Vignette: A Moment in Time

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It was an unseasonably warm October day. Mom and I had conversed comfortably in the car on the way to and from her doctor’s appointment; about my recent blog posts that mentioned her, how much she liked the new LIVE sign I’d purchased to hang on my wall, and her concern over her cat being attacked by some feral felines. I’d assumed if she’d wanted to discuss more serious topics, she’d have brought them up.

Arriving at her house, I helped her out of the car. Swaying a little, she grabbed my arm to steady herself. She clung to me as we slowly made our way to the back door. When she expressed the desire to stay outside, I settled her in a chair before getting her coffee and cigarettes from the kitchen. There was no sense in arguing it may have been those very vices that had caused Mom’s cancer. It was too late for that, and pointless. On the contrary, my siblings and I seemed in agreement that she should have anything she wanted.

As I set the cup and cigarette pack on the small white table in front of my mother, I asked if it would be okay if I headed home to make supper for my husband and children. She nodded. I remember leaning down to kiss her cheek then, and while I’m certain I would have told her I loved her, I don’t recall actually saying the words.

Inside the car, I started the engine before glancing back at Mom. She was looking straight at me, a gentle smile on her face. She raised her hand slightly, giving a little wave. That one small gesture undid me. Throat filling with tears, I could barely breathe. I quickly looked away, not wanting her to see me cry. My mother is dying, I thought as I headed down the driveway. My mother is dying. I sobbed all the way home.

There is so much we didn’t talk about that day. In fact, I hadn’t mentioned the inevitability of her death in any of our conversations. I’d been with her when the doctor informed her she had lung cancer, had heard her whispered “I wondered what it would be.” We never talked about death, or fear, or even faith, which surprised me, considering how important religion was to her. There were no last-minute lessons, no pleas or after-death directives.

More than six years after Mom died, in the winter of 2017, unhappy with my job and searching for possible answers from the enigma that was my mother, I re-read letters she’d written me, a Memory Book she’d filled out, and the odd notebooks and partial journals I’d inherited. By then, I’d unexpectedly lost my husband and eight-year-old grandson, as well. Still raw with cumulative grief, I needed a mother to turn to. And there she was, in the words she’d repeatedly written.

“Utilize your God-given talents.”

There was never a question that each of her children and grandchildren were born with inherent talent; it was her greatest desire that we discover what it was, and follow God. Mom’s own gifts were apparent in the way she made our home a haven. Multi-talented, she concocted delicious meals from garden produce, eggs, and the chickens Dad raised. She created colorful wall hangings, rag rugs, and beautiful quilts from scraps of cloth, and drew pastel pictures of her children. She was the kind of woman who, at the age of 42, picked up a kitchen knife and a piece of wood and decided she’d carve a statue. She then honed her artistic talent to begin a home business that sold well over 500 pieces of her art.

Reading Mom’s words again that winter, it occurred to me that she’d already said it all. There was nothing more she could have said that she hadn’t already modeled in a life filled with creativity, integrity and faith. Her last lesson was in facing death with dignity, grace, and the firm belief she would soon be joining both our father and Our Father.

That October day was the last time I was alone with Mom before she suffered what we assumed was a stroke from the brain radiation she’d undergone. My next visit was to take my turn caring for a mother who struggled to walk or communicate. While her gentle smile remained, there was no more shared conversations. In the ensuing days, my siblings and I cared for her, watching her drift into unconsciousness and die on November 3, my birthday.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see my mother sitting outside at that little table, a cigarette in her hand, a cup of coffee in front of her. Her face is lit by a beatific smile, her eyes filled with love. She lifts her hand to wave.

“I love you, Mom,” I imagine saying, waving back.

Beware the Ides of March…

I don’t typically take “selfies” at all, but certainly not in a hospital gown. This afternoon I did.

During the writing workshop I taught Monday night I remember saying something like this:

“Why would we write about things that embarrass us? Or make us look foolish, or petty? Why be so transparent?  Why would I write about crying in the peanut butter aisle and bolting out of the grocery store to sit in the parking lot and slam my fists into the steering wheel? Because I am not helping anyone if I am not transparent. I cannot help another griever if I don’t share the messiness of grief. Because if I admit I bolted out of a grocery store or sobbed in a dentist chair then someone else who has lost a spouse can read that and think ‘Oh, I’m not crazy. She did that too.’ I’m not helping anyone if I hide behind a perfect Facebook façade.”

How many times have I stood in front of a room full of people in an Expressive Writing class explaining how every single cell in their body holds memories: cellular memories. That even if they didn’t want to think or write about the trauma and sadness in their life, their body would find a way to express it; through headaches, stomach upsets, generalized anxiety, or other physical ailments.

Which was why I woke up crying on June 2, 2012. Though I wasn’t consciously aware of the date; even in my sleep my body remembered that it was the first wedding anniversary without my husband. It’s likely why I ended up in an emergency room three times in six years around the month my husband died. 

Make that four times in seven years.

mary at hospitalWhen the chest discomfort began six days ago, I dismissed it, thinking about all the snow I’d been shoveling. When the discomfort was joined by pain between my shoulder blades, it kept me up at night, as I moved from chair to bed and back again. Then nausea joined the symptom ranks, followed by an upset stomach and a nagging headache. After confiding in a couple of my children, they encouraged me to see a doctor. Except a doctor didn’t want to see me, I discovered when I tried to make an appointment. “We’ll make an appointment for you after you go to the emergency room and they rule out a heart attack,” I was informed.

Three hours and several tests later, I was informed my heart was fine, and handed a prescription for anti-anxiety medication I might never take.

The look you see on my face is one of sadness and resignation. The thought uppermost in my mind; is this how it will always be?

Seven years after the March we discovered our little Jacob, my grandson’s cancer had returned. Seven years after the month my husband had a heart attack and stent surgery. Seven years after the March my husband died. Seven years, with a job I love and many exciting things happening in my life, my body still remembers.