Category Archives: legacy

You Should Frame This

Guest Post by Holly Aldrich

When she started hospice, my mother chose to go home rather than getting her care in the hospital. It sounded nicer, she said. Cozy. She was an optimist, even as her besieged body sunk her to the rude depths of these options. I was 27 and terrified and my mother had brain cancer. I was ready to throw myself at any shred of familiarity hiding in the bleak clinical narrative of her discharge paperwork. I convinced myself that we would be okay if we just went home. I tried to silence the insistent bleakness of words like malignant and terminal and palliative, because that is what she taught me to do.

I still had a lot to learn about the expert gaslighting of death, how it can use benign words and glossy pamphlets and fake smiles to lull you along. How tumors can grow slowly at first, and so can coups. But as mother and daughter, we soon found ourselves unsettled and bewildered, subjects of a strange new establishment. Home was no longer home.

Here is what I mean: Close your eyes and picture your bed. You know its shape and its place in your room, its small tactile histories. Feel your limbs weighting the mattress. Notice the particular scents of skin and sweat and sleep. Imagine the way your linens look when you wake in the morning, their customary jumble. See the way the light slants through your window. Now put on your most comfortable outfit. The touch of the fabric on your body, the way it knows you, how it outlines your place in the world, is perfect. Answer your everyday hunger and fill your mouth with your favorite food. The flavors dance. Delight in the textures, the pageant of spices and seasonings. Be there, in that sensory nest of bed and clothes and food.

Now rip the nest apart, piece by modest piece, and replace it with a clinical model pumped out by Big Med. When my mother came home, there was a huge sledge of a hospital bed with metal guardrails and a touchy remote for adjustments, stacks of adult diapers, a hoard of orange medicine bottles, and gowns with ties in the back. An oxygen tank hulked in the corner. For meals, there were big gray trays and children’s sippy cups. Staff began bustling through on their rounds, taking temperatures and scribbling notes about pain levels and possible UTIs.

I clung to the hope that none of it was real, like it was some peculiar game of Hospital. We would try out the accessories for a few days, buzz the bed up and down just for kicks, play nurse with the pills, and then my mother would become my mother again. She would ease up from the bed, pull on her customary jeans and tee shirt, and walk into the kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee and get back to normal. Her hair would grow back, her steroid-puffed limbs would smooth out, and the ugly tumors would slink from her skull and disappear. She would be 55, and healthy, and unremarkably alive. Everything would be fine.

That same day, I caught her gazing at me with the monk-like forbearance that was becoming so customary with her. Her eyes protruded from the steroids, but they weren’t manic. They were still calm and brown and warm. “It’s weird to think that I’ll never wear real clothes again,” she observed softly. And that was when I knew, with a sudden lurch in my stomach. None of this was a game. She was going to spend the rest of her life lying in a hospital bed, swaddled in diapers.

Until she died.

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Until she died, and I was left here. Without her. Without my tether to goodness and compassion and love, but somehow still here, floating in the world like a tiny piece of thread.

As much as I squirmed against this reality, I had no way of changing it. I was helpless to prevent the tumors from growing. But I knew from some fierce internal place of fundamental justice that I could not let her spend the rest of her life in the generic gowns from the hospital. No way in hell. The greenish one was the color of a swamp, and the other was coverall blue. Their pattern was essentially the textile equivalent of institutional linoleum floor tile, soured with the antiseptic smell of the hospital. They reminded me of a hostage huddling away from life. And that kind of apathy was simply not her.

My mother was an observer, a modern Hestia of the hearth minding the connection between home aesthetics and feelings. Color, texture, and form held meditative significance for her, especially in fabrics and furnishings.  When she was growing up in Chicago her father owned an antiques shop. Some of her fondest memories, she told me, were of accompanying him on trips to track down new items for resale. Weekend treasure hunts, she called them.

She sewed most of her own clothes in high school, and in later years she made my Halloween costume dreams come true with the same rickety seventies Singer. I was Tinkerbelle, Ariel, a medieval princess, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  My junior high years were stereotypically anguished, but she got onboard. She gamely stitched getups for a bloody bride, a mad butcher, and a dead Victorian maidservant. As labor-intensive as they were for the busy mother of two kids with disabilities, those costumes were also evidence of impressive skill, a sharp eye for detail, and genuine maternal love. They proved her belief that all of my feelings and fancies should be honored.

Our 1920s Tudor bungalow was my mother’s sphere, and she always honored its harmonious soul. One of her only personal indulgences was a pricy subscription to American Bungalow magazine. Issues came in the mail four times a year, and she spent hours wandering the rooms on their pages. I can still picture her in the comfy armchair in our living room. Sometimes she got excited and called me over, pointing out the turn of a stately wooden bureau or the pattern of a tablecloth. These things mattered to her. They spoke to some sense of balance in her own soul.

Making her face death in tasteless hospital garments seemed like a needlessly cruel cosmic joke. It was beyond the fraying edges of my tolerance.

I also suspect that, layered beneath my understanding of my mother’s sensibilities, a lot of my attitude toward the hospital gowns had to do with shoes.

