I have a poem up at Panorama, the Journal of Intelligent Travel. That’s an excellent place to place a poem that draws on travels with my mother.
I was only 32 when I went to Italy with Mom. She would only be 55, then, in this photo taken by me on that trip.
Mom loved expensive handbags and good haircuts. This photo shows both, as well as the length and grace of her arms, and her beautiful smile. She’s standing outside the door of the Tempietto Longobardi in Cividale, Friuli, Udine.
This was taken before the Temple of the Longbeards became a UNESCO world heritage site. Mom and I were able to go in and look around in a way that you just can’t, now.
The temple was built in about the eight century, very soon after they left paganism and became Christians. It may be the only remaining Longobardi (Scandinavian) church. It was built on the site of an old Roman house with scavenged Roman columns, but the choir stalls are purely Scandinavian looking, which thrilled me. I have breed recognition for anything Scandinavian.
While we were there, I rented an audio tour, a lovely recording by a woman with a cool British accent. In describing the frieze, the narration said that they were “suave and mysterious.” No one really knows who these figures are supposed to be, but the commentary referred to them as them as “six virgin martyrs, bearing the gift of their lives to Christ.” Accurate or not, I loved that description so much, it made the hair rise on my neck.
This trip with my mother wasn’t easy at times. I’d recently found and started contact with my birth father, and she had so much anger over it. There were times on this trip when she descended into harangue, trying to leverage my love for her into hatred for him. Irresistible force, meet immovable object. No one on earth is as stubborn as I am.
But those harangues were spaced out over the course of three weeks. In between stretched days of Italy’s wonders, the sweet smoker’s voice of my history teacher mother in my ear, gently explaining what was noteworthy, special and important about whatever we were seeing with her trademark intelligence, wit, and barely perceptible lisp. Today is the anniversary of Mom’s death. I’d give just about anything to hear her voice again.
Read the poem here: Directions to the Six Virgins
I’m learning to live with your best
sugar bowl in my hutch, sweater on
my skin, watch on my dresser.
I’m sweeping the rug you gave me
snowed under with tissues I wept in,
shredded and scattered by the dogs.
I’m bewildered, most of all,
rinsing out vases, my hands stained
yellow with the pollen of lilies.
It happens each year. October 30th draws closer, and I’m a wreck, and it’s been long enough that I don’t actually remember why I’m a wreck. And then I do. A daughter always remembers losing a mother. She remembers it in her bones.
The power of the calendar baffles me. How can a date on a manmade chart have power? But it does. Maybe the calendar isn’t manmade. Maybe it’s just discovered, and it ties in to deeper natural rhythms. Maybe we socialized, higher-thinking creatures have decided these rhythms don’t apply to us, but they do. We are animals, and animals feel grief.
Grief is not a function of whatever higher mind we think we possess. When our big Holly dog had to be put to sleep, we brought her body home to bury. Zoe, our little dog, gave her a last, sad sniffing-over. Then she put up her snout for one loud, sad howl. For the rest of Zoe’s life, when we talked in Holly’s special voice, Zoe’s ears pricked up and she looked around, expecting Holly to show up when we talked the big dog talk.
So I guess it’s not surprising that for years, I waited for Mom to show up. I mean, I know it’s insane and all, but I still kept thinking this terrible mistake would somehow be reversed, rectified. On my first trip up to Bainbridge Island after she died, I fully expected her to appear. She would step out from wherever she’d been hiding and we’d all laugh at how she’d put one over on us.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted by my own disrupted expectation.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion talks about saving her husband’s shoes after he died, because, well, he’d need them, wouldn’t he, when he returned. She knew he was dead, of course she knew that. But still, he might need those shoes. I understand that perfectly.
Here’s something else I understand. You all have moms, and your moms are not going to die. That only happens to other people’s moms. I know that, okay? But you all don’t have moms like my mom, that’s what I should make clear. No one, aside from my brothers and my sister, had a mom like mine.
She loved us deeply. Profoundly. Imperfectly. She was emotionally expansive and inclusive, easily wounded and unforgiving. She was magnetic, intelligent, frustrated, passionate, narcissistic, petulant, sarcastic, educated, manipulative, conniving, loving, caring, hopeful, idealistic, hilarious. Most of all, my mom was alive. She was on fire with living, from the soles of her size-12 feet up through and out the roots of her silky silver hair. She was larger than life, and though she hated that about herself physically, she wore it like a queen intellectually. She was a force of nature.
