WHEN THE PAIN IS TOO MUCH I JUST PICK UP DORTHY PARKER AND LAUGH!”
Imogene taught me not to fear death, a priceless gift, and it was given
Dedicated to “Dottie”. There is nothing to fear.
In a Season of Death Again
It’s been over 35 years, and I still look at Imogene’s
sweet face daily. It’s a small-framed photograph of her at 18. I have her Jadeite ring and the picture of her and her
mom on a steamship to South America, and her birth certificate. In my dreams we talk again. The Cycle of Death haunts me again:
friends, family and three of our most cherished cats.
Imogene’s husband had died five years before we met. Her mother, to whom she
was emotionally bound, had died a little over two years before we met. Imogene was on her own for the first time in her life
and hating every lonely moment of it. She had a Public Accountant office on the Avenue, which she worked with her husband
when he was alive. Now she was keeping the business and its accounts going with little interest, not knowing what else to
we created a luncheon round-table on Lakeshore Avenue with a wide circle of interesting people. I spent hours listening to
stories from friends of Imogene, from the mundane to the little old lady that told the most lurid stories I’d ever heard.
Grace, an old lady, once blurted out over her beef dip sandwich, “Yes, I tended bar in a brothel in the gold country.”
She proceeded to tell us the stories of people’s sex lives in another brothel in San Francisco. Imogene and I looked
at each other laughing. The rest at the table were wildly interested but shocked by each word between bites of sandwich. The
friends at that table were mild to wild. And so it went year in and out.
two of us were never separated yet we rarely mixed our personal lives. Ours was a separate existence, home life never entered.
It was an unspoken rule of ours. When my family and I traveled, I always called Imogene no matter where I was. We had a half-hour
chatty call from Puerto Rico once. It was always that way; she was never far from my thoughts.
We seemed unable to continue a day without lunch and long talks on the telephone at night. At lunch Imogene would
ask when I was going to call that night. “So I don’t take my sleeping pill before you call,” she would say.
For reasons still unknown to myself, Imogene and I drifted apart. She started going to the office less
and was no longer as interested in our long lunch talks. I became busy with my work and started taking lunch alone. Our nightly
talks faded. Imogene took on a deep sadness and isolation. There was nothing I could do about it. In the summer of 1980 she
often sounded drunk or on something when I would speak to her. Later, I was to find out she was mixing pills
and liquor. She closed her accounting office on Lakeshore Avenue and just vanished from my life for about two years. I gave
up calling but continued sending holiday cards and notes that she never responded to. Sadly, I did not try to visit even though
she was less than a mile from my home. She remained in the back of my mind.
Imogene was in the wings ready to step forward
I had been ill for days and finally decided to go to the doctor’s office. I took a taxi. The woman taxi driver
had an interesting story to tell me. “Seems I’m always picking people up or taking them to the doctors,”
she said in a husky voice. I really wasn’t too interested in her nonstop chattiness but she went on. “I picked
this old lady up at the hospital the other day. I took her home but she didn’t want to get out of the cab. She just
learned she had terminal cancer. Can you believe that! She had no family or nothing. So I took her inside and sat with her
for a couple of hours. She lived right on Mandana Avenue.”
My ears rang with that street name.
“Imogene lives on Mandana, My God!” I thought to myself. I questioned the taxi driver over and over. It wasImogene.
She had been in the hospital. They had released her to die. My heart was just breaking. I told the taxi driver to turn around
and take me back home. I just had to call Imogene. “Please let her be alive, God!” I kept repeating to myself.
I prayed all the way back home in the back seat of the taxi. I felt scared. I wanted to get home fast.
I ran into the house not sure what to do next. I decided to call a friend of Imogene’s, Rita, before anything
else. Rita was home and told me the whole story. It seems Imogene had hired a house- man about two years ago. After a few
months he took off with some of her money. He left her when she had come down with an unknown but lingering illness. Finally
Rita got her to see a doctor and she went into the hospital. Imogene was diagnosed with extensive cancer. The doctors told
her she had from three weeks to three months to live. She was given the number of a live-in hospice nurse and released from
the hospital. She had decided to die at home.
It was a sunny and warm Oakland day
as I drove down the hills to Imogene’s house past neatly tended lawns and stately old California oak trees. I sat outside
the house for almost half an hour just looking at the house and thinking about what to say. Would she be happy or upset to
see me? I walked up the twisting stairs to her front door. The door was open. Slowly I walked in. “Hello,” I said
loudly. “Imogene? Imogene? You in here?” I turned the corner of the entry way and there on the wide dark blue
couch was Imogene. “Don! Come on in.” She looked great, beaming with a wide smile. Thank God she was happy to
see me. “Sit on down,” she said tapping the couch with her hand. I sat next to her on the couch. I turned to reach
over and hold her in my arms. I pulled her to me. We both began to cry.
just held onto each other for what seemed like the whole day. She was fragile in my arms, yet warm and reassuring in her feelings.
