I make a policy of not writing other people's stories without permission, and I try to only ever write facts as I know them to be true. And when I do write about my friends and family, I always use a pseudonym so that I can give them a little bit of anonymity. I say all this, because while I knew this woman as Iris, it wasn't actually her name and most people didn't call her that. I'm not even sure how the name came to be, and I hope that her family will forgive me using this name for her... but one of the reasons I'd like to write about her under the name of Iris was because my own grandmother had a Spanish "flower" name, Narcissa... which means "Daffodil".
Iris died Monday morning. She was 85. I met her because she is the mother of one my best friends in the world, my sister from another mother. In previous posts I've written about my friend under the name of "Shoefly" because she has a penchant for fly shoes.
I met Shoefly right after I moved to the Rock. I worked at a cable TV station, and Shoefly was hired in to the payroll department, and since I was some kind of "manager" of the Helpdesk there, they brought her around to meet me. We hit it off right away and we bonded fast once we realized we lived on the same little Rock.
My other best friend, otherwise known as CrazyWoman, had just left the cable TV station for a position at another station, and was actually the reason I moved to the Rock. Devastated by my breakup with the AllAmericanJerseyBoy, I needed a place to live--fast. I had gotten used to the quiet of New Jersey, but wanted to live in the Bronx close to my sister and her new baby. CrazyWoman introduced me to the Rock, and for a long while I thought I'd never leave. At that time, we were all single (though ShoeFly was planning a wedding) and all about the same color brown, so I got Shoefly together with CrazyWoman on the Rock, and we became inseparable.
For a while, CrazyWoman lived towards the end of the Rock, but Shoefly moved right around the corner from me thanks to a fourth best friend who's mom had an apartment to rent; my bedroom window overlooked their back yard. And then CrazyWoman, who had a young daughter, moved across the street from Shoefly. For a time we four hung tough, but Shoefly got married and suddenly decided to have a baby, and then during her little one's first year of life, I got myself knocked up with the Sun. So that took the three of us off the hang-out circuit... and we spent more and more time in each other's company, rotating kids, cooking duties, co-opping K-mart runs, organizing zoo trips or keeping each other company in the laundromat. We used to joke that ShoeFly's very patient husband actually had three wives... with all of the duties but none of the benefits. We did beach days, pool days, birthdays... CrazyWoman's daughter was older than ShoeFly's Moon and my Sun but about the same age as ShoeFly's stepdaughter. So we were always together in some configuration.
ShoeFly and I had another thing in common, other than the Sun and the Moon.... strong mothers with gigantic personalities, and sisters. CrazyWoman did too, but her circumstances were a little different. But from the moment I met Shoefly, I heard about "mommy" and BigSister. BigSister was the doppelganger to my little sister the Professor, which made me fall in love with her immediately. And like my sister, BigSister could cook her ass off, and it was from her I learned how to make sofrito, recaito, Spanish style roasted chicken, and beans and rice. Oh, and turkey wings. And almost from the beginning, when we would rustle up the kids and go to the BearMountain pool or the zoo, BigSister had to "go get mommy" in very much the same way my own sister always has to go "get mama".
I liked Iris immediately. As the years went on, I heard all sorts of stories about her, and I won't repeat them because they are not mine to tell, but I came to have an enormous amount of admiration for this imperfect and independent woman, who was devoted to her God and to her children. She was certainly a nontraditional mom, but the more I came to know her, and the longer I knew her and her children one thing stood out about her; she loved her kids. All of them. They were all grown, and had lives, and while sometimes their lives were disorganized or chaotic, not only did they look out for mommy, they looked out for each other.
And Iris was always the boss. BigSister was second-in-command, but Iris was the boss... and through the years, even after her kids turned 40, or 50, they could still be the doghouse with mommy. Some of my greatest giggles were at the expense of one of them getting into the doghouse. I'd call up Shoefly, or mostly she'd call me..."Girly I have gossip!!!!" and then proceed to tell me something one of her siblings did... and the punchline was always "so who's going to tell mommy?" Or "does mommy know?" And even better... "What did mommy say?"
Iris had a stroke a while back... it was terrible to see her kids rocked. And for a time she insisted on continuing to live on her own, but that was getting increasingly harder to do, and so she put herself into an assisted living facility.
It happened to be a nice one, as these places go, though not as nice as the Hebrew home in New Rochelle. But certainly a billion times nicer than the one they put Poppy in after he lost his leg. But what made this particular assisted living place resonate with life, was Iris. She ended up in a corner room, all by herself, and proceeded to fill it with plants, snacks and a collection of black and white cows. And I never hesitated to "go see mommy" when either ShoeFly or BigSister had to go take her food, or snacks, or just to say hi. Sometimes we would go because she didn't feel too well, but she was never feeble or whiny. If anything, she was demanding, but never in an imperious way... it was just she expected her kids to provide her with something, mostly because she didn't generally ask for much.