See, on the first day of hospice, I was wearing blue and white running shoes with rubberized treads and soft mesh construction. They were the latest in the long line of similar shoes. I have a disability called cerebral palsy, and I wear orthotic braces for support and range of motion. Knee-high plastic supports with Velcro straps and metal buckles, they amp my shoe size from 6 to 10, and any shoes I wear have to accommodate their width and the inch of foam lifts boosting my shorter left leg. I have become adept at honing in on comfort and durability. I track down the grandma shoes sitting plush and quiet in the back of the store, while pointy stiletto heels and chic flats preen on the display shelves. I am a master of practicality.

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And yet my shoe history is far from tragic. I can recall a long succession of well-loved footwear. I was the proud owner of baby pink high-tops with black trim, soft brown loafers with moccasin trim, classic saddle shoes, purple suede oxfords with a fun-to-rub embossed logo, and bright red leather pioneer-style boots. The boots were my personal favorite, and I felt invincible and sassy when I wore them.

All of those shoes were special to me not just because they were cute, but because they were an indication of my mother’s dedication to me, and what she knew I deserved. Finding those shoes was a monumental effort. Every new pair of orthotics was slightly, maddeningly, different than the last, and there was no easy way to find shoes to fit them.

So we pumped ourselves up for a trip to the shoe store, determined to find a good pair no matter how long it might take. We spent hours hunkering down in the aisles, wrestling with tongues and laces, taking wobbly test trips, squishing in lifts and taking them out, and remaining alert to any pressure or pinching.

Our trips were an anthropological study in the range of reactions to my braces, a constant and visible accessory in the outfitting of my life with a disability. Some salespeople were cheerily overzealous. Manufacturing caring expressions, they offered to help with adjusting my braces or wedging on a stubborn pair of shoes. They came from back rooms bearing measuring devices, shoe horns, and their own orthotic-friendly suggestions. Some pretended we didn’t exist, avoiding eye contact from the moment we walked through the door.

Other people wondered about my braces, too. Children stared and asked questions while their mothers vice-gripped their arms and answered with measured words. We either got strained smiles because it was “just so great” that we were there, or evil eyes for basically conducting grisly foot surgery next to the Keds.

Even staff sometimes asked us to move to a more secluded corner. This was for our own convenience, allegedly, but it was also a way to keep us hidden away. My mother always maintained that we were just fine where we were. When salespeople tentatively suggested that we might have better luck in stores carrying “special” shoes, she fired back that we wanted these shoes. I was entitled to the same shoes as everybody else, thank you very much.

She was talking about shoes, but she was also telling me something. You are important, she was saying, so take the time to find the things that feel like you. Remember, my daughter, that you are entitled to beauty and comfort every day. You deserve the same things as everybody else. Be persistent. Never be ashamed of who you are or the life that you live. If people have a problem with your disability, with your body, with you, then it is their problem, not yours. You do not have to hold their filth.

There is nothing wrong with you.

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My perspective on these messages evolved over the years, but they shifted sharply into focus against the bland backdrop of those hospital gowns. That evening, after my mother had fallen asleep, I started Googling. After rejecting overpriced patterned options and depressingly tasteful neutral tones, I stumbled upon a cheery Etsy shop owned by a geriatric nursing assistant.

I smiled when I saw the cute fabrics and perky colors of the gowns, already thinking fondly of the owner making them for her clients. Whoever she was, she was using her time and energy to stitch together swathes of brightness against banality. She was a seamstress warrior fighting the encroachments of bedpans, medicine spoons, and Miralax. I silently thanked her for her courageous compassion and added two gowns to my cart – one in purple paisley and one in jewel-toned floral.

When the gowns arrived in the mail, the tingle of happy anticipation that came with simply touching the lumpy white package was almost startling, a fairy tale magic stone glinting up from the grit of our days. I watched my mother’s face as I tore it open and pulled out the gowns.

For one wild moment, the magic stone worked. The cancer was a beanstalk we could scale and the fear of her death was a giant we could slay. That moment was gold. Her eyes lit up, and her mouth made a small O. The fabric was beautiful. She loved the color. She would feel so much better wearing them. The next day, when her assistant, Dolly, came to change her into her freshly-washed new gown, she started up all over again.

When she was finally clothed in her purple paisley, she was radiant. She kept touching the edges with her cancer-clumsy fingers and a little smile hitched the corner of her lips. And even though her face was swollen and shiny and her hair was nothing more than baby bird fuzz, she was somehow much more like herself again.

In that color, I saw her on our front porch nestling purple mums into a pot of dirt. I saw her on Christmas Eve, the rainbow lights of our tree twinkling off her favorite amethyst pendant. I saw her settling a plum-colored chenille pillow against the back of the sofa, then stepping back to admire her tidy living room. I saw her. She was still there. I could tell that she felt it, too.

The gowns did not change everything, of course. They did not stop the uncontrollable seizures or loss of motor control or pain. They did not keep her from weeping on bad days. They did not vanquish the ugly words and exhaustion and resentment of a family rapidly losing its center. Some days I was not a giant killer. I was nothing more than a daughter-shaped pile of ash and shit and memories, the Little Match Girl with her desperate flares against the dark.

But those flares mattered, so I kept up my orders from Etsy. She watched as I scrolled through the listings and then she made the final pick.

