Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Through Those Eyes

I owe my visitors an explanation. I lost a huge part of my life this month. I have not been writing anything of my own for some time now and am just reaching a point where I can tell you why.

My mom had a stroke between Thanksgiving Day and the first week of December of last year. Sadly for mom, she lost most use of her arms and legs and the ability to swallow food. She managed to fight for about 6 months, although losing a vast amount of body weight. During the week of 5 May, she “took a turn” and then passed away on 7 May at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Mom was by far the most unconditionally loving person in my life and I will miss her forever.

My mom was born on 18 March 1925, the day of the worst tornado in the history of the US. I no doubt learned this factoid by watching the Weather Channel here in North Carolina while obsessively keeping an eye on hurricane and tornado seasons. The storm on the day of my mom’s birth traveled on the ground across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana for a distance of 750 miles. It was a fitting day for my mom’s birth. Now I know this.

A few years back, I gave my mom a set of glass wind chimes to commemorate her 75th birthday. I told her that story. I should have known better…

We had moved Mom into a home in Wilmington that had just been built on the black loam of the North Carolina coastal plain. We had a nice privacy fence built around her back-yard to hide the “lakefront” (read: nearly empty mudflats of a pond) for which she had had to pay a fee in order to get the house she wanted and to allow our dogs room to run unhindered. We had sod brought in to cover the bare ground. I bought a bunch of shrubbery from garden centers and brought them into the fenced area for planting.

Unlike the rocky, root-strewn red clay of my home in Durham, the soil there in Wilmington is soft and loamy, punctuated occasionally with a buried pine stump. I could dig a hole big enough for a new plant in less than 3 scoops of the shovel. It was not long before her yard was surrounded by eleagnus, Indian hawthorn, zebra grass, irises, palms, roses, lantana, lorapetalum and butterfly bushes. I brought in about 20 clematis vines of various colors to plant along the fence behind these shrubs and trained them on the fence so that they would climb and grow, covering the new wood with flowers and greenery every year.

Not long afterwards, I called home for a routine talk with mom. She answered and I said, “Hey Mom! How are you?” She responded by saying “I am ok. We just had a tornado here.”

“What? A tornado? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am sure.”

“How near was it to your house? Are you ok?”

“I am ok, but the fence is gone. A cement mixer was picked up a quarter of a mile away and it bounced off the top of my house. The exterior light fixtures are all turned sideways and there is debris everywhere. Mike from next door said he saw that big pine in his yard snap off and spin in midair for a few seconds before it fell across my front yard and blocked my driveway. My fence posts are sticking out of the roofs of the houses across the street.”

“Oh my! I thought you meant there was a tornado in Wilmington, not at your house!”

“Oh no, it was right here. There is a lot of damage. It broke the windchimes you gave me.”

It wasn’t long before the local news reporters were on the scene. Mom quickly became a favorite source for quotes about the storm. Over a period of days, Mom’s photo graced the Wilmington Morning Star and her description of what had happened was published for the readers in the area. I wish now that I had kept a copy of the account, but I did not.

On 7 May 2008, Mom passed peacefully from this world after having fought the effects of the stroke from six months earlier. I sat with my nephew Matt and my mom and we held her hand through the night before she passed away, talking with her, telling her that it was going to be ok and meeting the nurses who had become friends with Mom during her stay at the nursing facility. The hours passed by, with an occasional opening of Mom’s eyes or a brief movement of her fingers in mine. As the new morning dawned, she opened her eyes and looked into the brightening sky. I instinctively knew that it would be the last sunrise she would see, but it didn’t occur to me consciously then. I just knew that the moment was precious.

When my sister arrived the next morning, I went home to sleep for a few hours. Fatigue set in and I slept longer than I anticipated. A call came at 3:15 to tell me to get to Mom’s bedside as soon as possible. I arrived at 4pm to learn that Mom had died about half an hour before. As she took her last breath, she had beamed two joyful smiles, in part, I believe, to let us know that all was well with her soul.

We arranged to have her buried next to my Dad in Clinton. The visitation was scheduled for Friday night and, because it was Mother’s Day weekend, the graveside service was to be held on Sunday afternoon. When Sunday morning arrived, it was stormy with heavy downpours moving in from the west. I sat drinking coffee and watching the weather radar in hopes that the storms would race past us and leave us a dry afternoon for the service. As Roger and I left the house for the drive from Wilmington to Clinton, it was raining fiercely.

Just a few miles outside Wilmington, we found that traffic on I-40 had come to a standstill and we were in danger of being late for the opportunity to see my mom one last time. I had a bag of flowers that I had cut from her yard—clematis vine flowers in pink, purple and white, yellow Japanese irises, Stella d’Oro daylilies, a lavender rose—to place in her coffin with her. I figured she had loved those flowers so much that she would have wanted to have some of them with her when her body was laid to rest. I was particularly proud of the beauty of the clematis vines. With just minutes to spare, we arrived and I ran inside to place the flowers around my mom’s body before the lid was closed and we were off to the cemetery for her funeral.

The skies had cleared and it had grown hot. We sat by the graveside and listened to the words of the service while family and friends gathered around outside the tent. The woman who served as God’s servant read from several texts and invited us to say the Lord’s Prayer together. It was a quiet ceremony, just as my Mom had requested. Afterwards, we chatted for a while and then people started to disperse.

My brother drove me back to Wilmington so that I could get my truck, my dogs and belongings for the drive back to Durham. He dropped me in front of Mom’s house and drove away. I headed for the front door, and rounded the corner of her garage to find a large crow sitting on the gutter near the door of her home. It was leaning low and forward, tilting its head from right to left. I had a haunting sensation that I was where I needed to be at the right time. I looked up at the crow and it looked back at me. I stopped in my tracks and watched the crow. It watched me. Minutes passed. It shifted positions as if better to take me in and then articulated a phrase that sounded like the words “Again Again.”

