Category Archives: legacy

How Well Do You Know Your Mother!

Mother’s full name? Judy LaSov

You’re in jail & you call her, what does she say? Do not know phone number. Do not know how to reach dead mother. Perhaps, a Ouija Board or psychic medium?  If I do reach her, jail will not be an essential element of our conversation. In fact, jail will not come up at all.

What is she doing right now? Good question. Some people say she’s watching me “from above.” But I have a different story of afterlife. It goes like this:

On the day a stranger cremated my mother, the molecules of her body ascended air. Flowers and trees inhaled her, absorbed her. She became sky, cloud, rain, earth.

Now my mother is busy being the atmosphere of everything. Like all mothers everywhere.

What kind of dressing does she eat on her salad? Has not eaten salad in 17 years. Dialysis diet restricted. Salad is a touchy subject, by the way. Because she was a Type-1 diabetic and anorexic & bulimic, which means food = super complicated. Avoided salad dressing in favor of sour but almost calorie-free balsamic vinegar.

 Name something she hates: Life with a chronic illness. Being dead. Sexism. Seersucker suits. Lace curtains.

 What does she like to drink? Coca-Cola. During an insulin reaction only. However, be forewarned: She might scream like the cup crawls with insects or poison.

 Favorite music to listen to? The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Wham!, Karen Carpenter, and especially “Close to You,” which she sang off key to her daughters  until they knew every word of that song.

 What is her nickname for you? May. For the first syllable of my name, for the month she was born, the month when roses and azaleas bloom, when flowers paint the land in Technicolor and we forget how hard winter was.

What is something she collects? Teapots, which her young daughters did not have the foresight to save when she died. So now their mother’s beloved collection sits in the homes of strangers or at the grimy bottom of a landfill. She would have wanted it this way. She would have wanted to free her daughters from the weight of a mother’s unfulfilled aspirations.

What would she eat every day if she could? Here’s the shitty thing about getting diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes in 1966: People made fun of her. Her family teased her. People said, “Mmmm. I’m eating this ice cream cone, and you can’t have any –– hahaha!” As if that were funny. As if, as a teenager, she wouldn’t learn how to binge and purge, wouldn’t learn the satisfying urgency and release of an addiction that trailed her though the rest of her life.

So, dear silly meme, the answer to this question is simple: She’d eat everything if she could.

What is her favorite color? Ripe cherry red, a color that makes her grown daughter shudder.

 What would she never wear? White shorts. They are an abomination unto the Lord.

What is her favorite sports team? Hmmm. She tried going to a baseball game once. Her daughters openly mocked the son of her boss, then disappeared for hours to do secret twin things. This was the end of attempting any family interest in sports.

What could she spend all day doing? Talking on the phone to all her cousins and friends while her introvert daughter hid in a bedroom and wondered how anyone could laugh so loud all the time.

What’s her favorite candy? Sometimes seen sneaking a box of Good & Plenty in bed while watching “The Golden Girls” and smiling like she believed she might live to be that old.

How many brothers & sisters does she have/had? Eldest brother, Bernard, died at four-and-a-half months, and proceeded her in death. Eldest sister died last September. Another brother still living.

 Favorite alcoholic drink? Admitted to getting drunk only once when she was “getting up the nerve” to have sex with a boyfriend who turned out to be the father of her children. This story, told as a cautionary tale to adolescent daughters, had zero cautionary effect.
Repost as How Well Do You Know Your Mother!

Sixty Five

Two weeks before you died, we curled up in your bed and watched “The Golden Girls.” On the TV across from us, four women huddled around a kitchen table, nibbled cheesecake and laughed fake theatrical laughs. I was too young to lose you, and old enough to sense your going. We never said death, dying, dead. If we spoke them, we’d make them true. Denial can be a life preserver. We preserved hope.

The summer before you died, we walked BWI together, and you whispered something shocking in my ear. At first, I didn’t understand. Travelers crushed around us. And I’ve never been good at walking and talking. You stopped moving. You put your arm around me. You said, “My pancreas rejected. It’s okay. I can live without a pancreas.”