Every few weeks, a new gown or two came in the mail. Those days were not perfect, but they had at least a frisson of magic. The gowns assured a smile, a moment of appraisal, and a sense that life could still be exciting. Sometimes, in the middle of reading to her or feeding her a snack or asking how she was feeling, I caught her gazing at her gown with that same little smile. When her nurses came, she asked for their advice about what to wear next, and she loved telling the story of how her daughter had ordered the gowns especially for her. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she asked. “Holly got those for me.”

New gowns sometimes garnered embarrassingly sentimental praise, especially as her illness and medication turned her into someone softer, more emotionally porous. One particular gown was white with a pattern of flowers, butterflies, hearts, and birds. When she saw it, tears came to her eyes, and she couldn’t stop touching it. “This is like a work of art, Holly,” she breathed. “You should frame this so that you can keep it nice.” When I tried to convince her that I didn’t need to frame it because she was going to wear it, she couldn’t stop saying how lucky she was. I told her I was the lucky one, but I don’t think she believed me. It was a touching and bittersweet moment, but it was quickly sucked into the ocean of her illness. Later, after she was gone, it would resurface.

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If the beginning of hospice is a no-nonsense medical takeover, the end is a beloved house falling to ruin. It goes like this: One day you wake up and the air is filled with the stench of spoiled milk and bad meat because the refrigerator went bust overnight. Moldy water makes the floor slick. You should care, you should get up and clean, but all your energy has sapped away. And besides, you aren’t even hungry.

The next day you discover that the toilet clogged up and sewage flooded everywhere. It’s brown and stinking in the bathroom, but also in the living room. There is something wormy and acid green wiggling on the couch. Plump gray bugs crawl out of your favorite armchair, the place where you always used to read, but you could never concentrate on a book now.

Maybe you are a little bit hungry? There are still some things in the kitchen cabinets. A can of tomato soup with a Best Before date from 1998. A re-jarred quantity of dark green dried herbs with the word “Sage” on the cap in black Sharpie. The handwriting is yours, from before your letters got shaky and misshapen. An open box of multigrain crackers with the corner chewed off. In the shadows you see strange, obese rats with elephant skin. No, not really hungry at all.

And then the power goes out altogether. You are left in the dark, and everything smells rotten, and you can’t see or move. What if something happens? How will you charge your phone? Where is your phone, anyway, and could you even manage the technical map of buttons and screens? You don’t even know who you would call, or why, so it doesn’t matter. You just want to sleep.

And then someone touches you, so gently. Someone pulls soft fabric over your body. Someone takes your hand, and someone begins to read. From very far away, you hear a story about a girl and a pig and a spider.

You don’t really understand the words, but you are sure that the story is about love.

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Her last gown arrived just a few days before she died. She was starting to lose her appetite altogether and she spent more and more time sleeping. Talking was an effort. But she often rallied for Dolly and her nurses, as if she wanted to put all of her remaining energy toward being a good patient.

As usual, Dolly clucked over the new addition to her wardrobe. It was ocean blue, with an opulent array of Hawaiian hibiscus and vines. “I love it,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m going on vacation.”

Aloha.

Maybe it was an innocent comment, but I suddenly remembered reading about how people nearing the end of life sometimes talk about going away on a trip, or needing to get ready to leave. A chill flickered up my spine even as I smiled and gripped her hand. “You’re right,” I said. “It does. You look gorgeous.” She smiled her trembly smile, the one that looked like a sideways J on the unparalyzed side of her face. “You know, Holly,” she said, “These gowns have made all the difference.” All I could do was protest dumbly and blink back the brine of tears.

She was the one who had made a difference for me. That old cliché. But of course she was.

She died a few days later, in the early morning hours of a Wednesday in late May. She was wearing her favorite lavender paisley gown. Her face in death was like a blurry photograph of a long-ago relative. She was a stranger until I looked closer, and then familiar features began to emerge. The slope of her nose. The curve of her eyelids. The shape of her lips. I kissed her and touched her face.

When her body was gone the nurse on duty said, “You did a great job, you know. You did the hardest job you will ever have to do.” I felt in my bones that she must be right. What could possibly be worse than watching the most loving and wonderful person in my life sicken and die?

The months after her death were barren, and I soon realized that their sterile drip was going to be worse than the months I had just survived. There was no more magic. It wasn’t that I was clinging to idealized nostalgia. I was just stuck. If there is a place where nothing shines, I was there. I woke up not knowing what to do without her presence in the world, and I longed for something – anything – to reconnect us. I wanted to make her toast with butter and jam and feed her Jell-O. I wanted to talk to her about what she was like in college. I wanted to bring her medicine. I wanted to read her Charlotte’s Web. I wanted to discuss her excrement, if it meant hearing her voice and seeing her chest rise and fall and touching her skin. I wanted to do anything to show her I cared. I just wanted her.

I could no longer order new gowns for her, but I kept the old ones. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. In purples and pinks and blues and greens, there she was, smiling at me. “Hello, my little pumpernickel,” I heard her say. “I love you.”

