I am sitting at a desk in my dead mother’s little house in Georgia. On the desk next to me as I write is a cardboard box containing the ashes of my mother who I had expected would be here, alive, when I planned this trip. Instead, she could not wait for me any longer. I’ve been here for about an hour, arriving on early this morning. This is hard. I knew it would be. I understood that her death would not be real to me until I stood in her little place, with her things, her photos, her paintings, knick-knacks, her little scribbled notes here and there, her smell. But this is too hard. She should have been fixing me a snack and we would talk and walk around the garden and watch a video and talk and talk. She is everywhere in this house but the room is silent and I can’t see her. I keep thinking she’s in the other room, or fussing about in the yard. And there’s this box sitting here with her name on it, containing all that is left of a life of hopes, dreams, struggles. Mom, let’s have a cup of tea….Mom?
The bottom fell out of my sense of being a good son when she became ill earlier this year, and I realized that I had not seen her in five years. Privately embarrassed, appalled at how I had let time slip by since her last visit to see me, I felt like I had been tricked somehow, or diverted, sidetracked as I chased down happiness in the world only to find disillusion. How could five years have passed and Mom had nothing from me but phone calls and an occasional painting of mine to add to her growing collection? There they are on the walls, hung with a mother’s pride. Sweet, but Mom, let’s walk in the garden….Mom?
Oh, yes, every Sunday, I called her, pictured her as she picked up her phone in her little house in the woods and before she could speak I drawled out an extended “Yo.” It always made her laugh. I have no idea why I started doing that but I think it was so that she knew it was me and not my ol’ dad, who also called her weekly and who sounds exactly like me. She would laugh and say something about me sounding like a sick cow or a bellowing moose and ask if I was okay. In these phone calls it was my job to make her laugh and let her yammer on and on. She would tell me all about the news from the Georgia family, my brothers and their families, and her health troubles. But phone calls are a cheap cheat. You can’t hug someone through a phone or kiss them in an email, or share a sunset in a text.
I bought my tickets to Georgia about two months before she died in February. She died two days after her 87th birthday. The tickets were for April 5th. So, the last words I said to her, as she lay in the hospital under a respirator, my brother holding the phone up to her ear: “Hold on, Mom. I’m coming to see you. We’ll have talks, and walks, and watch videos, and laugh and argue like we always do. Mom. Mom. I love you, Mom!” I could hear my brother in the background saying loud enough for me to hear, “She can hear you, she’s nodding her head. She hears you.” But I was in California, not Georgia. I would be there in April to see her. She just wouldn’t be able to hold on. A half hour later my brother called to say she had let go.
Mom had endless troubles over the years, not counting a desperate love life and an addiction she conquered 30 years ago. Once she told me she had counted up the operations, everything from breast removal to hip replacement, and the total came to twelve operations. This is not counting the almost monthly procedure to stretch open her esophagus because of a hiatel hernia that kept her on liquid food for the past several years. She so longed for a good steak, or anything solid. Sometimes even water was impossible to swallow. Though she would describe the problems and wish they would go away, she never seemed to feel sorry for herself but accepted whatever came along. A lot came along in her later years.
Once a real beauty, she had lost every shred of youth except one thing, her eyes. Even as a boy I loved and was repelled by her eyes. Loved them because of their beauty, which made me look into them, but once there I always, even now, felt as if I were looking right into her soul, so deep was the look she had. I always felt uncomfortable with this. It was too intimate and I would look away. Perhaps it is the other way around, now that I think about it. Perhaps she was looking into my soul. Now, as she approached 87, I could still see in the photos she sent, that her eyes had never changed. In the photo I have on my dresser at home, a photo I took 5 years ago when she visited me, she is sitting in a field of blooming, shocking pink Rosea Mesembryanthemum, dressed in black, looking at me with those eyes. Even in the picture those eyes are looking into me with a candid truth that scares me. It isn’t evil, it is just piercing. Today the eyes in that picture are saying “Why didn’t you come sooner?”.
A death in the family may be the worst kind of death, not so much because the person was close to you but because you were not close to the person. That is, we take those closest to us for granted. Their very everyday-ness, however, seeps into our being, permeates who and what we are. Why do we think we are separate? Why is it that life distracts us from the easy things we could do, like just taking the time. But of course, it is the very familiarity with our loved ones that allows us to not take the time. Is it more expedient to run our relationships on remote-control or, like a Chinese acrobat who spins a dozen plates on sticks, just give each loved one in our life a quick spin? A phone call, an email, a text? They’ll be there when you need them, more important things to chase down, or are there? Will they be there?
I took a bunch of snapshots this morning of the things in her little house. My brothers, who were here when she passed away, were kind enough to leave the place as she left it, all of her little mom things in place. Like a maternal archeological find, I documented every shelf, every display of framed photos, every grouping of my paintings, because all of this will be gone soon, ash to ash, dust to dust. Even her ashes will be gone.
Snapping pictures of all of this left me with such sad regret and disappointment in myself. No, I’m not being hard on myself, or blowing it out of proportion. I staggered outside, tearful, glad that I was not around any living people who would witness my tears. Near a tree a red adirondack chair tilts slightly sideways, covered in acorns and twigs. I brushed them off and sat down, closed my eyes to let the brilliant sun dry them. There were birds chirping in the distance, the sun was warm and kind to me. And I thought about this regret, and about Mom, and about all the things I wish I had done before it was too late. Not big things. Little things. Little kindnesses, small acts of love, easy things to do for someone else that one can easily do. Being there for them. Making an effort.
Under this sunny sky, as the light poured through my closed lids and cast some clarity on my thought, suddenly it became so obvious to me: It is not the things in life we do that we regret the most. It is the things we have left undone.
As this simple realization sparkled in my head, a bird, I don’t know what kind, suddenly sang an insistent song that sounded like a voice, like a person speaking, right above my head in the tree. The bird sang “You see, you see, you see?…..You see, you see, you see?”
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