Archive for January, 2011

The List

Friday, January 14th, 2011

It is 8:00am; I’m sitting on an old wooden chair in my mother’s dining room, a huge handmade table for twelve looming beyond. The house is set on a small hill in Andover, Vermont. An August sun has already made its way up into the sky above us. The humid summer country air leaves a heavy musty odor in the air, along with the faint smell of the wood burning stove, saved for the chillier days to come. My stepfather, Kevin, is frantically fixing that old green wooden chair, the very one that my mother nagged him for months to fix. Suddenly my thoughts stray to the thought that I will never see my mother thank him for fixing it, nor the lighted excitement in her eyes when the children and I visit. Reality hits me like a toddler running at full speed, crashing with abandon, unaware. I would never see or hear my mother do anything ever again.

Last night at 10:05pm, August 6, 2006, my mother squeezed my hand, her eyeballs fluttered behind her closed eyes, her breath a constant rattling for the last sixteen hours of her life just stopped. A strange gurgling emerged from her mouth and chest; her hand became limp in mine. I lay there next to her in bed, where she chose to end her four year battle with lymphatic cancer at age fifty. My head screamed NO! NO MOMMY, COME BACK! DON’T LEAVE US! Instead I whispered, “I love you” and yet I felt her around me. I hated her for leaving. I admired her courage to fight this long. My mother died on my shift. My sister was sitting on the floor with her back to the bed reading. I began to feel guilty, for every second I let pass and didn’t tell her. She is more fragile, she will take this harder. My sister took care of her, she changed her diapers in the end, when the three brain tumors pressed up against her spinal cord and she couldn’t walk. I came on the weekends, my mother told me not to disrupt the children’s life in New York. I had distance and six months of shock, fear, sadness to work over me, cocooning me from a breakdown.

“Kevin, why in God’s name are you fixing that chair, right now?”

He looks up at me; his pale blue eyes lost, in the anguish, “Your mother has been naggin’ me to fix this for some time.”

I turn away unable to endure his pain along with my own. I look out the big square New England window, just past a mound of grass to the garden my mother was so adamant about finishing before she died. I didn’t understand how a garden mattered so much in the last months of her life. I am numb.

I hear Kevin say, “Mil, can you go into your mother’s purse and get out her social security card please?”

I search my mother’s light brown leather “Mom purse” for her wallet. I rifle through it for that signature red, white and blue card. I hand it to Kevin, he takes it with little recognition, and he is just keeping busy. The memory of last night assaults me once more. I look back down at her wallet, I begin to look through it, a receipt, some business cards and I pull out a small piece off white paper folded in four. My mother’s handwriting stares back at me. My throat tightens. At the top of the paper it says, “Personal Goals.” Below those words is a list of the things my mother wanted to accomplish. None are crossed out. A few are so mundane that I am shocked, “Take Vitamins, Paint House, Make time with Friends, Get into Cooking and Baking.” I am sad that they are on the list. Some are larger goals, “Lose 40 Lbs. Quit Smoking, Attend Collage, and Take up Painting.” Off on the side, added afterwards I assume, “Get into Gardening.”

I glance back at her garden, I feel the impulse to find a pen and check it off for her. Somehow I cannot find the strength to do it. Maybe she can come back, I immediately check my sanity. Why couldn’t she be given the time to finish her list? I hear her voice, whispering faintly, “You do it for me.”
I look around, terrified, and am I crazy? I look back down to the piece of paper in my hand, sweaty with the humid summer air. How can I do it for her? Didn’t the cavewomen wish that instead of foraging they could make their food grow in the place they chose? I look at my mother’s garden once more. I look down and realize how many things on the list are on my own list. “Quit smoking, lose weight, go to collage.” I notice the ironic misspelling of college. A sliver of hope and renewal stabs at the pain inside of me. It is not time for that though; it is time for mourning.

Later, I look at the list, “Exercise daily.” I run a five mile race. Check. I realize I want more from the life I have and decide it’s best to divorce my husband, because of a many reasons. I surround my mother’s list with inspirational quotes; my favorite is from Alice Walker, “In search of my mother’s garden, I have found my own.” I quit smoking, twice, check. I apply to college, my ex-husband calls to demand to know how I can be so selfish as to go to school and what good will it do. I ignore him, but it hurts. My children are supportive. I keep going on. My mother whispers “Do it for me.” I make dean’s list; I never went to high school, not even one day. I’m shocked. I am so scared, but I look at her list and remember that August day.