My earliest memory is of waking up around 3:00 AM demanding my bottle. My mother, desperate for sleep, stumbled into my room, leaned over the edge of the crib with half-closed eyes staring down at me, and handed me one.
It was full of Coke, not milk. I grabbed the bottle and eagerly started to suck its sugary teat. Minutes later, I was back to sleep, and so was she.
I’m pretty sure my mother didn’t read about that little trick anywhere in Dr. Spock. She was “winging it,” as they say. What would I want if I awoke crying at 3:00 AM?, she asked herself, and Voila! just like that she got a few more hours of precious snooze time, and our dentist, Dr. Fitzgerald, was able to send his kids to college.
Down in Atlanta, a board room full of Coca-Cola executives smiled broadly.
My Mom did things her way, regardless of what the book said. The book says that when you’re born with a rare genetic disorder and develop a brain tumor at age 19, or bacterial meningitis in your forties, or ovarian cancer in your fifties, or necrotizing fasciitis (“flesh-eating bacteria”) in your sixties, you generally just lay down and die.
But my mother never cared much for being told what to do. She was proud, independent Scots-Irish, daughter of Clyde McGuire, a man who worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps building the Blue Ridge Parkway during the week and ran a little moonshine on the weekends when he came home to Elsie. Knowing what I do of her, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn she was in the car with him, riding–literally–shotgun.
They say 3:00 AM is “The Devil’s Hour.” It’s around that hour and the two following that the blood enters a hypercoagulable state, thickening up and moving slowly like red sludge through the tiny vessels of our bodies. More people have heart attacks and strokes and die in those two hours than at any other time of the day.
And even if you do survive The Devil’s Hour, you can still pass through hell. If you’re world-weary and a little depressed, you can find yourself in that no-man’s netherworld between sleep and consciousness and suddenly realize with stark clarity that you’re going to die. The full force of your own mortality slaps you awake, and you lie there, or sometimes sit up, covered in tiny beads of sweat, realizing it was just a dream–for now.
I started waking up during The Devil’s Hour in high school. One time Dad was away, and Clyde called in the middle of the night, bent-over in agony from a kidney stone attack. I went up the hill to his house, held his leathery, calloused hand, and helped him deep-breathe until the ambulance arrived.
Dad had both his first heart attack in 1976–and his final one in 1980–around 3:00 AM. On that last morning, Mom awoke me to drive her to the hospital, but by the time we got there, he was already gone–I think.
I think, because that’s not what we were told at first. The doctor, probably wanting to give us time to begin to process the enormity of the moment and ease into the grief, came into the small, cuboidal waiting room and told us that he didn’t know if they were going to be able to “bring him back this time.” He returned five minutes later and told us he was gone.
It wasn’t until some time later that I recognized, and to some extent, appreciated the ploy. If Dad really had been that close to death, but not yet gone, it’s more likely that his attending physician would have been in there trying to save him, and not out there talking to us.
We went into the death chamber and looked at him. His face was relaxed and pain-free, like he was asleep. I remember a tall, pony-tailed orderly standing nearby, watching me. He reached over and gently placed his hand on my shoulder.
A few minutes later, I went downstairs in search of a pay phone. I needed to call Dad’s mother and let her know. Of course, she “already knew.” She always did.
As I pressed the elevator button to go back upstairs, the door opened and I came face-to-face with two men and a gurney which bore my Dad’s body covered by a sheet. The tall, pony-tailed orderly immediately recognized the situation and stepped out of the elevator, leaving his companion to continue the journey down to the morgue with my Dad’s body.
“Walk with me,” he said, gently placing his hand on my shoulder again. “You’re handling this very well. Your Mom is proud of you and glad you’re here. I think your Dad is proud of you, too.”
Last year on this day, I was awake at The Devil’s Hour, typing some of the rawest words I’d ever composed. After years of my mother playing hard-to-get, to the point that he had even started to consider a career change, The Reaper had come a’callin’, and the ol’ bastard had finally gotten his due.
I held her head in my hands and bid her blessings of farewell, and as he brought his sickle down, I felt its wind against my own skin. The floor was a bed of hot, holy coals, so I removed my shoes. It’s true what I heard on TV this week, that when someone dies “There’ll be a moment when her face will relax and all that pain will be gone. And you’ll feel relief for her, and for you.”
I reached up toward her eyes and attempted to close them, because after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But as I touched her lids and pinched them together, they would slowly open back up again. I tried this several times with the same result. Finally, I left them open, just enough to see the whites of her eyes and her pupils which were by now fixed, dilated and peaceful.
I figured that she was either staring into the light of a thousand Easter Sundays or else putting on one last display of Scots-Irish cussedness from beyond the grave. I laughed a little at that last thought, knowing that Clyde and Elsie would have been proud. My mother will close her eyes when she is damn well good and ready, thank you very much.
Mom taught me several useful survival skills. I learned that Coca-Cola is a fine, Southern delicacy, to be enjoyed any time of the night or day. It is no accident that when I walk by a Coke display in a store to this day, I reach up and instinctively start to suck my thumb.
She also taught me to live life with pluck and grit, eyes wide open till the end and then some. She showed me how to turn your hand around and hold out a bony, middle finger to The Reaper and tell him to stick it where the sun don’t shine–The Devil’s Hour be damned. And she taught me how to die with dignity, with peace of mind, knowing that you’ve taken the light you’ve been given and made your way as best you could.
These days, I rarely ever wake up before 5:00 AM anymore. Truth be told, most nights I sleep like a baby.