Involuntary memory is a funny thing. Today, while scrubbing the shower stall, I suddenly thought of two people, my mother and my late father-in-law, prompted by the baking soda—baking soda moments, I suppose, to borrow from Proust. I could not only see my mother scouring with baking soda a rusted cast iron skillet outside the little two-bedroom house we rented, but also the unpainted wooden structure we called a smokehouse but used for storage and never for curing meat, the outhouse behind that, and the old-fashioned wire and wooden post fence separating our yard from the neighbors’, covered in sweet pea vines.
Time has proved my mother right about a great many things. One is that the only cleanser you ever need is a combination of vinegar and baking soda. No matter that she was later seduced by TV commercials promising better living through chemicals—she had already taught me the fundamentals of both economy and cleaning, which come back to me now after years of mindlessly buying toxic products myself. Eco-awareness has made me appreciate now more than ever all of her good advice.
My second baking soda moment: my husband, my mother-in-law, and I are standing around my father-in-law’s hospital bed. He has recently been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and has, in a frighteningly short time, lost the ability to find or even form words. My mother-in-law has asked if he remembers where he hid the key to the lock box. He is quiet for a few seconds, his face very serious, then his eyes widen and he smiles like a schoolboy. “Baking soda,” he said. Of course, the key was not in the box of baking soda (it was eventually found among his cufflinks). That was late November. A week later, he stopped speaking altogether. Two days before Christmas, he slipped into a coma. He died on Christmas day. He was 64 years old. The night before, my husband visited him alone. The only thing he told me he said to his father was, “It’s okay for you to go; don’t worry about Mom, I’ll be there for her, she’ll be okay.”
My husband often said we’re destined to lose the thing we’re most proud of. He inherited his father’s intelligence and always feared that he would die the same way. How hard it must have been for him, at age 37, to realize that his father had been sliding toward darkness, with awareness, for as much as a year before his death. Apparently, the heart bypass spurred cancer cell growth in the brain. He was troubled after surgery that he couldn’t recover his handwriting and, I’m sure, his full mental powers.
This, a man who, after being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying bombing raids in WWII, graduated with top honors from the University of Florida with a degree in mechanical engineering in only 18 months; who, for the last 25 years, had owned a very successful engineering consulting firm and still piloted his own Piper Cub to out-of-state job sites; who completed a Master’s degree in philosophy in his fifties. A dark, handsome, silent type one rarely sees except in the movies. He was, in every sense, the greatest hero my husband ever had.
My husband also inherited his father’s defective heart. He died at age 66, but suddenly, with his beautiful brain intact, without a long, painful decline due to disease or aging. He would have chosen that, I think, had he been given a choice. My mother would have wanted that kind of death also. “I just want to fall over,” she always said, every time making me think of the man riding a tricycle on Laugh-In, the 60’s TV comedy show. Wearing a yellow raincoat and hat, knees churning halfway up to his chest, the man careens down the sidewalk away from the camera and suddenly tips over, splat. The film freezes as he hits the ground. It was hilarious then, but now I view it as a metaphor for the good death. “Falling over” was exactly what my husband did, but my Mother hasn’t been so lucky.
She is now 88 years old, has been in a nursing home for the past five years, and is pretty much bedridden. Due to strokes, she has lost her inhibitory controls and much of what made her uniquely my mother. But she can still feed herself and is always in good humor. Never comfortable with giving or receiving praise, when I tell her I can never repay her for everything she has done for me, she is now free to say, “Shit.” By poo-pooing (pun intended) her achievements, she is, in effect, still teaching me not to take myself too seriously.
During my husband’s brief coma, the day before he passed into the next world, I also said to him, “It’s okay for you to go; I’ll be okay.” I want to believe that he heard me, even though, intellectually, I know that my permission held as much weight as a pebble tossed into the black-hole mystery that is death.
I stood back to admire the gleaming shower stall and thought how good it is that we only die once but constantly relive pieces of the past, little scenes spontaneously playing out in the cortex, triggered by something as mundane as an orange box of baking soda.