Author’s note: This column is written following an unusual wave of life-endings, many between mothers and daughters, but notably others, too – men and women adored by our community who died of cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other despicable illnesses).
When I retired my Sunday Bee column late last summer, I had an inkling the universe was calling me to do other work. I knew I wanted more time with family. A less-hurried lifestyle. There was a new book in progress.
In the months leading up to my decision, there had been an unusually lengthy list of crises surrounding my circle of family, friends, church and community – some resulting in happy endings and others not so much so. Each served as a wake-up call and reminder of our collective mortality.
I woke up one morning yearning for the luxury of “dropping everything” at a moment’s notice, running to someone’s bedside, delivering chicken soup, moral support, and simply being a better friend.
I wrote a final column, said my goodbyes, and temporarily wiped the slate clean, never imagining the colossal-sized farewell awaiting me around the family bend.
And then the unthinkable happened.
My mother fell in early November, broke her femur, and began disappearing right before my eyes. She died Dec. 15, 2017.
This was never supposed to happen. We had practiced balancing; walking slow and steady, found shoes with just the right grip to secure her steps on carpet and concrete. Sales clerks at Macy’s knew us by name. Even in her darkest hours we both thought she’d live forever, at least till 100, as she had promised on numerous occasions.
A lingering sense of betrayal haunts me this morning as I rummage through drawers and shelves, closets and cupboards – a lame effort to reconstruct her life, instant replay each nuance, and keep her in the present tense.
Her home, the space still carrying her scent and possessions but mostly her life story, remains sacred. Touching, even daring to move treasured photographs and keepsakes, especially her handmade collection of quilts, feels awkward, disrespectful – an invasion of privacy.
Gravitating to her kitchen table, the place we often sat analyzing the world, airing a few confessions, eating Chinese take-out, negotiating weekend outings, my eyes fixate on a collection of roosters. A few inches away is her ceramic cat filled with paper clips, pens, variegated sticky notes filled with to do’s. The sight of her handwriting brings a smile while leaving me breathless.
Catching a glimpse of the counter carrying her medications, my mind drifts to our endless treks to Walgreens, her impatience standing in line, cured only by a frozen yogurt stop on the way home. It’s funny what you miss. Her cat, Candy, meows from underneath her rocker – a feline’s sixth sense that someone important is missing.
Earlier this year while teaching a memoir class at Fresno State (part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), I stumbled across a quote by Kurt Cobain: “Don’t read my diary when I die. Look through my things and figure me out.”
Borrowing his words as a writing prompt, I had enjoyed guiding students through a journey to rediscover hidden treasures from their past, helping them chronicle defining moments that unknowingly had shaped and sculpted their lives, unlocking precious and fragile moments, the kind often tucked away, lost or forgotten.
Now, here I am, acting out Cobain’s prophetic words, navigating each familiar room, excavating memories all the while realizing my role as daughter, caregiver and confidante has expired.
Friends remind me that 91 years represents a long, rich life, “a good run” as they say. But still, not long enough, I whisper to myself. There are clean dishes in her dishwasher, bolts of fabric awaiting creative attention, holiday cards yet to be addressed.
Talking to her daily, I vow to find a good home for the cat, her prized Honda, and assure her that clothing will be sent to Armenia. She left handwritten instructions for almost everything.
What I miss most, I often dreaded while she was alive:
Her insatiable appetite for fast foods, our drive-through rituals at Boston Market, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and of course, In-N- Out Burger. Her late-night stall tactics insisting I walk into her sewing room for the unveiling of a new masterpiece.
Only weeks before her passing, she finished quilts for all the great-grands, patriotic table runners for local veterans, children’s aprons and book bags for friends and patrons at Petunia’s Place.
And finally, the signature early morning calls – her voice often anxious, impatient, irritable, especially if I was showering or gone forcing her to leave a voice message.
“It’s only your mother,” she would say, always underestimating her place in my heart.
For many months, my mother and I shared an existential crisis, both of us refusing to admit the end was nearing. I continued buying her red Estée Lauder lipstick, she purchased new clothes, changed her hairdo, and told the world she planned on someday dancing at her great-grandchildren’s weddings.
Although she could be bossy, outspoken, feisty and demanding, this morning my pen finds only one word to describe her.
Armen D. Bacon of Fresno is a freelance writer. She is co-author of “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship.” Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @ArmenBacon.