It seemed important once upon a time: Wedgewood China, delicate crystal, brining the turkey, and the Macy’s Day parade providing the background noise. I have this wonderful repeating memory of my mom doing the one task I deplored; peeling those pungent, impossibly small 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 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 black Irish 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, “ I 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 own 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 she stoically accepted the undoing despite 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, as though a treat would somehow help his preparation. He sat at their small kitchen table with a view to the backyard as I cleaned some leftover dishes. I heard him weeping, shoulders slumped, fiddling with the pool of melted ice cream, his baby blues gazing at the now barren backyard where a clothesline still hung. So slowly and softly he said, “She loved to hang the wash”, and then weeping turned to 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 habits and routines which etch themselves in 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.
Ten years is a rather unbelievable measure of the loss of my mother. I can still summon the sound of her voice, they way she cleared her throat, and 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.
Tomorrow 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 and that as she watches me move forward, and occasionally backwards with human misstep, that 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, and these days she is more companion of the soul; a limitless reminder that grace, humor and faith never fail you.