A family friend is a quilter, so now the gowns are stitched together and folded at the foot of my childhood bed. Deceased Mother Quilt has never been on my wish list, let me be clear. In some ways, I can’t help but think of it as a shroud. Those gowns clothed my mother’s body when it was aching and messy and ridden with the cells that would eventually take her away from me. Two of them clothed her body after death. But those gowns also clothed her in dignity. She taught me from childhood about maintaining grace and gratitude even when fear seems easier.

With plastic and metal on my legs and this soft quilt on my bed, I am living our shared history. I am the barest thread unfurling in the space between us. Most days I still falter.

But I am still here, tending that space, because that is what she taught me to do.

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Holly Aldrich is a disability services professional working in higher education. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her amazing cat, Gracie. She is an introvert, a listener, and a disability rights advocate. Her mom, Meg Aldrich, died of brain cancer in 2014. She will always be her mother’s daughter. You can contact her at hmaldrich@gmail.com.

“You Should Frame This” first appeared at Entropy. 

January 2017

My mother got sick in January. A week after New Year’s Eve, she laid down on our living room floor and couldn’t move. She thought she had the flu. In truth, her transplanted kidney was rejecting, seven years after her experimental transplant.

That New Year’s Eve, I’d gone to a club in Baltimore with friends. I wore a silk top and sparkly earrings. When I went downstairs to kiss my mother goodbye, she said, You are so beautiful.

 Since she died, no one has ever said those exact words to me.

Her last January wasn’t cold. My mother bought me a black pea coat at an Annie Sez on Reisterstown Road. I wore it all winter, through April, when she died. I wore it to her funeral, to the pool the first time I left the house after the funeral, to the grief counselor I saw in those early weeks when I thought grief was something I could work through, then overcome with enough effort. Like turning a C- in Algebra into an A. I wanted an A+ in grief management.

I still have the pea coat. I can’t remember the last time I wore it.

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Twelve years after my mother died, I posted her photo on Facebook.

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It’s a photo that startles some people. We look so much alike.

I wrote, “My beautiful mother died twelve years ago today. She left me her courage, her hope, and her heart.”

A woman I don’t know well wrote that I’d made my mother proud. Then she wrote that I needed to move on.

“There is no moving on,” I wrote back. “There is memory. There is grief. There is love.” But she didn’t respond.

A woman I worked with at the time told me she thought I’d handled the comment well. I agreed.

I didn’t tell her how sad I’d felt when I’d read the woman’s words. How they hit me like icy rain. How I felt like I was getting an F in grief.

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This week, I was walking the windy alley between my garage and house, and I had this thought: In April, my mother will have been dead 15 years. Then I had this thought: By the time I have a baby, she could be dead for 16 years. Or 17.

I have these thoughts even though I meditate, practice Yoga, have a job I love, a house in a great neighborhood, a husband who is devoted to me. I am not ashamed of these thoughts. My mother has been dead for nearly 15 years, and I think of her each day.

She has never seen my college diploma. She has never met my husband. She has never held her grandchildren or known me as professional woman.

I have held all of her grandchildren within hours of their births.

My mother has been dead for nearly 15 years, and I have not moved on.

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I had a cold this week. On New Year’s Eve, I crammed onto our couch with Carl, our two rescue dogs, and my mother-in-law. One dog rested on my lap, the other nuzzled my shoulder. My mother-in-law cross-stitched, while Carl and I watched “Bunheads.” I texted with my friend Anne, then went to bed a little after 9 p.m. I am still not feeling well.

Each morning, Carl asks if I’m feeling better. I have felt pressured to feel better, even when I’m feeling pretty awful. So I say, “Yes,” because I don’t like disappointing people. Also, I want to be optimistic.

I say, “Yes” even though I spent all of Thursday in bed and keep waking at 4 a.m. because my throat hurts and I can’t lay still any longer.

Still, I rallied on Friday. I washed my hands for two minutes. Then I made carrot-ginger soup, and latkes from scratch. I made crab cakes for my mother-in-law. We had a beautiful dinner. So far, no one else has gotten sick.

My mother taught me how to get out of bed, no matter what. She taught me how to get dressed, put on makeup, and go out, even if I felt unwell.

She wore mascara each day of her life. Even on her last day. She never left the house without blush or lipstick.

I wore mascara when I made latkes on Friday. No lipstick.

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I will spend part of January in Arizona. I will visit the Sonoran Desert, one of my favorite places on earth. I will visit my grandmother’s grave. I will wear a red dress I bought in New Orleans and dance at a wedding.

I first visited the Sonoran Desert in 2006. I stayed at a monastery. It was the first time I’d ever seen saguaros, and I photographed them obsessively.

I only stayed a few days. I was not a good monastic. I broke rules. I snuck Carl into my room, then junk food and fashion magazines. I wanted to be outside, in the desert, not silenced by prayer.

In my room, staring out at saguaros, I wrote in a journal I’d given my mother. She’d never written a single word.

I minored in creative writing in college, and used to write short stories. I wrote one short story the year after my mother died, then stopped. I’d begin another short story, but could never finish. It was as if all the words that lived inside of me died with her.

Yet, in the desert, the words came back. And I kept writing after I came home. I filled composition journals, spiral notebooks, and steno pads. I wrote on napkins and index cards. Only this time, I wasn’t writing fiction. I was writing about her and me. I couldn’t stop. Why would I? When I wrote about my mother, I brought her back to life.

