On the day she died, around the time they would have just pronounced her dead in 1989, I was standing in a thrift store, damp with icy April rain, selecting jigsaw puzzles.
I have waited a long time for the space and quiet for these puzzles, the desk, the time, the light. When my mother would receive chemotherapy or radiation, I would sit in the lounge with the old men, eating cookies as I searched for the edge pieces, or perhaps the snowy mountain peak or Ottawa’s tulips, vivid and alive. I was a bridge then, between illness and health, youth and death. I was hope eternal on knobby legs. I was truth and beauty. I was a reason, her reason, a reminder of theirs perhaps, a glimpse into who they were, who she was. The breath of youth. Wasted on the young as it is.
I never knew their names, in their polyester pants, brimmed hats. I counted only their wrinkles, their winks, their stories. The saved the oreo’s for me, gently refrained from asking why I was there, smiled indulgently when my mother would make her way back to me, unable to hurry but wanting to, knowing the time between treatment and nausea was brief, and not always longer than the drive home. Those old men were safe, a certain thing in that hospital. They didn’t try to explain. They didn’t ask me how I felt, they didn’t look at me with pity or sadness or even anger.
They just asked me to work on my corner of the puzzle.
I’ve been thinking about my mother lately, as I sit in the quiet of my empty house, as I clean her old things, as I purge more and more of my own, craving the stillness of less. I’ve been thinking about love, and her hands. How her hands were so full of life, so simply beautiful, like tiny wrens. Expressive, they could flutter, they could sting, they could harangue.
And lo, how they could love.
A few weeks ago I missed my daughters, truly missed them for the first time ever. Missed them like I thought my heart would explode and I with it. In the shadows in the corner of my room I could feel her there, whispering, nodding with her eyebrows cocked as she said
yes darling. That’s it right there. That’s how it felt all along for me, forever.
and I thought my heart would dissolve just then as I understood, more than I ever thought possible, what it meant for my mother to die.
They say our children are our hearts walking outside our bodies. I say, it’s our mother’s too.
Every year I stop in April to think of her. Today I made my yearly mea culpa to her of washing her tea cups. Into two of them I dropped, to remain invisible, her rosary and a piece of her jewelry, two of the few things that were hers that I actually possess. I like that they’re hidden, secrets in the open. A smile of hers tucked away to watch me over my shoulder.
It never really leaves me, that death. No other death will ever hit me as much, excepting the death of a child perhaps, or a partner. None other will be as full of impact or meaning as hers was. I wish I could leave it behind. I know I can’t, it being one of the stilts my life has been built on, whether I like it or not. Her death defined who I was, who I became. I can move past it, I can move through it, but it will never, ever change the fact that I have no mother. I have a ghost mother, a spirit, a whisper who moves me.
Sometimes I think I understand what it all means, and aspire to grace and wisdom. Other days, like tonight, sitting in my house, my daughters tucked haphazard in their beds and snoring, I don’t understand it at all, not anymore at 33 than I did at 11. It’s just not fair. It was never fair. It was always completely and utterly wrong but it will never change the facts. It will never bring her back, and will never change that she’s gone from me forever.
So tonight I hugged my girls a little longer. I told them I loved them, I kissed them, I spoke softly to them. I memorized them, as if to copy. The soft pear of Rosalyn’s cheek. The steely glint to Vivian’s eye. The sound of their laughter echoing around these walls.
I can’t remember my mother’s voice. But I’ll be damned if I will ever forget theirs, or them mine.