All My Friends Are Ghosts

My mother was thirty-nine when she had her last child. Her first had been born when she was seventeen, barely. My mother turned seventeen one day and had a baby the next day. My parents had been married for five months.

Thirteen months later, I was born. Four years later a sister arrived, and two years after her my youngest sister. Six years would pass before my youngest brother was born. I was two months short of turning twenty-two. Now there were five of us. My dad, my mom, all of us were certain there would be no more children.

In 1968 my mother was having stomach problems and went to the doctor. He diagnosed her as having a stomach tumor. The next time Mom visited the doctor he told her that she did not have a tumor after all; she was pregnant. When Mom told my dad, he said, “Just what we need; another goddamn mouth to feed.” My sister, Angela Elaine, was born May 27th, 1968. She either was born dead or lived for thirty seconds or maybe three minutes. Either way, my dad’s concerns were unfounded. Angela would not be another mouth to feed.

My mother never saw her baby. But I did. She was the size of a large doll, and she was dressed in a white top and blue bloomers. Her casket was tiny and white on white. I do not recall the exact events, but there was no service, no brothers carrying the casket to a hearse. The baby was at a funeral home one day and gone the next. Hello and goodbye, sister.

My dad drove to a neighboring village and ordered a gravestone. He paid $200 for it. The amount seems very inexpensive today, but in 1968 when a non-union factory worker might earn $1.50 an hour, it took a lot of hours to clear $200. The stone was either gray or brown and over the years faded to match the dry soil upturned for the burial. The stone appeared a month or two after Angela was buried. Her name was misspelled: A-n-g-e-l-i-a.

About three years later my dad left my mom in search of a younger woman and fewer children. Even though Mom had been abused throughout their marriage, losing first her baby and then her husband broke her heart. I was gone from home by then, but I vividly remember images of mom with a black eye, busted lip, or bloody nose. Sometimes, to save herself, she would sacrifice her children to beatings. We all forgave her for doing this. Over time, I even forgave my father, and long after he had found a mail order wife from the Philippines, and had one son with her, I befriended Dad more than my other siblings chose to do.

Mom had many stops and starts, eking out a living working in a garment factory making uniforms, baking donuts and cakes, learning ceramics and then teaching ceramics, another factory, making caps, a store clerk, whatever job a woman with no high school degree could get in a backward, dying town in the Ozarks.

Years after a heart attack led to a triple-bypass, Mom moved into a senior citizen apartment complex for low income people. For the first dozen years I helped her pay rent and utilities, but after my father died in 2012, his social security benefits split between his two wives, Mom’s income increased enough that she could support herself. For fifteen or so years, life for my mother was “as good as it gets”. She had never had her own bedroom until my father left. Alone, she raised my youngest brother. Later, they shared various houses for some years. Now, Mom finally had her own place. I remember taking her shopping for new bedroom furniture. She picked out a single bed, off-white, with a matching chest, dresser, and nightstand. It looked very much like the furniture a teenage girl might choose.

Although I never lived in Missouri after the 1970s, I visited often, sometimes spending as much as six weeks a year with Mom. We talked openly about subjects that were usually taboo between mother and son: sex, death, my time in the drug world. We talked about my travels and spent hours looking at photographs I shot, about living in other countries, and about being a scriptwriter in Hollywood and publishing books, but mostly we talked about my mom’s family – my grandparents were a beacon of light in my dark childhood – and from time to time we also talked about Angela.

Some years after my dad had married again, he phoned to ask if I wanted to buy the two cemetery plots adjacent to Angela. When the baby died, my dad had bought three plots – for Angela, for Mom, and for him. He wanted to sell them so he could buy two new plots, for his second wife and himself, in the same cemetery but in a different part, beside Dad’s sister and her husband. His family, my family too, on my father’s side, has generations buried there, dating back more than 150 years.

I bought the two cemetery plots from my dad. When I told Mom about this, she cried. She cried a lot when she thought about my dad or about Angela. It was during one of our conversations, perhaps the very time I told her about buying the plots from Dad, when Mom said that more than anything in the world, she would like to have a new gravestone for Angela, one with her name spelled correctly. I promised that I would take care of it. But I did not. Not for many years. For fifty-two years the stone remained: Angelia Elaine Cheek, May 27, 1968.

When Mom was 86, she fell and broke her left hip. I was living in Los Angeles, but I quickly joined my brothers and sisters and their husbands and wives in St. Louis. Most everyone stayed around for the surgery and the first days of recovery, but I also stayed through two weeks of physical therapy, and then stayed another two weeks with Mom once she went home. I liked visiting Mom; I can’t say the same about visiting Missouri. It’s a slice of the deep south misplaced in the Midwest, more Alabama than Iowa. But even so, I always spent either Thanksgiving or Christmas with Mom and usually Mother’s Day, sometimes her August birthday. Three or four visits a year was average. In June 2019 Mom fell again – she had fallen many times but had kept the falls a secret. This time she broke her right hip. This time she could not recover enough to live alone in her apartment.