My New Year’s resolution in 2016 was to write every day, and I did. I published more essays about my mother, and I started this blog on Mother’s Day.

I plan to keep writing every day in 2017. It’s the only way I can fully honor my mother’s legacy and all she gave me. Thank you for reading.

Meeting the Dead in Dreamland

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” – Carl Jung

I woke up at 3 a.m. from a nightmare that my sister’s infant son had gone missing. It was a terrifying dream, full of caves, masked men, and all consuming darkness. In the dream, we never found the baby, but I searched for him until I awoke to heart palpitations. Then I couldn’t go back to sleep. My mind wandered to the worst, worst case scenarios I could imagine, to the kinds of unfathomable losses that no one ever wants to think about. The kind that I cannot even bring myself to write.

You see, I’m afraid if I write them down, I will make them real.

The thing about surviving an earth shattering loss is that it opens you up to the probability of future earth shattering losses. Nothing is safe. Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. Death traces a shadow across every good thing. Even happiness feels false. You learn to distrust joy. You learn to distrust peace. Life can feel like a never ending production of “Hamlet,” which (big surprise) is the play that formed the basis of my master’s thesis.

Before I did my MFA, I immersed myself in what is arguably the most depressing literary text ever written, a tragedy centering on two children maddened by grief. I was obsessed with Ophelia –– motherless, fatherless, suicidal Ophelia. I, too, was a little mad at this time. I was afraid of everything. Driving at night. Rain. Walking from my car to our house. Most of all, I was afraid of Carl’s death. I thought about it all the time. What would I do if he died? How would I cope?

I needed the answers to these questions because I needed to know I could survive beyond him. I read “Hamlet” and wrote about Ophelia for hours each week. Still, I wasn’t soothed. If Carl was late coming home, I convinced myself he’d been in a car accident. I’d call him repeatedly until he answered the phone –– perplexed, but patient. Sometimes, I’d awaken in the middle of the night just to check that he was still breathing. Sometimes I still do.

But, at a certain point, it’s reckless to allow fear to pollute the present. At a certain point we have to live our lives. At a certain point, “Hamlet” stops being fun and starts being a depressing tragedy that the students I now teach don’t want to read. So I started writing about my own grief, and about my mother.

On the page, I found I could resurrect her. I could bring us both back to life. I found a therapist who taught me how to recognize intrusive thoughts, and how to distinguish catastrophic thinking from reality. I recommitted myself to the meditation practice that has sustained me for the past decade. I found my way into an MFA program and kept writing my way back to my mother, which ultimately saved me.

Yet, death still haunts my dreams.

Last night’s dream was the second baby dream I’ve had in a week. The first dream goes like this: Carl and I awaken to cries coming from a back bedroom of our house. We find a boy –– presumably our son –– standing in a dark room. He’s wailing and holding tiny hooks in his hands, the kinds of hooks that we use to hang our Christmas tree ornaments. Given that we’re currently childless, I’m astounded to see this beautiful, blonde boy in our home. But removing the hooks from the boy’s hands feels like a life-or-death situation. I’m terrified he’ll swallow a hook. I’m only a mother for five seconds, and already I’m afraid of losing our son. Already, I’m thinking of all the seemingly innocuous things that can kill him.

In the dream, panic swept over me. It wasn’t an omygod I’m-not-ready-to-be-a-mother! kind of panic. It was an ohmygod my house is a death trap! kind of panic. And now I’ve had a second child loss dream.

Carl spent years studying Jungian dream work. He’s meditating right now, but If I interrupted him, he’d probably tell me that the lost child –– or the almost dead child –– stand for a hidden aspect of myself. Some buried subconscious fragment is breaking through to the surface. He’d say the panic connects with the difficult emotional work of knowing ourselves, of being truthful about who we are and what we want in life. There are no answers in dream work, only questions. But I think he’d also tell me that darkness cannot be separated from light, that facing the darkness is what makes us truly conscious.

I interpret the dreams from the edge of mother loss. A mother who loses a child never stops being a mother, but that implication is unavoidable, and it complicates the grief that mothers who lose children feel.

My grandmother lost two children. The first loss was her firstborn infant son, who died at four months. The second loss was my mother. She died on April 7. Three years later, my grandmother fell into a coma on that same day. She took her last breath on April 8.

I was with her when she died. I spent the entire day holding her hand, reading Rumi to her because his words felt like the only appropriate response. Watching her die made me less afraid of death, more open to the beauty that can arise from our most feared moments.

I read to her from “Say I Am You”: I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy, / the evolutionary intelligence, the lift, / and the falling away. What is, and what isn’t. The poem’s images focus on interconnection, on how we are all dust and sunlight and stars, on how everything that is alive comes from what is also dead.

One of the greatest gifts of my sister’s children is how they bring the dead back to life. My mother is dead, but she continues to live through this genealogy. My sister and I both resemble her, but I can’t see her features in us the same way I can see them in her grandchildren. My eldest nephew has her smile and sense of humor. My niece has her courage and strength. My dream child had her eyes. Even in the darkness, I could see them clear as day.

