My mother died two years ago today.
Her death was sudden yet unsurprising. She was only seventy, but her body and spirit were so very weary. Weary of weight and pain and medicine and needles and sugar counts. And of the countless limitations that ruled her: limitations on what she could eat, how far she could walk, how long she could sit in a car, on an airplane, in a chair, in a bed.
By the end, there was no comfortable place for her. Her obesity made even stillness excruciating.By the end, her mind—her beautiful, brilliant mind—was barely functioning. She didn’t know where she was. She only knew there was pain.
“I want to go home,” she told me the last time we spoke on the phone, even though she was sitting in her own living room. “Oh, don’t cry, honey,” she said, even though I wasn’t crying, I was being doggedly cheerful.
“I’m so happy to hear your voice, Ma,” I told her. “I’m so happy to hear you.”
And I was. In that brief, final sentence—“Oh, honey, don’t cry”—she was my mother again. Capable for a moment of seeing beyond her excruciating pain.
She was the mother who wanted to ease my burdens by assuming them herself, who could worry whether I was eating right and making friends and doing what I loved.
The mother who rejoiced when I went to law school and then applauded when I quit law to become a writer. The mother who taught me in middle school that an essay is shaped like an hourglass, starting with broad, generous strokes, narrowing to a honed, specific waistline, then broadening again into a graceful, sweeping conclusion.
The mother who could sit me down in high school when I was desperate for her approval about a boy, or maybe a paper I was writing, and tell me, “Honey, someday you’re going to make decisions that I won’t approve of, and that’ll be okay because if you’re happy with your decisions, my opinion shouldn’t matter.”
“Honey, don’t cry,” she said.
Now, on the anniversary of her death, I can’t help crying. Not constantly, though. She left such a marvelous legacy, a family that is tenacious and loyal. She and my father spent fifty-five years together, almost fifty of those as husband and wife. Those years were rarely harmonious, but, damn, there were some great ones.
She and my dad met when they were teenagers, children really—he was fifteen and she sixteen, the older woman, he liked to remind her. From the start they were both too opinionated and strong willed to avoid clashes.
Still, their life together was filled with laughter and teasing and a deep, abiding friendship.
At certain things they were an unbeatable team: raising children, spoiling their grandchildren, making decisions that put their family first. No matter what their differences, my parents were united in their devotion to the family they created together, to enjoying that family, making us feel loved, respected, and admired more than anything else in their lives.
Now that she has died, I realize there are stories that her grandchildren might never know unless we share them, stories that my brother, sister, and I used to beg my parents to tell after dinners with my uncles and aunts and grandparents gathered on the patio around a concrete table that resembled a massive spool of thread.
There’s the story of how Uncle Philly, my mother’s oldest brother, refused to introduce his sister to any of his friends at La Salle Military Academy because none of them was good enough for her. How finally one day he brought home a skinny Italian kid with jet black hair and a thick, dark unibrow. His name was Tony Sartor and he met my uncle’s standards: athletic, brainy, good looking and, best of all, a guy who knew how to cause some trouble without getting caught. My mother fell hard for this intense, dark boy who was almost as gorgeous and smart as she was.
Then there’s the story (one that predates cellphones) of how she dated other people while my dad was away at school, but how all the other guys knew that if Tony called her parents’ summer house while she was out rowing on the lake with them, they’d better be prepared to row her in immediately so she could take his call.
Or the story of how, after numerous years of dating, she announced that it was time to set a wedding date. Instead they broke up for a year until finally my father realized that life wasn’t the same without my mother challenging him to be better, try harder. Even though she already thought he was the best at everything.
To her, he hung the moon and instructed it when to wax and wane. He was the love of her life.
And there are so many other stories that we’ll tell.
Stories of my mother’s writing chops, the “Brains and Brawn” column she wrote for a local newspaper about her children’s antics, the elegant, lucid press releases that her company Marcrisart Media produced for so many businesses.
Stories of how she could make getting lost in the bowels of Newark at midnight into a fantastic game; of the hours she spent planning Christmas parties and Easter egg hunts and picking the perfect gifts for everyone she loved, of how she could laugh louder and longer than anyone in the room.
Despite the many stories about my mother’s vibrant personality, she never really appreciated her own best traits. What she mostly saw was her weight, which she thought kept her from leading an interesting life. In her mind, everyone around her was so much more exciting, so much more dynamic.
In her bio for a fiction class she took in the last years of her life, she wrote: “So, I haven’t been to India, or lived in China; haven’t crawled the jungles as a field reporter or led a life anywhere close to adventurous or sensational. But I have crossed paths with a hell of a lot of fascinating characters, who I know that I am able to make more fascinating by my writing.”
What she didn’t see, what I wish she had embraced, was that, to those closest to her, she was one of those fascinating characters.[bctt tweet=”She was a fascinating character, even if she didn’t know it.”]
What I hope for my mother now is that she is in a place where she is free of pain, free of weight, free of self-judgment, where she is so free and unencumbered that she can look down and realize what she was to us: our unifying force, our intellectual powerhouse, our raucous, silly, funny, wonderful light, our organizer of holidays and family vacations and art projects and movie nights and long talks about what’s going on in everyone’s lives.
Without her, the world is a dimmer, sadder place. But we will carry her humor, her intensity, her creativity and generosity forward into our own homes and pass those traits down through generations, so that she will always be with us and always be loved.
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Lovely, Colette. Thanks for sharing these stories and your feelings.
So poignant. Anniversaries are hard, and I hope sharing these moments of your mom help to remember her happily on a day when I’m sure you’d like nothing more than for her to hug you.