death, writing

The Muse, The Mother, and Kenny G

“Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.”- from The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke.


“Why didn’t anyone tell us what it would be like?” I asked one of my sisters the other day, and she knew exactly what I was talking about.

“What would we have done differently if they had?”

“Stay by her all the time. Not leave her side,” I answered, only half in jest.

I was, of course, talking about our mother’s death in November. None of us was prepared for the loss, or how we would feel now, four months later.

We’ve each found ways to work through some of the grief, with the growing realization that it will never, ever, quite go away.

Shortly before her death I’d sent the link of the video of my mother’s “bucket-list” flying adventure to her doctor and his wife to view. The wife had lost her mother to the same cancer years before. Her heartfelt response to the video left me reeling with the prospect of a grief so encompassing it could affect a person years later.

I had tears streaming down my cheeks, thinking of my own mother. Thank you for sharing this.”

It had been years, and yet this woman was brought to tears by my mother’s video?

Oh, my, I thought then, what are we in for after our mother dies? I knew my siblings were wondering the same thing.

We had no idea.

A year ago two of my sisters spent many hours in our mother’s home, painting the walls. I joined them when I could, while our mother sat nearby, smoking her cigarettes, drinking coffee, talking to us and joining in our laughter (because we always laugh when we get together). Even then, before her cancer diagnosis, I realized that the painting was not all about getting a job done, but more of a tribute to our mother. Instead of her filling notebooks with decorating dreams, we were bringing some of them to fruition.

Yesterday I sat at her table, waiting for the muse to strike and gazing at the results of those painting sessions; walls and woodwork in colors that my mother had chosen herself and that we weren’t so sure about at the time. They are lovely woodsy hues that turned out to be exactly right for the warm and cozy house.

I put on a kettle of water to boil, lit the cinnamon candle on the table, popped a Kenny G CD in my laptop, and opened the door to the other room so sunlight could stream through the house. These are the rituals that I have incorporated into my mini writing retreats at my mother’s house.

My fingers hovered over the keyboard. And then it happened; every writer’s secret fear; that we will not be able to write. My mind seemed devoid of ideas, my brain blocked.  Alarmed, my eyes darted around the room, searching for some inspiration, something to jumpstart my creativity. Being in my mother’s house hadn’t failed me yet. What was going on?

I left the table and wandered around the house, images of my mother flitting through my memory. She sat on this chair, used this end table for her coffee. She watched television right here, with her elbows on her knees, bent over to smoke a cigarette. She worked on her paintings out here.  I paused near a box of books and bent down to look through them half-heartedly. It is then I realized with a start that I had already looked in every box, fingered every scarf, rifled through every scrapbook and notebook, looked inside each delicate dish in the glass cupboard, even checked the backs of every single picture remaining on the wall or neatly stacked on the back porch. Earlier, I’d stood on the bed to remove that last picture, the large crucified Jesus. None of us knew where this picture came from. What if Mom had labeled it in some way, like she did several other items? She hadn’t, unless of course she’d hidden something behind the backing. I shook my head to clear it of the idea of loosening the nails and peeling back the cardboard. Why would my mother choose the largest, heaviest picture in the house to hide a note or letter in? That didn’t even make sense. I’d already emptied the toothpicks from the toothpick holder, laughing at the incongruity of it. What had I expected to find hidden in a small toothpick holder? Surprises and treasures come in the form of tiny pieces of paper inside things and notations in my mother’s neat handwriting. “My father, William Weis, made this,” “This held holy water in our family’s Algona house,” “Bowl of my mother’s, Elizabeth Weis.”

I’m not sure what I continue to look for, but it isn’t money. I have re-read my mother’s books, pored over her notebooks and devoured the Memory Book she filled out. If I am looking for something, it isn’t in the empty house of my mother’s. There are no hidden messages or more treasures to be found, I told myself.

Yesterday, sitting down in my mother’s living room, that stark realization hit me like a ton of bricks and I was enveloped in sadness. I wanted to bolt out of the chair, run out of the house, and drive home. I wanted to call one of my sisters. Instead, I sat alone in my mother’s living room, tears streaming down my cheeks. Soon I was gulping back noisy sobs and wiping at a runny nose. I laughed wryly, imagining how I would look to a stranger. That vision helped me compose myself.  

Then I did what any sensible person would do, what my sisters and brothers do each day, what my friend Beth has had to do since the death of her spouse last fall, what my mother did after the death of her father, her husband, and then her mother too. I got up, dusted off myself and my muse, made another cup of tea and got to work. Two hours later, I’d made great strides in my book’s reference chapter and edited and revised another.

