Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off. That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief. ~Rumi
I sat by my mother’s bedside as she lay dying of cancer. It was a late day in June and the scorching pink and purple sunset blasted into the twenty-something floor of the hospital window that overlooked the city. She was restless and agitated, frustrated by being confined to both the bed and her failing body. I asked her if she wanted to go outside and she nodded. She was no longer capable of verbal communication. I picked her tiny body up, put her in a wheelchair and wrapped her in blankets despite the heat outside. I wheeled her down the hall and out to the rooftop garden that had an incredible view of the bustling, pulsing city below. It was only the two of us.
We sat in silence, side by side, for a few moments and then I began to ask her questions I knew she could not answer, just to fill the quiet space. “Are you cold?” No answer. “Are you hungry?” No answer. “Do you like the sunset?” No answer. In exhaustion, sadness and anger, I broke down. “Can you ever hear me? Do you even know what’s going on right now? Do you care that I’m talking to you?” This time she answered, but did not any words. Without turning her head from the view, she reached over, grabbed my hand, put it in hers and wrapped it under the blanket that was in her lap. I was ashamed that I had doubted her. Of course she knew. This was the last encounter with my mother I remember having before she died a few days later.
Four years later, I am able to write this. The immediate, searing pain of witnessing such a loss has subsided and has turned into some sort of scar that I carry around under my shirt – something that no one can see unless they get really close. I am now able to share the things I have learned about life in witnessing my mother’s life and her subsequent death.
Never be too proud to dance.
Often while cooking in the kitchen, a favorite song of hers would come on, like the bluesy ‘Wang Wang Blues’ from the English Patient soundtrack and she would grab me (often reluctantly because I was a “really cool” teenager), kick her heels off and swing me around the kitchen. Inevitably, the pot would boil over, which she would run over to with a dishtowel over her shoulder and mumble, “Oh, Christ!” under her breath while wiping it up, laugh and then go back to swinging me around the kitchen. I rolled my eyes and groaned, but secretly I loved every minute of it.
Sometimes it’s okay to eat an omelet for dinner.
After my Dad left my mother, she received her college degree, then her masters and became a counseling psychologist on top of being a mother to five girls and a devoted friend. At the end of the day, the last thing she wanted to do was cook a goddamn gourmet dinner. Omelet it often was. I’m fine. My growth is not stunted and I have all my teeth.
Take pride in how you look, without being vain.
Even in the darkest days of cancer treatment, she would put on her lipstick before a visitor arrived. As kid, she would never drive me to school without curlers in her hair and her lipstick. When I would ask her why she was still wearing her bathrobe she would say, “Well, they can’t see that from the car now can they, Moll?” She was not shallow or vain, yet valued how she looked. Make the best of what you’ve got.
Love endlessly and selflessly. That applies to you, too.
The greatest lessons on love, we learn from our mothers. She loved her children and her husband without end, sometimes too much. She gave too much of herself to save her crumbling marriage for the sake of her family. While I admire this tremendously, I will never love anyone if it means that it will not be reciprocated or I cannot fulfill my own personal goals. There is such a thing as loving too much.
Do it now. Yep, that thing you think you want to be.
My mother was a poet, yet she took her first creative writing class when I was about ten. It was soon evident that she was extremely talented. If she had started a professional career in writing at the age I am now, I think she would have had a few novels under her belt. She also never would have had me. Funny how life works out.
I came across this in one of her pieces and it struck a deep chord in me. I could no longer be fearful of being a writer of anything else for that matter. There is simply not enough time:
I was fifty five years old when I become a writer. I appeared, it seemed, out of nowhere. ‘Nowhere’ for me was half a century of talking, listening, attending and interruptions from children and a twenty-five year marriage.
Whatever you want to do or be, do it now. Pick up the triangle now if you want to be the world’s best triangle player/dinger.
Speak firmly, but gracefully; listen as though you have to retell that person’s story in vivid detail to a stranger and when you speak to children, get right down to their level. It’s less scary that way.
You are never too broke to treat yourself to champagne.
The following is from an email my mother sent to my sisters in the midst of her treatment:
“Ever since that scraggy hair was cut last night, I feel so much better! I’m all dressed up today, replete with matching scarf, new sweater (I was saving it, but I didn’t know why – now I do) and I feel good. Maybe it was that little glass of Veuve Cliquot that I had before I went to bed?
Note to my accountant – increase budget to include this essential item on an ongoing basis.”
No matter how bad things seem, everything is better in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
3am is not the time to wonder why your life isn’t how you predicted it to be on September 12th, 1994 in your Princess Jasmine diary. Tackle the big things when the sun is out.
I will never stop missing my mother. Grief rears its ugly head in strange ways, but I do know one thing – grief is the price we pay for loving, my mother would always tell me.
It is always worth the price.
(A note on this picture of her: This used to be a picture of her with ex-boyfriend. She cut him out, literally and figuratively, because she liked the way her hair looked. Never let an ex-boyfriend ruin a picture of you with good hair.)