Thursday, June 13, 2013

The power of a good book

Somebody very special to me died recently. Her death should not have come as a surprise. She’d been struggling for half a dozen months, the last two of them horrendous in many ways not only for her but for her four daughters who had rallied around her and devoted their time, energy and love as they cared for her. I knew she would die soon and had known it for a while. Her mind had become a muddy, scary place due to Alzheimer’s and her sight had been leaving a little at a time in the past thirteen years since she’d be diagnosed with macular degeneration leaving her confused, unbalanced and afraid. She’d suffered two severe head injuries in the same number of months and had been left speechless and in pain by the second one. Her weight dropped and only one of her arthritic hands had the strength to grasp the fingers of her daughters or those of her grandchildren when they came to sit beside her. Her body and mind were both unsettled and agitated, rarely at peace and her legs and feet swelled beneath the bed covers.

I did not see her in this state of confusion and failing health. I am far away. More than 5,000 miles and the wide expanse of the great Atlantic Ocean have separated us for nearly two years. Three years before that there were at least seven states resting between the two of us, but that was only geography. What she and I had was history, and we had plenty of it.

There are very few memories of my childhood taking up residency in my head that do not include her in some way. For the first thirty-eight years of my life I either spoke to her on the phone or stood next to her at least three or four times a week. I loved her when I was a small child snuggled up in bed next to her as she read books with me. I loved her as a struggling teenager, her home an undeniable refuge to me as I matured and grew into a young woman. I loved her as an adult, as a wife and then a mother of my own beautiful children who grew to know and love her as well.

There were many phone conversations these past five years. Miles and time zones stretched between us but there was always that familiarity, that bond that had begun decades earlier that had rooted itself and was neither concerned with nor diluted by distance. Letters were written, cards were sent and visits were made. She kissed me, those light and feathery butterfly touches of her lips, and her crooked hands held tight to my fingers and I knew she loved me. I knew that as a child and now, even though she’s gone, I know that still. 

Another undeniable fact that I have known for some time is that someday I would lose her. The last exchange we had on the phone was memorable in ways both good and bad. The voice I heard on the other end was without a doubt the one I had known all my life. The tone and cadence lifting and falling as it always had in its soft and flowing way, but the words she spoke were nonsensical and out of context. She knew who I was but not where I was calling from. I was certainly her granddaughter, but in her mind I had regressed somehow and was a handful of years younger than my true age. My children had become infants again and she wondered how we liked our new house although we have lived in the same place for some time. She was confused and child-like, floating along a sea of quiet chaos that her unwell mind had created and the conversation made me sad, made me ache for the woman she had been years before.

Although I have physically not been among the other members of my family trailing in and out of the nursing home, hospital rooms and the quiet and somber halls of hospice, I have followed along through this time in the only manner I knew how from such a distance. Several times I have wondered if this absence, my not being there as her mind and body grew increasingly weak made those words I heard nearly whispered on a sob through the telephone line, “She’s gone” that much harder to hear. It’s impossible for me to know for sure, but even though I traveled all of those many miles back home, spoke at her funeral and watched them lower her casket into the ground, the absolute finality of her death is just now sinking in nearly three weeks after she took her last breath. The fact that I wasn’t there when it happened, or even the few years before her steady decline has not made the loss of her any easier to bear, nor the pain any less severe. I lost her as much here where I am as those that spent every day with her did.

In the days that passed between her death and the long trip back to the states I understood that this would be a difficult journey. As I gathered my things and packed them up, I found myself slipping inside my bag a well-worn copy of a book I hadn’t read in a while in the hopes that the story sandwiched inside the covers would take me away, even for a short time as I flew across the ocean. What I didn’t remember was just how special this story is and as I read it again, first on the plane and then at night when the room I’d slept in during four years of high school was hushed and dark, the pages lit up by the buttery yellow light of the bedside lamp, I was happily reminded. I am reminded every single time I pick it up and read the text along the pages and this time I silently congratulated myself for tucking the book in with the rest of my things. It was a comfort to me, this book, and I was glad to have it with me.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been a long time favorite of countless readers. I am no different than many when I say I’ve read it at least a dozen different times and, although my son shakes his head at such an illogical idea, perhaps I am not the only person who believes that one can never have too many copies of one’s favorite book. I have five copies of Harper Lee’s masterpiece. One of them belonged to my aunt when she was in the eighth grade. Its binding is hopelessly broken, nearly a third of the pages are loose and out of order and the torn and tattered cover, which still has the price tag of sixty nine cents stamped upon its frayed corner, is held together by a bright green rubber band. Another copy was given to me just recently by a very sweet and generous friend. It’s a 35th anniversary hard cover edition in pristine condition with Harper Lee’s signature marching boldly across the title page. I love each and every copy I own and will keep them all forever. Truth be told, I will probably gather a few more before it’s all said and done.

My true comfort during this unhappy time came from my husband and our children; this wonderful trio that knows and has suffered from every one of my downfalls and faults a multitude of times…and loves me in spite of them all. They packed their belongings and braved the lengthy boredom of international travel to be by my side. They touched me with warm hands, held me tight, let me cry and reminisce and understood how great my loss was. I could not have gotten through it without them and am grateful to know that when a memory lights up in the corner of my mind and sadness comes to me again, they will still be there for me.

Books can’t help with all that ails you, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, you come across one that is so special, one that touches you in a way you simply cannot explain and, even without realizing it, you lean on its prose and strong sturdy lines of typewritten words to lend you a bit of the support you are seeking. To Kill a Mockingbird has done this for me. That’s the power of a good book.