I nodded, like I believed you. We walked toward baggage claim. My vision blurred. The airport looked like something under water.

I’d come home to visit the deathbed of your stepfather, the man I knew as a grandfather. I came home to play Sinatra while he took his last breaths. I came home to whisper it was okay to let go. I came home to bury him in Newark beside his first wife.

You couldn’t get out of bed the day of the funeral. We pretended you were just tired.

A month after cremating you, I marked his first yartzheit.

____

Your ashes. My God. Do you know what it is to be 21 and hear a package thump on the front stoop, make the sound of a body hitting cement? Do you know what it is to see the address stamped on the box and know your mother is inside that box?

Only, your mother is not merely your mother. She is your first god, first home, your mirror, your map, the blueprint of everything.

And then, one day, your mother is in a black box inside a cardboard box with a crematorium address stamped on the lid. Your mother is dust and splintered bones and sooty grit, a shadow you can never touch.

You remember denial is a life preserver.

Then you carry the box to a bedroom that still smells like your mother. You ignore a hairbrush holding remnants of hair that never went grey. You open a dresser drawer and tuck the box beneath a stack of sweaters. There, a burial.

____

Seventeen years later, you write before work, at night. Pronouns get confused. You are you. She is you. We are she, her, and me. You do all the mixed-up pronoun things you tell your students not to do. You tangle, untangle, tangle again. You make up for lost time. Grief makes a stern knot you don’t want to untie.

____

You read shitty self help books that say there’s a finish line for grief, say grieving too long is pathological, say sorrow and love are not proportional. You stop reading these books because they make you suspicious. You are not a pathology. You are devoted.

At a lecture, a famous writer talks about desire. Desire is the engine of literature, he says. What we want never adds up to what we have. All books, he says, are actually about crushes.

Okay.

So you have a crush on your dead mother. There are worse things. But what would it mean to stop desiring her? Would that make it okay that she is dead?

Who would you be if you didn’t want her alive?

____

You move through your twenties and thirties without her. You are effective, efficient at steering through life without a mother. You have a solid husband, a good mother-in-law, Google. You can find an answer to any question.

And yet, you delay childbearing because you are afraid to mother without her. Your friends have mothers who watch their grandchildren a few times a week. Still, your friends complain about their mothers to you, and you nod. Because what can you say?

You wonder who you will call in a childcare pinch.

Your sister hires a full-time nanny, manages to juggle a high demand job with graduate school, with two children under the age of five and one on the way.

A nephew has your mother’s eyes and all her facial expressions. A niece has her “whatever” attitude.

One day, your nephew asks to see pictures of your mother. He asks for these photos the same way he asks for Harry Potter Legos — he must have them. But there’s not enough time to show him everything, and you pull out a few photos you know he’s already seen.

You recognize the hunger in his eyes, the downturn of his shoulders when you cannot fulfill his desire to know her.

Still, a ghost grandmother is better than no grandmother at all.

____

You wish you had something wise or prophetic to say on the second week of May when her birthday and Mother’s Day intersect. For so many years, you say nothing, as if silence can erase her absence.

You graduate college on your second Mother’s Day without her.

You mark major milestones on her birthday, May 10: first day of your first job after college, the day you meet your husband, the day you decide to date him, the day he and you buy your first house together.

You mark all the birthdays she didn’t get: 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65.

And all the birthdays she didn’t see you mark: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37.

And all the events in her grandchildren’s lives that she didn’t see: brit milah, Hebrew namings, Kindergarten graduation, first steps, first words, first Siddur.

As if by marking, you can somehow take something back. Not her life. But the right to tell the story of your desire. Her desire.

Desire, from the Latin, desiderare, means “long for” and “wish for” and derives from the sadly out of vogue expression “await what the stars will bring.”

She used to sing a song of desire to you, a Karen Carpenter song about dreams coming true, stardust, angels.

When you mark her birthday, you remember this song. You remember the gift each line intones, the burden.

She no longer trails your dreams. But nothing stays gone forever.

She finds her way back to you again and again, always in a different form than what you expected.

You watch, wait, listen.

On her birthday, she used to blow out candles, then tell you to make a silent wish.

