Greta Lee Ray: 10/19/28 – 11/9/2008

Greta Lee Ray



Greta died painlessly on November ninth, 2008. Her lungs, damaged by a lifetime of smoking, gave up slowly over the last two months of her life. When she was admitted to the hospital, it rapidly became obvious that healing her was beyond the reach of medical science. Her family respected her desire to die without pain or fuss, and took her off a ventilator, dialing up a morphine drip until she she drifted away. Her heart gave up ten hours later and she slipped away silently.

The birth date above should have said ’19 or 20′. Because Greta had to tell a story whenever asked a question.

She was born on one of the above dates. For whatever reason, the other was listed on her birth certificate. Maybe because she was born just before or just after midnight, or maybe because the nurses in Long Beach hospital made a clerical error. But for whatever reason, when asked when she was born, she never once simply replied with one or the other, but gave both and explained why.

That, in a nutshell, is who my mother was. No one thing in her world was black and white. Nothing was simple. And every word in the english language was something to be played with and puzzled over.

She had a brilliant, self-educated literary mind; she lived and breathed books, working most of her career in book stores and libraries. She was a poet (though she dismissed her work as ‘doggerel’), a gifted editor, and in truth, was at least half responsible for my father’s success in academia. She edited every single paper he ever wrote, and should be considered the coauthor of his master’s thesis and his dissertation.

She was playing word games on the vary last day of her life; she couldn’t stop, even in distress. When asked to rate her pain on a scale of ten, every single time, she insisted on dissecting the meaning of the question instead of answering it.

She never, ever stopped talking. Just using an asthma inhaler was painful for her, because it meant she had to shut up for two minutes.

What linguistic gifts I have, I credit largely to her; both the genetic gifts, and the environment in which I was raised. Language was the lifeblood of our family.

Greta cared passionately about popular music. She listened to jazz in the thirties and fourties, and in the sixties, was a beatles fan when the beatles were still new. In the seventies, she took her teenage childern to rock concerts because she wanted to see bands like genesis and jethro tull, not because we needed a parent. She continued to listen to new pop music up until her last few weeks of life; her collection contained everything from funk to punk to gamelan to classical to pro rock. She smoked pot and drank beer with us at rock concerts, never drawing a parent/child line once we were able to express ourselves as adults. Last week my cousin went to the Bridge concert in san francisco, and held up her phone so my mother could hear Neil Young, perhaps her all time favorite musician, play part of his set.

She was a socialist, a radical; she marched for farm workers rights, she registered, voted, and campaigned for the peace and freedom party. She raised her children to question – and to disrespect – authority, and and vocally stand up for what they believed in. That she lived to see a black man as president meant more to her than she was able to express; ‘we won’, she said to me, while we watched post-epection coverage in her hospital room.

Greta lived with mental illness her entire life, though I doubt she’d have called it that. She described herself as fucked up. But depression and madness was thick in her family tree. She had one of the fiercest, most violent tempers I’ve ever seen, and until I was an adult, I never realized how physically small she was; her personality was enormous. She felt, though, that every interaction she ever had with people outside her tiny circle of intimates was a put-on, a performance. She felt there was a persona she must keep up. She was still doing this her last days in the hospital, only letting it slip when in full panic, or when medicated nearly insensible. She suffered social and panic disorders; she described them as ‘agoraphobia’ and ‘manic depression’, but I think these were words she looked up in a book.

The great tragedy of Greta’s life, I think, is that she never had any idea she was brilliant. She tallied the things she felt she couldn’t do, added up failings, cataloged excuses for things she was afraid to do. She could have been a writer – she could have taught english or linguistics. With her aptitude for language and her abiding interest in the natural world, her love of animals and plants, she would have been an asset to zoos, museums, schools.

She should have made an impact on the world far beyond what she allowed herself; her legacy is one of wasted potential.

Yet, she was able to give some portion of this as both genetic and environmental gift. Her love of words, of literature, of nature, her love of music, all are passed on to me via both nature and nurture. I grew up with music playing, and books ever-present in my life. I grew up with playful use of language. And my daughters share those gifts, again both in their blood and in their environment.

Despite her fears, my mother lived a long, rich, full life. She traveled, cooked, gardened, hiked, swam in oceans. She mentored young writers and artists. She was the parent my teenage friends came to for help. She touched and infuriated people til her last lucid day.

My deepest regret is that, at the end, the fears loomed larger in her life than anything else, and she cut herself off from a young generation who would have loved her. My children know her only a little; my cousins children not at all. Her friends, like writer Lewis Buzbee, were never able to introduce their young children to the woman who made such a huge impact on their lives.

death watch

Tonight I took my mother off respiration and dialed her morphine up ’til she went out. She roused a few times. Once she asked if it was ok to pee right there in her diaper. Another time she asked for water, and then said, sleepily, that she was happy, floating away on the earth. The […]

Tonight I took my mother off respiration and dialed her morphine up ’til she went out.

She roused a few times. Once she asked if it was ok to pee right there in her diaper. Another time she asked for water, and then said, sleepily, that she was happy, floating away on the earth.

The last thing she said – at least the last words I understood – was that she knew it would be over soon, and that she was trying to be brave. Somehow she knew the struggle was just about at an end.

Barb and my cousins Sam and Amy were there as she sank slowly; the girls made a beer run and toasted my mother with coronas, and we talked about childhood and death, about my aunt Penny’s departure, a dozen years gone.

We didn’t make it til the end. The girls left around two, and I watched mom draw one slow, shallow, labored breath after another. And I thought about how many hours it could take for her heart to die.

I said goodbye before she was gone, and walked out.

I have not yet been able to cry. That will come when I know it’s over, or maybe before. But I have no slightest doubt that what made her her is gone. Most of it had left her over the last week; the rest was just the body not giving up ’til it was certain it was no longer needed.

She made it very, very clear that this was what she wanted; the great gift tonight was that her doctor understood that. He understood the futility of treating a patient who was ready to go, the futility of prolonging a life that was over. So the choice was effortless.

There’s been a weight of responsibility on my shoulders for years; it has not quite lifted yet, but I feel it already lighter.