If I were to claim any part of her as my favorite, it might be her hands. They dance when she is alert, fingers waving,coaxing the air into becoming her own invisible instrument. When she is startled they bunch up into tight fists and she gives them a shake or two. Often a finger or five can be found in her mouth, shiny with drool. Lately she has started to explore the opening and closing of her hands. She touches fabric or skin or anything really, and her little starfish fingers joyfully leap forward only to immediately spring back to nestle her palm again. Open close, open close. And sweetest gestures of all happen during nursing, as more frenzied activity slow to sweet caresses. She feeds quietly, eyes closed and gracefully, ever so gently traces her fingertips along the outside of my breast, my sternum, my chin. The very light touch of her fingers, so tiny, not yet hardened by life’s labor, feels more like a brushing of butterfly wings than the touch of a human, but here she is, real and mine. 6 months after her birth I still check her breathing while she sleeps. You are okay? You are okay.
I remember the rain, the gentle yet relentless rain, a percussive background to your rattled breaths. You were leaving, and water was everywhere. Tapping against the window. Filling your lungs. Running down my cheeks. Even my dreams were of a tidal wave.
Later that day, the sun had set but the rain persisted. There were beads of water clinging to the body bag as you rolled from your home into the car that took your body to the scientists that could learn from you, and from the terrible cancer that never flinched. One of your final mandates had been to hang Christmas lights, and the lights stayed on continuously during our vigil through your final days. The droplets on the plastic bag reflected the glow of multi-colored orbs, a million tiny rainbows glimmering in the darkness.
Its raining in San Antonio today, two years after you died. I stand outside and let a few drops of rain kiss my face.
I have lost you, but still, there is snow and ice and rain and steam and babbling streams and crashing waves. I seek waterfalls in the desert, I soak in my bathtub in the quiet of the night. I breathe billowy puffs of air in the cold. The water still holds me, and and clings to my sadness with the light of a million tiny rainbows.
JANELLE MARIE SHINER
The combination of emotional suffering and regular exercise has given me what feels at times like superhuman strength. I have endurance, I have grit, I can hike for miles on end. I ran marathons in my twenties, but this feels different. I can dig down deeper. I have removed the limitations of my mind, and I am healthy. My body can carry me far if I get out of her way.
I spent last weekend hiking and backpacking 30 miles in the Grand Canyon. It tired me, but it seems as though I could have gone further. I could have done more. I wasn’t spent. But even so, the milage did take its toll, and my feet were blistered, my muscles protesting for several days after the trip. The first evening after returning to work and to my regular life, I eased my swollen feet into the tub and did a double take.
I saw my mother’s feet.
Well, not the feet that flew around her kitchen, making dinner. Not the feet that walked the beach in Mexico. They were the feet she had when she was dying. Puffy, tender. Like a baby’s. I would put lotion on those feet and ease them into her trousers when she was too weak to do so. I rubbed them when they were sore and set Epsom salt soaks to ease the discomfort. She would lean on my arm as she walked, hesitantly and slowly, the pain in her face evident. I couldn’t cure her, but I could care for her, and every slipper I slid on her feet and every pillow propped beneath her swollen legs was done with a frantic enthusiasm of a daughter that had to do something, anything.
We got pedicures about a month before she died and she went to the morgue with pink toenails tipped in white. She looked cherished, and she was. My toenails have canyon dust wedged beneath them, appendages ragged from hiking, swollen due to inflammation from long exercise rather than a failing lymphatic system. I think I’m far from my death bed; I’ve never felt more alive. But still, if you squint in the bathroom , you can see them there, my dying mother’s feet peeking above the bathwater.
She doesn’t visit me often in my dreams. I don’t hear her voice echoing in the quiet. She feels far away, she feels gone. But I have visions like this one, where she and I are a circle, an ouroboros. My legs, her feet. My eyes, her smile. I am not superhuman. I am just a person, fleshy and messy and powerful and weak. I am living, I am dying. I carry my mother with me, and she carries me forward. Her death is part of my life, as my life was part of her death. We ended, and we have only just begun.
We are one.
I sort through the vestiges of a past life. A fifth grade report card. Figure skating trophies. A yellowed love letter. Photographs.
I have literally carried this box of memories with me for miles. I have moved at least 15 times since graduating from high school. How many creaky steps have a I slugged up with these relics in my arms? How many shelves have they sat on, gathering dust?
Some things I’m keeping, some things I’m throwing. But even what I keep doesn’t hold me anymore. These artifacts tell a story that today seems of little consequence, the story of a young person who no longer exists. My mother’s death is the red smudge on my timeline. It it is the plot twist, it is the sentinel event. What came before is the story of someone else. I don’t dislike this person, but she isn’t me anymore.
Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Refuge that losing her mother released her from her optimism. I used to be someone that furiously planned, incessantly dreamed, a person hypnotized by the promises of the future and happy endings. But then life happened. I have said I do, and later I won’t. I have watched my mother get sick and die. My missteps and a few macabre twists of fate have cost me dearly, in every way. I have tasted the bitter knowledge that all my dreams won’t come true, can never come true.
