I wrote this short story a few years ago and it was originally published in the “Aurora Storyalis II”, an anthology by the Aurora Writers’ Group. I would probably rewrite some of it now with a new perspective but have decided to leave it largely as is. At the time, I was struggling with our mortality and how to ‘die well’. I believe that this is one of the greatest gifts you can leave behind and that it takes an enormous amount of courage and selflessness. I don’t know if I have reached a stage in my life where I could do this yet but I consider this one of my life goals… so that when it is my time to go, I don’t leave my children with a fear of death but an acceptance and curiousity about what might come next. I suppose anyone purusing a spiritual or religious life is searching for this peace.
By Eden Remme Watt
Perhaps if Jake Winters had paid attention to signs – like his sister’s cryptic message or the ominous drizzle against his window – or even his own intuition, he might have feared that day. Instead of bounding out of bed that rainy morning in April, perhaps he would have pulled the covers over his head, ignoring the call of the alarm.
As he showered then dressed, he mentally reviewed his schedule – client appointments all morning, a lunch meeting, legal briefs to prepare, tennis at the club followed by a date that evening.
He made his bed and tidied up, closed the door on his son’s empty room, and shoved laundry into the closet – just in case his date went well. A final check in the mirror confirmed that his professional image was flawless. Turning sideways, he admired his new $3000 designer suit. Perfect.
The morning hours sped by. Just before lunch, the door to the conference room burst open. His young assistant stood in the entrance. “Sorry to interrupt but there’s an urgent call for you.”
“Who is it?” Jake barked.
“Uh, it’s your mother, sir. She insisted that she speak with you right away.”
He left to take the call. “Hi Mom. What’s up?”
“Jake, honey, I’m sorry to interrupt your meeting but I need to see you … today.” Her voice was strangely tentative. A widow for over twenty years, people had always taken notice of Abigail Winters, possibly because she was a tall woman with bright red hair, but more likely because of her forceful personality. Jake knew she’d passed that granite will down to her kids – a hereditary unwillingness to compromise had been the source of numerous battles between Jake and his two older sisters. A weaker woman might have struggled to control such a threesome but Jake’s mother had maintained control. So, if Jake had been paying closer attention, he’d have realized that his mother’s request, while direct, was not delivered with her usual vigor.
“Uh, today will be tough, Mom. My schedule is jam-packed. How about Saturday?” Jake’s mind was racing. Why does she have to see me today?
“No, Jake. I have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon. He’s going to give me some news and, well, it’s pretty serious.” She paused for a heartbeat. “I want you with me.” When he still remained silent, mentally battling his schedule, she spoke again. “Please cancel your appointments, Jake. Can you come and pick me up at 2:30?” Her voice was firm, back in control.
She wasn’t leaving him any choice.
“Okay, I’ll figure it out.” Jake agreed. It finally registered with him that she’d said both ‘serious’ and ‘doctor’. “Mom, are you okay? Is something wrong?”
“Thanks, Jake. I knew I could count on you. I’ll explain everything this afternoon.”
He wondered what was up, remembering vaguely that his sister had mentioned some tests a few weeks back. He’d assumed they were routine. At the time, he’d been away on business. He hadn’t checked in, hadn’t even returned her last call. Jake shook his head in confusion as he worked on rescheduling his day.
At the doctor’s office, Jake discovered how serious it was. When he realized that she was dying, his previous self-absorption hit him like a sack of hammers.
Numbness crawled through his limbs as the doctor explained that treatment offered little hope. She’d barely ever had the flu and now she wouldn’t live to see sixty-five. The doctor’s routine, matter-of-fact explanation made it all the more shocking. Jake sat completely still, shocked, frozen, heartbroken. The room, its occupants and this insane news seemed surreal. He waited for the tears to flow from her, thinking he would need to comfort her somehow, but her face remained dry.
Softly, succinctly, she asked questions. How long? What will she be like in the end? Her expression was solemn but there was no trace of the fear or hysteria that he expected. Watching her, the ice melted and his body began to shake. When sobs of misery escaped into the room, they were his and his alone. Abigail Winters reached over and wiped the wetness from her son’s face, rubbing his back while she murmured soothing words. It was how she’d comforted him when he’d had childhood upsets in the playground.