This sadness we carry within ourselves, the gaping hole in our heart, is not ours alone, though it feels that way at times.  The loss of a loved one is a universal truth we will all have to face at some point in our lives. Entire books have been written about this journey called grief. We can read a dozen of them and image how it will be for us. I thought to lose my father was bad enough; to lose my mother was one hundred times worse. I think to lose my husband will feel like searing the flesh off my bones.

Is it healthy or quite sane to spend so much time in my mother’s house? Of all my siblings, I have spent the most time there, touching her things and breathing in the creative atmosphere.

“Am I okay? Is this normal? ” I ask one of my sisters.

Is it healthy for me to sit on the couch, hugging her teddy bear and crying?” she responds.

We continue to grieve, each in our own way. I write my way through the labyrinth of grief, the physical act of writing always my purge of choice.

Could anyone have prepared us for any of this? Will my writing this help prepare someone else?


Timing is Everything

I spent another afternoon in my mother’s house, writing. With soft music playing in the background, a cinnamon candle burning, and copious amounts of tea, I wrote for a good three hours. I have managed to accomplish as much in the last three weeks sitting at my mother’s table as I did in the previous three months. Whether it is being surrounded by her creative spirit, or the lack of Internet connection, I am not sure, but I can see how I will be able to complete my book with ease by the end of April if I continue my mini writing retreats at the old homestead.

 After each writing session I find myself wandering the nearly empty rooms, looking for something, but not sure what. Deep down inside, I know what I search for, but I feel foolish even writing it. 

I want a message from my mother. Or at least a direct connection of some sort.

We all do, I think.

 One of my sisters has gone through all the photo albums my mother left behind, sorting and scanning pictures to share with us.  Another is meticulously typing out the contents of my mother’s calendar/journals for all of us to read on our family web page.  We have incorporated our mother’s things into our own homes with great pleasure. Her paintings and wood carvings are more than just simple art; they are a reminder of the beautiful woman that our mother was. It has been almost four months and the ache of her absence has intensified for all of us this winter.

 While I drove home today, I fought the mounting sadness that has plagued me since November 3rd.  I did not find a message in the books I rifled through today or the empty drawers or closet I peeked into. There was no note taped to the back of a picture, no little piece of paper that my mother had written her secret desires on.

We are luckier than most. We had the previous two months to prepare ourselves for her death and to show her how much we loved her, and we had each other to lean on when the time came. We have two books she wrote for us, her calendars, letters and photos.

 And we have this:

I gave my mother this leather bound Memory Book for Christmas in 1985 and she dutifully filled it out. It took her almost three years to do so. The last entry is dated March 25, 1988 and is in response to the question: What do you look forward to in the future?  Must be knowing my Mother may die soon is something I don’t look forward to but can happen any time at her age of 91. My mother says she looks forward to it.

I clearly remember thanking my mother and hugging her when she handed me this completed book.

I didn’t read it then.  I don’t know why.  Instead, I promptly stashed it away.  I still hadn’t read it when we moved here three years ago. In fact, I nearly forgot all about it. Perhaps I was just waiting for the right time.

I decided on the way home that today would be the right time.

I knew where I’d put it.  I’d stashed it in the back of my lovely rose cabinet in the entryway. I dug it from behind several photo albums and flipped through it.

This book consists of a question and answer format, with many pages in between for memories not related to the questions.  I remember being a little disappointed that my mother hadn’t filled all the pages, but now I see that she’d answered over 50 questions, some with two or three-page answers.  Other questions she skipped over entirely, like this one: What plans do you have for future travel? One she answered with one single word. That question was: What would you like your epitaph to read? Her answer was: Catholic.

Now that I have these messages from my mother to read, the connection that I have yearned for, I’m not sure I can bear to read it.  I started to, but after I read the second page’s answer to the question: What was the most meaningful gift you ever received? I found myself crying. After chronicling some childhood gifts and toys, she’d added, “I’m thinking that the people who gave me these meaningful gifts were the gifts in my life. Meaningful, as is said these days-I would better say means so much to me! A card, a letter, a phone call or a visit means so much to me because of the person doing it.”

Tears coursed down my cheeks when I read that one. How many cards, phone calls and visits had she had from me in the three or four years before her cancer diagnosis? Not nearly enough.

What was the most meaningful gift you have ever received? I ponder this question and realize that none of the answers I would come up with are expensive and the majority of them aren’t even material items. Some were items my mother had made for me; others would be small gifts from my husband. Meaningful cards and notes would top the list, as would the gift of time and support during David’s cancer, my mother’s death and our grandson’s cancer.

But one of the best gifts of all?

That would have to be the gift our parent’s gave us in the form of many siblings.

Because only they can understand why I had to put the memory book away for awhile.

And why the right time to read it might be when I am with them.