Once again it is May. Seems to come every year at this time. Winter’s grasp finally gone. Somewhere Corn flowers and Stargazers are in bloom. Somewhere a baby Blue Jay is spreading its wings for the first time. Days get longer, evenings warmer. Salty ocean air feels good on my face.
So why is there a pall hanging over me this month? Why do I feel this heavy pang?
Oh yes. This is the month my mother died. A shock, a jolt, a stupefying blow to my gut.
I didn’t see it coming.
A thud as she hit the linoleum floor of the bathroom in the Florida ranch house she and my father had moved into just two years earlier, after escaping the hubbub of New York. Her fingers must’ve twitched as she felt the electrical current course through her body, and the series of spasms that reached helter-skelter to her extremities.
It was another seizure. She was always having them in those days. Too many to count, they could happen at the drop of a hat. Yet she’d always open her eyes afterward.
Why was this time different, Mama?
Maybe it was the way she fell to the ground this time, landing smack on her head unable to use her arms to break her fall. I wasn’t there but she must’ve hit her head good. Like when Bugs Bunny got hit on the head with a frying pan and saw stars in his eyes and birds flying around her head.
The fall must’ve jarred her brain something awful, because unlike all the times before, this time she didn’t open her eyes at all. My brother heard it. The force with which she fell, the sudden impact that shook the wall between the bathroom and the hallway. Like someone cutting down a tall pine with an axe. Timber!
He heard it all the way from the kitchen, on the other side of the house, where he was sitting with my father who was eating his breakfast of plain oatmeal. In two shakes, my brother was at her side, which is saying a lot because usually he’s as slow as molasses. He crouched beside her, knowing better than to move or lift her, and begged her to open her eyes.
“Open your eyes, Mama. Open them!” He said again and again.
She didn’t. Though she was still breathing and he could hear a long moan from deep within her. Yet she wouldn’t open those blasted eyes. Not so much as a wink.
“Fooled you!” He wanted her to say as she’d sit upright, eyes wide open.
But no, that didn’t happen.
The ambulance came and took her away. My father couldn’t finish his breakfast. Suddenly, it tasted cold and dry. He got up from the kitchen chair and weakly made his way back to his usual spot on the living room couch. Make that dying room couch. Three days a week of dialysis was taking its toll.
Losing my mother was the thing I had feared most. The older I got, the scarier the thought had become. I could bear anything–heck, I was unemployed and going through my divorce–but not being able to speak to my mother anymore was something I could not fathom.
Please don’t die, Mama. Be here to see my children grow up. Please always be here for me!
How frivolous I’d been with time in my twenties, when I’d come and go as I pleased with nary a thought to how much time we’d have together. I lived with the assumption that there would always be next time. Next time. How hollow that sounds.
Then I moved across the country and saw her less.
Please let me see you again, Mama.
If I close my eyes I can see how things once were. I am home again in our suburban home on Long Island. I can hear her call my name, beckoning me to the kitchen where once she held court. I’d sit at the kitchen table while she did her business, preparing the evening meal as she regaled me with “chismes” (gossip) from Venezuela. Each of her many sisters would write with family stories and peccadilloes, and she couldn’t wait to share them with me.
Her eyes would light up as she’d spin a yarn in mesmerizing colors of red and gold, knowing exactly how to unfold a story for maximum impact. A gifted storyteller she was. Even when I didn’t know who she was talking about I’d listen with rapt attention. My eyes never letting go of the sight of her, following her as she scurried from the sink to the fridge to the stove and back again. I knew it well, the rhythm of her steps.
Open your eyes, Mama, and tell me another story. Just one more.
With every year that passed, with every move I made–to Boston, to D.C., to Seattle, I secretly worried about losing her. But then I’d shake the fear away, rationalizing that she still was young, and we still had plenty of time to spend together, however, I wasn’t counting on Alzheimer’s. That took her away from us long before her death did.
Alzheimer’s is a living death. You watch as she slips away and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it, because Alzheimer’s is poking you in the eye and gleefully saying, “She’s mine now!”
Mama, don’t you remember? It’s me, your daughter. Stay with me, Mama. Don’t leave!
She was already gone, lost to another world that was locked in the innermost crevices of her brain. Still, when she hit her head, when the seizure and the fall knocked the wind out of her, silencing her brain once and for all, I wasn’t ready. But I was never going to be ready, was I? And that’s the crux. What I dreaded most was here. Losing my mother.
The other day, I was interviewing a professor emeritus from a local university, who is from India. He told me that in his culture mothers are placed above God. This is how it is, he said. Mother, Father, Guru (teacher), and then God.
Mama, did you hear that? I always knew. You’re always first in my heart.
Today, I am spending Mother’s Day with my son, but I’ll be remembering my mother, too. For this month is the 20th anniversary of her passing. Twenty years, but the wounds still feel fresh.
Treasure your mothers while you can. To all mothers everywhere, Happy Mother’s Day. To all who have lost their mothers, I’m thinking of you, too.
Feliz Día de las Madres, Mama. Thank you for all you did for me.