A week ago Saturday, we had two hours before leaving for the airport to fly to Utah when Bill’s phone rang. He was in the shower so I answered it.
It was that call you know will one day come. Words that cross thousands of miles, making you retrace your life’s journey that took you so far away from home.
Pam, Bill’s mum, had passed away. After being bed-ridden for two years and in the care home for five years. Following a stroke ten years ago and debilitating blindness and dementia that worsened over the last decade. We had been losing Bill’s mum over many years.
At Grandma Murphy’s funeral in 2006, many friends of our family shared their memories of Grandma. How she worked harder on the farm than most men. How she always had the coffee on and a cake on the counter. I had forgotten those details. While Grandma was absolutely lucid at the end of her life, her physical struggles over those last few years were our most vivid memories. The sadness of slowly, heartrendingly losing someone casts a shadow over the days and years of splendor.
A half-hour after we received the call from our brother-in-law, my phone rang. It was the owner of the condo in Utah where we would be staying. He had been thinking about our arrival and knew how late we would be getting in. He reminded me that no liquor stores would be open Sunday. And because of President’s Day, they would also be closed Monday. He offered to stock the condo for us. That’s when tears rolled down my cheeks into a laughing smile as I thanked him. Pam, the daughter of a London pub owner, had surely reached the pearly gates, for how else could we account for this timely call?
Through this emotional, tumultuous day, we continued with our plans to go to Utah for winter break. It would be at least two or three weeks before Pam’s funeral. Bill’s sister encouraged us to keep our holiday intact. We left our house at 1:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon and finally put our heads on pillows in Utah at 5:00 a.m. Utah time, Sunday morning.
Of all the family photos pulled out over the 29 years I’ve known Bill, a good many were from his family’s travels when he was growing up. Many more were of Pam traveling with friends after Bill’s dad, Frank, had passed away in 1984. Pam readily engaged new acquaintances wherever she went. On this side of the pond, whether in Iowa, Illinois, or Massachusetts, Bill’s mum made good memories for many. As I soaked in the view from the mountaintops and watched the boys skiing, I thought of Pam and how she would’ve loved this view and seeing her grandsons’ delight in skiing with Bill.
We will be going to England over Easter for Pam’s funeral on April 3rd. There will be a traditional church service, a short service at the crematorium, followed by a wake at a local hotel. Back home from Utah on Sunday night, we were talking with our sons about the plans. Bill talked about the crematorium and the choices people make for what happens to their bodies after they die. He said that while Grandma had chosen to be cremated, some people donate their bodies to science. I told the boys that’s what Will’s godmother, Marge, did when she passed away several years ago. Marge had been my Sunday school teacher in high school. Two generations older than me, she was my mentor; our lives paralleled through adoption and breast cancer. To my comment, Will replied, “Who? I don’t remember Marge.”
My heart lurched. I fought the cracking in my voice. The welling of tears in my eyes. From the time we brought Will home from Korea, we visited Marge every trip back to Iowa. When she was still mobile, we would pick her up and take her out for potato pancakes. Then when she wasn’t able to go out anymore, we would visit and spend a couple hours with her in the nursing home. Her eyes would light up at the sight of my boys coming into her room. Those eyes danced the whole time we were there. Five-year-old Will would sit on her lap, and toddling Liam would play with all of her stuffed animals - mostly cats. Now, Marge is gone; Will doesn’t remember her; I am the one left holding that memory. The bond I thought would be cemented like glue weighs heavily on me. Where I thought – albeit naively it seems now – that Marge and Will were connected with gorilla glue, washable kids’ glue dissolves with a teardrop.
For Pam, like my grandparents who have passed on, I choose to focus on memories of her when she was vibrant. Pam loved Andrew Lloyd Weber and Frank Sinatra. My love of musical theater in the West End of London and my habit of crooners keeping the kitchen alive while I cook undoubtedly come from my mother-in-law’s passions that she shared with me. When Pam had a cup of tea or coffee, she sat down and talked with you. I remember how strange that seemed given our on-the-go cadence in the States. Strange and absolutely wonderful.
Each of us becomes the connective tissue between generations. For as many stories as I’ve heard about Bill’s dad over 29 years, I feel like I knew him when he was alive. Our sons never knew the vivacious, dog-walking Grandma that Pam was before the stroke. They didn’t see her dressed to the nines for the theater nor did they walk with her across fields in the rain to have a cream tea in a pub. They won’t remember her bright yellow raincoat or the dog that more often than not was off his lead running ahead of her.
A few days ago, Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” was playing in the van. (Yes, the kids who ride in my carpool have been introduced to crooners.) To me, these lyrics speak to how daily life is touched by those who have passed on:
“I’ll be seeing you in all the old, familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces all day through
In that small café, the park across the way
The children’s carousel, the chestnut tree, the wishing well
I’ll be seeing you in ev’ry lovely summer’s day
In everything that’s light and gay
I’ll always think of you that way
I’ll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing you.”
And when experiences in our everyday lives evoke your vibrancy, Pam, we will remember you to our sons through stories, music, and laughter.
And now, “let’s get that kettle on” for a nice cup of tea.
Oh, my goodness!! Bill just walked by me as I typed that last line and said, “Who wants a cup of tea?”
Marge would have called this a “God thing.”