Monday, February 6, 2017

Two Years

From a fairly young age, I was aware of the possibility that my mother would probably not live as long as most people do. By the time I was in my early 20s, I’d started worrying about every holiday and birthday, understanding that the last one would be coming. It loomed over much of my adult life like a shadow, that nebulous worry of “what if”.

I was 33 years old and it was a few weeks before Christmas when Mom’s doctor broke the news to us. I was sitting in her hospital room when her doctor, who had been her GP for the past 20 years came in to give us the news. “Less than a year” was the prognosis.

Before that, years earlier when it was still a faint but present worry, I remember unloading her dishwasher for her. Picking up her teacups (she had a lot of teacups) and turning them over in my hands, aware that one day she’d be gone and I’d be having to pick up her teacups and load them into boxes instead of back into her kitchen cabinets. I’d tidy her house, picking up her slippers so I could vacuum for her, and I’d think of how it would be those things that hurt the most after she was gone. Her teacups that she held in careful, failing hands. Her slippers that I helped slide onto her feet. All the small things, the daily clutter of her life, would be the most devastating. To pack them away, to get rid of them was truly admitting that she was gone.

One thing I didn’t take into consideration is that those things would one day provide the greatest comfort. Today, two years after she died, I unloaded her teacups from my dishwasher. I drink tea (P.G. Tipps, a taste I acquired from her) from them, studying the dark lines scratched into their bottoms by countless stirs of her spoon. I cook dinner in her stainless steel pots, making recipes she taught me. I still remember the last Tupperware container of rice pilaf that she sent me home with, that I forgot in the back of my car. The last thing she cooked that I never tasted. I regret it. My rice never comes out as well as hers did. It never tastes quite the same.

Her daffodils are starting to come up in my garden, their green shoots poking through the heavy clay soil. It’s too early for them, really. Our overly warm winter has fooled them into growing. There are the tiniest buds on the Clematis vine I divided from the one that grows on her fence. I still remember the day we planted it. I remember making her cups of tea, and cutting bunches of flowers so she’d have something bright to look at. I remember the years before she was so sick, the years when we’d watch EastEnders together on the weekends, eating pizza and speculating about what would happen next. I remember her dancing to “Tainted Love” at my sister’s wedding in a purple dress. I remember her walking me down the aisle at my wedding. I remember my husband carrying her when she got too weak to walk. I remember her and my Deyze singing together a few nights before she died, and how it had been so long since I had heard her sing. I remember some of her last coherent words to me in hospice, the night before she died. “Don’t I get a kiss from you?” she asked me before I left for the night. Not giving her hugs and kisses had become habit, a necessity due to her illness. The kiss I dropped onto her temple was a sign that it was truly coming to the end, that it wasn’t necessary to take precautions anymore.

I remember her standing in her garden in the sunlight, her back straight, her hands undamaged, her voice strong and lovely as she sang. I remember all of the pieces of her life, the good and the bad, the moments of anger and sorrow and joy mixed together. Two years without her. Sometimes it feels like she’s only just walked through a door, that she’s in the other room waiting for me.  I keep her close with her daffodils and her teacups, with her old snaggletooth dog who is currently asleep on my shoes (revenge for not taking him on another walk), with pictures and music and all the small things that added up into one hell of a life. I try not to let grief overtake me. It's easier to bear these days. Not as sharp-edged or crushing as it once was. I'll always feel it to a degree, but more than anything else, I feel love for her.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Planting Happiness

Yesterday I worked in my garden, pulling weeds and trimming back plants that have become unruly from all the rain we've had. Everything has run wild with luxurious new growth, roses and clematis clambering up trellises and cone flowers springing up in every unoccupied inch of space. I like my garden to be a little shaggy around the edges, for my roses to be a little neglected looking, though in truth that look of neglect has taken years of careful cultivation. 