You can’t say your wish out loud, she said, because then it won’t come true.

Once you gave her a journal and asked her to write down all her desires. She left every page blank.

You fill in the pages for her. You become every wish ever wanted, every wish she never saw come true.

A Gift, a Burden

I bought my mother a journal with a bird on the cover. We were in an Urban Outfitters near The Ohio State University, and my mother was threatening to buy penis-shaped pasta to serve the next time I or my sister had a male friend over for dinner. And I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Inside, I left an inscription. I encouraged her to write down all her dreams, her hopes. When she died four years later, I found the journal under a pile of sweaters. She’d never written a single word.

_____________

The morning my mother died, I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream. No sound came out. I reached up and pulled my journal off the coffee table. I opened up to a blank page, wrote the date in a top corner, then scrawled one giant word on the page. WHY?

I’m embarrassed that my first response to my mother’s death was this question, a half formed “Why me?” At the moment I lost her, my head spun with a thousand questions, and the most persistent one rose to the top.

 Why? I asked as if I could find an answer.

Why? I asked and knew I’d never find an answer.

_____________

I have lived for nearly seventeen years without a mother. I was 17 when I bought her the journal with a bird on the cover. Every year, my relationship to her life changes. My relationship to her death changes. Grief changes. Sometimes grief is a bundle that weighs me down so hard I can barely walk. Other times it’s smaller than a speck of dust, something I can almost brush aside, let drift away. I close my eyes and remember what it was like to have a mother. This memory is a dream that escapes me. If I graze the surface of this dream, it shatters.

_____________

 

Grief, from the Old French grever means “burden.” The word grever derives from the Latin gravar, “to make heavy,” a root of the word gravity.

_____________

My mother was my gravity, my ground, my root. Without her, I am rootless.

_____________

 Grief can be an experience of rootlessness, just as grief can be an experience of being weighed down.

_____________

Two contradictory things are true at the same time. That is grief.

_____________

Why didn’t my mother write in the journal with a bird on the cover? What was she afraid of? Or did she not care? Or was she saving the journal for me, because she saw me as the writer?

_____________

 A year after she died, I went to Greek island of Crete. I took her journal. I slept in a room that looked out on the sea. I filled the pages she left blank. I am still filling those pages. I will fill the pages for as long as I am able, which is to say until I die.

_____________

Carl Jung wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” There it is again. That word. Burden.

_____________

 My mother’s legacy is a burden, and it also a gift. Neither of these ideas – burden, gift –erase the other. They exist side-by-side, like twins, like my sister and me.

_____________

 My mother’s death did not make me a writer, and I could not make her a writer. I responded to her death with a question because death is a question. I can never know why she refused to write in the pale blue journal with a blue bird on the cover, or why I even bought her the journal in the first place.  Now the pale blue cover strikes me as an important detail. Blue. The color of sky and water. The color of expansion. The color of dreams I cannot touch.

_____________

Birds mediate heaven and earth. I love that word. Between. My mother lives in my memories, my dreams. She inhabits the in-between of her life and her death. She lives in that sentence, in the conjunction and, a bridge between two words, two worlds. Once I had a mother. Once I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Once I wanted to capture her hope in a book emblazoned with a quintessential image of hope.

But she left all her pages blank. She left all her pages for me to fill.

_____________

Do you hear the suggestion of the word “grave” in that sentence, an echo of gravar? I do. I can’t stop myself. Her burial, her resurrection live together on the page, where I recreate her and say goodbye, make her into a memory, a ghost.

I can see her now, standing in the Urban Outfitters aisle, sunlight glittering on the edge of her chin. She holds up the pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. She smiles, as if she knows something I do not yet know.

 

A Genealogy of Loss

1. My grandmother’s first child was born in August 1942. He died in January 1943. The word baby appears at the top his tombstone. The age 4 ½ months appears on the bottom.

2. He died in the same hospital where he was born. He died in the hospital where my mother was born eleven years later.

3. He died in the hospital where my sister gave birth to her first child. A boy, born in August.

4. All of my grandmother’s granddaughters have given birth except for me. Their first children have been boys.

5. Eleven months after she lost her son, my grandmother gave birth to a girl. She named her daughter for her lost son. Beverly. Bernard.

