As this Sunday marks eighteen years since you died, we have a lot to catch up on. Your little grand-daughter who sat on your bed and enriched that last month of your life by making you watch Telly Tubbies is midway through her sophomore year in college. She is compassionate, lovely, graceful and strong. I often wonder if she would remind you of me at that age. One of countless questions I wish I could ask you.
I found out that I was pregnant with your grandson six weeks after you died. I think in a way he saved my life. When the hospice nurse came to collect your medications mere hours after the stoic men in black suits wheeled the stretcher with your body on it down the driveway, I stuffed one bottle of morphine pills and the remainder of your Lorazipam in the pocket of my jacket. That first month after you were gone, I couldn’t sleep without some kind of medication. I couldn’t shake from my mind images of your bald, gray body on the cold metal gurney in the dimly lit room of the funeral home. Your four children had gathered with daddy to say goodbye before they took you to be cremated.
We all gave you something to take with you wherever it was that you were going, something to be mingled with your ashes in the quiet patch of land at Newton Grove. Rosary beads, a poem, a photo. And Dad, who had immersed himself in work during much of your illness, leaned against a wall, against his children, and against the gurney for support before he gave you one last kiss.
As we departed in disbelief, your middle daughter waited until we all passed the threshold to give you her parting letter. It was likely not filled with kindness, but hopefully it helped her get the angst of her childhood out of her system and freed her in some way to imagine words like guilt and cruelty turning to ash along with her mother’s bones. Three years later I received my own letter from my sister, severing our relationship. None of her siblings have heard from her since. I know it would break your heart to think of the fracture in your family.
So I’d nearly finished the Lorazipam and morphine and I was wondering how I’d sleep without them when I discovered that my weight gain could not be attributed solely to my grief-fueled chocolate consumption. I was pregnant. I immediately called the Teratogen Hotline. They assured me my baby would be healthy but I had to stop the medications immediately. In an attempt to block your lifeless image, I went to bed at night looking at photos from when you were younger than I am today: when I was nine and threw your surprise thirtieth birthday party. When I graduated from college and you were exactly twice my age at 42. When you were smiling at my wedding with flowers in your hair just a year before your diagnosis. I taught myself to count my blessings as I drifted off into restless sleep, the way you counted yours even when your challenges seemed insurmountable.
That baby boy who saved me is a teenager now. He is bright and funny, a kindhearted gentleman who plays rock music on his guitar and kissed me goodbye in front of the High School on his first day of Junior year even though his friends were watching.
Daddy got remarried to a woman he’d only known for seven weeks. We tried to welcome her into the family. We wanted him to be happy. At first he seemed giddy as he and his wife talked about traveling the world and moving from that house where you raised your children and celebrated every holiday with decorations in the bay window that looked out over the fruit trees and azaleas. But you know dad. He’s not one for change and they rarely went anywhere except to submarine veterans conventions along the eastern seaboard. He couldn’t see leaving a house that he owned free and clear. I imagine those walls covered in our family photos closed in on her. Eventually she left, and her parting gift was to put yours and daddy’s wedding portrait on the mantle next to the bridal photos of all of your children. At least you know that you could not be replaced.
But I wonder if you would have stayed with Daddy had you lived. We tend to glorify the things we miss and bury the rough-edged stuff in our memories. Dad has turned your marriage into an ideal in his mind, but I don’t think he remembers or maybe even noticed that you weren’t all that happy before your diagnosis. You certainly weren’t happy that he rarely accompanied you to doctor’s appointments. I remember asking you when I was a teenager if you’d have married him if you had it to do over again.
You said “Of course, because if I hadn’t married him, there’d be no you.”
But when I asked you again when you were sick, you said “Probably not.”
“But then you wouldn’t have had me!” I protested.
“Well, I’d have had other children I’m sure and I’d have loved them just as much.”
We both laughed. But I think there was a current of truth running through that comment. Truth coupled with exhaustion at having to bare your illness with a partner incapable of being present. He lost his own mother to breast cancer when he was nine. The depth of his heartbreak was profound.
When we look at photos of you at my age, the age you were when I got married, my children assure me that I look younger and dress more fashionably. I don’t know why I like to hear that, but I do. Yet I see you when I look in the mirror, the crepe skin of my eyelids and the freckle-splattered chest. The way my eyes are puffy in the morning and my inability to see well enough in the mirror to pluck my brows effectively.
I am not finding your last words of wisdom as easy to follow as I would wish. When I asked you if there was anything you’d have done differently in your life and you told me that you’d never have wasted a minute worrying about your slightly pudgy body when in December of 1999 you’d have gladly traded your lopsided single-breasted shell so swollen with metastasis for the one you once lamented simply for a few varicose veins and a stomach that was more comfortable in stretchy pants and waist-less dresses. You said you’d never again complain about the wrinkles charting their course around your eyes or the neck that made you love winter and turtle neck sweaters.
I try to see the beauty in my veiny hands with their papery skin because they are yours and even don your rings. They have rubbed the brows of sick babies and baked chocolate chip cookies and pulled hair into ponytails and tied the laces on cleats and served holiday dinners and written cards to loved ones and wiped away tears. And I wish I could see your crooked smile, also much like mine, when you look at my greatest achievements as they sing and dance on stages, as they run on soccer fields, paint houses for the poor in Mexico or cuddle on the couch. They, too, have your bright blue eyes and I am trying to teach them, like you tried to teach me, to count their blessings.