It’s been four years, tonight, since my mother died. Her leaving shifted my world, my being, so that nothing remained the same. This is to be expected, given the metaphorical umbilical cord that joined the two of us for all of my (then) thirty-eight years.
I attended a Christmas memorial prayer service last Friday at my school and part of the service was to write down a memory of a lost one. I honestly couldn’t remember. I turned to my friend, Brenda, and started weeping. “I can’t remember. All I can remember is her ending….” It was, for me, so heartbreaking. My mother deserves better. She deserves to be remembered from the time before she was ill and dying. It’s been four years, but my mind still dwells on the ravages of illness, on the cruelty of how awful her dying process was through the last few months of her life. She was bedridden for the last year of her life. It was a bleak ending, which is perhaps why I cannot forget it, but why I sometimes find my brain has blotted out the most devastating parts of that futile journey.
So, tonight, I will write of what I remember, from before she was ill….the things I loved about her, about her personality quirks, her smile, and her sense of humour. I will also remember her compassion, her concern for others, especially for her own mother, siblings, husband, and daughters.
She taught me how to cut lilacs, so that I wouldn’t decimate a woody branch, and how I should cut the stalks of flowers on an angle. (I’m not sure why, but I still do this in spring, when her poppies, peonies, and lilacs bloom.)
She taught me about the beauty of music, as she would play selections on the ancestral piano that sat in the kitchen. I recall her singing us to sleep at night, when we were little, songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Que Sera Sera.” She had a beautiful voice, but after we hit our teen years, she rarely sang. She did, however, expose my sister and I to ABBA, Cat Stevens, and Gordon Lightfoot. I still love to listen to them now, as the act of listening conjures up her spirit.
She drove badly. Slowly and cautiously, hunched over the wheel with intensity, especially when she was faced with icy Van Horne hill in her vintage orange Beetle, she always arrived at her destination (if a bit late!)
When she laughed, her whole face lit up. She had a beautiful smile and a wicked sense of humour. She loved the silly gags on the Just for Laughs show from Quebec. This programme highlighted pranks set up on the streets of Montreal and, although set in Quebec, the actors would not really speak very often. It was purely based on physical humour and the element of surprise. She would laugh until tears rolled down her cheeks. It was wonderful to watch and it was contagious.
She loved her mother. She loved her father. She loved her sister and three brothers. When gathered together, her brothers Peter and Terry often teased her about her early dating life on Wembley Drive. They told us stories of how she dated a man who once drove his car across the wooden footbridge that spanned Junction Creek at the foot of Kingsmount Blvd. They also told us stories of how, when Mum first started dating Dad, she would bring him home to 350 Wembley and sit in the front living room. My grandmother’s room was on the same floor. Dad was Protestant. Mum was Irish Catholic. My grandmother expressed her upset by banging her dresser drawers open and closed. It was 1966 or so. Dad thought this was hysterical. He hung in, became Mum’s friend, courted her, and wooed her. Finally, she said yes and they married in November 1968. I came along in 1970, and my sister arrived in 1972. She loved Dad and she loved us. We were blessed to have her in our lives.
Her favourite books were Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and Antoine de Sainte Exupery’s The Little Prince.
Mum loved nothing more than to read novels on the dock at camp, on the west arm of Lake Nipissing, a cigarette propped up next to her, with a beer by the lawn chair. She also loved, once she retired, traveling to Michigan with Dad. They visited casinos. They met new friends. It was a golden time….for a while.
When I did my Master’s at Carleton in Ottawa in 1994-95, she sent me handwritten letters every week, detailing stories of the backyard chorus of chickadees, or the antics of the family dogs. Anything to keep my mind off the stress of writing a thesis on modern Irish poetry. She was persistent in her love for both myself and my sister. In some cases, she should have received a medal….but didn’t.
If something went awry in the day, she would often say “Bad day at Black Rock” to convey her sense of upset. There wasn’t a gnashing of teeth and tears. It was a strong Irish sensibility, to deal with what came her way.
She wrote us letters from Santa and the Tooth Fairy in squirelly handwriting so we wouldn’t recognize it. One of my fondest memories is the Christmas morning when we awoke to find a piece of tin foil, covered with spray can decorative snow, and a trail of little elven feet crossing it on a diagonal to get to a plate of cookies. Stacy and I were convinced that Santa and his elves had been in our house. She created magic for us.
Later, as I wrote and read my poetry around the province, she and Dad would travel with me to North Bay or the Sault so that they could be there to hear me read. They loved it. She once told me that, if I hadn’t been a poet, she would not have know about how art and poetry could lift a person’s spirits. She thanked me. I thanked her….it was a mutual admiration society.
The one thing I miss the most, to be honest, is the sound of her voice. I’ve forgotten it. I knew it would happen. I dreaded it’s arrival, the place in space where the person’s face remains but the vocal imprint of soul vanishes. It bothers me more than anything else because her voice was musical. It rose and fell like a song, so that inflections dipped and soared, so that conversations were punctuated by belly laughs when something struck her as amusing.
I also miss her hugs. You do not know the value of hugs until they have left your life. These days, hugs are few and far between. What once seemed so natural now seems foreign. I worry that I’ll get too used to hugs again, that I’ll be more sad if they leave me all over again. Let me tell you that, if you have anyone nearby whom you can hug, you should do so. People underestimate the power of hugs. They find them fleeting, or cursory, in nature. They shouldn’t be. They are connections of body and spirit. They convey more of love and stability than any other gesture I can think of…they are proof of God’s embrace.
So, now that my diatribe on hugs is over….
I cannot stop missing her. Each and every day I think of her and wonder how she is, so that I talk to her inside my head, or out loud when I’m alone. There is no replacing a mother. The motherloss is overwhelming. The pain in my heart is sharp. Still, I try to recall her spirit, her smile, her reassuring words, even as her voice fades from my memory.
Four years. That night, Dad sang to her as she died. He told her she was beautiful, held her hand as she left us, and showed me what real love is all about. Now he’s with her, and that brings me peace. That night, large fluffy snow flakes drifted down and covered the world in a blanket of white. The lake looked like a snow globe scene. It was beautiful.
These are the things I remember…