Paul Simon & the Mother-Child Reunion

At 12, I listened to The Concert in Central Park with my mother, cassette wheels spinning in rhythm to snow falling outside. We sang all winter: “Mrs. Robinson,” “America,” “Homeward Bound,” and “The Boxer’s” lie-la-lie chorus. She could never carry a tune, but sang because she loved Simon & Garfunkel, and I loved them because she did. I didn’t know The Concert in Central Park happened the year I was born or that Simon & Garfunkel were no longer a duo. I didn’t understand most of the playlist, but I loved the songs’ mama-pajama beat and their mystery.

Years later, before she died, my mother and I fought about music. I was 20 and home for a weekend and listening to a mix CD one of my roommates made. Who Stopped the Rain came on and my mother said, “That’s my music. I can’t believe you’re listening to my music.” She was remarking on how strange and beautiful it can be when children adopt the best interests of their parents, but I didn’t want to be likened to her. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be my own person, not a copy of my mother, not her life repeated, and I didn’t understand how she was really complimenting me.

I was angry in a way I’d never been before or since. I knew she was dying —I’d made her death real by writing it down in my journal. By giving what was happening to us a name, I sanctified her death with power. No one ever needed to say the word death because I already knew she might not see me graduate college. I already knew she would definitely not see me marry. I already knew she would never know a grandchild. She was still alive, wouldn’t be dead for another year, but I was grieving the mother who was going to die. My grief came out in anger. It came out in fights with her about inane things like her music and my music. It came out in me lying: The cigarettes weren’t mine. The beer bottle caps in the back of my car belonged to someone else. It came out in the only socially acceptable culturally conditioned way I knew, as one woman turning against another.

The summer before, we’d had Dylan tickets, but she was too sick to go. So I went without her, already resenting the many more places I’d have to go without her, a life full of her absence and my presence. I was enraged because she was leaving me, and enraged because I wanted her to leave, which was a thousand times worse than her leaving. To this day, I wish I’d just smiled and sung along with her to CCR, the way we used to when I was a tween, the way we sang to Simon & Garfunkel.

Last week, I saw Paul Simon at Wolf Trap. I danced the whole time with my husband, a man my mother never knew, a man who loves Paul Simon and Dylan, and is my husband nonetheless. The concert overflowed with energy and summer abandon. People danced all over the lawn. We danced from the first song, The Boy in the Bubble, to the last one, The Sound of Silence. We danced in the rain, our umbrellas bobbing to the beat. We danced as the sky blazed red and purple and lightning sizzled beyond the trees.

No question, I thought about my mother. How could I not? I love Paul Simon because his songs entwine life with death, joy with loss, and make plain how each amplifies the other. I know I live with more vigor and vivaciousness because my mother died, because I know how starkly short a life can be. The Wolf Trap performance was the last leg of Paul Simon’s 2016 Tour, a tour that could be his last. I think he gave it everything he had. There was a moment when I looked at the stage, directly into his line of vision, and felt as if his exuberance flowed into the crowd and our exuberance flowed back onto the stage, uplifted him, just as he uplifted us.

I knew I’d have seen this concert with my mother, had she lived. I know that last clause holds all my life’s desires in three words. Had she lived. My mother is dead —her ashes, scattered in the Chesapeake Bay, swam away from me long ago. She was not at my wedding. She does not know her grandchildren. But she is also alive in the same way Paul Simon’s music will be alive long after his last concert.

Her exuberance lives in the music I love, the music we sang and fought about. Her love for me lives in the choices I make each day to be honest and to steer clear of destruction. I do not believe in clear categories of afterlife, but I do believe I am the full sum of my mother’s life. I am everything that eclipses her death. My life, the life I live without her, unfolds in rhythm to all she showed me, and her hope runs beside me, as constant as a heartbeat, as steady as breath.

Watching Hillary Without My Mother

My mother introduced me to Hillary Clinton one afternoon as she watched the news and I read The Hobbit and the Clintons flashed onto our television’s small screen.

“She uses her last name,” my mother said, pointing to the new first family. “Rodham.” Each syllable spread out on her tongue for emphasis: Rod-ham

This was a big deal, and I glanced away from my book, to the television screen, to the woman with big eyes and blonde hair and a gigantic grin. My mother’s gaze never moved from Hillary.

My mother used her own name too, LaSov, after her divorce. Until Hillary Rodham Clinton, I knew no other woman who’d made this seemingly bold move. In all honesty, I knew few women like my mother. She worked when my friends’ mothers stayed home. She wore pantsuits. She never owned a single apron. By first grade, I knew the words sexist and feminist. My mother taught them to me. She used the former to describe a male teacher who insisted girls wear skirts to school concerts.

When Hillary talked about having more important work than baking cookies, my mother applauded. (Our cookies came from a bakery or Pillsbury dough roll.) Still, I barely understood the controversies swirling around this new first lady in 1992, as she shirked gendered assumptions without apology, the same way my mother was teaching me to do. To us, Hillary stood for equality and promise, one dream of second wave feminism coming true. She stood for an America where women could be wives and mothers and leaders, the way men had melded career ambition and family for generations. Hillary blew right past the binaries, all the false dichotomies.