The big debate began – could she live with one of us, could we find live-in help and a two-bedroom apartment, or had we reached the dreaded place – did my mom need to go to a nursing home?

Mom settled the debate by choosing a nursing home near her apartment of twenty years. She had been declining gradually for years but gradually had changed to rapidly: lack of exercise made her physically unstable, she wore two hearing aids but still could not hear, and a stroke had blinded her in one eye. Bit by bit, everything that gave her life meaning slipped away: the ability to cook for herself – Mom was a good cook and an even better baker – her ability to read – romance novels were a favorite – her talent with needlework and crocheting, even talking on the phone. The best times for Mom were when I would stay with her in her tiny apartment and cook for her and we would sit, her in a recliner and me on the love seat, reading books while maybe watching baseball or another sport on TV with the sound too low to hear. Even though my siblings and I chipped in to upgrade Mom to a single room, and I decorated her room to look like her former apartment, life had squeezed the last drop of joy from Mom.

The last time I saw my mother was August 9, 2019, on her 90th birthday. She tried hard to enjoy it, but it was easy to see that beneath the effort there was confusion, frustration, and heartache. I stayed for a few days after the birthday party and said I would return before the end of the year.

Last September, I went to Morocco for my birthday and spent the rest of the year in Maine. I had planned to go to Missouri right after Christmas, but I was ill. In February, I went to France for the fourth year in a row. My partner and I were looking at houses to buy in the lovely little city of Albi, but by mid-March France was shutting down trains and grounding airplanes and closing restaurants and businesses due to Covid-19. I tried upon my return to the US to visit Mom, but the virus forced the nursing home to restrict entry to staff, medical personnel, and residents. I tried to phone Mom, but she had shut off her cell phone, leaving her isolated. So, I waited and planned to visit her as soon as possible, while I tried to make sense out of the end of the world as I knew it: the last gasp of democracy in America, the end of entitlement that my generation had enjoyed, the rekindling of racial conflict, murderous cops, and more.

Like my mom and some of my siblings, I have insomnia. On the night of June 10th, I did what I usually do at bedtime: I swallowed a sleeping pill and picked up a novel. I was asleep by 10:30. Early to bed, early to rise, just like Mom.

Around one in the morning I awakened. I had no idea why, but when I opened my eyes, I was not alone. I saw grayish figures just inside my bedroom door. Three grayish figures. The closest figure I instantly recognized as Mom, the smaller figure behind her was my grandmother, my mom’s mother, and the tall was my grandfather. These grayish images did not have clearly defined features, but I knew they were people, and I knew who the people were. I was shocked. I was confused. I was scared. I thought perhaps I was dying, and they had come to be with me. I don’t remember the figures making a sound. One moment they were there and the next they were gone. Much like my baby sister, fifty-two years earlier.

The next morning around 9:30, I received a phone call from my youngest sister. Before my father’s death in 2012, my sister was minimally involved in Mom’s care, but something shifted. For years my youngest brother had been most involved in helping Mom. In 2012 my sister jumped in and took over caring for her. One thing about my sister is that she does not phone, she texts. We exchanged hellos, and then I said, “You’re calling to tell me Mom died, aren’t you?” We talked. We cried. We hung up. I cried.

My mom had a death insurance policy with a local funeral home, and she also had saved additional money to cover any costs her policy failed to cover. I don’t know the cost of the casket. I never asked. My youngest siblings picked it out, an unenviable task. As soon as I arrived in Missouri, my youngest brother and I began to deal with the gravestone or in this instance, the gravestones – the size, the color, the image, if any, the words. I had discussed with Mom some years earlier whether she wanted a joint gravestone with Angela or two separate stones. In truth, I forgot what she had said. I think it amounted to, “I don’t care. Just as long as the baby’s name is spelled right.”

We opted for two stones. Both gray granite. Angela’s stone is a smaller version of my Mom’s stone. Mom’s stone, in addition to name and dates, says “Beloved Mother” and has at the top flowers and hummingbirds, two things she loved. A large single dove dominates the top of Angela’s stone and beneath her name, spelled correctly, and her date of birth and death, are the words, “Angel Unaware.” I chose the words. Nobody asked me why. I’m not sure I could have told them anyway.

Mom had talked to me about living so long that not only had she outlived her grandparents and her parents, but all her brothers and sisters too – five of them. She outlived both my father and Angela. As her children aged, she was fearful that one of us would die before her. Despite heart diseases, Parkinson’s, drug overdose, pneumonia, childbirths, surgeries, auto accidents, Agent Orange, and numerous other dangers, none of us died.

Mom has not visited me since the night before her death. Maybe there is no need to return when all your friends are ghosts.

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