At 79, my mother is fully independent and has lots of friends and activities. But she is feeling her age: the limits of independent living, diminishing resources, occasional confusion over things both small and significant from e-mail to investment portfolios.
Over the past few years, she has let me know in many ways that she feels herself ready to start finishing life's business. What is more complicated is that I sense she wants to reflect on her beliefs about dying. I have put this conversation off by telling her she has 20 good years left.
"I hope not," she says. I know she is uncertain and a little fearful about what comes next and that I need to make time to listen to her. This discussion is never easy. With mom and me, its difficulty is compounded because we have never spoken deeply about my son's death. He was 12 when he died of cancer treatment complications eight years ago.
But time together is not infinite and when the opportunity arose for mom and me to spend a few days together, I invited her down from Georgia. My husband's job would take him out of town most of September. It would be as good a time as any to talk. I thought a few days would work.
"Why don't you come down over Labor Day Weekend?" I asked gamely over the summer.
"Can I stay for two weeks?" she asked with enthusiasm. I winced on my cell and immediately thought of a dozen reasons why not: the overrun garden, my writing, a full teaching load, work toward a second master's degree, taking care of the home fires while my husband was gone. I took a deep breath.
"Sure, Mom," I said. "That'll be great."
She arrived from Georgia with northeast winds and Indian blue sky. I have always loved the season with its hopeful new school year and the low-hanging harvest moon. But I miss my son the most this time of year, marked by Halloween and points beyond: Thanksgiving, Christmas.
Our days went along with both of us skirting the real issues. We never seem to be able to find our way into a conversation that encompasses her fear of death and the wrenching pain and complex feelings — gratefully eased over the years — of a mother whose child is buried.
At dinner one night, though, I shared with her my day's writing. I had been working on a story about my son. "The story about the sea urchins; when I was in grad school. You know," I said. She looked puzzled.
Dave was 6, finished with chemo, radiation, bone marrow transplant and all of their complications. He was in summer school trying to catch up with what he had missed during hospital stays. After school, he and I headed to the lab where I reared sea urchins to harvest their larvae for my research.
"He already knew about dying." I didn't need to remind her of the kids he had befriended only for them to die of their own cancers and complications.
Mom sniffled. I went on quickly. "The urchins had to be injected with potassium chloride, which triggers them to release their eggs and sperm. Dave helped me. I gave him his own eyedropper and showed him how to collect the semen while I collected the eggs from the females. We dropped them into sea water, waited an hour and checked them under the lab microscope to make sure they were developing into embryos."
She perked up. "I remember that part. They were like little fairies floating in the blue!"
I smiled. "That's the summer I first really explained dying to Dave. Sometimes the adults died after they were injected. You know how tender-hearted he was. It was a good opportunity to say something."
"What did you tell him?" Her eyes widened and misted again. Maybe I hadn't told her this.
"We held the urchins gently, thanked them for coming to stay with us for a while and, if they died, we buried them out at the house. I showed him the eggs dividing, right away, under the microscope and taught him the word metamorphosis. I told him it means great change, but that nothing is lost. We had to bury the parents, but right here were the new urchins, like little blue stars."
Mom was quiet and I realized that I had found the way in. The rest of the conversation was not easy. Is she okay with dying? What business does she need to finish? Will her beliefs sustain her? Telling her that I am okay. That the hole left in my heart when Dave died has closed, or at least has stopped ripping with ache every moment of every day.
After that night, we breathed easier with each other. Our conversation still isn't finished, but at least it has started. Somehow, talking about Dave and the urchins gave us a language.
During her stay, she puttered around outside while I tried to restart the heat-stricken garden. A few days before she left, I discovered a chrysalis on a parsley plant, badly chewed by caterpillars over the summer. She grabbed her camera and fooled with the settings to get her photo just right.
She was back home in Georgia by the time the chrysalis emptied. The day I saw it, the new black swallowtail was already nowhere to be found. I took my own camera and took a picture. "Metamorphosis," I wrote on the back of the printed shot.
I've sent it home to Georgia, to my mom, grateful that it arrived in time for Halloween, and points beyond.
Anne Visser Ney teaches science at St. Petersburg College and is studying in a low-residency MFA program at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.