Thursday, November 5, 2015

Reflecting on losing my mother one year later

Mom and Dad
Deviating from the usual WBB just for today.

We played music on a boom box the day we buried my mother, who died one year ago today. The first song was her favorite, "How Deep is the Ocean." When Frank Sinatra uttered the lyric, "And if you should ever leave me, how much will I cry? How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky," I felt as if those words were freshly written for me standing alongside my sister in that chilly cemetery overlooking a busy street in Altoona, Pa.

I miss my mother. I miss her, quite honestly, more than I felt it was possible to miss another. I confess I didn't see the hole she left coming. My dad has been gone 18-plus years, and he was easier for me to connect with for much of my life. A simple man who wanted hot dogs every night for dinner, my pinochle partner who never had meld, a guy who left Tastykakes on my dresser was so easy to love.

A therapist once asked me to describe my mother, and I said she was hard. The therapist said she had never heard that word used that way before, but it fits. When I was a kid, I could never seem to please my mother, who had an opinion on everything and was never shy about voicing it. When I became an adult, she could drive me crazy in a heartbeat. If she hated a certain piece of furniture you had, she mentioned it every time she saw it. If the sweater you were wearing made you look fat, she told you. I remember picking her up from the train station nearly two decades ago, asking my husband his prediction on how long it might be before I got perturbed by something she said. He said, "I think you'll make it back from the train station."

I didn't.

But what I slowly began to understand as I watched her fade in a hospital bed last October was how rooted she was in every aspect of me. Nobody asks about my dentist appointment anymore. Nobody knows if I don't go to the dentist. "What are you having for dinner?" My mother wanted to know. She asked questions, fittingly the kinds of questions I often ask my kids who shrug them off. She reminded me of the obvious, and yet, I still asked. I have a master's degree; she barely finished high school, yet she was the one I would turn to for seemingly things I should know for myself. Harry has mono, I told her, about 2 1/2 weeks before she died. His throat is raw. She told me what kind of throat lozenges to buy. I've bought throat lozenges all my life, but I asked her what she would do.

You see my mother always knew what to do.

I drive a lot, and she used to talk me home. There were times I'd think she didn't really know much about me anymore; after all, we rarely chatted about women's basketball or the class I teach or the college where I work. But she knew me from the inside out; just about everybody else knows me from the outside in. We could get off the phone after two hours having talked about nothing beyond the ordinary and yet add all those conversations up and they turned into something extraordinary.

She made me laugh. My sister always said that for some reason, no matter how old we got, we cared what Mom thought. Even in my 40s, I'd swallow hard before telling her something I thought she might not agree with.

"Mom, I don't care what you say, I've done something and I know it's the right thing to do," I said into the phone.

"You're getting divorced."

"No, Mom. We got two puppies."

Life in the last year has been profoundly different in ways that I don't wear on my sleeve. For one, it is so ridiculously quiet. The silence without her is deafening. Quite literally, my mother was a loud person. Her voice was loud as was her personality. When my sister and I cleaned out her apartment sorting through a range of stuff that ranged from the Cosmopolitan with the Burt Reynolds centerfold to the massive painting of the horse galloping in the ocean that had hung on the wall for decades to the railroad passes of her father's she carried in her purse, I half expected her to walk in the door and shout at us for making a mess. But I only hear her voice in the occasional dream now; even a voicemail she left me that I clung to for months has strangely disappeared.

While people tell you to cherish the memories, simply focusing too hard on them hurts. Instead I find myself snuggling in the robe she regularly wore, and sometimes I warm myself in the oversized Redskins sweatshirt from her closet. I wear her blue gloves, though one is gone now. The jade necklace that she always said I could have when she was dead is one of those treasures you'll say you'll grab in a fire. I watch "The Good Wife" and wonder why I didn't listen to her when she told me it was such a good show. I wish we could have talked about it.

Unlike the hard woman I described to that therapist, I think of my mom in only the tenderest terms now.

And sometimes, when I am able, I listen to the final song played at the cemetery that day, Sinatra's "I'll be seeing you." Often I hum the lyrics when I walk my dogs, looking skyward for two stars that I often spot that seem to always be close to one another. One is dull while the other shines, my dad and my mom, I think.

Sometimes I sing the song aloud.

"I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces all day through. 
In that small cafe, the park across the way, the children's carousel, the chestnut tree, the wishing well.
 I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day, in everything that's light and gay, I always think of you that way. 
I will find you in the morning sun, and when the night is new . . .

I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you.

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