But here is the thing- joy isn’t sequestered in some future date, nor is it bound up in the past. Joy is neither encased in romantic love, nor unlocked only by achievement. It simply is, and it is right here for the taking. So I find my salvation in the now. I am not mesmerized by a past which is no more, and I refuse to be transfixed by whispered promises that lie beyond the horizon. I hold my memories loosely, so as to not get too attached to things which are no more. I am released from the bounds of optimism. I no longer subscribe to the blind faith that things will get better (even if sometimes they do). I no longer practice the religion of anything that pulls me away from the present moment. Which gives me the space to relish the earth beneath me, the sky above me.
The now is the only place where I find peace.
I wanted her to live, but if she had to die, I wanted her to die like a flower blooms. The final opening, an expression of brilliance and beauty before the end. I wanted her to experience the greatest joys in life and reflect them inward and outward. I wanted her to smile. But if there was any flowering in her illness she was a bloom sliced off from her roots, struggling to survive in murky waters, head bowing towards a dusty tabletop that supported a tiny vase. She turned inward, leaves curling, becoming brittle and thin until the silent fall.
I still judge her for allowing this to occur. A cure was denied but she could have gone to yoga, or Mexico. She could have sat in the sunshine more. Right?
Truthfully, I was the one that wanted to flower. I wanted to take in all that life offers, from the minuscule to the infinite. I wanted to find joy and laugh and more fully exist in the world. But I was scared, and instead of facing my own choices or unwinding what bound me in inertia, I aimed to live vicariously through her. Her looming death frightened me, because I felt half-dead too. If she could show me how to live in the final months of her life, I thought I could find my way..
It didn’t go down like that. She died the way she needed to- surrounded by love, but walking her final steps alone. Now I will live the way I need to. I’m still not sure what that looks like, but I am dedicated to finding out. And maybe Mom didn’t teach me how to to go to yoga, or spend more time with my friends, but she showed me that I too can stay true to my path. I too can walk it alone.
You died, and I have struggled. You spoke with such breeziness in your final weeks of life: Oh, I don’t have to worry about you. But maybe you should have. Maybe then you would have turned your beautiful face to me and said How can I help ease the impossibly painful? And I would have told you.
Yes, complaining about this might be proof that I am in fact the worlds biggest asshole, but it has been hard to get over, Mom. Every time I think I find a shred of peace with this, I stub my toe on it again.
What is “this?” you may ask. I’ll tell you now:
You didn’t talk to me. You kept your emotions stowed away like Christmas presents hidden from a four-year old. You were sick and you were dying and I knew nothing of what was in your heart. I’ve had people I barely know clutch my hand with bony, cool fingers, stare straight into my eyes with a watery gaze and tell me how it is for them. What its like to die. What they are proud of. What they regret. What they hope for their loved ones after they are gone. And you did none of that. You were free with your smiles with everyone on the elevators, in the lobbies, with every cashier, every nursing attendant. You smiled and you smiled and you were polite and gracious and never complained, but you never opened up either.
It is selfish of me to have wanted more from you. It was your journey, your business. But I felt betrayed because I wanted to give you what you gave me. From the beginning of my life till the end of yours, I would bare my soul to you, all the joy as well as all the pain, and you would listen, take it all in and love me regardless. You were my best friend; I wanted to be yours too. Yet when you needed me the most, I was not to be trusted. The opportunity to support you in death as I was supported in life was refused, and this seemingly reinforced the longstanding suspicion that I was not worthy to be your daughter.
I know, I know. But I wasn’t. You were the rarest of creatures: beautiful, unfailingly kind, bright, funny. You daughter should have been someone less average.
It is difficult for me to understand why you closed the door on me at the end. And it wasn’t just me; I’m not sure that you trusted anyone with your fears and your grief. Perhaps you were too afraid at what you would find in the dark recesses, so you sealed them off and acknowledged only the sunshine. Maybe you did with your heart what you did with your home: locked the basement door, opened the living room blinds, arranged the flowers, fluffed the pillows. Made everything beautiful and tidy before you left. This makes some sense. You were always a very good housekeeper.
It is hard to be without you today, every day. My soul still seeks you, a message in every throb of my aching heart:I miss you. Thank you. You were wonderful.
On this day, I would buy you flowers, or a piece of jewelry. Some small, stupid item that could never say enough the good you did the world, how tremendously kind and loving you were to everyone and everything you touched. Mothering is more than giving life- although you did that for me too. I was your only child by birth, yet you were a mother to many. You nurtured, you encouraged, you eased, you pushed and you believed. And we miss you here, in this life, in this world.
The Mother’s Day gifts of the past were inadequate, but it felt good to do something, to make even a lame attempt at showing gratitude. I miss the simple joy of sliding a necklace around your warm neck, or watching you close your eyes as you inhale the aroma of roses. These days, I have no such recourse for showing thanks. Maybe your spirit is at such great heights, a little fleck of firmament, too distant to hear murmured prayers of thanks. Or perhaps you have absorbed into my skin, or disseminated into the air I breathe, and you are so very small, so omnipresent, so close there is really no you anymore. In either case, I cannot reach you. You are too close. You are too far away.
So, I could do nothing else with today but surround myself with beauty, to ease the aching loss of you. I went to Sabino Canyon with my dear friend. The one I believe you sent for in the last hours of your life, so she could be there for me at the moment of your departure. You loved her, I love her, and we remembered you today, as we gazed upon the wonder of it all.