I don’t write much about Mom’s actual death. The official version is, I drove to Seattle with my oldest daughter, my sister and my nephew on a Saturday. I was going to argue with Mom about cooperating with her cancer treatments. I walked in to the hospital to find my brothers and father there, and my younger brother told me, “We think it’s going to be today.”
I’d been told she had six months. It had only been two weeks since they told me that.
I remember too much of the hours between when I entered the hospital and when I left. Reading to her, talking to her, trying to calm her down. Every shapeless syllable that rose from her throat, because she was not able to speak anymore. What comforted her and what angered her. Her determination to die.
At the moment when it happened, I remember my family in that room, our heads thrown back, the rising, keening cries that reminded me of Zoe’s last howl for Holly. We just wailed. I called my ex-husband from the bathroom of the hospital room. To him fell the task of telling two daughters who weren’t with me.
I called my friend Elizabeth and let her know it was over. Saying the words still didn’t make this real or understandable. The last time I saw my mother’s body, my little brother was bending over her, gently talking to her and cutting off a piece of her hair with his pocketknife, so I could have it as a keepsake. Then it was time to leave.
When I paid for my parking at the hopsital, I asked the attendant, “How long have I been here?” and he said “Three hours.” I said, “Your whole life can change in three hours, did you know that?” He nodded and gave me my change.
I kept patting my daughter. That was not for her comfort, but for mine. I’d feel this terrible spinning, like I had nothing holding me down, like I was going to fall off the earth, and I’d reach out, touch her hair, regain my footing through the primal reassurance of her presence.
While we waited in the ferry line, I called my friend San from work, to ask her to let the office know I wouldn’t be back the next day. I wasn’t crying. I was too shocked to cry. I remember the questioning tone of my voice when I told her, “My mom is gone?” and the questioning tone in her voice when she said, “Oh Karen, she is? She’s gone? I’m so sorry?” Like the weight of declarative statements would have crushed us as we gently interrogated this new, nearly unspeakable truth.
Like a pile of sand
Churned to bits and heaped
Waiting for the tide to take me
But daughters come, with pails and pats
And shore me up
Not letting me wash away.
The first Christmas after losing my mother, my family gathered and made our way through, stopping now and then to just cry. We would carry on and cook or eat or open a gift, and then one of us would choke up, and then all of us would. Tears upon tears, dominoes of grief, one after another, until we had all fallen down. Over and over that day, we stopped what we were doing and grieved.
My grief was exacerbated when my younger brother and his wife announced that they were expecting their first child. I was so happy and so devastated. How could it be that my mother would never meet this child? Worse yet, how could it be that this child would never meet my mother? This child who is nine years old, now. I try to tell her about her other grandmother, some halting explanation of how wonderful she was to my girls. But what am I trying to do? Make my niece experience a loss she doesn’t have to experience? I don’t know. I just know I want my niece to have some concept of her other grandmother, some idea of her.
At one point, a friend said something like, “Your mother wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.” I said, “You didn’t know my mother. Mom would want to be missed. She’d want me to be miserable. She’d want me to lie down in the middle of a road and let cars run over me.”
If a desire for advice brought you to this post, I’m sorry. I’m not much for advice. But I can tell you that it does get better, I swear, it does. You look at each other and express disbelief that it’s been five years, then ten years, then more. This year, it is twelve years since that day in Seattle.
Losing my mom was like this: I was standing on the prairie alone, and the ground was dry and the sky was getting dark. Somewhere behind me, a gigantic roar started. It was a roar and a wind and a howl, and I could hear it back on the horizon, and I knew it was coming but there was no getting out of its way. It gathered up and blew through me with the force of a freight train, and it left a hole that wouldn’t close. The world became a place I didn’t recognize.
It felt like this for years.
But at some point, I realized that I’d made it through the worst. I forgave myself for not going to the cemetery on her birthday one year, or on Mother’s Day the next. Eventually I forgave myself for going on. I understand that we are designed to outlive our parents, to survive losing a mother, a father. Eventually, we are supposed to be all right, and I am. I hope my mother would forgive me for that.
I will always remember her last words to me, spoken over the phone on a day when she was too sick to talk, so I said I’d let her go and told her that I loved her. I could hear the nausea and misery and pain in her voice when she said, “Oh, I love you.” Best last words ever, I think. I feel profound gratitude for those words, every damn day.
So, I take it back. I do have some advice: think about ending more conversations with the words, “I love you.”
Grief’s handmaiden bears a bowl
Where once her heart beat
Her ribs encircle it
It goes all through her
Her mourning is soft and dappled
Like the wing of a pigeon
Fanning the surface
Testing the tension
And she spills a bit here
And she spills a bit there
Minding her grief
Making her way.