I buried my face into the chocolate-brown fleece hoodie and inhaled. Nothing. I did not catch her scent. Maybe it only works in the movies. Maybe my senses were still paralyzed. It had only been two weeks, and time had stopped even as so many things transpired around me. Well, if not so many things, then the biggest thing. Ever.
By 6 a.m., mom’s husband and four children had gathered around her hospital bed. In minutes she would pass, less than eight hours after her heart attack. It felt furiously fast and out-of-body, like watching anguished characters in a horror movie caught unaware. I studied every twitch of every mournful face and every stuttered breath of sorrow. I remember the details. All of them. I remember everything my dad and siblings did and said, but such sacred details are theirs.
My story is that I gripped my mother’s hand that morning and repeated the words I hoped she could hear. “I’ll be OK, mom. My life is great. Because of you. I’ll be OK.”
I knew she would understand. I was not telling her she was unneeded. I was thanking her for the charmed lives her children lead, lives of loving families, strong friendships, and fulfilling careers. She did that—through her example, through her assistance, through her cheers, and even through her admonitions.
It seemed she had prepared us for every opportunity and challenge, even the one playing out before us.
For starters, mom had forbidden a service and instead requested that her body be donated to science. In not having to arrange a funeral, we had time to focus on our grief and on our father, mom’s husband of 57 years. When family members and friends descended on us, we had time to soak up their kindnesses, we had time to bend their ears, we had time to take in their remembrances.
That mom gave us that time was typical. To mom, time was gold, and she freely spent life’s most valuable currency on those she loved. She spent it on big, obvious memories, enjoying trips abroad with her husband and her children and venturing to Disney World with her grandkids, and on small, intimate moments.
She spent it on the doorsteps of the ailing, pots of soup in hand. She spent it in the homes of anxious new parents, helping them bathe their son for the first time. She spent it standing over her grandsons as they made an apple pie from scratch, patiently guiding them to peel, core, and roll. She spent it sweeping the flour and sugar that coated her kitchen table and kitchen floor afterward, ensuring the embarrassed boys that a little mess is a small price for time together.
She spent it walking with me every Friday for 10 years. Sometimes appointments or responsibilities would encroach, though, and I would have to miss.
Each time, she texted back the same, “No problem, baby. Next time. Love you!”
She ended every call, text, or visit with “Love you!” Always. Even when I was explaining that I could not see her. As much as mom loved giving her time, she abhorred selfishness.
Mom knew how to stand back. How much work, how much modeling must it have been, though, to teach four kids to be independent. How much courage must it have taken to allow them to make mistakes. How much sacrifice to let them go. As a mother of young boys, I can imagine the confluence of pride, fear, and poignancy that comes with watching your children move on.
And, so, on that awful night, the most awful night ever, the doctor said she was dying, and I knew immediately what I wanted to say. “I’ll be OK, mom. My life is great. Because of you. I’ll be OK.”
I am OK though I miss her painfully. I still cry—in bed, in my car, watching TV—because I miss her soft voice and strong hugs and because I want her back.
I know wishing is not enough, though.
It is not enough to wish I had saved my voice mail messages so I can hear her voice. It is not enough to wish I had known that the afternoon she dropped by unannounced would be the last time she would pull me into her tight embrace. It is not enough to wish I had one last walk with her to talk about kids, baseball, and politics. It is not enough to wear her chocolate-brown fleece hoodie, the one she wore on so many Friday walks. Still, I brought it home two weeks after she died and found two neatly folded tissues inside the pockets. Mom knew I never carried any; she had obviously packed them for me.
Mom is still looking after me. Not in some phantom presence that haunts my house. Not in whispered words at night. Instead, when my heart and legs are lead, weighed down by a grief I never before understood, her example tells me to get dressed, lace-up, and walk with my boys, to converse with them, to joke with them, to make memories with them, to give them what can never be reclaimed once lost: time together.