My Mom is never far from my mind at any given moment, but when I'm in the garden she is always more present to me. I think of her when I pull weeds, when I prune shrubs, when I tie back the leggy branches of my climbing roses. I think of her when I rake seeds into the dirt, succession sowing zinnias and cosmos and poppies so that I can squeeze as much color from the season as possible. I remember all the long days she and I spent together, mornings already humid and the earth exhaling the hot damp scent of summer as we pulled weeds and planted flowers side-by-side. 

I feel sometimes as though I'm planting happiness. On days when I miss her the most, when I wish I could call her and ask for advice, or when it just hits me that she's well and truly gone, I go out to the garden. I plant seeds. I tend my flowers. I pull weeds and imagine that every root that pops out of the soil is a bit of grief being pulled from my heart. I remember her in her garden in her blue skirt, the sun vivid on her as she handed me a shovel or a pair of pruning shears (the same ones I use in my garden now). The garden is my way of paying tribute to her. Of continuing to love her. It's a way to keep her close as I'm crouched in the dirt on humid mornings, smelling that summer earth as I plant my flowers and pull weeds, alone. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

One Year Later

One year ago today, my Mother died. After years of struggling against illness she slipped away in her sleep, finally leaving behind her pain and difficulty and creating a hole in the lives of those who loved her.

She fought a lot of battles in her lifetime. She beat cancer at 40. She dealt with an abusive and cheating husband. She worked to overcome whatever hardship life threw at her, despite the fact that it was often relentless. She always tried to see the best in her situation, even at the point where most would have given up. She rarely showed anything but bravery and strength to me and my sister when we were growing up. She wanted us to be equipped to handle whatever came our way, to know how to pull ourselves up and keep going even when things were hard.

She kept going until her body literally couldn't take any more. She had outlived her prognosis by years when her doctor finally told her that there was no avoiding things this time. By the very end she was ready, even if the rest of us were not.

She taught me a lot. I have applied her lessons to my life every day. I have also missed her beyond measure, wishing that things could have been different. A life where she wasn't ill. Where she lived to grow old, to see her daughters grow older, to see her grandson become an adult and to meet any future grandchildren she may have had. A life where she could have been without fear or worry. Where she shared it with someone better than my father. Someone who would have appreciated her for the unique and wonderful person she was.

I've never been the religious sort. I don't know what comes after death, but I hope that somehow, somewhere out there, she's walking the streets of London. That she's young again. That her body is healthy and strong. That she's laughing and free from worry and fear and sadness. I picture her like that sometimes, when I miss her, when it's hard to comprehend the rest of a life without her. I hope she's stopping at every place she loved in her youth, in a city she never was able to return to but that she always considered to be her home.

A few months after she died, I opened a book of poetry that had belonged to her and found that she'd printed off a particular poem on a note card and placed it in the book. I think she put it in there knowing that one of us would find it eventually after she was gone.

"Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there; I did not die"

-Mary Elizabeth Frye

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Year of Firsts

One year ago we'd just got through our last Christmas with Mom. We knew then that it was the last one. Her doctor had told us in early December that she wouldn't live another year. So we'd gone through all of our usual holiday rituals as normally as we could, despite the knowledge that we were reaching the end hanging over us.

Her health had deteriorated so fast. She could still walk when they sent her home from the hospital, but by Christmas she was in a wheelchair full time and was hooked up to oxygen. Someone always needed to be there to help her with things. I'd go over there in the evenings after work and feed her pills in spoonfuls of applesauce, picking the ones that were still necessary from the pillbox and trying my best to ignore the ones that her doctor said there was no more point in taking. She made it through Christmas, through New Year's, clinging on with quiet determination. I kept a slim hope in the back of my mind that maybe she'd prove the doctors wrong again, but she had run out of luck and by the end of January even her determination was starting to fail.

