1095 Days Later: ‘I’m Here, No Big Whoop’

“What is so significant about today?” my husband and I wonder.

Today is the day my mom’s spirit was released from her suffering body. Three years ago today, she died.

“Is this a day we want to mark?” we both wonder. And in the parlance of exam essay

It's 3 a.m. and I'm wide awake.

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m wide awake.

questions, “Why, or why not?”

For the last three years, in the wee morning hours of May 7 I have awoken. I rarely awake during the night. If I do, it is usually to roll over and resume sleep. The last three years though, near 3 a.m., I awaken. Fully.

It does not escape me that in these same wee hours, my mother’s spirit made her escape.

Is it a shift in the energy of the universe, revisited at this time, that wakes me up? The extraction of her physical presence and the vacuum that created in my life and the lives of so many others that rouses me from slumber? Is it some spiritual clock my soul has set within me, to go off once a year, a recollection, an alarm.

Is it her thumbprint on my soul, the smooth river stone she placed in my heart, which anchors my soul, full of all her teachings, her love, her goodness and complexities, pressing ever deeper into my memory, my being? Is her spirit nudging it deeper, each year?

I get up hours later and rush to Mass to meet my father and honor her. I’m doing OK until the priest mentions her name, her full name, during the intentions. “Shut up!” I want to yell at him and cover my ears. “Don’t you dare say her name as being gone, departed, dead. Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

Instead I sob and think, “My mom is dead. My mom is dead.” 1,095 days later this still seems unreal — and unreasonable.

The priest talks about the dispersal of the apostles after Jesus’ death.

Painting titled 'The ballerina' by Iraqi artist Afeefa al-Aiby from the exposition Arab Culture in the Diaspora.

Painting titled ‘The ballerina’ by Iraqi artist Afeefa al-Aiby from the exposition Arab Culture in the Diaspora.

I think about the many people who loved my mom, who were deeply touched by her love, who treasured her friendship, companionship, her loving heart. Siblings, cousins, her husband, her children and children’s spouses, grandchildren, other family, the families of her children’s spouses, her dear and loyal friends, distant relatives, childhood friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, children of friends, friends of her children, priests, nuns, volunteers, caregivers, doctors, nurses who cared for her, fellow patients, fellow church members, people who have read about her in my writing, before her death and after, the friends who I made simply because we both had dead mothers — all of these part of the diaspora of Judy’s love.

All of these people (and more) came together when she died three years ago, pulled inward by the transition of her spirit. Brought together to commune because of the magnetic energy and power of her love and how she made people feel. And then, they dispersed to all their different nooks, carrying with them that piece of Judy’s love and spirit.

Sometimes I feel sad about the dispersion. But more often I feel impressed.
I feel as if that’s the way it is supposed to be — and maybe the way my mom’s love was always destined to travel.

I am beginning to think that we only fully share what we receive from others, the gifts loved ones instill in us, after they are gone.

When they are living, we can imitate and approximate, but when they are gone, their intention of love becomes part of us, we own it. It activates and becomes a part of who we are and what we are now empowered to bestow on others.

A week ago, I had a dream my mom came walking back into the kitchen of our childhood home, after having been dead for three years. In the dream, I knew she was coming back to life!

She looked great, young and fresh and very calm. I stroked her cheek and marveled that she was whole again, all put back together, in health and beauty and peace.

While I felt shocked and awed in the dream, she was matter-of-fact and serene. Like, “hey, honey girl, I’m here, no big whoop.”

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The Nomination

Prima came home from school the other day looking tentative, bewildered and slightly pleased.

She sat quietly as Secondo chirped about her first-grade day all the way home.Pulling for victory

As they hung their backpacks and ate a snack, Prima told me at school they had done nominations for a class representative for student council.

“Oh?” I said, the distracted mom showing appropriate interest. “Did people vote? Or were they nominated?”

“Nominated,” she replied, pausing awhile. “I was nominated.”

“Really!?” I might have said too brightly.

