask, and tired of waiting for a doctor, or someone from the hospital to come with a form to sign, called the nurse’s station and politely asked if there was more to do.
“No? Oh, good then. Thank you.”
She hung up and said, “OK. We can go.”
“I’m gonna stay,” I said.
“Oh. Fine. Come by our place after, if you want.”
“I will,” I said. And then she was gone. Having seen my mother through to the end, she left without pause and returned home to her husband, who had just been through double knee replacement surgery. No rest for the weary, indeed.
Having said my Buddhist scripture, without missing a beat, I picked up the rosary and began to pray.
In the name of the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.
And now the Apostles Creed, I remembered.
Those nuns at St. Augustine’s Grammar School would smile wry smiles now, I thought.
I’m not so certain I believe in “The Holy Catholic Church,” as the creed asserts, given its history of colonial imperialism, and lack of transparency when policing itself, plus its politics hardly seem in step with mine, but I had no doubt that my mother believed in it, and believed in it fervently.
So, for her, I prayed, “…I believe in The Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins…”
And here I thought, I cannot remember one sin my mother committed. She may not have been a saint, but a more devout Catholic never walked the earth.
“The resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”
Then I settled into the familiar rhythms of the Our Father and Hail Marys, three before the first Doxology, and then ten between each mystery, and Our Father.
And as I prayed those familiar phrases, well ensconced in my Catholic school boy’s memory, I stayed in eye contact with Mom. And she began to change, I believe. That is, her countenance changed. It eased. The shock began to leave her face. And her skin began to settle. Her jaw, once stiff with initial rigor mortis, eased, and I was able to close her mouth a bit. And she looked more like…well, Mom. She looked like the beautiful woman I remember. Like the young bride my father fell for, like the benevolent general of my childhood, shepherding seven kids through all sorts of trials.
And then finally, she looked like the woman I so wanted to please. The woman I wanted to relieve of all the sorrow she’d endured. She looked so very beautiful.
"Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Our Sweetness, and Our Hope. To thee …we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, Thine eyes of mercy toward us….”
And she did, or so it seemed. Mother’s eyes united again appeared more aligned, more at ease, and jewel-like. More like the Mother’s eyes I remember, and will remember.
I loved my mother so much. And before I left her she looked at me one more time.
And then I said, “Goodbye.”