I was prepared for her death, but not for the grief.
My mom died in April. Cancer. She’d been ailing for seven years—first with a hip replacement that went bad, then a knee replacement, then, in 2012, a trip to the ER that revealed a near-total blockage in her colon. Thus began the road to 12:35 a.m. on April 4, 2017, when she closed her eyes for the last time at the age of 75.
Marcia Maddox was a celebrated—often feared—divorce lawyer who was known to push the Kleenex box toward a weeping client without breaking stride in her commentary. She was all about strategy and results—an instinct she had honed earlier in her career as a press aide to Lady Bird Johnson, coordinating official events and advancing many of the first lady’s trips.
Planning and preparedness were paramount in Mom’s mind, and sentimentality rarely entered the mix. That’s why, during these last few years, I rarely felt much emotion around the prospect of her death—because she never did herself. She organized all of her financial affairs for a smooth transition to me and my sister, Katharine. She made sure we had the recipes for our favorite dishes. She chose the design for her grave marker, and the outfit she would wear into the hereafter.
Even as she grew weaker, pathos wasn’t welcome or expected. She’d grow confused when Kathy and I got tearful. “You’re crying,” she would observe, in a tone that suggested she couldn’t understand why. Mom died exactly as she wanted to—in her own room, with her daughters holding her hands. Her caretaker came in shortly afterward and sang “Amazing Grace.” It was beautiful.
Our experience since that moment hasn’t been nearly as smooth as the one Mom had envisioned for us. You can’t prepare your children or protect them from that kind of loss, which hit with blunt force a week after the funeral and the fanfare were over. I took my husband and older son to Williamsburg to see one of Mom’s old friends. We arrived the evening before our visit and took a stroll down Duke of Gloucester Street toward the Governor’s Palace, where all the gardens were in spring bloom. Reflexively, I thought I should text a picture to Mom to show her how glorious it all was. I realized almost instantly that I couldn’t—a dawning that buckled my knees. I had to grab my husband’s arm for support.
I’m 48 years old, for crying out loud, but I continue to see old ladies on the street and feel jealous because their children still have a mom. I find myself looking into their faces, like the lost chick in that storybook Are You My Mother?
So, I guess this is grief. We’ve had deaths in the family before, but nothing like this. It’s physical and disorienting—paralyzing at times—and the triggers come from nowhere.
A man was approaching Communion at church recently, using a walker that makes the same squeaky clatter as my mom’s did. That sound used to bug the hell out of me. But hearing it now, as I’m being blessed with the bread of heaven, no less, I start crying and can’t stop until well after the service ends. I would give anything to hear that sound again.
Then there’s the ticket to the Philadelphia Flower Show, along with the Amtrak receipts to get there and back, from when Mom and I went in 2006—one of those perfect mother-daughter dates that concluded with an elegant tea at the Four Seasons. Seeing that reminder in a side pocket of the purse she used that day—a purse that’s now mine—is a gut punch. I stopped breathing for a moment when I discovered those slips. Then I put them right back in there, where they will stay.
It’s not all bad, of course. In fact, things that I thought would be upsetting have turned out to be okay. Packing up her house and holding an estate sale gave me more of a wistful feeling than anything else. I proudly wear her colorful jewelry almost every day; I love having her near me like that. I’m also looking for the right event for a cocktail dress I found in her closet, custom-made for her in the 1960s with black crepe and gold-beaded trim. It’ll be fabulous at a party, just like she was.
It’s the quotidian objects that bring unexpected sadness. As we were cleaning out her house, we took home pantry items, bottles of wine and toiletries from her cupboards. “Why not?” we figured. But with each bottle of wine we finished, every cracker consumed and dab of face cream applied went the markers of her daily living, her presence among us.
I know Mom is on to something new. As a big believer in reincarnation, she always told us never to mourn her passing. “I’ve been ’round before, and I’ll be back again,” she would say. That admonition will never give me comfort, though, because she’ll never come back as my Mom.