She passed away in February, and that started the year of firsts. First birthday, first month, first mother's day, first thanksgiving. Events and holidays passed by. Weeks and months that flowed around her absence like a river flowing around a rock. The emptiness that she left was a tangible thing, a grief that changed shape and size every day. Some days it was dark and heavy and blanketed everything around it. Some days it was so small that it could almost be forgotten. I never knew which one it would be until I'd started the day, and it could change from one hour to the next. There were mornings when I'd get up and feel fine. I'd go to work, talk to my co-workers, do all of my daily tasks without a thought. Then suddenly it would hit me and I'd find myself sobbing in my car on my way home.

Of all the firsts I've been through without her, my birthday was by far the worst. Thanksgiving was difficult because my sister had moved back to the state we were born in, and so it was my first holiday without any of my family around me. Christmas just felt strange. My husband and I went to Florida and spent it with my grandparents and sister and cousins, the first Christmas that my grandparents had with all of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren together. There was just one person missing, otherwise the family would have been complete. But that's the way it is, now. This is our new normal, the new "all of us".

Today is the last day of 2015. The last day in the year of firsts. In just over a month it will be the 1 year anniversary of her death. A whole year without her after spending half a lifetime preparing for just that thing. All of the years I spent thinking "This one could be the last, you never know what's coming" culminated in a single night in a hospital room, with her doctor telling us "this one IS the last".

I don't expect grief to ever go away. I think it will continue to change along with me, adjusting itself to fit in my life. It may eventually reduce permanently down to something easy to carry, something that settles in and becomes a part of me instead of something that threatens to swallow me whole. I know there will be days when it looms over everything, even years from now. But my mother raised me to be strong, to overcome things instead of giving in. To move forward even when I think that I can't. Every time a challenge seemed too much, or life seemed too hard, a burden too heavy, every time I said "I can't'", she would remind me that I was capable of so much more than I thought I was.

Perhaps the coming year will be more kind. Whatever it is, and whatever it brings, I'll get through it. I've put the year of firsts behind me, moving on the way she would have wanted me to.

I love you, Mom. Always.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Birthday Blues

Today is my birthday. I turned 34 years old, and it seems every website I ever registered for has remembered the day judging by the sheer number of emails that have been filling my inbox since last week. I think I could paper my walls with all the various coupons I've received, and each one so far has been helping me count down the days until today. I have dreaded today all week, finding myself heartsick as the day loomed closer on my calendar. This is a year of firsts without Mom, and every first is a milestone to get through.

Birthdays were something we were more casual about when I was growing up. We tended to forgo parties and big gestures. We did have our own way of celebrating, though. My sister and I would be excused from doing chores on our birthdays, and Mom would make us whatever we wanted for dinner (my choice was always hot dogs, mac and cheese, and pumpkin pie instead of cake). One of Mom's birthday traditions for me specifically revolved around her extremely long labor when giving birth to me. When I was a kid, she'd knock on my bedroom door throughout the morning and call out "Still in labor!" up until the hour of my birth. When I grew up and moved out, I'd get a morning call from her. "STILL IN LABOR!" she'd cheerfully yell down the phone as soon as I answered. This was the first year without my morning call, without that reminder of just how much of a pain in the ass I was even from the beginning

Her pregnancy with me was a difficult one, requiring bedrest due to a near miscarriage. She hadn't yet been diagnosed with the autoimmune illness and it was causing complications that no one could figure out. She had difficulty gaining weight (at seven months pregnant she'd gained only a single pound) and then towards the end of it she kept going into false labor and was sent home from the hospital more than once. The final time, she told the doctors "I am not leaving this hospital without a baby, so you'd better be sure I have her this time." By the time I was finally born, she was two weeks past her due date in start of a hot Florida summer.

The labor itself was long and difficult and painful. Mom had both my sister and me without the benefit of drugs. From what she told me, by the end of it she regretted that choice. I had to be turned and removed with the aid of forceps after hours of seemingly fruitless labor. There are pictures of me and my mother shortly after birth, where I am an ugly red-faced thing with a misshapen head and dents on either temple from the forceps, and she is absolutely exhausted looking. I had to wear a little rubber cap for the first few weeks to help round my head back out. After I was finally born and cleaned up and put in the nursery, my grandparents brought my sister to the hospital. She was only 3 years old, and she thought that she got to pick which baby they would take home from the ones in the nursery, like picking a piece of fruit at the grocery store. She wanted to take home the black baby with a headful of hair, and cried with disappointment when she was told that no, the one with the rubber cap and the weird head was her sister.