To my mother, Hillary also stood for an America where more could be possible for me, her daughter growing up at a time blessedly different from the pre-Civil Rights era when she came of age. Unlike my mother, who believed she had to be married by twenty-two, and choose between two careers –– teaching or nursing –– I could be anything. Do anything. Marry or not marry.  Just look at Hillary Rodham Clinton, my mother said.

She made sure I listened to Hillary’s speeches and read articles about her trips to China and Africa. We discussed them at the dinner table and between school and basketball practice. The year Hillary became first lady was the same year I declared myself a feminist, like my mother, and plastered my bedroom door with National Organization for Women stickers.

I voted for the first time at age 18 in New York State. No question: I voted for Hillary, then called my mother to tell her the news. We were both ecstatic.

Had my mother lived, I’d have driven 50 miles to her house this week to watch Hillary’s victory speech. We would have ordered Chinese takeout and watched Hillary command that Brooklyn stage again and again. We would have laughed together as the glass ceiling shattered into eighteen million pieces, so much light and possibility now dawning on our country.

I know my mother would have paused the speech somewhere around minute fourteen and said, Do you see? She remembers to thank her mother. We would have listened, breathless, to Hillary’s description of her “biggest rock,” her mother, born the same day Congress voted on the nineteenth amendment. Goosebumps would have risen up on both our arms, as Hillary smiled and the crowd cheered.

But my mother is dead. And I’ve had to learn to mark milestones without her. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I’d give anything to have her back, to be able to drive to her house this week and watch Hillary together.

In the end, I watched Hillary’s speech with one of my dogs curled against my lap and a cat perched beside my arm. I fought tears when I heard her call her mother her “greatest influence,” and listened to her tie her vast achievements to her mother’s struggles. My tears let loose when Chelsea took the stage to be the first person to hug her mother.

Rarely do I see mothers or daughters or mothers and daughters front and center in national politics. This moment feels rare and precious, historic and without comparison. Rarely do I hear world leaders applauding their mother’s influences or discussing their mothers at all. But this is a truth I cling to and a truth that saves me, the truth Hillary voiced at the heart of her speech, the truth that a mother’s legacy can survive death to live on in her child, the truth that a mother’s influence changes the world.

 

 

On Dead Mothers & Bathing Suits

For as long as I knew her, my mother had the same black bathing suit, a one piece that covered her cesarean scar. When she changed in front of me, I loved looking at that scar, a train track that ran down her navel. Her scar signaled her ultimate sacrifice, her body broken open in order to give me life. She never hid her body from me, but I inherited her shame, her scorn for her hips and thighs. I don’t know when this started, when I came to understand that mine and my mother’s bodies had failed in some deep and unknowable way, but I remember being nine and not wanting to put on my bathing suit for a swimming lesson. I remember wrapping myself in a towel and walking, head down, to the pool, hating my hips, wishing they’d disappear. I carried that shame into my adolescence and stopped swimming, even though a swimming pool is, to this day, the one place where I feel most boundless, and most like myself.

Years later, before her funeral, I uncovered a mirror and took a good, long look at my reflection. In that exhausting moment, I felt my shame dissolve. My body looked exactly like my mother’s. How could I not be comforted?

A week later, I left the house to swim. It was a big deal, one of the first times I re-entered the world without her, understood my life could continue beyond my most unfathomable loss. I wore a black bathing suit, a two-piece she would never have worn, and lost myself in the water. For that hour, as I kicked and pushed and breathed, I returned to myself, and to my mother. I felt the sharpest glimmer of hope arise within me. In the pool, in the water, I could stop time. I could shed my sadness, even if only briefly. I continued swimming that summer, and a year later I wore that same bathing suit on a beach bordering the African Sea, on the Isle of Crete. A person I’d just met snapped a photo of me standing, waist-high, in the pale, sun-dappled water. In the photo, I am squinting light out of my eyes and smiling. My head falls back in joy. I am thinking about dolphins and hiking and writing in a journal I’d given my mother to record her dreams; she’d never written a single word.

I wish I could say I batted shame away for the rest of my twenties, but that would be a big lie, or maybe a half-truth. I’m 35 now, and my body shows it –– grey hair, spider veins, a stomach that won’t quite ever be what it was nine years ago, when I wore bikinis on my honeymoon to Mexico. I still wince when I see my hips and thighs in a harshly-lit dressing room mirror. I still feel old hatred simmering. This week, as I prepared for a beach vacation, I spent more time worrying about bathing suits and my hips, than appreciating my good fortune, the fact that I’m going to the beach.

I resented my mother’s absence, the fact that this was just one more thing I’ve had to do without her for the past fourteen years. Often women tell me they can’t imagine doing the big things without their mothers: graduations, weddings, mothering their own children. But I think the small, everyday things are more brutal in their relentlessness. I’m incapable of shopping alone. Each time I try, I am reminded of how utterly, miserably bad I am at shopping without my mother. I need her in the mundane spaces of my life. And she’s not there. A particular grief stirs when I shop for bathing suits, a grief for the mother who is no longer with me, and a grief for the body I’m told I should have, but don’t. And then, there is the grief I feel for the body I once had, and is no longer mine.

