Memories of our loved ones never truly fade away. They wait and hide in unexpected places: in the flicker of tail fins in a school of neon tetras, in the smudge of jam on your son’s chin as you wet your thumb and try to rub it off, in the smell of coconut-scented tanning lotion, or Ivory soap, or baked apple dumplings . . . or in a 70’s Carol King song on the radio. Little things that yank you back to a time when you never imagined being without your mother.
Six years ago, I lost my mom to cancer. During her prolonged battle, I accompanied her to visits with the oncologist and in her final days helped care for her at home. I play those months over and over in my head. She got worse, then better, then worse again. Every once in awhile, I’d visit her and she’d seem almost normal: tired and a little weak, yes, but in good spirits. There were also days when the hope in her eyes had dimmed, when her voice was a raspy whisper, when she couldn’t hold down solid food. Little by little, I saw her slipping away, becoming more ghost-like.
An experience like that is not something you mentally prepare for while growing up. Often, I question whether I did everything I could have for her. Nearly every day, I was there with her, helping with the most normal of tasks that she could no longer do by herself, like changing her clothes or lifting a spoon to her mouth to slurp Jell-O. Things that she used to do for me when I was an infant. I did what I could, although it hardly seemed like enough, but one question still haunts me—should I have actually said that I loved her while I had the chance? You always think you’re going to have one more day with that person. Then suddenly, you don’t.
We were not a family that hugged or tossed around words of gratitude or pride. Displays of affection, whether verbal or physical, made us very uncomfortable. If we said anything at all, it was in a birthday or get-well card—someone else’s borrowed words. To this day, when holiday gatherings among my husband’s family are breaking up and they all rush toward each other, arms flung wide, I retreat toward the door and hide behind someone. When someone does ensnare me in their embrace, it feels ‘odd’ to me, like my ribs are being crushed and the air sucked out of my lungs. I can hug my dogs, my kids and my husband, but beyond that my comfort zone is violated.
Still, even though I can never recall my mom saying the words ‘I love you’ out loud or wrapping her arms around me for longer than a second, I always knew that she loved me. I knew because being with her made the world a better place, more beautiful, and life more cheerful and more worth living. Many, many times, I watched her tend to her garden, tugging dandelions from between the tulips barehanded, dirt smeared on her knees and packed under her fingernails. And I crouched beside her, asking the names of the flowers (peonies, hollyhocks, bearded irises, grape hyacinths) and pointing out the millipedes as they scattered through the upturned earth.
I remember Mom using up her sick days from her job to stay home with me when I had a fever, yet trudging off to work when a sinus headache hammered at her cheekbones and congestion made a good night’s sleep impossible. I remember her taking us kids shopping for school clothes, even when her winter coat was tatty and ten years out-of-date. I remember her swapping her hours with co-workers just so she could come to my band concerts or track meets, then putting in overtime so there was money in the bank later to help send us to college.
Each spring when the lilacs bloom now and send their perfume wafting on the breeze, I walk around my yard to see which of the rose bushes have survived the winter. I used to invite Mom to my house just to see the flowers, because I knew she’d appreciate the work that went into nurturing each plant. I can’t do that anymore, not with her, but I know she is there in every leaf bud and daisy petal and lady bug.
What amazed me most is that my mom still had such a generous and caring heart while choosing to remain in a bad marriage for over fifty years. Arguments between my parents and slammed doors were a regular occurrence in our house. I escaped from it every chance I got. So did she. I half think the reason she made such an effort to be with us kids—whether outside, at the store or standing in line for the Ferris wheel at the county fair—was to take her away from the spiteful words that my father regularly volleyed at her.
The day before she died, the last time I saw her, as she lay on her hospital bed in the middle of the living room, my father yelled at her to quit her “bellyaching”. He was stressed by caring for a wife with failing health, I understood that. But who, with an ounce of compassion in his soul, would say something like that to a dear one in mortal pain, especially someone who had stuck with him for five decades?
When he left the room, she mumbled something. I took her hand, bent closer, and asked her to say it again. She said, “I don’t want to survive.”
Squeezing her hand, I fought back the tears and said, “I know, Mom. I understand. It’s okay. It’s really okay.” I saw then, in her eyes, not pain but peace, acceptance . . . and love. I felt it through my fingers, sensed it flowing from her, to me, and back again, continuous, strong, eternal.
The next morning, I got the call. The one that declared I would never again hear her voice, share Thanksgiving dinner with her, wander through the mall beside her, all sense of time lost. She would not be there to phone when there was good news to share or reassurance needed, when the kids graduated high school or when the first crocuses poked their purple and white petals through last autumn’s mat of fallen leaves.
At her funeral, I set aside the anger bubbling inside me over being robbed of her presence. Instead, I made myself think of the good times, the simple moments, the little pleasures all around me that she had introduced me to. Then, I stood beside her coffin and whispered, “Love you, Mom.”
And now, when I kneel in the dirt and grasp the roots of the dandelion that has invaded my flower bed, when I sprinkle flakes into the fish tank, or when I am standing in the freezing rain to watch my kids at a track meet—I realize I have become my mother in so many ways. And I’m glad.
(The above essay appears in the Indie Chicks Anthology Memories of Mom.)