The other day I went over to my parents’ house in the middle of the afternoon, something I hadn’t done really since my mom died and all the funeral activity, but used to do daily—often even more. My dad was back at work, and I had an hour before I needed to pick up the kids, so I thought I would make some headway going through some of my mom’s things—or that’s what I told myself.
Her car was in the driveway. Her purse was hanging on the chair in the kitchen.
“Oh, good,” I had to stop myself from thinking, “She’s home.”
The dog, sprawled snoring in the hall, did not look up. The house was hushed and glowing with afternoon sun, an orchid was blooming on the dining room table. Everything seemed as it should be. I walked into her bedroom.
Seemed—such a sneaky word.
In the days right after she died, her bedroom had smelled like, well—death. We’d all noticed it. Not an outright bad smell, but kind of a cocktail of all the smells of those final weeks and days and hours. Lotions, clorox, incense, medicine, flowers, breath. Plus something else. Decay, I guess. The scent was in my nose for days.
She died in bed around four in the morning on Friday, and we kept her body there all through the next day and into mid-morning on Sunday. Hospice came around dawn on Friday to help us clean her and dress her—we opened the blinds and blasted the Beatles and put her in the funkiest outfit and Amelia and Charlie covered her in purple flowers. She looked radiant. She would have swooned over the taut luminance of her skin.
Something I didn’t expect: she didn’t leave all at once. And I don’t really mean that in an esoteric way at all. At first she was present, even though she was lifeless. But every time I would go into and out of her room, I would come back to something newly less “there.” The way her fingers were curled on her chest (those softest, most delicate hands—my earliest memory, I think!), her lips, the color of her skin. By Sunday morning it was her eyes—they’d changed to a kind of vinyl-looking film. They were not hers at all. Three days later at the crematorium (oh my, a story for another day), it was really only her hair that was hers.
The same thing happened with the death smell. When I walked in the bedroom the other afternoon, it was pristine in there, just as she kept it before she was sick enough to relinquish those duties to us. The cleaning lady had come. The marigold-print bedspread crisp and fresh and square, her neatly aligned unguents on the nightstand, her glasses and her green comb, her orderly stacks of camisoles and yoga pants on the shelves, all smelling of fresh detergent. I walked around the room twice, sniffing at everything—searching for just one whiff of her—organic, living her. It was not there.
I thought I was going to start sorting some of her clothes into piles—for Amelia and Anne and the Bargain Box, etc. Instead I stood there and cried for a long time.
And then I stole all her shoes.
I don’t really know what came over me with the shoes. It kind of started happening even before she died, after she stopped being able to walk. I would go over to hang out and while she was dozing I’d try on sandals and boots and clogs I’d never given two thoughts to before. And then I’d leave with a pair.
She’s almost a half size smaller than me, and we don’t even totally align in terms of taste. But I couldn’t stop myself.
As with her other things, my mom was meticulous with her shoes. She has shoes she’s been wearing for 25 years that look essentially un-used. It’s crazy, and I’m the opposite. At any rate, I’m not going to try to explain it, but piling all her shoes into a big shopping bag and lugging them to my house and tromping around in them in my room is something I’m doing these days. Plus, she had some pretty kickass cowboy boots.
I guess don’t totally know what else to do with myself. It’s been a month today. The whole month before she died felt like it was all about waiting. I know she felt that way, too. Waiting to die, waiting to fly to the moon, waiting for obliteration. One of the last things she said—sort of a refrain in her final days—was “Ok, let’s get this show on the road.” There was a constant flurry of activity—but it was all about waiting. Waiting to see what the world would feel like without her.
Now here we are, but I feel like I’m kind of still waiting. Maybe it’s just such a strong thread in the world of cancer-having that it has transferred from her to me. Waiting for results, waiting for news. Waiting for chemo. Waiting to not be able to do anything except stare at the ceiling and eat cheez-its. Waiting for all my hair to fall out again.
I’ve known it was coming, and in the last week I started getting the familiar hair ache. It’s kind of like when you’ve kept your hair in a ponytail for too long—or fallen asleep with it wet and pulled back—and then you go to let it down and it aches like a muscle you didn’t know you had.
You can’t quite nail down what exactly is aching—your scalp, the follicles, the hair itself. It’s just an overall sense of wrongness. I guess I kind of feel that way all over.
And then, this morning, just like that: no more waiting. Only drifts of thin snippets sifting down relentlessly onto my keyboard and desk and bed like snow. Now I just want to tell my mom about it and hear her say, “FUCK THAT.”
I was not brought up Quaker, but Quakerism has always kind of pulled at me and I live in a Quaker town, and lately I have been attending Quaker meeting.
The Quakers call the extended period of silence during worship expectant waiting, and I think that might be why I’m there. It feels like my whole state of being.
It’s not a thinking time or a praying time—it’s a waiting time, a time unattached to outcome, but also inherently hopeful.
I’m drawn to how unresolved it feels, how huge and open-ended and disconnected from logic and sense it can be, in the face of all these eddies of loss I’m swimming in.
Sometimes when I’m sitting in the pew—waiting—I am overtaken by this sense of myself sitting on a train platform—ready for an arrival or a departure—I’m not sure which and it doesn’t matter. I have a giant suitcase of really good shoes that I don’t quite need, and I’m just listening for a hum on the rails.