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.
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.
Oh, Mom. I could tell you now that grief sometimes feels overwhelming. We were often at odds, but this you would have understood. You would have wanted to know. Last week, I felt so unaccountably enraged, thinking I was still recovering from the emotional blitz of the Boston bombings—thinking that if you’d been here, Mom, you would have been calling me frantically as soon as you saw it on the news, trying to get through all those overloaded phone lines, sobbing with relief when you heard my voice.
The rage of grief tiptoed up to clout me on the head, no matter how much I already knew about stages and denials and the emotions I was supposed to feel. There it was and still is, and I mentally slapped myself around for idiocy, as if you and I were literally duking it out again, and I cried and cried and cried.
Last week, tears sprang to my eyes whenever my busy days slowed a nanosecond. I was crying for you, because of your upcoming birthday, because of all I wished I’d said to you, and that I did get some chance to say during our last days together, and of all the past birthdays where I’d sent you flowers—more stargazers, roses, iris—forgetting almost until the last minute, then calling in a rush order across the country.
I cried yesterday, when my son and I walked into Harvard Square, under a brilliant blue sky and flowering magnolias. It was the glorious new spring that I remembered three months ago in California, where the blooms come early.
The first lilacs have burst forth, finally, and yesterday I gently lowered a spray to sniff—and for my son, too. He smiled, already distracted by something else, but he waited for me. I said how much I loved the smell of lilacs, and he saw my tears. He knew I wasn’t talking about the actual purple blossoms we stood among, but the French Lilac perfume I’d bought my mother from an aisle in Whole Foods, which I used to spray on her wrists and on my fingers as I stroked her fragile, vein-webbed temples.
Dementia is not pretty. At her worst in recent years, I could hardly bear to be with her. She could be so angry, spitting with fury. Now I see more clearly how much she’d already descended into her own grief. Anger, anger, anger—and then? Not acceptance or joy, but in her case, a kind of peace. In her last year, she responded to kisses and hugs. One of the last things she could say is “I love you.”
That lilac perfume takes me back farther now, to my childhood, when a friend of my mother’s sold Avon products, and I got Hawaiian ginger cologne and lilac talcum powder. There I am at my son’s age, almost twelve, in my cubicle of a bedroom in our old ranch house, with my first record player, my first diary—my parents’ gifts, the cheap perfume and notebooks for writing, back when my mother had both the ability to know exactly what I needed and the power to enrage me with her constant needling.
Our relationship was complicated, to say the least. She suffered from bipolar illness and swung up and down through all the years of my life. Yet, I’ve come to see her artist’s obsession with color and shape, even her cajoling desire to know who I was, as the biggest gift of all. I’d never be who I am without her.
While I belong to no church and have spent many years wrestling with what I believe, I do think the universe—that deaf realm of clouds and stars and ceramic birds—is no longer a void. It gives me something in return, and I choose to accept it.
Thank you for this world. Thank you for our time together. Thank you for these tears, because they are beautiful, too. They are awful and beautiful, they are the clay orange of your chickens, the glaze of moss green. They are all you gave me, this beauty, this grief.
Just a few months ago, my mother would lie back against her brace of neck pillows, the constant pain always tightening her brow. But the scent of that lilac perfume, as I wafted it under her nose or into her hair, made her relax.
“Does that smell good, Mom?” I’d ask.
“I love it,” she’d whisper back.
Happy Birthday, Mom — May 6, 2013