I am driving north up the I-5 to my mom’s house, the soft green of the rain-fueled hills flashing by in a blur. I don’t worry about pushing the speed limit, sure that if a cop pulls me over he will see the pain in my dark, hollowed eyes and spare me a ticket. At the bottom of the Grapevine, a route I’ve traveled a hundred times, grey clouds are bullying the sun in an unrelenting march across a flat expanse of nothing. It is beautiful, this clash of dark and light, but I am too sad to take much notice. All I can think is that my mom will never pass this way again.
We have quietly slipped from the realm of the determined to the realm of the desperate. How we got here feels confusing, but some unknowable tipping point has been reached that started an irreversible downward slide. But this is cancer’s way–that gleeful bitch–to sneak in when the chips are down and shred any stability that is left. Just a week ago, Gabriele was enjoying a resurrection, walking around the Steven’s Creek Reservoir near her home, the trees arching to form a protective canopy overhead. One of these old oaks, blackened trunk and bare branches reflecting magnificently in the still water, reminded me that all things–childhood, for instance, or an individual’s war on cancer–must come to an end. Now, my mom rarely leaves the bed, her body exhausted by the awesome fight. But her mind–that beautiful, brilliant brain–is still intact.
“I’ve been having such wonderful dreams,” she says, when I arrive at her house and kneel at her bedside, a double rainbow streaking across the sky.
“What about, Mom?” I ask, eager to know what her spirit is up to when she’s asleep.
“I dream about…” she murmurs, drifting off to a place I cannot follow. “I dream of…” The sheets of her bed shine a brilliant white through the prism of my tears and her oxygen tank whooshes rhythmically in the background, like a heartbeat.
“What, Mama?” I press, greedy for an answer. And then she opens her eyes with a smile as bright and powerful as a star.
“I love you… I love you… I love you,” she repeats, a mantra of strength not weakness. And with those words, I feel confident she has won the battle that matters most. For what is better, when death takes you by the hand, than to be dreaming about love?
Far below my mom’s bedroom window the vast Silicon Valley shimmers in the dark, specks of airplanes blinking their way to and from San Francisco International Airport and a milky white ribbon of fog sneaking in to mute the urban sprawl. By day, a whirlwind of hummingbirds surrounds the feeders my mom always keeps full and her orange trees bow, heavy with winter fruit. When Gabriele first moved to this house in 1962, this area was apricot orchards, not Apple Computer. But despite five decades of change, the love affair between my mom and her valley has continued. It is quite fitting then that this vantage point, with my mom’s history inhabiting the space like a living thing, should be the last one she shall see. And when my mother’s spirit, ephemeral and finally free, swirls out of her earthbound body, we will help unfurl her new wings, as bright and beautiful as one of her beloved hummingbirds, and try to smile as she flies away.