“Yes, Mom,” she said, telling me who had done so. Per my typical MO, I extolled the virtues of the person who nominated her, emphasizing this small and significant act of kindness in what might turn out to be a disappointing childhood experience.

She agreed it was very nice.

“But, Mom.” Refocusing me, now. “I have to write and give a speech and then everyone votes on one boy and one girl to be on the student council,” her voice quivering ever so slightly when the words “write” and “speech” passed her lips.

These are difficult things for Prima.

“That’s OK!” I cheer-led. “I will help you. You talk and I’ll type it for you.”

But when we sat down at our desk, she locked down, tension bringing her full pink lips into a mash, her smooth brow furrowing. She was on the verge of tears as I suggested ways she might begin. “What about this…” I offered, suggesting some boring version of what I thought she might say.

“No.”

“Well, how about…” I volleyed again.

“Moooommmm! NO.” Yowza. I took a deep breath and waited, brushing away my own irritation.

And she put together the single best campaign speech ever dictated. Like, for reals.

I’ll prove it.

It began with “I can use my ability to talk to the student council members about what fifth grade has to say and what they like. I think that everybody matters in this, not just one fifth-grader.”

It continued with, “If I become the representative, I will respect your ideas and tell them to the student council.”

Good, right?

And in the face of my repressed mamaworry, she gave me the clincher, “And I will always be myself.”

My heart stopped.

“That’s it,” she said, confident that she had expressed herself, the tension gone.

When I could talk without giving away that inside I was melting with pride and gushing with sappy and devoted love and appreciation for her indomitable spirit, I said, “Prima, that’s true. And it’s perfect.”

We practiced and practiced and when she headed out of my circle of love the next morning, she was a bit nervous, but ready.

I could not have been more proud of her than I was in the moment when she dictated the last line. Not even if she had won. Of course, I wanted that for her. Not just because she’s my kid, my piece of heart out roaming the world, my 6-pound 8-ounce baby girl, but mostly because there’s a lot this child struggles to achieve. But struggle she does. She fights. She perseveres. Without fail.

Here’s the thing: when she got in the car after school, she told me she hadn’t won.

I was still proud, and ready to point out all the good that came out of it.

And then she broke out into a huge smile, all pink cheeks and dancing almond eyes and shouted, “Just kidding! I GOT IT!”

And my heart started again.

Harvest

I received an email from my father today. It read, “My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

Attached was a photo of several smallish reddish tomatoes, with only a few scars from growth, photographed in a tangle of thick, sweet tomato leaves and vines.photo

It’s not necessary to write he is very proud of these tomatoes.

Eight months ago, I heard him make rumblings about buying some tomato plants. He mused about it for a while, thinking aloud. Then one day I came to the house and found two large decorative terra cotta pots, once neglected and cracking with hard cores of gray dirt cast inside, filled with fragrant, moist ebony soil and two optimistically leafy plants tucked inside – a tomato and a pepper.

The pots were equally spaced and set on tiles, for proper drainage, on the front patio my parents never, ever used during the 30 years they lived there together – and in the two and a half years since cancer took my mom. I was quizzical.

Soon after, he left town on another of his “if-I-am-moving-my-grief-is-more-bearable” trips and asked me if I came to the house to be sure to water his plants. I came by only once or twice and dutifully and skeptically gave them drinks. I figured the plants would be dead in a month or so, composting victims of his scattered focus, collateral damage of the other distractions of the new life he was jamming awkwardly together.

But they didn’t die.

When he came back from the trip, I mentioned to him he ought to move the pots into the sun.

I figured he would forget.

But the next time I came to the house, they were in the sunshine and had small, white blooms. He was nearly ecstatic with these latest gifts of nature — blooms on the vines!

“Do you think I’ll get tomatoes?” he asked, a kid, asking me to predict the Christmas morning take.

“Well, if you’ve got flowers you’ll probably get tomatoes. That’s what that means,” was my snap-ish, erudite response.

Then he left again, this time recruiting a neighbor to support his campaign.

When he was gone too long and the weather was too hot, she fed them and cooled them and reported back. The tomato and pepper plants hadn’t expired of heat exhaustion. They were thriving.