Hours later, his date cancelled, they reminisced over take-out Thai food in her small kitchen. For the moment, his mourning was at rest, her calm acceptance contagious.
“Jake, what do you remember about your father?” She asked.
The house was silent as he polled his memory but the usual vague images and random pictures were all he could find. “I remember Dad bringing home a new tricycle for me. I remember him spanking Sarah, on a warm summer day, after she pushed me down.” Sarah was his eldest sister by four years and still bossy. “I remember being at the grave when they lowered the coffin. Grandma screamed and you were crying. Later, there were so many people at our house.” He glanced about, momentarily glimpsing how the house full of mourners had looked in the eyes of a little boy who had just lost his father. “I remember stories and snippets but they’re mostly from everyone else talking about him and showing me pictures. Everyone says I look like him. I guess I can see it from the old photos but I don’t remember much myself.” He shrugged, shaking off a familiar ache – an ache carrying a wisp of regret that had always been there, as long as he could remember.
They cleaned up the kitchen and then retired to her living room in the house where he’d grown up. Jake sank deep into the over-stuffed chesterfield. It had been reupholstered – the plain brown magically transformed into an aquamarine print – but it still felt the same. She’d done some redecorating too, brightened up the place with paint and trim and modern prints, patched up the dents in the walls from the reckless years of raising children, but it was still unmistakably the old house that contained his earliest memories. If nothing else, the hall of Winters’ family fame that adorned the main artery was a reminder. The house Jake purchased when he started his career at the law firm, where his son now lived without him and he’d once imagined a peaceful, domestic future, was now “Jeannie’s house”. It was the scene of his one great failure in life. So, this modest abode, built in the west end in the early 50’s and refurbished over the years, still felt like home. His expensive condo downtown just didn’t feel the same.
They sat together and talked, as they’d never talked before. She had just been given a death sentence, but she was serene, her occasional tears seemingly more for her son and his devastation, for he was the one that cried yet again, that could not bear to face a world without the woman who had raised him.
“Everyone has a beginning and an end – their birth and their death. No one remembers their birth and most people fear death but regardless of your beliefs, the end will come.” Her words sounded foreign to him. They’d rarely discussed mortality or spirituality. They used to be close, Jake and his mother, back when he was chasing his mother’s dreams. Abigail’s ambitions had been a motivating force. He could remember her glistening eyes as she’d watched him attain diplomas and awards, first at high school, then university. She’d been there when he graduated from law school, when he’d been married, and at the birth of his son.
Then the years of disappointment had commenced. His separation triggered her disillusionment. Fighting with her had been almost as painful as the divorce itself. Her reproachful eyes still haunted him. Avoidance of confrontation had become the new pillar of their relationship. Oblivious to his thoughts, she continued. “A belief in God, in some kind of after life, is very comforting when you’re facing the end.”
Her words catapulted him back to the present. “Mom,” he licked his lips, uncertain how to continue. “Do you, I mean, have you been going to church?”
“Not exactly.” She laughed. Her mirth flowed around the room, caressing his frayed nerve endings. “Hasn’t anyone told you about my Quest group?”
“It’s a group I’ve joined. We study together, exchange ideas, discuss ideas in philosophy, literature, scriptures, even psychology. We visit churches and temples sometimes. We meditate.” At his raised eyebrow, she grinned. “Jake, it’s hard to articulate what this has done for me. For centuries, people seeking the meaning of life and death, of creation and god, have searched and shared their insights. Some of these works form entire religions. We don’t follow any particular religious doctrines but we believe there is wisdom in all of it. It’s the continuous searching, the quest, that is vital.”
“Wow, that’s, uh, great Mom.” He really didn’t understand. The emotional upheaval had dulled his brain. “I guess we’ve been a bit out of touch, haven’t we?” At her gentle nod, he stood up, suddenly struggling to keep his eyes open. “We’ll have to work on that but now, I’ve got to go.”