I think bathing suit shopping is among the most complicated experiences a woman can have. By late May, the only options left seem to be bathing suits for a Kardashian or my Bubbie Fran. There’s rarely a middle ground in department stores, at least in my city. For comfort, I turn to Anne Lamott, whose book Traveling Mercies has sat on my shelf for almost as long as my mother’s been dead. Lamott describes the typically fruitless body-comparisons most women experience in dressing rooms, locker rooms, and on beaches. She details her own misgivings about her “dimply thighs,” but finds consolation in the “grace” of “comfortableness,” and writes: “And of the several things of which I’m most positive, one is that if I live to be an old woman, I won’t be sitting on my porch berating myself for having leapt into a swimsuit to swim in warm ocean water at every opportunity even though my thighs were dimply.”

Truly, I want to  leap out of my chair and shout “Amen” at the end of this sentence, but am afraid I will frighten my Unitarian husband and our skittish cats. So I will quietly whisper namaste, namaste, and start packing, knowing how happy my mother would be with the life I’ve created, and how if I called her right now to tell her I felt badly about my body, she would tell me I take after her. I am beautiful.

Purgatory

(According to random internet googling, I am the exact same height & weight as Beyoncé.)

 

Love & Immortality

My mother dreamed of climbing Mount St. Helens. She’d never been to Washington State, but once glimpsed the Wasatch Range from a Salt Lake City hotel room.

“They’re capped in snow, like in the movies!” She told me on the phone one morning, before leaving to run in the U.S. Transplant Olympics. Breathy and energetic, her voice sounded like that of a teenager.

At 43, my mother was thriving after an experimental kidney and pancreas transplant saved her life two years prior. Once barely able to walk around the block, she participated in two U.S. Transplant Olympics held in Salt Lake City, Utah and Columbus, Ohio. Her transplant freed her to dream of all the possibilities restored health could hold.

She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1966, before the widespread use of insulin pumps and blood-glucose meters. Although she once aspired to be a flight attendant and travel the world, my mother relinquished those ambitions when her insulin reactions became unpredictable. She chose a career in nursing and worked in healthcare until disabling organ failure forced her to leave her job.

After she left the workforce, I came home from school to find my mother watching Days of Our Lives or Another World, a Diet Coke in her hand, and a Dean Koontz novel spread out on our coffee table. At 10, 11, and 12, I didn’t understand my mother’s malaise. I hated her sweat suits and pallor. I longed to see her dust her eyes in coppery powder and sweep pink gloss across her lips.

I could not know then that my mother’s illness forced me to face my own mortality. The failure of her body, by extension, represented the inevitable demise of my own. I couldn’t understand how terrified she must have been to come so close to death in her thirties, not far from the age I am now.

Nor could I know the grief she felt, as she watched friends ascend their own careers and have enough energy to meet the daily demands of mothering. While her peers attended meetings and baked PTA cupcakes, my mother languished in our living room, caught in the snare of daytime TV.

Her organ transplant changed all that by offering an unexpected midlife reprieve. There were no limits to what she could do, and she wanted to do it all: travel, climb mountains, see her daughters graduate college, become a grandmother. Even when her transplanted organs failed midway through my junior year of college, my mother still clung to her dreams. She ordered luggage for far-off future trips and bought Harry Potter books for a hypothetical grandchild. Done with soap operas, she watched outdoor adventure television.

Maybe her behaviors represented denial, rather than hope. As my mother progressed on dialysis, death began to look like the most merciful path. But she had the imagination to dream of better days in the midst of her worst ones, and she taught me to do the same.

Six weeks after her death, I found myself on a plane to Glasgow, Scotland, traveling to work at a newspaper I’d never visited and live with a person I’d never met, in a city I’d never set foot in. I should have felt terrified, but I’d already experienced the worst thing that had ever happened to me. What could be worse than losing my mother? I embarked on the kind of adventures she’d always dreamed of having.

For a long time, I followed this path of living a mix of her dreams and mine, of doing what my mother could not do because she died, and I lived. I fantasized about climbing mountains that once beckoned her –– Mt. St. Helens and Everest. I even took her last name. I told myself I was honoring her legacy, and that is true. But I was also bargaining, offering up my life for hers, as if such a trade could resurrect her.

I don’t know when I accepted my mother’s death as final. I know acceptance came quietly, after years of reckoning.

People like to tell me my mother is proud of me, or that she’s watching over me. I do not accept these sentiments, but I also do not begrudge them. It is true that my mother is dead. It is also true that the best parts of her live on through me.

This time of year, when spring changes to summer, I remember how I found her sunbathing in our backyard one morning. She wore her black bathing suit. Her skin smelled of baby oil and coconut. A book rested against her chest.

What are you doing? I wanted to know. At six, I was full of questions. Why is the sky blue? Where does God live? Does death hurt? My mother pulled me to her chest, let me burrow into her shoulder, and began to read a story about a girl who rescued a pig.

I took the book inside our house and read the whole thing without stopping. I didn’t cry when Charlotte died after spinning the sack that held her eggs, or after her babies crawled out of the sack and into a world without their mother.

I understood Charlotte had died, but she wasn’t gone. She was the oldest story her children remembered, their first experience of sacrifice and kindness, a foundational current moving through their lives.

I no longer believe in sky gods or resurrection or clear categories of afterlife. I do believe in the force that was my mother, the power of her kindness and her dreams, her immortal love.