Driving to the mountains last Saturday, I came upon a blues program broadcast by the Brenau College radio station. After songs like "There's a Rat Loose in My House," the DJ played the bittersweet "What a Wonderful World."
The song always makes me emotional. It's on a Louis Armstrong record my mother used to play a lot. One of my sweetest memories is watching my parents dance to it in the living room.
My mother died Wednesday, June 28. She was 78.
I snapped the radio off after just a few lyrics of the song, but it was too late. The grief had already asserted itself. Then, as if the world itself had become my heart, lightning flashed, thunder roared and rain fell in blinding sheets. Then came hail -- battering, violent, deafening. Weeping sadness and explosive rage. That's the state of my heart.
Her name was Bunny, and my middle name, Baker, is her maiden name. She was born in Silver, S.C., daughter of a German cotton broker who lost everything in the Depression. He moved the family to a house on Elizabeth Avenue in Charlotte, where he went into the furniture business. She had seven sisters and two brothers, both of whom died young.
Both her parents died relatively young, too -- of strokes.
Besides me, immediate survivors include her husband, Conrad, my brothers Robert and Steve, and four "perfect" grandchildren, Travis, Chris, Carlton and Jocelyn. All of us inherited her nonconformity -- a trait she long struggled, successfully, to accept in herself.
Mama was, as we say in the South, a character. She was insanely funny and brilliant. She always had a book on her lap and never seemed to sleep, reading all night. In her youth, she was an artist but gave it up, until about 14 years ago, when she enrolled in an art class in Vermont, where she was summering. She'd finally stopped worrying if she was any good.
"You're just like your mother," my father always said. He was so right. Just as my mother gave up art, when I was given a book contract at 32, I became immediately blocked and could barely write enough to pay my bills for the next 10 years. Helping other blocked writers and artists became my main work in psychology.
Mama had a stroke the summer she rediscovered art. She lived the next 14 years on St. Simons Island in a horrific state. She could not speak, walk, read or write but was aware of what was going on around her. She spent her days before the television. Early on, she slashed at her throat with her hand -- a gesture we knew meant she wanted to die.
I couldn't bear to see her in that state and, shamefully, I did not visit but a few times until last winter when it was clear her dying had finally begun.
Like anyone else with a strong personality, my mother cast a shadow, one that has affected me throughout my life. Years of psychotherapy -- even a large part of my doctoral dissertation -- were devoted to learning to see in the darkness of that shadow.
But, ultimately, I've always coped as my frequently depressed mother did. When I was a kid in Charlotte, she frequently dragged me to the Mint Museum and the public library, then to a Chinese restaurant where I was always given a tour of the kitchen. Art, books and food, along with her same ironic sense of humor, have saved me repeatedly. Especially humor.
In my late 20s, I landed in Piedmont Hospital with scarlet fever. On the worst day, Mama spent hours applying cold compresses to my forehead. I began to have a classic near-death experience -- moving out of my body into a blissful state. I kept thinking, "If I go any further, I will not be able to return." I was content to die.
Then I heard my mother, far off, say something. I was immediately challenged. "Shall I die or shall I make the sarcastic crack her comment inspired?" I chose the latter and returned to my body, to the sound of my mother's laughter. Humor saved my life. I saw last winter that it was Mama's own sense of humor that made her life bearable.
There is so much to say. A few days after her death, everything reminds me of her at her best. The loss of a mother is a terrible passage to cognizance of our mortality and existential solitude. The heartache reminds me that love hides even in the shadow of despair, outliving life itself.
I wish life had been easier for you, Mama. I do love you.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.