I was astonished to have heard what sounded like speech coming from this crow, so I looked at it and I said, “Well then, tell me something else.” As those words left my lips, the bird took flight and disappeared from sight.

“Uhm,” I thought. “That was strange.”

I went inside and started preparing for my drive home. I cleaned up the house, gathered my belongings and packed up the truck. Meanwhile, I had fed my three dogs and had taken them outside to make sure they were ready for a 2 and a half hour drive. As they walked, I noticed a storm approaching from the southwest. It looked like a typical summer thunderstorm in Wilmington. It was so unremarkable that I continued preparing for an immediate departure. As I opened the door into the house, I looked down to see a shard of green glass from the wind chimes I had given mom years before. It had been buried in the loamy soil by her house.

When I had everything and everyone in the truck, I decided to stop for a coffee at Port City Java in Porter’s Neck. Since I had the dogs with me, I didn’t want to get out of the truck again and I knew I could use the drive-through window there and be back on the road in minutes. I backed the truck out of the garage, got out and closed the garage door from inside the house, locked the house up, and came back out to my truck. Once the engine was started, I followed Mom’s street up to Courtney Pines Road where I turned right again, followed by a quick left onto Torchwood. This section of the county was under development with many empty lots and even a 20 foot wide section of unpaved street. I soon reached Market Street and made a left for the 3 mile drive to the coffee shop.

I ordered a large iced latte and got on the road, planning to take the new I-140 loop from US 17 to I-40. As my truck aligned with the highway, I looked up to see a looming black cloud in the distance. It was rapidly sucking in another black cloud from its right and there was clearly rotation in a wall cloud beneath the larger storm cloud. I thought that what I was seeing could be a tornado, but I was not certain, never having witnessed one in person. I continued to drive toward the formation because I could see that it was moving rapidly across my path rather than toward me and the skies were clear ahead where I thought I was heading.

As I merged onto I-40, I looked ahead less than 200 yards when I saw a whiteout of rain ahead. There was nothing to do but to pull off the highway with hundreds of other motorists who had done the same. It started to hail and winds were whipping rain and hail off the highway into oncoming traffic.

I pulled over and took a look at my dogs. Greta was shaking from fear from the noise of the quarter size hail that was pelting the truck. Her fear helped me calm my own, as I tried to comfort her until the storm passed us by. It was perhaps a good five minutes before we could continue on our way. Afterwards, the drive home was uneventful, with sun and large white clouds in the sky as we drove across the flat coastal plains into the lower piedmont of central North Carolina.

When I was able, I checked the weather reports from the Wilmington area and found out that a local sherrif’s deputy had spotted a tornado on the ground in the area of Torchwood and Market Street in the Bayshore subdivision at 6:05pm. I had driven past the spot just 5 minutes before.

05/11/2008 0600 PM

Ogden, New Hanover County.

Tornado, reported by law enforcement.

Possible tornado touchdown reported by New Hanover County
911 at Market St and torchwood Dr near Bayshore

05/11/2008 0605 PM

Ogden, New Hanover County.

Funnel cloud, reported by County official.

Deputy reported a funnel cloud to Pender County Sheriffs

05/11/2008 0600 PM

Ogden, New Hanover County.

Tornado, reported by law enforcement.

Possible tornado touchdown reported by New Hanover County
911 at Market St and torchwood Dr near Bayshore

05/11/2008 0600 PM

Ogden, New Hanover County.

Tornado, reported by law enforcement.

Tornado touchdown reported at Market St and torchwood Dr
near Bayshore subdivision. Ogden f.D. Is on-site and
reports some damage. Radar estimated time is 600 PM.

05/11/2008 0605 PM

Ogden, New Hanover County.

Funnel cloud, reported by County official.

Deputy reported a funnel cloud to Pender County Sheriffs

Now, several weeks later, I miss my mom tremendously. I remember her loving smiles and her kindness. It was so difficult to see her languishing in a body that just no longer worked. As such, her death was a tremendous relief to me, but the loss of my Mom, the person who loved me even more because of my alternative sexuality and HIV status, is an ongoing source of sadness.

Now, when I see crows, I pay attention. I imagine them soaring and cavorting in the air, free of earthly constraints. Sometimes, it makes me smile. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I feel very privileged and forewarned.



Anonymous roro said...

Beautiful post, Ron. I'm so sorry to hear about your mom. We're sending lots of love your way.

5/28/2008 07:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5/29/2008 12:07:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Decelles said...

So sorry about your Mom. Thanks for posting this wonderful post.



P.S. The Epi's you sent are lots bigger now. Just moved them outside for the summer. No blooms yet.

5/30/2008 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger Wanjiku Unlimited said...

So sorry about your mum Ron. Take courage and thank God for all the days that she stayed with you.

I read some time back on your blog a story about Lorna Irungu. That's one strong girl. She's been in trouble again healthwise recently but she's bounced right back! She's very brave.

6/07/2008 02:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Kam said...

Ron... you emailed me and told me but not in this detail...

How I wish my memories were that precise, to hold on to events such as that. Even in the face of trauma I tend to block things out.

I'm always left with an emotion that gets later triggered by song or behaviour, but never the exact events that took place surrounding what took place.

After reading this, I have a different respect and understanding for crows. I love all of God's creatures but I tend to steer clear of birds in general.

I wonder, spiritually what that phrase "Again, again..." was referring to? The tornado? I will read again and process it better.

All my love and prayers to you.


6/13/2008 07:03:00 PM  

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