I know many are concerned about how I'm doing. For someone so used to blabbing to the world, it's strange that I feel nearly choked when I try to imagine a post on FB.

My mom died yesterday at 1:39 in the afternoon (her time). Almost everyone in her family and Dad's had been to see her in the previous 48 hours. Many were just outside the door. She was surrounded in the room by my brother and sister and my dad. They were holding her hands. I had spoken to her a couple of hours before, telling her I loved her, that she had raised us to be strong and to be strong for each other, that she could go because we were going to be OK. June asked me to tell her about Italy, so I rambled on for awhile about the lemon trees and the orange trees and the olives and the sea. Her breathing then was terrible to hear. Her body was too weak cough, liquid was filling her lungs. She didn't move. When June messaged me to call her later in the evening (I am seven hours ahead), I knew what I would hear.

I'm OK. I slept more deeply and long last night than I have since I left home. Grief doesn't wake me up ten times a night the way fear and anxiety did. I woke up this morning at 9 am to my brother Mark texting me (Viber) that he was finally going to try to sleep (2am CST). At our request, the hospice folks had come and cleared away the bed and the equipment and so the family had kept busy last night putting the house back together. Without her.

Here, I got up, dressed and cooked an egg and toast and ate standing at the window looking at the stone pines. I walked around the courtyard of the apartment complex and threw fallen oranges into the gorge behind. I wanted the tears to come. They didn't.

View from one terrace of the courtyard and Stone Pines (also called Umbrella Pines).

View from one terrace of the courtyard and Stone Pines (also called Umbrella Pines).

I walked down Via Degli Aranci, where I live, East about 3/4 mile to Corso Italia and had an espresso. I stopped in the Deco to buy chicken and pasta for dinner and more power converters (both of mine blew yesterday). In Piazza Tasso, packed with families and old couples strolling around in their Sunday clothes, drinking cappucino at sidewalk tables, the bells of the town went wild for awhile. It was 11 am and every bell in every church (that means hundreds of bells) began to ring violently. I thought maybe carthagenians were swarming the beach. No one else seemed to notice. They rang for five or ten minutes. For an instant, they cut through the numbness and I felt the grief squeezing me, but I walked on and through it.

Even though it was only 11, I thought I might have a drink. One pub in particular, The English Inn, has traditionally catered to american students at Sant'Anna and their faculty. I was introduced to Fabio, the legendary owner, on my first night here. But I hadn't gone in yet on my own. First, because I wanted to be home in the evenings to keep in touch with Tab and my family over wifi. Second, because I feel strange drinking with my students and they are there every night. I wanted a bourbon. I've tried to eat and drink like an italian so far, but I wanted a bourbon or nothing. This early in the day, though, Fabio wasn't there and the woman on duty in the front of the house was not interested in me--families were eating and the dining room was hopping. I sat at the bar (truly, very like an English pub) by myself for a few minutes, then took my shopping bag and went out again.

Next door is a leather goods store where I have been admiring a leather bag since my first night here. I admired it again and, as usual, when I saw the shopkeeper coming to engage, I fled. On Corso Italia, I was thinking of how much easier it would be to keep my phrasebook and maps and sunglasses, etc., in such a bag. Only american men are afraid to carry such bags. We are still afraid of the schoolyard bullies who might call us sissies.

Then I started thinking about my mom's purses. Valises, really. My mom could never have owned one of those tiny sleek black purses stylish women wear. She might have considered putting twelve into the shopping bag she preferred. She could never find anything in her purse without first dumping it out. To read a menu at a restaurant, she would first fill the booth with pieces of folded paper, bottles of lotion, birthday cards, bags of food (and bits of food wrapped in napkins), used kleenex, kleenex packets, gum, cigarette lighters, paperback novels, spiral notebooks, oranges, pens, water bottles, and 40 other unidentifiable things before she could find her reading glasses and read the menu. And then order the same thing she always ordered. It always amused and embarrassed me that her key ring had an enormous stuffed yellow smiley face on it the size of a large hamburger bun. I first thought it was so she could see the keys in those chaotic bags. Now I think the smiley face acted as a sort of buoy--keeping the keys floating near the surface.

Now the tears were coming. I stepped into a narrow alley with no people (even narrow alleys are likely to be crowded in Sorrento) and turned my back to the street. I leaned against the wall and let it out just a little. If mom had been here, she would have 150 kleenex to offer me and I could have opened it up. But she's not, so I wept a little and then took a deep breath.

Me being alone and far away when she died is not what I feared. My friends and family support me even from the other side of the planet. Me not being one of the people holding her hand is what I could not bear. Probably, I'm lucky I was spared the awful sound and sight of her body's struggle. They will hear that sound in their dreams. But I wanted to share her life--every last bit of it--feel it in my hand. I wanted her to feel me with her, not hear my voice on the phone.

By now, I really needed some kleenex. I went back to Corso Italia and turned and climbed Via Sersale through the ancient gate of the city and back to my apartment. But first, I went back and bought the goddamned bag.

23 thoughts on “Bells

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey through this universally painful process, Scott.

  2. Been staring at this comment box. Words aren't coming, but I feel full of so much from reading this. Love you. This is beautiful.

