Guest Blogger, Michael Gaffney: Return to Grover’s Corners

My longtime friend Michael has been a frequent contributor to Easily Crestfallen over the years. Recently, he wrote this piece about his mom. The events he has written about are a timeline that many of us can relate to. When you read this, you will think not only about Michael and his family, but also you will envisage your own mother, your own father, your own family. One of Thornton Wilder’s great lessons is the significance of life’s quietest moments. And here, Michael has lovingly quilted together sweet, sad and even funny remembrances of a time that will be a part of his story until it’s his own turn to join the others up on that hill.

Last Friday, April 15th, 2022, was my first time back on stage, in front of a live audience in over two-in-a-half years, due to Covid-19. It was our first preview of a beautiful production of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, which happens to be my favorite play of all time! Saturday morning my husband woke me up with the news that he had just tested positive for Covid-19. I tested immediately and of course I was positive as well. I knew this meant I may have exposed my fellow cast members and that I would have to leave the show for at least a week, if not the entire run. I was devastated. I wanted to call my mom as she is the only person who could tell me how silly I was being, and that it would all work out just fine. I just needed to hear her say to me, “Chin up, Michael!” But my mother passed away on Monday, February 21st 2022, at 10:40pm Central Standard time. She had been in failing health for quite a while and during the pandemic shut down, she had gone from a cane, to a walker, to a wheelchair, to being bedridden the last month of her life. I had gone home to Oklahoma this past Christmas, and she was in good spirts, laughing and joking and bossing us all around as was her nature.

On Friday, February 19th my brother, Tim Facetimed me from my mother’s bedside and I could tell by the tears in his eyes that she didn’t have long.  He said, “Maybe you just want to remember the great Christmas you had with her? Not be here for the messy end and just come for the funeral?”  For a few minutes I thought about it…maybe he had a good point, but I had to see her and touch her one last time, so I booked a flight and was there the next afternoon.

My sister Julie is a hospice nurse and made it possible for my mom and dad to stay in the house and not go into assisted living as my brother and I had suggested. When I arrived at the house, they were all in the bedroom with my mother. She was very weak but responsive and said, “Hello Michael, my son. They all think I’m dying. I’m not dying!” I put a big smile on my face and gave her a kiss on the cheek. We stayed with her and talked,and held her hand the rest of that day. The next morning, Sunday February 20th, she was singing and so full of energy! My sister said that she was rallying as a lot of people do before the end. One last surge of life. Funny as hell and busting my chops one last time…

Mom – ”Oh, Michael you’re so, so…What’s the word?”  “

Me – Passive-aggressive?”  

Mom – “YES, passive aggressive!  That’s it!” 

Me – “Well where do you think I got it from, Ma?”

Mom – “Well that’s true.”

She was asking for Coca-Cola, and I fed her four small spoonfuls of Cherry Garcia ice cream, which was her favorite. Early that evening we were all in the bedroom with her and my father came in to join us and when he went to sit in the chair next to the bed, he fell and hit his head on the wall, so we called 911. When the paramedics arrived, my mother asked them if they were there to take her to the morgue and we all laughed and laughed. Dad was fine but when the paramedics left mom said, “Nothing ever goes right in the family.” I barked back, “What are you talking about?! He’s fine, he didn’t have to go to the E.R., and we all had a good laugh!”

Monday morning was very different.  The hospice nurse arrived around 11am and was so gentle and kind with my mom.  Toward the end of her visit my mom whispered to the nurse, “Am I Done?”  I didn’t hear the nurse’s answer as I was still processing my mother’s question to her.  Those were the last words I heard my mother utter.  

The rest of that day she was non-responsive and very still. At 10:30pm my sister said it would be soon, so I opened the window because I was told that, that’s what you do to allow the souls of family members who had already died come retrieve the soul of the person who is dying.

With my dad sleeping in the next bed, my sister, my cousin Laurie and I gathered around my mother’s hospital bed, my sister and cousin on either side and me kneeling at the foot, we watched her take her last breath. It was like watching a clock stop. It was so gentle. We said the Hail Mary prayer together because we thought my mother would have liked that, and we wept. After a few minutes I went over to my dad to wake him and tell him that mom was gone. He was quite groggy from the sleeping pill he had taken earlier, so he just looked over at her and said, “oh” and went back to sleep. We woke him up again a few minutes later and walked him over to give her a kiss good-bye and then we walked him back to his bed. He laid his head down on the pillow and went back to sleep. My sister called the hospice nurse on duty, who had to come and fill out the paperwork and prepare mom’s body for the funeral home to take her away. Once the nurse arrived my sister and my cousin didn’t want to be in the room any longer and went to bed. I felt like staying since my dad was still there and I wasn’t ready to leave my mom. I placed a red rose on her chest and sprayed some Giorgio perfume on her since it was her favorite. I chatted with Zeta, the hospice nurse while we waited for the funeral home to arrive. I pulled out my phone and showed her pictures of my mom and dad on their wedding day so she could see how beautiful she was when she was young. About 30 minutes later two men from the funeral home arrived. Zeta, dad, and I watched them very gently wrap mom in a white sheet with her face still showing and carefully place her on the gurney. Zeta and I walked with them down the hall and out the garage door and down the driveway to their unmarked, white cargo van. They loaded her body through the back and shut the doors and drove away. I waved good-bye to my mom and told her I loved her.

One of my favorites moments in Our Town is the top of the 3rd Act. Emily has died giving birth to her second son and her family is just about to arrive at the graveside. The Stage Manager, who is the narrator, for anyone not familiar with the play, gives his iconic monologue about death:

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” These words by, Thornton Wilder give me great comfort as they have for so many others over the past 84 years.

Today is April 18th and I sit waiting in my house, hoping and praying that I get a negative antigen test in the next few days so I can return to the show and not let my castmates down and do what I love most in the world. I want to stand in the wings during the 3rd Act and hear those words spoken and think of my mom.

One thought on “Guest Blogger, Michael Gaffney: Return to Grover’s Corners

  1. I’m so glad I took the time to read and savor this story so thank you for contributing these moments to my day. What a perfect weave with “Our Town”! Beautiful. I am so sorry for your loss, Michael.

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