Lilacs for My Mother

My mother would have been 78 today. She died at the end of January, just over a hundred days ago—103, to be exact, although I worry about my ability to count correctly. Did I leave out a day by accident? I can’t bear to start over again.

She was so young, everyone murmurs. Cheated of at least a decade, my brother and I still tell each other, even when we know this is like railing at the Big Dipper or a thundercloud or the flock of ceramic chickens she used to be so proud of in her cactus garden.

She’d been wheelchair-bound for years and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She’d had several strokes, as it turned out, which may have really caused her dementia. But while she lost her ability to speak, she could hear us. She recognized us all when my family came to visit her last Christmas. She wore the little emerald earrings I’d bought her. Emerald was her birthstone, and I knew she would love the flashes of green.

"May Lilacs" (2013) © Martha Nichols

“May Lilacs” (2013) © Martha Nichols

Even now, I think about all the amazingly beautiful things of this world: the blue sky, the green hills of a California spring, my mother’s paintings and drawings of flowers: pansies, orchids, roses, lilacs. And, yes, I’m flinging my grief at God, at a phantom I’ve conjured, at all these deaf, blind, thoughtless glories—and I get no answer.

But my mother the artist taught me to attend to beauty that means no more than itself. When I try to describe the maroon-tinged stargazer lilies in the vase beside her bed before she died, maybe words are hopeless. Maybe not. We positioned the vase so she could see it, though by then, her last week, I don’t think she could make sense of anything.

Still, she breathed, and still I felt her there, nesting someplace inside me at the same time that she was preparing to leap into another world. I wanted her to leap. I pictured her leaping from her wheelchair, running free, straight across the top of an ocean cliff.
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