The hot humid weather reminds me of my Mom. She is walking very near to me these days. I can see her in her tiny slip of a dress, I can see her with a bit of sweat on her long upper lip and her blonde white hair tied back. I can see her in all her forms. The stories she told about her past, the way others saw her, her different transformations throughout her life. Her letters with sketches, funny drawings of her face or outfits, her paintings, her collection of friends and her voice.
It has been more than a year since she died and I am feeling her loss stronger than before. I don’t know why the weather is making her absence so strong. Or is it the finality? I think of the quote, “But she has been gone so long”, which was from one of Mom’s anecdotes about a child coming to terms with death.
I think she would be glad that she left such a strong colorful impression in her absence. She would not like to be forgotten. She hated to be left out. Her perfume, her stories, her anecdotes have echoes. We still feel them and see them and hear them.
Besides being a natural instinctive artist, a person who craves aesthetic expression, Mom was also the daughter of a scientist. She never experienced a pain or an emotion without a pragmatic analysis of the possible causes or remedies. This ability to step back and analyze the body as if it were a working machine has helped me many times. Recognizing that your body is going through a reaction to hormones or stress or exhaustion and knowing that it can heal itself is the best remedy of all and I carefully teach it to my children.
She must have found Death interesting. She kept an internal journal I am sure, noting the feeling in her body as she began to pass. Her brain was active and she was not fearful. She would have noted that she could no longer feel her feet and that her lungs and heart were working terribly hard to keep the blood flowing. When we had left the room to go to bed and she was left almost alone; she opened her eyes and looked straight at Mafi and uttered a sound. And then she died. So she knew.
It is hard to believe such a force of nature is gone. But when I ran back to the room she was gone. I saw her face frozen in the last expression of release. Her lips parted, her eyebrows up, as if she was about to say something. Her head was leaning back into the pillow, resting, but caught as if she was rising.
As time passed she grew colder and colder. I would touch her leg tentatively and she was colder than the room, and colder than the air. She felt colder than ice; a kind of cold that I had never felt before. It was a bit scary and discomfiting. It gave me an icy chill in my mind and heart.
She stayed on her bed in her cold room for a day and her very old cat stayed with her. In a short time her skin began to slacken and move away from the bone. When we made the call to the company that was to collect her body for cremation, we were almost ready for her to leave. It was becoming strange having her there but not there.
The strong men were dressed in almost good suits, their faces washed of emotion. We let them in and told then what room she was in. We had to move the cat because he was under their feet. I wish they had an antique wicker casket for removal because it would have been more aesthetic. Actually, anything would be better than a black bag with a zipper.
We did not watch them bag our Mom. It was too weird. We sat at the window and cried as they carried her body to the car. I wondered how many of the dozens of windows on the downtown street had faces behind curtains; ‘Oh, the old lady died, ah, she was always so nice and friendly! Oh, the poor daughters are crying’.
We were both sad and amazed. But it was very hard for my older sister who had always believed it was her job to look after our Mom. She wanted to accompany the body right to the cremation building. Maybe we should have but we let her travel forth on her own. It was like watching your little child that you have cared for so diligently step into a bus and zoom away. God Speed! We have done everything we could to prepare her and there is nothing more we can do.
My sister and I remembered all our good byes to Mom as we left after our many visits. How she waved and looked so small. And then we remembered also our hellos. ’ Hello Darling’! She would say, and when she was younger she would run to greet us. As she was older she would get to the door more slowly and open it slowly and then beam up at us.
In the last years she was just the right height to rest her head on my chest when she hugged me. Our bodies fit together like a puzzle. I would stroke her sore back very gently and her fluffy hair, curly since her operation, was right under my chin.
Now I will travel back to the porch of the old house where she spent her urban summers, surrounded by plants. Joe and I are there for dinner and Mom’s boyfriend Lloyd will turn up soon and pull out the pipe. He will be put on duty as the one who grills the meat. Meanwhile Mom will make a fantastic salad and we will eat crackers and cheese and drink dry sherry. She is very happy because she loves to see me and my husband who always makes her laugh. I may have an adorable child or two or three with me who she will dote on.
There is an entrance room with the old piano in it and an old dresser full of toys. Any child will be happy and busy playing with new and ancient toys and puzzles; boxes of costume jewelry, trucks, dolls and baby toys from fifty years ago. The apartment is musty and has the distinct smell of a cat box but you forget about it.
She exuded an easy sexuality right into her seventies. She was comfortable in her body and I can see her resting her curved feet on a chair while fanning her face with a New Yorker. Wiggling her toes as she told an anecdote, she would offer us a drink, and then tell us about her aunts who drank Mint Julips on hot days in the south of the States. It is a lady-like drink, she would tell us, but it packed a wallop because it is really only ice, crushed fresh mint and Bourbon! She would laugh at her gentile feminist aunts throwing back hard liquor.
I can enter into this space in my mind and travel around in it. And that was one of Mom’s last projects. She told me that she would find a memory of a place and then go into it. She said that she could see the stairs at her childhood house, and a window out to the back shed. She could see details as clearly as in a photo.
She did this as she lay on her back slowly dying. She began to travel in her mind. Now I travel there to meet her. I pretend that I can talk to her. I see now why living people talk to dead people. You can pretty much imagine what they are going to say. It is much better than feeling the empty space of absence, the crumbling ground of aging, the dizzying speed of life.
Though I take it all in stride; the art, the science, of living. Thank you for that, Mama.