6. Beverly and Bernard had blonde hair, blue-green eyes. Seven letters in each of their names.

7. Family systems psychologists believe patterns repeat in families. Behaviors duplicate. Addictions multiply. We choose our partners based on our parents, our siblings, our grandparents. We echo their patterns, or repeat them, or break them. Lately, I have been wondering about those patterns. I have been wondering if we inherit misfortune, the way we inherit eye color, hair color, left handedness.

8. How else to explain the patterns of misfortune that cycle through families, a genealogy of loss? Or specifically, how else to explain the patterns of misfortune that cycle through my family, all the sad coincidences?

9. Some researchers believe anxiety travels in our genes. Others says it doesn’t. Who can really know?

10. In college, when I was overwhelmed, my mother told me to make lists.

11. She said, “Once it’s down on paper, you can make sense of anything.”

12. So here’s what I know:

13. When Bernard started to cry, my grandmother called the doctor. She told him her son kept pulling on his ear. She did not believe the doctor’s over-the-phone diagnosis of an ear infection. The doctor did not listen to her persistent pleas. I am afraid the doctor perceived her as a complainer. I am afraid he was a man who did not perceive a woman as credible.

14. When I was pregnant, I started writing about Bernard.

15. I do not know why. Maybe I was afraid I was going to miscarry. Maybe I already knew I would. (Intuition runs in the family.) Maybe I wanted to understand my grandmother in a new way –– mother-to-mother.

16. When I was pregnant, I requested Bernard’s death certificate.

17. A few days later, I started to bleed.

18. My husband tells me correlation does not necessitate causation. He is an ENTJ on the Myers Briggs. I am an INFJ, the most intuitive personality type.

19. A midwife examined me on a Friday afternoon. She told me I’d have to wait until Monday to receive my lab test results. She would not tell me I was having a miscarriage because she did not want to “be wrong and look stupid.”

20. Her doubt fed mine.

21. Even after I peed on a pregnancy test stick and received a negative result, I doubted the intuition that ripped through me.

22. When Monday came, I called to complain about the midwife. I asked for a written apology. My family tragedy was not about her self-perception or lack of confidence or whatever she had going on in her head that day.

23. I am still waiting. I have, however, received a bill for the trans vaginal ultrasound she performed, a procedure that women identify as traumatic. I had two trans vaginal ultrasounds in one week.

24. Bernard died on January 4, 1943. A Monday.

25. Beverly’s first and only son was born in January 1966. He was 46 when he died. His mother was 69.

26. I was out of town when Bernard’s death certificate arrived, but my husband e-mailed me a photo.

27. The cause of death is adrenal hemorrhage caused by bacterial meningitis. No ear infection recorded.

28. The family buried Bernard on June 5, 1943. They had to wait because the ground was frozen solid that winter. Jewish custom is to bury the dead within 24 to 48 hours.

29. All winter and spring, Bernard’s body lay in a freezer, in a morgue.

30. By his funeral, my grandmother was already pregnant with Beverly. I imagine her standing at the grave, full-bellied and overfull of grief. How did she stand there? How did she not slide into the same darkness that held her son?

31. Five years later, she delivered a second son on June 6. Her son lived past infancy. He has survived two sisters and one brother, a mother, a father, a nephew.

32. In Hebrew School, our teachers said ancient rabbis did not consider a child to be a child until it cried. They said a child was not a child until the eighth day, when circumcision was performed, or a name was given. At 13, I thought this sounded like a clever rule. Now, not so much.

33. Jewish mystics believe the number 36 is a symbol for life multiplied. Double chai, it’s called. I conceived at 36. I miscarried at 36.

34. My grandmother lost a child in 1943.

35. I lost someone who has no name in 2017. I lost hope, possibility, my last shreds of faith.

36. But I am making a list. I am trying to make sense of it all.

Bubbie with Bernard

 

 

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.

––––––––

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.

––––––––

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.

––––––––

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.

______ 

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

Mom.jpg

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.

______

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.

______

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.

______

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.