He asked me about them all the time. Had I been by? How had the tomato plant seemed? Was the soil wet? Were they wilting?

I. Didn’t. Get. It.

Finally, the neighbor sent my dad a text. “We have a tomato.”

The night before a Transatlantic journey home, he wrote to me excitedly, “I can’t wait to see my tomato !!!”

I was miffed. He might also mention his daughter and her family. Enough about the tomatoes!

Maybe it was another goofy stage of his grief process, which is a maze for us all, and presents particular challenges for a child who must observe a beloved parent suddenly and tragically forget themselves, go astray, come back, follow rocky paths, want to die, want to hide, want to go back, pine for happiness, try to disappear, then reappear and need you (only you) and not need anyone at all ever again and need someone who is never, ever coming back again. These are agonizing circular challenges of your loss and their loss and your loss and their loss. Ad infinitum.

But still I puzzled, not seeing anything other than tomatoes. Fruits masquerading as vegetables.

When I got the email today, I glanced at it on my phone without really reading it. I asked him about it. He serenely told me he had invited his neighbor over so they could both be there when they picked the tomatoes. “I was afraid a critter might get them,” he said, his voice bearing all the protectiveness and vulnerability of a new mother.

And something in my heart changed. Dissolved. Clarified.

My father had planted, nurtured, worried over, babied, cooed at, cajoled, fed, and then, finally, brought to life something way more significant than fruits or vegetables.

He had harvested hope. For the first time in three decades, he wrote. (But I think he meant four because my oldest brother is 40.)

After Prima and Secondo were tucked into bed, I crept to my computer and looked again.

“My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

I love you, Dad.

There’s no (imperfect) place like home

As parents, we become poignantly aware of the briefness of childhood. Childhood is fleeting, ephemeral and its residue is comprised of the sweet sunbathed memories of swimming summer days away or bitter, gasp-ridden recollections of teasing, loss, maybe a first foray with death.20130620-120633.jpg

I know much of my role as a parent is to recognize the hyper-speed pace of childhood and do what I can to protect it, envelope it and, personally, to savor it. I work hard to make our home peaceful, loving, fun, as I view this as the hub of childhood experience. Even as I pursue this type of environment, sometimes all I can see are its shortcomings. The wall that needs repainting, the tile that we’ve been pining for the last nine years to replace, the original window in the kitchen that looks out, into the playroom. The lack of polish in the dining room: the weneeds of the place — “Weneed new furniture!” “Weneed new windows!” “Weneed a skylight here!”

Once in awhile my mother-bear-protection mode can make me blind to the sight childhood emotion provides my children.

A couple of months ago, Secondo and I are driving to pick up Prima from soccer practice. It’s nearing twilight of a spring day, the windows are open, the sun is slating at a forgive angle, dousing our town in soft light. Delighting music is playing our car, the breeze through the windows is perfectly warm. And I’m making a mental list of all the latest, most pressing weneeds — comparing our humble abode to the attractive, well-manicured homes I pass.

“Mommy!” Secondo calls, breaking my list-making. “What is the most beautiful house you have ever seen?”

I struggle to grasp my thinking and pull it into the moment. I create a quick catalog of all the places I have lived, all the countries and continents I’ve visited. Family homes, friend’s homes, homes we attended for a party, for a graduation, for a Cinco de Mayo fiesta.

“I don’t know, Secondo, I don’t know if I can think of just one. Homes are so different in different places and different styles. I guess it depends on what style, the place, things like that.”

She smiles, shakes her 5-year-old head of wavy honey-colored tresses. She gazes out the window, unconcerned with my qualified, complicated answer.

“I know mine,” she says. “It’s ours.”

Blammo.

As the ice-pick pierce of her childhood adoration of our imperfect home penetrates my heart and saltwater leaps to my eyes, I smile in spite of myself.
Sometimes, as adults, we see so many scenarios, so many possibilities and potentials, we miss what is, what abides, and what loves and loves and loves simply because it exists, as we made it, in the moment.