The day my mother died was gray and cloudy with a light, cold drizzle. It was a fitting day for a death, actually—the type of day that you see in funeral scenes from movies and television shows. Our house was crowded with family members and friends who had come to say goodbye, but my brother and I were still going to school every day to retain some semblance of normalcy. I walked into her room that morning, the room where my mother lay dying, and her best friend urged me to “come and talk to [my] mother.” I wanted to do exactly that, wanted it more than anything, but she was already gone. The person dying in the bed was a shell of the woman she had been, frail and bald with a horrible rattling noise accompanying every labored breath. My mother was warm, vibrant, richly intelligent, funny, quick to laugh and quick to anger—to pretend that this pale ghost was her seemed like a disservice in my 13-year-old mind. I went into the bedroom and looked at her, but I did not speak before leaving for school.
Memory is a strange and flighty source of fact. I remember the morning before school vividly, as well as the afternoon once school was over, but I have only the haziest mental sketches of being at school that day. I know that I was there, and I can fill in the blanks with the mundane familiarity of being at the same school with the same classmates every day for seven years, but no matter how far I stretch my mind I can’t remember any of the specifics. My mother in her bed may have seemed like a ghost to me, but the truth is that I was also little more than a ghost at that time. I went to school and I had friends, but my sense of self was no more than an empty outline constantly grasping at any available identity to fill itself in. Any lost and grieving teenager is capable of immeasurable damage to their own psyche in their desperate attempts to escape reality, and I was no different.
I do remember very clearly being picked up from school that day. I can see the roundabout in my mind where parents pulled up to pick up their kids, the pavement damp with the sharp smell of rain’s early stages on that January day. I can see my grandmother, dressed all in black, getting out of my father’s car. That was my first clue, the fact that my father himself wasn’t picking me up. I got in the backseat with my grandmother (strangely, I don’t remember who was driving) and I can still vividly call up the nine words she said to me, tone and inflections included: “Lexi, your mom passed away very peacefully this morning.”
I wasn’t surprised. Deep down, I knew what had happened as soon as I saw her get out of the car. I wondered, idly, how my grandmother had found herself bestowed with the job of delivering the news to me. I wondered how peaceful a passing could really be when it was the passing of someone who was so very deeply not done living. I wondered what to do now, what this new identity of the grieving and motherless daughter would entail. I wondered, and still wonder, what exactly I should have said before I left my mother’s bedside that morning.
A light drizzle, a crowded house holding its collective breath waiting for the inevitable, a hospice bed beside an empty king-size bed where my parents once slept, my father’s car without him in it—these are all my sharpest images of the day my mother died. These are the scenes that live in my head, that so often threaten to crowd out other remembered moments—the trip to the beach with my mother and my best friend, the taste of the spearmint gum she always chewed (and shared with me) at choir practices, the note she left in my room before going to the hospital for brain surgery. Missing my mother is easy, but remembering exactly why she is so missed is an oft-painful journey that I am still undertaking to this day. I’ve made progress, though; when I think of her now, I challenge myself to call to mind the good memories before I let in the painful ones. Much of the time, this even works.