(This piece is an excerpt from a longer work entitled Mind Pictures)
The days in the hospital right before our mom died are mostly a blur. I remember that you and Dad and I sat by her bed as long as we were allowed. I remember the heart monitor and the unsettling, uncertain blips on that glowing metal screen that were the external reminders of mama’s struggling heart. I remember the day that her heart stopped.
But I recall with the most clarity an hour when she and I were alone in her hospital room.
Mom had been very weak and we didn’t want to tire her on our visits. We spoke quietly about things at home and how she was feeling, but it was so hard—she looked frightened and strange, with moist, pale skin and with those oxygen tubes in her nose. I could see the edges of her white roots under the chestnut hair color that was usually soft on her forehead.
Now it was plastered flat. I felt as though there was a glass jar over my head numbing all the sights and sounds of the hospital room and making my head dizzy with old stale air. I couldn’t get a big enough breath no matter how hard I tried.
On that day, Mama wanted me to talk. She wanted me to talk about all kinds of things. She asked, “Have you thought more about college next year and what you want to study? Are you going to move into an apartment? What is most important to you now?”
I tried to answer her, but I didn’t know about those things yet. I was puzzled by her questions, coming all at once. And I was a little bit scared. It was as though she was saying to me: “Tell me everything now. Tell me about your first apartment and your college graduation, tell me about your first job and about the man you will love. Describe your wedding so I will be able to imagine it. Tell me if you will have children. Tell me where you will live. Tell me everything. I need to know it all now.”
The only thing I was able to tell her was that I didn’t know. But I did ask her a question. I asked, “How do you know if you love someone?” And she answered, “You love someone if you can’t imagine spending the rest of your life without them.”
I’ve been thinking lately about grieving, in particular about how unpredictable and nonlinear it is. The passage of time doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be blindsided now and again with a feeling of loss that is so concentrated you swear you have never grieved at all until that moment. I’m certain it has to do with phases of our lives.
I don’t think it’s unusual, Jilly, that you and I should be missing our mom all over again with a new intensity. Mom was forty-three when she died; I was being treated for cancer at that same age. And you were initiating a divorce and starting your life all over again. No wonder we felt linked to Mom’s life and death at that time. The sands were shifting under our feet.
Not long ago, after you told me on the phone how much you missed Mom, I had a powerful dream. In my dream, I was twelve years old and you were seven. We lived in our old house on Chaparro Drive.
In the dream, I had decided that you and I should run away from home. With the infinite wisdom of the big sister, I thought you would not hurt so much if we ran away from Mom before she could just up and die on us. I woke you in the middle of the night (you were grouchy) and told you to pack some shorts and socks in a pillowcase. I had already filled my pillowcase with peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies. We tiptoed quietly out the door, down the street, past the neighbors house where we played, past where we picked up the school bus and out across the alfalfa field at the bottom of the street.
I don’t know where I was planning to take you. All I can say for certain is that I knew I wanted to spare you the hurt.
For me, dreams often pose more questions than they answer. How did I know Mama was going to die? Didn’t I think it would hurt her, and Dad too, if we ran away from home?
The dream wasn’t about all those logical questions though. It was about trying to protect us both from life, and from the pain that life can bring.
What I know now is that there is no protecting myself, or anyone else. There is only living life and loving the people around us one day at a time. My mind pictures and life experiences are my life’s earnings, my gold coins. I know you have your own, which may hurt sometimes, but which shine like nothing else.
Kahlil Gibran wrote: “You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?” The heart of life is a very good way to describe where our mom lived. It is her legacy to us.