Pretty much from the beginning of my knowing this family, I spent Christmas eve with them. I don't know how it started... I don't remember the first one... but I do know that once I spent it with them, I could never spend it anywhere else. When the kids were little, we'd start congregating about 7P or so, and from then till midnight, the rest of the family would come in, and BigSister would have cooked some amazing dinner. And always, no matter who came or didn't come, there was always Iris. After her first stroke, when she became confined to a wheelchair, she would settle in her corner, and hold court. You came in to the house, you kissed mommy, and then you went to grab your plate and eat before everyone else came. And you would torture the kids with unopened presents. BigBrother has two girls, BigSister a son, and the LittlestPrincessSister, she has a boy and a girl. And then the Moon and the Sun... so for a while there were plenty of presents to torture the kids with. They could not be touched until the stroke of midnight. And then BigSister would stand there with a big plastic garbage bag, the presents would be passed around and ripped into, and the wrapping swept immediately into the garbage bag. In less than 20 minutes it was over. And then it was time to fight for leftovers to take home. Well, I'd fight for leftovers to take home.
By the way, yes, I'm Jewish. And no, I don't keep Christmas. But I certainly kept Christmas eve, mostly because the love that would fill that house was enough to keep you going at least half the year.
The last year or so, Iris's mini-strokes got closer together. For the most part she kept going, and at any family gathering she was there. And the only real indication that anything was wrong--at least the face that she showed the world--was that she was quieter.
Its funny... I love pictures, and I take a lot of pictures. But usually on Christmas eve I would bring my camera, and end up taking very few pictures. In life, I usually take pictures because I'm an observer. I love watching people. But these people... this family... is one of the few where I'm completely comfortable being less observing and more participatory. So I'd be too busy to take pictures... or good ones, anyway. And later, I noticed my reluctance to take Iris's picture. She was so strong that her suffering was private. I would train my camera on her, and feel guilty invading her space with a picture of her immobility, and I couldn't take the picture. It wasn't ever that she made me feel uncomfortable.... and it wasn't the same as her family taking her picture, but I never wanted to expose her somehow.
So, Monday morning I got a text (I had to work) that Iris was making her transition. And in less than two hours, the transition was complete.
Wednesday was the wake. Many people came to show Iris and her family their love. I brought the Sun along, because as he said "she was always nice to me"... she never treated him differently from her own grandkids, signing her cards to him "Grandma".
It was so sad to be there, to see her grown children hold each other and cry for her. But at the same time, it was clear that this woman's remarkable legacy was in the bond that her kids had for each other. It reminded me of a question posed to me once by a teacher at Pratt...."When you die, and you meet Saint Peter at the gate, what is the one thing you hope he says that to you?" I was the only parent in that class, and the professor turned to me and said "I bet it's that you'd like him to tell you you were a good mom?" I thought for a minute an decided, no, that's not would I want to hear... what I would want to hear is that "You Sun is a good man". Because that would mean I had done my job.
Iris had been a single parent. And according to her kids, sometimes a little unconventional. But each of her kids has turned out to be good people. And her grandkids are at various stages of being good people. And while her passing is sad, and it will be hard to not hear her laugh, or hear her very funny commentaries on people, her passing allows her children to come into their own, to be the remarkable people they are.
The realization reminded me of this quote from Battlestar Galactica*:
In our civil war, we've seen death. We've watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was beyond the reach of the Resurrection ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time, as if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over... Mortality is the one thing... Well, it's the one thing that makes you whole.
Death is sad, and final... but it is our greatest asset because it's what makes us what we are. As human beings we have the consciousness to know that every day we are marching very slowly to our inevitable end. It cannot be avoided, or changed. We will die. Hopefully after living a long and fulfilling life like Iris's, but we will die. In the meantime, we have the choice, the will, to make every day count towards something.
And... since this was International Women's Day (which I had forgotten about until a friend reminded me, rather pointedly), we as women have another contribution; our children. Not every woman is a parent, and certainly, not every woman should be a mother. And no, we should not define our entire existence through our children... our children are only a part of who we are, and we should never be defined by any one part.
But that being said... for those women who have chosen to be parents, it's one of the hardest, scariest and most rewarding things we can do. As BigSister said... we are handed a tiny, slippery, squawling bundle of humanity and that is all. It doesn't come with an instruction manual (no matter how many books on childrearing there are, there is no definitive handbook), or even any clothes. Everything from that point forward, we are responsible for providing. And we are responsible for shaping that life, and for guarding that flame. And sometimes we get it right and hit a "sweet spot", and sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we fail miserably. At best, we can hope that our children only need a minimum of therapy, and at worst, we hope our heart can survive the stress our children will give us.
And at the end of our days, when we make our transition, we can only hope that our children will stand together and love and console each other, and be the amazing people we have hoped they would be.
And then we can consider ourselves as blessed as Iris....
March 8, 2012
*if you're unfamiliar with BSG, the short story is, a race of robotic humans has destroyed the planet humans lived on, and most of the human race. There are 12 "Cylon models", and each model all looks the same, and share the same traits and memories. They die, but when they do they are "downloaded" onto a Resurrection ship, where their memories and personalities are transferred into another body, exactly like the one they had before. So it seems they never die... but at some point, in their quest to be more human, they decide to destroy their Resurrection technology...