I was just as difficult as a baby as I was during birth. I screamed constantly and for no reason, refusing to be soothed or settled. I was lactose intolerant and had to be fed soy and rice milk and my mother went through more than one doctor trying to find out what was wrong. One doctor accused her of "sneaking chocolate", claiming that was the reason why I screamed and was sick after she tried to breastfeed me. Even after they figured it out, I still carried on wailing as though I was in pain, but no one could find the cause for it. My Mom always said that if I had been born first, there would not have been a second baby.

I like to think that I made up for it when I got older. It was as though my sister and I traded places as we grew up. Shannon had been the easy labor, the easy baby, the easy child. By the time we were teenagers I was the quiet one and she was the difficult one, the one who snuck out to meet boys while I only stayed up late to read books.

Mother's day was hard this year, but for some reason today is harder. I've never really been big into birthdays. As a kid (and an adult) I enjoyed the cake and gifts, but a birthday has really mainly just been another day. They have always passed quietly and without much fanfare. Today just plain hurts, though. I suppose it's because the person who was the center of my life for so long is gone. I wouldn't exist without her, after all, and today is the 34th year I have existed in this world and my very first one without her as a part of it.

Grief has been a long road to walk, and I've not yet reached the end. I'm still walking it every day.

I guess you could say that like her, I'm still in labor.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Pushing Daisies

The other day my husband and I were having a discussion about Mother's Day. Since about this time last month, advertisements for the upcoming holiday have been everywhere. The first one I received was an e-mail proclaiming "Mother's Day is coming!" from a website intent on selling me things.

"I don't know what I'm going to do" I told him, as I sat on our bed next to him. He was rubbing my back as he often does, when he knows that I need comforting. "I kind of just want to crawl into a hole until the day is over and done with." He said that I should still celebrate the day. That I should still do the things I did for her, but to do them for myself this year instead.

My mother's favorite flowers were daisies. Every morning on Mother's Day, before everyone else woke up, I would sneak out of the house and into the back yard to pick some of the wild ones that grew everywhere. Daisies are abundant here in Kentucky. In spring and summer they sweep down the hillsides and fill the ditches with a profusion of white and yellow. They beg to be picked, and they grow so thickly that you can pick dozens of them without making a dent in their numbers. I would gather as many as I could and then tie them with whatever bit of ribbon I'd fished out of my stash of craft supplies, and would present them to her when she woke up. Sometimes I would make her a cup of coffee, except one year I mistook the salt for sugar and she banned me from making it after that.

The daisies weren't always blooming by Mother's Day. Sometimes the way the day falls it's just a little bit too early for them. Their heavy buds would be nodding on their stems, not ready to open for another week. Lately it seems that they've been blooming later and later in the year, so for the past few years I've simply gone to Lowe's and bought her a potted Shasta Daisy to plant. This year I had thought that if the daisies bloomed in time I'd pick her a bunch of them again, but of course she didn't live long enough for that. Spring has come to Kentucky, bringing with it warmth and sunlight and the whole world turning green and full of life. I hate that she died in winter, during one of the worst ones we've had in a while. Her last few months she spent miserably cold because she had lost so much weight that she couldn't sustain her own body heat. She was wrapped in robes and blankets and she kept the heat turned up so high that her electric bills were outrageous. I wanted so badly for her to make it until Spring, so that she could see the sun and feel the warmth of the air one more time.