  3. Our moms could have been sisters. Those mammoth purses are more beautiful than ever now this morning sitting here in the early hours and hearing those far off bells. Thanks Scott. My thoughts are with you and your wonderful mom who bore up to the joys and pains of this world in brilliant fashion.

  4. Thanks for so generously allowing us, as much as possible, to be with you now through these words, through "the lemon trees and the orange trees and the olives and the sea." Thanks for helping us be with you by taking us with you on your walk and letting us see what you see. And for giving us another glimpse of your beloved mom, and her purse of wonders, and her buoyant smiley face, and all the kleenix. xoxo

  5. One of the strange things I discovered when my mom died was that much of my grief came over the time she was failing, so that by the time she passed I felt some peace - for her and for me. She has been gone 10 years this May, and grief still sneaks up on me at various times, but then so do the precious memories. With you in spirit, Scott.

  6. Thank god for the beauty of language. Like you've brought laughter to my heart so many times before, this brought tears to my eyes. xoxo

  7. I think the best any mother could wish for at her passing would be to have her professor son in Italy surrounded by lemon trees, stone pines and the sound of ringing of bells. You are a good son!

  8. When dad hung up with you yesterday afternoon he talked about how bad you felt being so far away. I told him how good it was that this was happening so early in your trip, that you had three months to start your grieving in a beautiful place, and how much easier that would be compared to living like we have been for the past week, three weeks, couple of months, past sixteen months... I am glad to know you slept so well (you know how I love to be right) and that you cried so well...with your little man bag on your arm. ????

  9. I'm so glad I was able to make it back to see your parents in November. Sandra's optimism and unending kindness were her core beauty and I feel fortunate to have experienced a slice of her life. Sitting here now, I think back to the days in Agency and how well she handled three rowdy boys (will always remember the silent stare she would give to Brian if he talked back. She had great command.) I remember riding with Sandra and Brian in the winter of '84, taking the Ford, LTD wagon into the ditch after hitting an icy curve on FF, not far from the house. How she kept her cool and sent us over the hill to retrieve your dad. So many other great memories, too many to count. But one memory I have, one that changed me more than I would ever know, is when I saw Sandra for the first time, the day after the accident. How I felt so crushed and desperate to envelope her in a protective bubble. I learned in that moment how very fragile all of life can be and how mindful we must be of giving and receiving love and kindness. I changed a great deal on that day and in the years since and that moment will be with me forever. There is much more to speak of and share in the months and years to come. I wish I could help you and your family carry some of this weight. Sandra made a tremendous contribution to this world raising a wonderful family and spreading her optimism and kindness to everyone she would come to meet and know. I love you and your family, brother and look forward to the day that we can all gather again. Peace.

  10. This is wonderful to read, my friend. You have such a fine command of language, both natural and through much practice. I hope that being able to write through this experience, to articulate your feelings, will be helpful to you.

    The tears will come in due course, I'm sure.

    Looking forward to reading more.

    Meantime, I'm glad you bought the "goddamn bag." In the years to come it will be a great, tangible metaphor for this time in your life. It will always remind you of your mother.

  11. I had a great deal of guilt over not being there for my mom's final moments. As I've moved on I feel that in some way she spared me of being a witness to her death. Being a witness to her life was a much greater privilege. She loved Kleenexes too. It must be a mom thing. Hang in there, Scott. We are with you in spirit.

  12. I hope writing this was as cathartic as it was for me to read. You are one of my favorite storytellers and this was such a blessing to read. Be well and at peace my world traveling friend.

  13. How I love to read your words... hear them really, because it's like you are reading them to me... I hear your voice and see every movement. It is a blessing. I was late getting there, the door was closed and I knew when I opened it, nothing would ever be the same. It couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes, but I wasn't there when she took her last breath. We had some very special conversations during the weeks and months of her journey.
    She, above all people, always gave it to me straight. We could talk about anything and we spoke of Brian often. She appreciated that. One day more recently, She said she wished we could sit on the floor and play paperdolls like when we were girls. I told her she could have the "Elvis" doll for her boyfriend. We fought over him, but she was Elizabeth Taylor and I was Debbie Reynolds, so there was really no contest.

  14. Just now checking email for the first time and I see so many comments have poured in all day. I can't respond to everyone individually, but I appreciate every response and many went straight to my heart. Paper Liz Taylor and paper Debbie Reynolds fighting over paper Elvis, though, is really the best thing I have imagined in a long, long time.

  15. I think not buying leather goods and chucking oranges into a gorge are a good way to let grief in.

    And I love you.

  16. I'm glad you got the bag. I hope you fill it with memories, old and new, and words, and love and a smiley face keychain. And I'm sure your mom will be with you every time you reach in.

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  18. I am sending you love and healing thoughts. Know that you are where she wanted you to be, and that through you she will carry on in this world as she moves onto her next great adventure.

  19. The bag will always be full or oranges and lemons and olives and those loud clanging bells. Fill it with Kleenex and happy face key rings and small bottles of Bourbon (clearly Fabio is unreliable). Fill it with memories of your beautiful mama. Sleep well tonight and the next night and the next... and let the sweetness of bella Italia seep in to every piece of your soul...

  20. Know that we are all thinking of you Scott. Thank you for sharing yourself and a glimpse of your Mom with us. Despite having Kleenex right next to me as I read your post, I got up and walked across the living room to scrumble to the bottom of my valise for the Kleenex I was so in need of.

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