This is a slightly updated post from 2015. Somethings seem worth repeating.
It seemed important once upon a time: Wedgewood China, delicate crystal, brining the turkey, and the background noise of the Macy’s Day parade. I have this wonderful, repeating memory of my mom doing the one task I deplored; peeling pungent, pearl onions, reading glasses perched on her nose, seated on a high back bar stool at the kitchen counter, in her quilted pale pink bathrobe. She was an expert with a paring knife. Those Thanksgiving mornings were good times for us to talk while the kids played near my dad as he scoured the newspaper.
I loved Thanksgiving as a grownup. Christmas elicits excitement, but Thanksgiving has a gravitas that children don’t quite understand. Christmas is often sensory overload. Thanksgiving rarely disappoints with expectations set at a reasonable level.
My mother died in the peaceful care of hospice on November 26, 2005, Thanksgiving night. The irony of passing on her favorite holiday is not lost on me. It’s an eternal gift of sorts from a woman who was armed with black Irish wit and a strong sense of self. I imagine her saying to herself, “Might as well exit this world on a day no one will struggle to remember.” Thanksgiving remains hers in perpetuity.
When cancer inserts itself into the life of someone you love there are words which gain traction you do not seek: adrenal cortex, metastasis, palliative, hospice. Words delivered with authority by smart, often bespectacled, men in white hospital coats. Doctors with knowledge, but most with little bedside manner. She was a fascination to them. Adrenal cortical cancer is beyond rare. So rare that my mother, in pain, but never absent her wit, queried, ” I couldn’t win the lottery, but I get the lottery of cancers?”
Weight had fallen off her stout body so quickly in those eight weeks that milkshakes were encouraged by the doctor. Even to this long-denied treat, she had a retort, delivered with knowing sarcasm, “ haven’t had a milkshake in years. They must be fattening me up for the slaughter.”
In the telling, it seems crass, but in the moment, her blue eyes twinkled at her cleverness and momentarily shooed the shroud of grief we already wore.
My mother was strong in death, a gift of Catholicism, really. She knew she was done and stoically accepted the undoing despite the unbearable pain of tumors on her spine and radiation treatments at the source. She worried about my dad and her children more than herself. In a quiet hospital moment, a week before she passed, she turned to me and said, I wish he had gone before me. He’s going to be hard for you. He won’t know what to do. She was right of course, he struggled the next three years of his life. He missed her immeasurably.
Dad started the missing before she was gone. Returning home from Hospice one night, I brought him a chocolate sundae. Oddly, I thought a treat might somehow help his preparation. He sat at their small kitchen table with a view to the backyard, and, as I cleaned some leftover dishes, I heard him weeping, shoulders slumped, fiddling with the pool of melted ice cream. His baby blues gazed at the now barren backyard, where a clothesline still hung. Softly he said, “She loved to hang the wash,” and then his weeping turned into a soul-stirring sob. I thought but did not say to my dear old dad, No, Dad, not a day in her life did she love to hang the wash. It was just that you loved to watch her hang the wash.
It’s never the grand things we remember about those we love, but rather the simple routines that etch themselves into our memory.
I was fortunate to be alone with my mom as she drew her last breath and softly exhaled herself from this world. I did not know then what I know now; it is a gift to be present to death.
Thirteen years is a rather unbelievable measure of the loss of my mother. I can still summon the sound of her voice and the way she cleared her throat. I can conjure the habit she had of using her thumb to twirl her wedding rings around her left finger when she was in thought. I wonder if, from her watchful place now, she wishes I might break out the Wedgewood, crystal, and fine linens which seemed so important once upon a time.
When life is hard, I miss her most. She had a way of simplifying challenges with a common sense born to her.
Today will be enjoyed with someone else’s linens and china, though I will bring wine to help fill the crystal. I believe my mother urges me on still. I know that, as she watches me move forward and occasionally backward with human misstep, she remains my finest underpinning. Ten years have passed and she is no longer my first thought each morning. The racking grieve that overcame me in her death is a distant memory. These days she is more companion of the soul; a limitless reminder that grace, humor, and faith never fail you.