LAUREN WALDEN RABB
THE WHITE DOVE OF THE DESERT
Off the road between Tucson and Green Valley, Arizona, the White Dove of the Desert rises out of the shimmering heat and glows in the distance. It is the San Xavier del Bac Mission, dating back to the 18th century. The brightness of its façade seems fantastical in the dusty beige and green landscape. But if you don’t know to look for it, you won’t see it.
I always look for it. It is a talisman, there to comfort me while my mother lies dying.
My mother has been dying for a while, in small increments, almost invisible to everyone except those who have known her the longest. She began checking out of life a number of years ago – it’s hard to remember when. But slowly she stopped showing interest in doing anything or going anywhere, and her questions about family members were limited to asking if they were OK. Once assured they were, that was all she needed to know.
But more specifically, about a month ago she stopped eating almost anything. And then she got sick and stopped eating altogether. Turns out she has a complete bowel blockage, and she is not a candidate for surgery.
Now she lies in hospice. Prepared to go, ready to go, with a body that is taking its time. And I make the 45-minute drive between Tucson and Green Valley every day, to sit with her, and offer solace to my father.
If I forget to look for The White Dove of the Desert, I am distraught.
When my mother was twelve, she took the bus by herself from Queens Village to downtown Manhattan, and auditioned for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. She sang and tap danced, and walked off with a contract. When she got home, my grandmother promptly burst into tears and told Mom that her only wish for her daughter was that she would get a college degree. She was afraid that if Mom began performing professionally, she’d never finish school.
So my mother tore up the contract and went on with her life. She loved her mother more than she wanted to be in show business.
About a year ago, my mother announced that no matter what, she was not going to the hospital again. This was after her fourth bout with an unknown ailment in which she became incredibly weak and her blood pressure shot up. It was never determined whether her blood pressure spike was the cause of the weakness, or the effect, but in any event she would be admitted for three or four days while the doctors utilized every drug in their arsenal to find the perfect cocktail to stabilize her condition. Then they would give up on a diagnosis and send her home.
She hated every minute of her time in the hospital. She complained about most of the nurses, didn’t like the food, and was annoyed by needing to call a tech to get up for the bathroom.
But we had to tell my mother that as long as she continued to have these episodes, the only way she could avoid being taken to the hospital was if she were in hospice care. My parents lived in assisted living, and due to insurance concerns the ability to avoid the hospital was somewhat out of their control.
So Mom asked us to bring in a hospice nurse to interview her, to see if she qualified.
The nurse, Kim, was incredibly sweet. She talked to us, she talked to Mom, and then had to tell her that she simply didn’t qualify yet. Kim actually felt badly about it. She promised to check back in a few months.
Postscript to this episode: when my Mom went into the hospital this time, she was perfectly compliant and never complained about anything. And though she underwent some very unpleasant methods to remove all of the feces from in front of and behind the bowel blockage, she thanked everyone who treated her.
Second postscript: Kim is now her hospice nurse.
When my mother was sixteen, she went down to the local courthouse with her mother, stood before the judge, and asked for a restraining order against her father. The judge – perhaps because my grandfather was notorious in the neighborhood – complied. That was the end of my grandfather beating my mother.
He wasn’t invited to the wedding my grandmother threw for her three years later. In fact, my mother didn’t speak to her father again for over a decade, including those three years they still lived in the same house.
She relented when he had a stroke.
My father has been married to my mother for 61 years. They had an extraordinarily good marriage – which my brother and I took for granted. We didn’t know how lucky we were to have parents who loved each other deeply and truly enjoyed spending time with us.
My father can’t sit in the room and watch my mother die, so every day I encourage him to go do something. Play bridge, see a movie, even go to the casino. Something to distract him for a few hours. But I am OK sitting there, giving my mother sips of water, holding her hand. Talking to her. I tell her it’s OK to go, that the afterlife she believes in is waiting. I tell her that soon she’ll see Grandma, and she always smiles.
She can’t speak much. The NG tube irritated her throat, and now she’s hoarse from coughing. The nurse explains to me that as her body breaks down it is also hard for her to move phlegm through her throat. The constant coughing is clearing that out. It is hard to listen to, but doesn’t bother my mother at all.
In fact, she seems comfortable, and doesn’t want pain medicine. Most of the time she dozes. When she wakes up she glances and sees me there, and nods. But all she ever actually speaks about, is that her chariot is coming to take her to another building. Or her wagon is coming. Or her stretcher. At first I thought she actually didn’t understand that hospice is her last stop.