Mom died exactly a week to the day before her birthday. She died the day before my sister's birthday. Firsts are hard. Having to deal with those particular firsts so soon after the fact was surreal. I was still shocked and numb by then, and both birthdays went by in that haze. With Mother's Day, there has been time for the shock to wear off. The numbness to pass. I feel a sense of rising panic with every e-mail or TV advertisement that I see for it. All I want to do is pick daisies for her. Make her coffee (with sugar, very carefully avoiding the salt). I want to go to Hallmark and find the perfect card to give her, signing it with Xs and Os. It's strange to realize I'll never do that again.

I want her to see the profusion of daisies in the ditches and the fields and I want to hear her say how they're her favorite. Just one last time.

Thursday, April 30, 2015


In my yard is an old cedar wood swinging bench  that Mom and I put together several years ago. She had bought it online, from one of those websites that sells unfinished furniture. Back when we had first moved to Kentucky, our house had an ancient wooden swing sitting under a massive 60 year old Maple tree. One night during a storm, a branch came down and took the swing with it. It was smashed beyond any hope of repair so it had to be thrown away.

So this one was a belated replacement. It was more rustic looking than the old one had been. Even brand new, it looked old. We read the instructions and figured out where each peg and slat and joint went for it, and then we stained it a rich honey color. It was going to go under the same maple tree where the old one had been (keeping our fingers crossed for no more falling limbs), and as we stood in the garage looking at the bench we realized that we really should have put it together under the tree. Mom's yard was divided by a series of fences, with a 4' tall picket fence that served as a dog pen that extended from the back of the house, to the shed, and finally joining back up to the house at the corner of the laundry room. We would have to hoist the bench over that fence at the side and the back and then carry it over a ditch in order to get it to the tree.

Mom was a lot stronger back then, still determined and tough, and all her years of caring for her three acres of land had given her a wiry strength that was belied by her small stature. So between the two of us we managed to hoist the damned bench and its frame over the two sections of fence and the ditch until we finally had it under the tree. We set it up, victorious, and sat ourselves down to enjoy our hard-earned rest. It was a beautiful day, not yet unbearably hot and the wind made the maple leaves rustle and the wind chimes in the trees around her garden ring. I knew it meant a lot to Mom to be able to do these things more or less on her own. She and my father had finally separated, and she was determined that she could get by without needing his help. She needed my help with a lot of things, but the important part was that she didn't need him.

The swing sat unharmed by tree limbs for years. Even after a storm brought down a huge branch almost on top of it. Like Mom, it weathered everything that it was exposed to. Harsh winters and hail and howling storms that pulled so much around it apart left it untouched.

After Mom died, the bench was something I knew I needed to take with me. We won't be able to keep her house. There's too much debt left behind for us to do that. It was the only asset she had and so it will need to be sold to pay for the financial and legal mess that my father left her in after their divorce. So the creaky old bench needed to be re-homed, and my back yard was the best place for it.

Moving it here was easier. This time I had Adam to do the heavy lifting, and his pickup truck to transport it with. We set it up in front of one of my flower beds, across from the arbor we got married under. Mom was the one who gave me away at our wedding. She walked with me from my back porch steps to the arbor, where Adam was waiting for me. She kissed us both and told us that she loved us. She was as much a mother to Adam as she was to me in our years together, and she was happy to see us getting married.

The bench creaks now. It's no longer honey colored, but has gone dull and weathered. Lichen grows along the wood in a map of green and grey. Sitting here makes me think of that day, dragging the bench over the fences and through the ditch, both of us exhausted but proud of how we'd done it by ourselves despite her health problems and my increasingly bad knees. Everything she could do back then was a victory, a sign that she was still standing despite it all. Her still being alive for my wedding was a miracle. I regret that she will never know any children that Adam and I have, but one day I will sit with them on this bench and tell them about her. How much she meant to me and how much she would have loved them. At some point I'll have to scrape off the lichen and re-finish it so that it lasts long enough for that. The things that were hers are things I feel protective of now, as though through preserving them I can somehow preserve her memory a little better. I know they're just physical objects, that the memories I have in my head are worth far more, but they remind me of her and everything that she faced and overcame. Even something as simple as an old wooden bench holds so many reminders.