The woman in the center of the room doing jumping jacks breathlessly asked,  “Does this look like something a 50 year old could do?” My mother, Irene, was celebrating her birthday by laughing at her  fear of aging.  We, her family, laughed along without  a clue that in little more than a month she would die of a heart attack.

On April 30, 1976 the eve of her departure to Belgium mom’s bags were  jam packed. My mother was never one to visit empty handed and had decided to bring her relatives in Torhout some United States Bi-Centennial souvenirs. She was proud to be a naturalized American. Her enthusiasm was on display the year before when she took her kids with her on a pilgrimage to Washington DC.  Her deeper roots, however, were even more important in forming who she was .  She was born in Canada to parents that had immigrated from Belgium.  When I was growing up we made frequent trips to Blenheim, Ontario to see her parents, her brothers and all the others she knew when she labored on the family onion farm as a child. She beamed and stood a little straighter when the Canadian national anthem was played and when mom was in Blenheim it was largely Flemish, the language of Flanders, Belgium that she spoke. As a little girl stories she heard were about that far away land where she had aunts and uncles and cousins she never met.   Her mother, Valerie, was one of seven children most of whom had stayed in Belgium. Some had passed on but Oscar, the  patriarch, was still thriving. To meet Uncle Oscar and hear his stories was the primary objective of the most important trip of her life.

The last time I saw mom she was both excited and tired.  She wasn’t feeling well but we all assumed it was due to the extensive preparation for the trip.  True to her role as the family member who brought people together she had hosted her own farewell party inviting all her family from this side of the ocean. She was to travel to Belgium the next day with Buffy, a friend and the wife of cousin Lou.  When I gave her a long hug goodbye I was happy for her, and curiously mixed in how I felt about the state of our relationship.  I had by this time been married and divorced and was a bearded, long haired, grape and lettuce boycotting cynic yet somehow in my mother’s eyes a Norman Rockwell, All-American boy.  I was saying bon voyage to  more than her parting for Belgium. I was saying goodbye to a way of being with her. Mom’s growing independence made it easier but it was still hard. The morning of her flight I felt like calling her before she left for the airport but I held back thinking it was better to avoid undue sentimentality.  Besides we had already said goodbye.

Her family back home didn’t know it but she became more ill when she arrived in Torhout. We learned later that Irene didn’t want to worry anyone or miss anything  so she rested as little as she felt she could get away with. On May 8, 1976 mom traveled to Mechlin with Buffy for the next leg of their trip.   At 9:00 p.m. she sat down to write postcards. Before she could write a line she suffered a massive heart attack.

When her body was shipped back  in a custom built oak casket one week later all of us who loved her were still struggling to believe she was dead. Because the Belgians did not have the same embalming methods as the US and her body was more than a week in coming home, we were advised not to look at her.  A photo found in her camera that showed her standing next to Uncle Oscar was to be the last image of her we would have.  It was tempting to pretend that her death was an elaborate hoax and that she was happily pursuing a new life somewhere far away. It was also tempting to blame the Belgian relatives for not taking better care of her and for the delays in getting her body back home. Something this crazy-awful had to be someone’s fault.

The restlessness that overcame me when my mother died wouldn’t go away.  When 1977 rang in I set off for a year long adventure in London, England.  I had found a small art school there that was willing to take me in.  Besides studying art I intended to make London my base for traveling all over the British Isles and to parts of the European mainland.  Traveling to Belgium, however, was not on my agenda.

My friend Alex Kennedy and I arrived in Paris late one early August night.  When we woke in the bushes beneath the Eiffel Tower we set out to pursue the serious business of seeing every piece of art in the city.  We ambitiously figured that if we kept at it from morning to night we could do it in about a week. The only other thing on my agenda was to find a place to draw on a Paris sidewalk. I found the streets full of competing artists.  A big letter “A” was a suitable Eiffel Tower and some desperate artists would chase people down the street drawing them on the run.   Disillusioned, I never took my pastels out of the suitcase.

As we walked back toward the Louvre on the morning of our fourth day in Paris I suddenly knew that I had to go to Belgium.  It was more than a thought it was a voice inside giving an urgent command.  That day I was on a train to Torhout.

When I walked off the train I felt that I was crossing over to another dimension,  that I was as much a ghost as my mother.

The tallest building in Torhout was Saint Peter’s Church and without thinking I entered and plopped down in a back pew. Alone and not yet ready to contact relatives I sat staring off towards the stained glass without really seeing it.  On my way out I glanced at the bulletin board and saw the notice: “RIP OSCAR CLOETENS.” Uncle Oscar was dead.

The first phone number I called was to a relative who spoke no English but who eventually figured out who I was.  She ran down the street to Louie Cloeten’s home. Cousin Louie had no phone but could speak English.  He gathered me up, took me to his home then brought me right back to the church the following morning for Uncle Oscar’s funeral.  The center of the simple ceremony was a brass trimmed oak casket slightly larger but otherwise exactly the same box mom was shipped home in.  The casket was carried to the church cemetery by pal-bearers followed by a procession of fifty or so men women and children. It was both a solemn ritual and and a celebratory parade.  After the casket was placed in the ground each of us walked up to the burial site and tossed in a red rose as we said our last goodbye. I never had the chance to say hello to the man but the importance of my being there was not in doubt.  I was my mother’s ambassador.

It was all a blur of people reaching out, hugging mom by holding me.  I was shown my high school graduation picture by a delightful old woman who chatted to me in Flemish.  I understood the affection and that the picture came from mom.  Cousin Louie gave me a ceramic tile depicting Torhout that he intended to give to my mother. Besides St. Peter’s tower the tile depicts trees and two keys.  The tower was destroyed during the first world war. It was rebuilt and destroyed again during the second world war. Again my ancestors rebuilt it.  The intended meaning of the keys remains unknown to me but the meaning they assumed was that Torhout held the key to understanding my Belgian mother’s state of mind when she took her last breath.

In the days to come I retraced mom’s last steps.  In Bruge, Cousin Louie stopped me in the middle of a bite of a pastry to tell me that it was the identical pastry mom ate.  And so it went.  At night in Mom’s bedroom I worked on a posthumous portrait of Oscar. This was the purpose for the pastels I had been carrying with me.

At the time it was more than I could fully absorb.  Gradually I came to understand that my mother’s last trip was a profound homecoming. It was as miraculous as the  journey of a monarch butterfly. It takes generations of these butterflies to complete the  migratory circle and arrive at the birthplace of their ancestors.   Though my mother had never before been to Belgium it was somehow as much her home as her parents and mom’s death there finished what they began. If she could have written that postcard I believe she would have said that even while weakened she was content. I believe that the souls of her parents were beside her when she died.

I believe that mom’s soul was beside me as I  fluttered in her path.