How to keep my mother

A brief reading at the cemetery for her committal

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory.

After her brain injury in October 2020, I remember sitting with my mother outside on the patio at the house in Vacaville. The most voracious reader I have known, she couldn’t, and could never again, see well enough to read due to visual field cuts. She would never fully regain her balance, and in these early days she was mostly drowsing and not very responsive. With help, we brought her outside and I sat with her in the stillness of this particular autumn afternoon and played audio of the readings of Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I like to think it helped her think of her homeland and Irish family.

Over the following several months she regained an astounding amount of function as family, and many friends old and new, bore loving witness. 

While she could not live independently again (and had not wanted to live alone at the house in Vacaville anyway after Dad died), in San Francisco, she did nevertheless have her own place with her own carers, worked very hard with therapists so that she could get her own self around the apartment, and thus did gain some independence for herself. We could visit every day; she enjoyed very good foods and very excellent care; she had a sunny window with a view of the city; and she made new friends. 

Despite her constant struggle after that to retain short-term memory, she was always happy to see us. She not only built loving new relationships with carers and our trainer, and even with therapists who perhaps visited only briefly, but she always kept precious the memory of long-time friends, some of whom went to heroics to visit and to constantly keep in touch.

And like a volume of books, she retained the memory of songs and poems from a lifetime ago — from a distant Irish past. She trotted out old Irish songs I had never heard before, and continued to recite poems from far and wide, as if not being able to read was not important, because the words were etched with permanence inside her mind.

Although her dad, Grandpa Norman, taught me to memorize the alphabet backwards, I have never been as talented at reciting poetry as Mom and Grandpa. But I thought if I could remember a poem like she could remember a poem, I could keep her. 

So I memorized this poem, and read it at the cemetery:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Postscript by Seamus Heaney

It strikes me that this poem is breathtaking because it describes a moment that can never be captured or relived, which is, of course, what makes it precious. On the other hand, memory — especially in the short term — can be so fickle. When you have that one moment of the present, you can’t turn around to drive back to get it again. I am happy I got to say “I love you more” a million more times to my mother, but I can’t say it that one more time.

I was able to recite the poem from memory. But I was still unable to keep my mother.

After he died, a fellow poet said of Seamus Heaney: “His work will pass into permanence.” So maybe memory isn’t exactly the way I will get to keep her.

I will breathe in deep breaths, and when I release them, maybe each time I will allow a little more of my mom to pass into permanence in my heart. And I will know that she is there not in the keeping, but in the release, during every countless random hurry when the wind and the light catch it off guard and blow it open.

Me and my mom, Norma Moya Black Watson, 1936-2022



Wanda Watson - July 31, 1991 - November 4, 2010

We laid beloved kitty Wanda to rest two days ago, on Thursday, November 4, 2010, after her short period of collapse — after a long and warm life of nearly 20 years.

Wanda had been my constant companion for over 17 years in 6 of my various 8 San Francisco homes. I can’t imagine living in a home anywhere without her presence, and I still hear her on the stairs and across the floor, see her sleeping in every soft place, and feel her fluffy purring as I lie and try to rest in my new quiet Wandalessness.

When I moved to Landers Street in 1993, I was separating from a relationship of five years. It was a painful and confusing time, and I found my new solo apartment thunderously silent. I went to the SF Animal Shelter and I saw her. Wanda was a young fluffy thing at 1-1/2 years old and had been abandoned by some soulless creature who never had any idea what they were going to miss over the next 17 years. She looked straight at me with her huge yellow eyes, held my gaze, and said “take me home.”

When I took her home she immediately burrowed into the mirrored cabinet corner as if she was seeking her litter. Within a few days she emerged, and began watching over me while I slept, poking my eyes and mouth and nose gently as if to see if this dream was real. After that, I could feel that she never let me out of her radar as long as I was in the house.

wanda and moya on xmas eve

wanda and moya on xmas eve

We moved quickly to a warmer tiny studio apartment on Lloyd Street, which was the home of many legends in our lives. She loved the warm perch with a sunny view, and in the studio she could always be near me. When I was not home, she retreated to a lump under my bed covers, which is the way most of my friends got to know her at first. When I approached home from way down the block, in a car or on foot, she would immediately rouse and hop out onto the fire escape to greet me. I will never cease to be amazed at how she always leapt out for me no matter what time of day or night I approached. When I came through the door, she always greeted me loudly with the Wanda(tm) yowl of cranky-sounding delight.

spike and wanda

spike and wanda

When Leanne and I moved in together on Vicksburg, Wanda first met her step-brother Spike. Spike was by all accounts an incredible, daunting, and epic animal. In many ways, there could not have been two more different beasts. While Wanda retreated during the daytime to hide under the bed or blanket, Spike trotted on the sidewalk, and waited. While Wanda’s feline fantasies struck out in the night in solitary bursts, Spike gathered her up and patiently taught her the intricacies of mousing. Spike spent at least 9 out of 9 lives exercising every bit of maximum animalness, and died early in 2003 at 9 years old, the very second the heart of our girl Lucy started beating. Wanda lived a long warm fairly quiet and very devoted life. In this way, they differed not at all: they were both devoted to us.

Even though Lucy refocused all of our time, Wanda welcomed her into our home. Wanda patiently taught Lucy how to be kind to animals, and gave Lucy a great way to learn about being gentle. She amazed us with her agility, although she was already elderly, with accepting Lucy and tolerating infant and toddler love. In many ways, Wanda really emerged after Lucy was born. She came out to play, greeted guests and total strangers, learned of the presence of several other felines in the Clinton Mews, had many caring visitors and caretakers, and generally a happy existence with us for the past several years.

wanda and lucy

wanda and lucy

Lucy has been the dearest person to Wanda in her last few days, preparing comfortable spots and sharing her sardines. Now Lucy is coping mostly internally, as I know too well, fairly capably with a mostly incomprehensible wound.

I don’t yet know what to do with the few things I kept that I can’t part with. I catch them in the corner of my eye and see Wanda. As we prepare to go out of town for the night, I catch myself walking across to make sure Wanda has enough food and water to take care of herself while we are gone. And when I come back home, there will be no cranky hello. This is going to take quite some time, but I will listen for you, Wanda, until I can realize you are frolicing with brother Spike and all the good company that came before you, letting me know I too can move on to open my heart to the next furry adventure.

free wanda

free wanda

Wanda, thank you, Wanda.  I will miss you every day. Thank you.