She whispered, “I’m sorry,” with a hoarse voice.
“I’m sorry for not being
here for you,” I said.
“But you are here. You’re here now and this
is our time.” I felt she had created a small lifeboat for us both. She was calming in her manner, loving in her touch.
I planned on staying in the boat with her until we reached shore.
The next few weeks were very pleasant.
I visited her daily. We read poetry, looked at art books, and just talked. We liked to read Dorothy Parker. Imogene talked
about her Great Uncle James who was a stagecoach driver in the Sierra foothills and who had a great buffalo fur coat. Imogene
loved the Gold Country and spent many summers in Murphy’s in the old hotel there. She laughed at her stories about the
trip by steamer her mother and her took to South America. She talked about all the people they met on board. That trip had
been a life adventure for her.
She spoke about her deep feelings
for her mother and how she could feel her presence in the house at night. She heard her mother’s voice many times, just
as she was falling asleep. “It’s comforting to think she’s still here,” she told me. I listened to
a whole lifetime of thoughts, feelings, deeds, and misdeeds. We laughed, cried, and got angry together. One day I brought
over some Big Band music that Imogene loved. I picked up her thin body and we danced. I carried her through a mock jitterbug
and a warm waltz. Exhausted I sat her down. She started laughing, and once she started laughing, I couldn’t stop laughing
myself. I dropped on the couch next to her. She was looking so thin and gray. She saw my concern and fear. She touched my
hand lightly and smiled. “Don, your life is written in your actions.” We laughed, and then our laughter turned
to tears and hugs.
We sat quietly listening to the music, holding each
other’s hand. I turned and said, “I want to stop the clock. I would if I could.” Imogene tightened her grip
on my hand and said, “You can only do what you are doing, no less and no more. Let’s leave it at that”
We Sight Shore
I was looking forward to her birthday. It had been two months so far and she was getting more ill, taking more pain
pills, but was still mentally active and alert. Her eating had become difficult.
Imogene was on her couch asleep as I walked in her dimly lit living room. It was the first time I actually saw her
laying down asleep. I went over to her and stroked her hair. She opened her eyes slowly, not focused on who I was at first.
“Don,” she said faintly. “My mother was here today. She kissed me right here.” Imogene pointed to
her now deeply sunken cheek.
I held Imogene’s hand and said, “If you
see your mom again get up and go with her. Do you understand? Just go with her. She’ll take care of you.”
Imogene nodded and gave a faint smile. “It’s getting close to that time for us,” she
said staring out into the living room.
“I know. I love you very much,”
I said softly with tears flowing down my cheeks. I sat with Imogene propped up against me; we were both looking into the empty
We had both sighted the shore, and knew the time to
part was soon.
It was Imogene’s birthday. She had been very ill the night before and couldn’t get on the
phone with me as we had been doing every night. I got a call from Imogene’s nurse. “Imogene’s not doing
well today. What time are you coming?” she asked.
“I’ll be there just after
lunch. I have a little birthday cake for her and...”
“OK, I’ve got to go.
I’ll see you then after noon.” The nurse said curtly.
I walked in Imogene’s house.
There was truly a presence of profound stillness, unlike anything I had ever felt before. The nurse told me Imogene didn’t
have long to live. I went into the bedroom and Imogene was breathing very deeply with her eyes watery and yellowed.
“Don,” she said ever so slowly, “Mother was just here.”
“Remember I told you to go with her when she came again,” I said sadly.
“I will, but I wanted to see you.” She put her hand out to touch mine. I kissed her hand
and held it. Her eyes teared a bit. She turned her head to the window slowly. “Mother’s here again,” she
I held her hand tightly. Beams of sunlight came in through the window. “Just
go with her. I love you. Go with her.”
Imogene turned to me, “Some
water, please,” she asked faintly. “You have some water right here.” I held up a glass.
came, “Fresh water, please.” Her voice trailed off.
“You’re a piece of love,”
she said faintly and softly. I smiled and blew her a kiss as I walked out the door.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
I came back three or four minutes
later as the nurse was asking me some questions. I walked in the door and noticed Imogene was on her side sleeping. I paused
for a moment. I didn’t want to wake her. The room was bright with light streaming in through the windows directly on
Imogene’s bed. I noticed that it looked like Imogene had stopped breathing. “Imogene, Imogene!” I yelled.
I paused. “Nurse!” I shouted. The nurse walked in. “I think she’s...”
“Yes it looks like it, let me check.” She felt for a neck pulse – none. We both looked at each other.
“Leave us alone,” I said to the nurse. She quickly walked out of the room saying she had
to call the funeral home. I didn’t cry. All my crying was finished.
held Imogene’s hand and kissed it. She was in a fetal position. I remember thinking this is the position she was in,
inside her mother’s womb. I went to the window and opened it. Through the window came the sweet smell of flowers, eucalyptus
trees, and a warm breeze with silky white light. A warmth and joy came over me. It was a lovely moment.
I knew Imogene had made it safely to shore with her mother.