Friday, August 19, 2011

Full Of Grace

Maria loved that song. Not long ago, when she'd become unable to travel, an opera-singer friend of her daughter sang it to her over the phone from California.

Even as death approached, she remained beautiful. Her hair, which was always perfect, had fallen away, pitilessly, from radiation. Her dentures, which she'd had made with the same gold inlays and fillings that preexisted them so none would know, no longer fit and were gone. Only then, at ninety-three, was she finally starting to look her age. Yet her skin remained perfect: fine and unblemished, smooth and unwrinkled, her face simply did not brook its own gauntness. Absent her cancer, I think she'd have lived to a hundred and five. Until hours before she died, she'd been lucid, recognized us who were there, said "Thank you, Sid" to the things I said to her, took my son in a near head-lock and told him how happy she was for him in his engagement. She's known and loved his fiance for several years. (Hearing from us, when she asked, frequently, when they were getting married, that we studiously avoided bringing up the subject, she said, "Well I can," and she did, telling them she wanted them to marry before she died. She saw the ring, and approved.)

Three days before her death she'd awakened suddenly and said "Seventeen." Only that, then returned to sleep. It was on the seventeenth that she died. Aunt Maria always called her own shots.

In her last couple of months, unable to get out of bed, she still threw parties with crowds of people. "It's more fun with lots of people," she said, correctly. She had an affinity for those younger than her (of course, there weren't many who were older), and enjoyed the company of anyone who enjoyed life as much as she. Good movies, good restaurants, good symphonies, plays, musicals. Museums. Traveling. A good book of nearly any sort. If there are true grande dames in life, she most certainly was one. But with her it was fully real, not an act, neither a pose nor artifice. She simply valued decorum and elegance of a bygone time, it was who she was; for Maria, it was a vehicle for truth, and for showing respect, caring, and love.

She spoke her mind. She read, she followed the news, politics, had opinions and wanted to know yours. The scores of the local sports teams were as important to her as the results of elections, the latest Paris fashion show. To the young son of a friend, she gave a book every year, encouraging his reading; he's said it was central to the Pulitizer Prize he eventually received.

And Maria was tough. A tough broad, a broad though always thin and graceful, tall and commanding. Faced with many challenges throughout her life, she handled them without self-pity, but with the certainty that she'd find a way; and she always did. Her laugh was like bells (unlike my other aunt, whose laugh evoked a tommy-gun), and she graced us with it, enthusiastically, all the time. I loved to evoke that laugh; even the occasionally bawdy or otherwise outrageous attempt was okay with her. If you can take measure of a person by her friends, she was superlative. She had dozens, devoted to her, a couple unbelievably so, glad to be in her company, who helped her generously, because they loved her; but also in the certainty that she'd be doing the same for them, and had.

To her husband, a lot handsome and a little difficult (or, maybe, the other way around), whose considerable wealth came from making the best dog food in the Pacific Northwest and who loved the boating life more than she did, she was the devoted wife; but after his death over a decade ago, she found and gathered her own strength and flourished even more.

Maria's daughter, given by her the gift of life, gave her mother the gift of a good death. Refusing hospice but acceding, if reluctantly, to twenty-four hour home care in the last weeks of her life, Maria made clear that it was still her house and the care-givers (who were great, mostly) were her guests, if also, eventually, friends. Help was okay; demands, not so much. But her daughter, who lives far away, was there nearly always; and at the end, unfailingly. Half a day before her death, Maria was still conscious enough to give and receive love freely. I love yous were said, kisses of the most unselfconscious kind exchanged, often, eagerly. (The gifts were mutual.) My wife and I were honored to be there, too, to be part of it. At the end, with her favorite music playing softly, having remained to the end in her immaculate and well-decorated home with its spectacular view to the east (in her closet, her clothes were covered in plastic, labeled, and numbered), with her daughter stroking her hand and brow, whispering to her, sweet somethings, and my wife holding her other hand, Maria's breathing slowed and finally stilled, without fear or agitation or pain. And she looked even more beautiful.

Of course the tears followed, sobs. But if those who fear death (who doesn't?) could have witnessed it, I think they'd had left feeling some comfort for their own. Would that every death could be so right, so obvious a necessary part of life, so well managed. So meaningful.

A couple of days before her death she called her daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter, great-granddaughter into her bedroom and told them she thought she was dying. And said she felt the presence of God.

[Maria at ninety-two.]


Sid Schwab said...

Frank, I didn't publish your comment, because some relatives might read this and not understand who you are. But I thank you for it; coming from you, it was like poetry.

Unknown said...

You described Maria's laugh perfectly, just like bells. I can hear it now. It is one of the things I will miss the most about her.

KNEWMAN said...

Sorry for your loss.

JF said...

Dear Sid,

A beautiful tribute to someone you clearly liked, loved and respected. I was so glad to have been able to read it.


Anonymous said...

Awesome tribute. I am so sorry for the loss.


Anonymous said...

Maria was indeed a gracious lady who graced our lives - first by the gift of her daughter, Mia, and her son-in-law and granddaughter. Later, she became our friend, inviting us to dinner, drinks and introducing us to folks she knew we'd enjoy when we visited Pdx. Just before he learned how ill Maria was, my husband awakened one morning and said,"Let's go to Portland this weekend. I want to take Maria to the art museum." That pretty much says it all. She was a joy to be with. All of our love and sympathy. Kathryn (& Bill)

Sam Spade said...

That was a moving obituary Sid. My condolences. I enjoyed reading about Mildred also. You've been blessed with friends and family.

Speaking of Mildred, I slightly know a sixty-five-ish female lawyer in Bellevue. Being a woman made her career quite challenging, and she's no whiner. She was perpetually thought to be the stenographer. I can only suppose it two or three times worse during Mildred's time.

Again, my condolences.

Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

What a beautiful woman. And a beautiful tribute. I am inspired. Thank you. And I am so sorry for your loss.

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