“Yes, we’ll work on it.” She agreed. She held his arm as they walked into the hallway together. “Can you and my grandson come this weekend? I’ll invite your sisters and their families too.”
“Sure, Mom. Uh, should I get in touch with Sarah and Janet? Do you want me to tell them what’s going on?”
Softly, she responded. “Your sisters already know.”
“What?” Resentment wrapped around him like an old cloak, replacing the peaceful mood they’d shared with a more familiar one. “What the hell? Why didn’t anyone tell me what was going on?” He exploded, demanding answers. “What was the meaning of the scene at the doctor’s office, anyway?”
She sighed, letting his indignant words float around the old house, waiting for them to dissipate before she answered. “Your anger is justified as always Jake, but it serves no purpose except to harm you.” She paused meaningfully. “This is how I chose to share my situation with you. It was my prerogative. Don’t turn this into some kind of conspiracy. It’s because you and your future are so vital, so fundamental to me, that I wanted to be ready when you found out.” Her gaze was steady, her words calming, cathartic. The fuel of his anger was seeping away.
A deep breath, a shrug, and finally, he just smiled – her tranquility must have had an affect. He had a reputation in the family for his temper. He’d never backed down so easily. She was right, though. It was her prerogative, and this was no time to form new rifts. He kissed her goodnight, fresh tears blocking his vision.
She gripped his arm. “Honey, let’s not make this a tragedy. We’re all mortals, we all die.” She didn’t try to hold back her tears but her voice was strong. “The difference is that I have an idea of when. I need to work through some things with you in these final months. Too much time has been spent coaching you, pushing you on material accomplishments. I’ve neglected so much, Jake…”
That day marked the beginning – the beginning of a new outlook for Jake, and the beginning of the end for his mother.
Jake saw his mother every week, even attending some of her Quest meetings with her. Their conversations covered so many topics – sometimes esoteric and spiritual, but at other times firmly grounded in reality – their lives, their dreams, and their disappointments.
It was a hot day in June when she broached the subject of his father again. Her confidence seemed to falter, her voice stammering. “Jake, you’re so like your father. I’m proud of you, son, honestly…” She lowered her eyes. “But, I have to confess some things to you. Perhaps it’s partially because you are so similar that I hid my inner torment, for so long. I know that it drove me in many ways, and that I pushed you hard, maybe too hard at times.” Her face was gaunt, her disease becoming evident. “Jake, when your marriage broke up, I said some things to you…well, things that a mother should never say to a son. You were suffering but I couldn’t be there for you.”
He rose from the lawn chair on her back deck and leaned against the railing. “Mom, I admit that it hurt when you lashed out at me during my divorce but don’t worry about it. Let’s just put it behind us.”
“No, I have to tell you the truth about your father and me.” She cleared her throat. “Our happy marriage was really just a fairy tale, fabricated for all of you and maybe for me to save face. But, the truth is that perpetuating that story over the years was like rubbing acid on an open wound.” She gazed into his wide-open eyes. “Jake, when I saw you following the same path as he did, well, I’m afraid I just reacted. In fact, trying to gain perspective on my estrangement from you was ultimately a catalyst for me, and an impetus for my own quest. So, although I’m sorry, that struggle was ultimately healing for me and I hope, for us now, in the end. Sometimes, Jake, you have to reach those dark recesses and confront them, before your inner light can shine through. Never be afraid to face your demons.”
She admitted his father had been unfaithful. They’d been arguing bitterly. Had he lived, she believes they would have divorced. Her guilt when he died in the accident had left her conflicted. Although he’d once loved the stories of his father, the hero – perfect husband and father – the truth was liberating for Jake, opening up new possibilities. He finally faced his own guilt and forgave himself.
On a rainy October afternoon, Abigail Winters’ children gathered by her side to say good-bye. Her commitment to her family and their experience of death was so deep that even in her weakened state, she showed no fear.
Although Jake’s heart was heavy with mourning, it was also full with love and gratitude – for the last gifts of a great mother.
Her final words, “keep searching”, resonated deep inside and he knew that he would.