My husband says that another building is a metaphor. But I don’t understand why it’s so specific.
When I was four, I became ill with a very sore throat. The doctor wanted me to have a strep test. But when I saw the long Q-tip swab that would have to go into my throat, I closed my mouth and refused to do it. The nurses – two of them – assured my mother that I would comply if she only left the room. They then cajoled, pleaded, and threatened to tie me down, none of which got me to open my mouth. In fact, by the end I was screaming with terror. In frustration they finally let my mother back into the room. She pulled me aside and whispered into my ear: “If you don’t do this, I am going to break every bone in your body.” Much to the nurses’ amazement, I walked back and opened my mouth.
I was more afraid of my mother than of the nurses.
Throughout this ordeal, my mother has occasionally agreed to something when I ask, after refusing it for other people. This morning she refused morphine again. She claims not to be in any pain, but she moans when the nurses have to move her to clean her. So this afternoon the nurse tried again, and this time I smiled at her and said, “Just a small amount. So they can clean you without hurting you.” Mom nodded.
But I cried when they gave it to her, because morphine also helps the body relax, and speeds its journey towards letting go.
When I was about eleven, Mom became a student of the supernatural. She went to mediums for readings, and spiritualists for advice. It seemed like a fad – a lot of the women in the neighborhood were doing it. But then it all took a strange turn. Our house was haunted for about 8 months.
Of course, I can’t absolutely say that my mother’s delving into the unknown led directly to the haunting, but nevertheless it happened at that time. It started simply enough. My mother was trying to close a table by herself after removing the leaf from the center. Of course this is impossible to do by yourself, so she left the room and figured she’d close it when my Dad got home. When she returned to the kitchen a few hours later, the table was mostly closed.
If everything the spirit did had been benign like that, it might have been rather charming. But whatever or whoever it was liked to scare me and my brother. I felt and heard it running up the stairs behind me. It turned the lights on and off all night in my brother’s bedroom. It glowed on the wall of my room one night until I built up the courage to get my father. Objects mysteriously turned up in the bedroom hallway that didn’t belong there. Overall, there was a feeling of heaviness – a strange sense that we were being watched.
It ended one night when my parents heard a knock-knocking on what they thought was their bedroom door. But no one was there, although the knocking continued. My father checked all of the house doors, and windows, and even went outside to see if a tree branch was scraping the house. But when he left the room he couldn’t hear it. Eventually he and Mom discovered that they could only hear it from the bedroom, that in fact it was coming from beneath their bed. Since they couldn’t see anything there, they simply decided to roll over and go back to sleep.
That was the end. I’ve always thought that my Mom’s indifference forced the spirit to give up.
My mother should not still be alive. She has gone 21 days without eating, and she was very weak before that. For the last few months all she has been interested in doing is going to the dining hall, and lying in bed watching television. Her muscles have been atrophying for a long time – even lifting herself out of bed has been difficult for a while.
The nurses say that she is still alive because she is waiting. They think she is waiting for my parents’ anniversary, which is still a few days away. But I can’t imagine my mother caring about a few days here or there when it comes to a 61-year marriage.
I think she is waiting for a sign. I just don’t know what it is.
Everyone in the neighborhood found my mother formidable. She was infamous for things like the time she got Sears to replace a lemon washing machine by threatening to stand outside the store with a sign explaining her disappointment in their service. Or the time she took our neighbor to court for not keeping his dog from peeing on our gas grill (it caused a leak). Once she picked up the dog poop from another neighbor’s dog and put it in their mailbox. She was tired of asking them to pick it up themselves.
Some of our friends were afraid of her. She was fierce in her love for us, so if anyone said a mean word to us she would never forgive them – long after we’d ourselves moved on. Eventually we stopped telling her about anything bad that happened to us. When my first marriage was falling apart, I didn’t tell her anything until I announced I was leaving my husband. I hadn’t wanted to share any of the struggles we’d been through, for fear that she would never get past it even if I did.
Over the years this kept us from being as close as we could have been. I knew she loved me – that was never in doubt. But I began to feel that she didn’t really know me, and that I didn’t really know her.
These weeks in hospice have helped put some of that to rest. Just being there, every day, sitting by her side. As I think about the high standards she held us up to, I remember the pride she took in our accomplishments.
