Gifts from the dead

I had been married for almost three years. We had a baby girl. I went back home to be with Mom for what would be her last month. I spent my days feeding Mara mashed bananas and rocking her to sleep, propping Mom up on pillows and sitting by her while she slept, slipping out of the house with my Dad or sister to grab a milkshake and look at each other blankly and make terrible jokes to distract ourselves.

My daughter was healthy, vibrant, growing, expanding, full of life and energy.

My mother was withering, aging years every day, literally shrinking, changing color as the toxins filled her body, hunching over, diminishing, disappearing.

She had always been beautiful. Sparkling smile, soft skin, clear blue eyes. She was still beautiful, but she aged 20 years in that last month.

At 56 years old, she looked like she was 75: her skin was lined and yellow, her lips tight and drawn up, her bones jutting out, her body feeble, her hands shaking. When her hair first fell out, we bought her and Mara matching hats: white crocheted berets, stretchy and soft.

Mom died. We buried her. Everything was wrong. Hundreds of people came to her funeral. Nothing made sense. I bought a black maternity dress, because I was pregnant with our second child. We didn’t know the gender yet. Mom had bought a few things when I told her I was pregnant, when she still felt well enough to go shopping. A blue baby blanket. She said, “I don’t know, I just think this one is a boy.”

He was born five months after Mom died. I wrapped him in a gift from his dead grandmother.

I wish I had thought to tell Mom we might have more children. I wish I had said, “Let’s go shopping, and you pick out some things for my other children, just in case. Just in case I have more. Just in case you’re not here. I want them to know some part of you. I want them to have something from you.”

I wish I had done that.

The last gift she gave me was a coffee mug and a little wall hanging that says, “My daughter’s turning out just like me. Lucky girl.” I used the coffee mug every morning. I sobbed when it was knocked off the counter and broken on the tile floor in my kitchen. I almost kept those broken pieces. In the end, I threw them away. I don’t need more broken pieces in my life.

You don’t think about that, before the death. You don’t think about those little gifts and what they mean.

Maybe you think about heirlooms and mementos, jewelry, photos. Significant things. Sentimental things. But you don’t really know what will be a significant sentimental thing.

I value most what she picked out for me herself, on a normal day, without a lot of forethought or intention, a little gift we used to call “a happy.” Those little things are full of her, her personality, her being.

It is 10 years without her today, and I am still finding little things like that. Little gifts.

Memories, mostly. Flashbacks and reminders of single, perfect moments. Conversations or moments that were mundane in their nature, everyday events that didn’t seem significant. They didn’t get written into a journal or photographed and hung on the wall.

It took three years before I could picture Mom as she was, before cancer. I was stuck at first; I could only picture her sick, suffering, in pain, skeletal, weak. Not her. Cancer-her. The grief was so much worse, because I lost my Mom, living, and my Mom in my memories. A lifetime of joy and energy and health eaten up by those years of disease.

Now the memories come, all of them, and I receive them as gifts.

Sometimes they hit me with a flash of clarity, and I’ll see a little bit more into Mom and who she was and what she felt. I’ll get it, suddenly. Some experience or growth in my own life lets me understand something similar in hers.

It’s haunting to have that understanding without her here, accessible. I can’t call her and say, “Mom, I totally get it now!” I have those conversations in my head. It’s bittersweet.

But it’s also a gift. It’s a moment of connection with a person I miss. It’s the only way I have to reach out, across these physical boundaries, across space and time, and reach her.

These moments are gifts. They bring the pain of separation, but they also bring love. I accept them with gratitude.