– by Albert Berkshire
Norma stood staring at the gravestone. It was tilted to the left. It sank slowly over the near thirty years it was in place. She never commented on its position or need of attention. It seemed almost irrelevant.
“I want my full name on my headstone,” she said rather blankly.
“Well, I don’t think we need to talk about that, but I agree. Mary is a beautiful name.”
I didn’t want to talk about headstone inscriptions. But I thought I should at least acknowledge the request.
“No. I don’t care if it says Mary, I want my maiden name on there.”
“I think we have plenty of time to discuss that.”
This was not my kind of conversation.
“No, Albert. I know. I know how I feel and my time is soon. Anyway, that’s enough about that. Let’s go.”
This was her usual way of ending any discussion with me that she felt had run its course, or when I had when I made some valid point about the invalidity of religion.
In all the years my father was laid to rest in that cemetery, she never once made reference to being buried beside him. The only hint that she would be was the blank space beside his name on the headstone, and the knowledge that that was what always happened to a husband and wife – they got buried together.
Lunch was Norma’s next suggestion. She was always hungry. She was, at best 90 pounds. She could eat five meals a day and never gain an ounce. Bit by bit, meal by meal, whatever was wrong with her system was depriving her of the necessary nutrients to stay healthy and strong. She never lacked an appetite. She just lacked the ability to make any use of what she ate. And so, we went for a drive and found a little restaurant on the edge of the water. An American might call it a diner. My father-in-law would call it a cafe. I like to think of it as your typical outport Newfoundland greasy spoon. It mattered not. They had a turkey sandwich on the menu and Norma was thrilled. She was an easy woman to please.
What are you going to eat?” She asked. “What do you eat?”
I’m a vegetarian. This was foreign territory for most members of my family. Norma assumed I lived on salad. If only it were that easy.
“I’ll find something. I always do.” In retrospect, I think I had apple pie. Close enough.
After lunch, we drove to a small community named Norris Point. Norma pointed up to a knoll, a mound of a hill. Too small to be a mountain, too big to be hill. It was a rocky lump that overlooked the harbour. Typical Newfoundland topography.
“Your father proposed to me up there.”
In all the years I knew this woman, in all the years we talked about life and travel, religion and politics, the news of the day, the philosophies of humanity, the trials and tribulations of the world, she never once made a single mention of where she and dad were engaged. I knew they were married. I knew where and when and who was there. I knew about when they dated – and her usual quips about how every girl in the office wanted to go out with him except her, and he had to ask her out. And of course the usual, “I wasn’t even remotely interested in him. I was engaged” routine retort to any mention of them as young adults.
And then this. Today. It was a surprise, more to hear the actual information, than it was to know they were engaged before marriage. It was like the missing link we never knew was missing. Oddly, none of my siblings ever heard the story either. Perhaps she just wanted someone to know. More importantly, this confirmed what I always knew…that I was her favourite. I jest. Unless you are my sibling, then I am serious. I was the favourite kid. Ahem.
After we left to drive home, we mostly had a normal conversation about life, news and politics…and eventually it turned to what we would do for dinner. She, like me, loved to go out to eat. Being served was high on her list. It was something earned from a life of work. She certainly never had the slightest entitlement growing up. Any dinner out for Norma was because she earned it. And she loved a good meal in a nice hotel restaurant.
Things didn’t go great for Norma after that weekend. She suffered a stroke a few weeks later and never fully gained the strength she needed to go home from the hospital. I flew back to Newfoundland on a whim a couple days before Christmas to spend it with her. Christmas in a hospital was about as equally depressing as seeing my mother in a hospital bed, semi-dependent on others…mostly strangers. Over the few days we spent, we had our usual talks, she had turkey dinner for Christmas night, and she slept a lot. Her stories almost stopped, and she was content to drift in and out of the conversations. I sat and wrote next to her bed. She occasionally asked me what I was writing, to which I could only reply – a novel. She said she looked forward to reading it.
“I hope it’s not trashy. And I don’t like a lot of swearing. It’s not necessary, you know. It ruins a perfectly good story” she said with a renewed strength of opinion. She was never short on opinion when it came to her literary critiques.
“No mom. No trash. I don’t think my characters ever swear.”
A few hours later I woke her up to tell her I was headed to the airport. She asked me where a few people were…some current, some past, some that I hadn’t thought of for years. It was the first time I really knew she wasn’t getting better.
About two weeks later, my brother called me and asked, in our typical family non-pressuring way, to come home if I wanted to come home. That generally translated into “I think you should come home.”
I arrived about 3am on the morning of January 13th. We spent the night in the hospital room with mom, and eventually, when the family shift change came, we got some sleep, some food and came back into the hospital a few hours later. By now, all six of her kids were doing shifts around her bed until someone suggested we let mom sleep while we all go have dinner.
The story, as I understood it from my sisters, was that at some point, about 5pm-ish on the 13th, Norma took off her oxygen mask, looked at my two sisters and said, in her typical conversation ending tone – a tone we all knew very well;
“That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m done here. I’m ready to go.”
As we all gathered around her that evening, she went around the room, naming each of her kids and getting most of her children-in-law correct – something that still makes us laugh. I, of course, just do it a little more publicly. When she got to me, she said, “We’ve had a lot of good times, haven’t we Albert.”
We had, indeed. My life was never short on adventure. I owe all of that to her.
I never got to tell her that I finished my novel. It didn’t seem important. There were more important things I felt she needed to know. I may even have tried to bribe her with a turkey sandwich if she’s stay a while longer, so we could talk a little more about the less important things. But I knew she was ready to go. She was tired of fighting. Tired of waiting to see my father. That, in itself, was the better story.
Norma Mary Hartery Berkshire died in the early morning of 14 January 2013. I was holding her hand when she passed.
I like to think she got the final word in our years long debate over the validity of religion, the existence of a god – one in which she firmly and loyally believed – and the importance of attending mass every Sunday. That final word, however little planning she may have put to it, was delivered in the most resounding way. She managed to get all of her kids in the same pew, in the same church, on the same day…at least one last time.
I’m certain I felt the Universe smile on us that day.
Norma lived a fine life. She was a lady to the end. Dignified in every way.
Today, 16 October 2013, Norma would have turned 82. There would most certainly have been cake. She loved any excuse to have dessert.
Albert Berkshire is a writer, producer, voice actor…storyteller. He misses the conversations. For a much shorter, and less frequent rambling, follow Albert on Twitter @albertberkshire.