Her refusal to ever let anything or anyone get the better of her now seems like something marvelous. She was always unmovable; but for every time that was an obstacle, there was a time it was magnificent.
My mother’s breathing is troubled, but she is comfortable. All day she has lain here without speaking to me. She barely knows I’m in the room, yet I am still careful and courteous. I want to put on the light or open the blinds so I can read better, but I don’t want to disturb her sleep. Instead I put the TV on, very low. She always liked Judge Judy.
I think she must be very close to the end, but how can I really know? This is my first up-close death. If there are specific signs, I’m ignorant. All I know is that it seems unrealistic that she can go on much longer. So as I leave, I say something I haven’t said before. “Mom, I’m leaving for the night. If I don’t see you again, I just want you to know I love you.”
At 1 am the phone rings, and of course I know. It is raining; rain in early June in the desert is a rare phenomenon. I tell myself that rain is a blessing. That the rain is in her honor.
Mom and Dad followed us to Arizona. They had already retired to Florida, but once they learned we were going to Tucson they asked how we would feel if they came too – while they were still young enough to make their own friends and their own life. They understood that one day they might need family nearby.
I saw the wisdom of their plan, but I was concerned they wouldn’t like it here. The desert isn’t beautiful to everyone. It’s a spare beauty – the opposite of the rich tropical Florida landscape. But Mom was an immediate convert. “Look at the Santa Ritas!” she said. “They’re named after me.” She loved those mountains; she told me once she believed she was reincarnated from someone who had lived in the southwest before.
But oddly, almost from the moment she got here and felt at home, she started leaving us. Perhaps she needed to come home to prepare to leave. For all that she loved the Sonoran landscape, she quickly stopped looking at it. The woman who used to fully enjoy long summer outdoor vacations – camping and traveling all over the east coast – became someone who rarely looked outside and never wanted the windows open. She began turning inward in action and spirit.
My brother and I couldn’t comprehend it, and it made us sad and angry.
I get up, because I don’t know what else to do, and I send the email to everyone I’ve been communicating with. As I sit down to write it I am filled with a strange sensation. I feel joy. It’s the last thing I expect to feel, but I know why I’m happy. I have my mother back.
Not the disengaged stranger of the past few years who sometimes was mean to my father and didn’t truly understand much of what I said to her. That woman was so like, and unlike, the true woman that I didn’t dare think of what I was missing for fear I’d be bereft.
No. If there’s an afterlife, then my mother is back again, whole. The real Rita Walden. My mother.
For a moment I think about The White Dove of the Desert, deserted at this hour. But shining brightly off in the desert under the rain. I silently thank it for getting me through this. For helping to give me the strength to sit at my mother’s bedside for weeks, with love, offering comfort. While it offered comfort to me as I drove up and down the highway.
I am Jewish but it doesn’t matter. The mission is a sanctuary, a place where heaven and earth can meet. I’ve been inside in the past, but stepping inside isn’t necessary. It’s just the white light off in the distance that is the symbol of spiritual grace.
For in my mind, when my mother passed her soul rose out of her body. It hovered above the bed, then elegantly turned and flew towards my father’s bedroom, and then on to Tucson where I slept. It graced us with a blessing, and then flew up into the sky – high out of the heat and towards the stars, rising with the power of her spirit and indomitable will. To another place. Rising on the wind and soaring away from us. Just like a bird. Just like a dove… like a beautiful white dove in the desert, that you wouldn’t see unless you knew to look for it.
A few days after Mom passes, I go to my regular yoga class. The instructor, Julie, asks how I’m doing, and I tell her that I’m a bit disappointed that I haven’t gotten a sign yet – a sign from my mother telling me she’s still here in some way. Then I laugh and say, “But I suppose there might be an orientation period. I mean, it must take time to learn how to make a sign.”
“Actually,” Julie tells me, “in yoga they teach that if the patient has been sick for a while before they pass, they have to go someplace first to get their spirit rejuvenated. Sort-of like a hospital. They stay there until they become completely themselves again. And then they are released, fully healed. Just wait, you’ll get a sign.”
So that’s what she was trying to tell me. Now I know what Mom meant by another building.
Lauren Walden Rabb is an art historian and author. She has three published novels: Walking Through Time (1998), Interview with Mrs. Berlinski (2005), and The Rise and Fall of the Trevor Whitney Gallery (2014). Her shorter writings about art have appeared in the literary magazines The Whistling Fire, Driftwood Press, The Vignette Review, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.