[NOTE: this piece was published with some minor changes and a different conclusion (and much better visual design) as “A Death of Coincidence” as part of Fray Quarterly Issue 3, “Sex & Death” in November 2009.]
As I was looking over our luggage, making sure we had everything needed, Kat called my name. Something in her voice made me drop everything and stride quickly into the kitchen. She was staring at the counter.
"They're blooming," she said flatly. "They're... blooming." Disbelief now, as she turned her eyes to me.
And they were. Sitting on the counter was a pot containing African violets given to us at the funeral of Kat's aunt, four years previously. For all that time, Kat had tried everything she could think of to make them bloom. She'd consulted many times with my mother, an official Master Gardener, duly recognized by the state of Ohio. For all Mom's advice and assistance, they had never once bloomed.
And now, a scarce thirty hours after my mother's death, a single purple flower nestled atop the leaves.
Three weeks after Mom's death, I got up early to cook eight batches of coconut shrimp risotto. I was doing it for a charity event, representing Kat's place of work, helping to raise money for a women's shelter. Mom had looked forward to being there; had called twice to confirm the date.
During the event, I discovered by chance that the cook standing to my left, who was serving a sort of meatball stew, had lost his mother just six days before. He and I quickly discovered that the awkwardness everyone feels in not knowing what to say is universal: when I told him my mother had died three weeks previously, he expressed a muted surprise, and then there was a silence. Of everyone in the entire room, he and I were most likely to be the ones who knew what to say to one another, but we had no idea. We felt as awkward and uncertain as anyone else.
It confirmed for me that when a person loses a loved one, there really isn't anything to say other than, "I'm sorry." And when you've lost someone and you receive an expression of sympathy, there really isn't anything to say except, "Thank you." The words sound stupid and trite, small and inadequate, but our language—or, perhaps, our humanity—has yet to find something meaningful to say in the face of mortality. The best we can do is say something to indicate our empathy and sympathy. The best that can be done in return is to say something expressing gratitude not only for the sympathy, but for the reminder that we are truly not alone.
Standing in a downtown hotel ballroom, dishing up bite-sized portions of what I'd titled Carribean Sunrise Risotto to total strangers, I learned something important about life and humanity. A small something, perhaps, but an important something. In a small way, I grew up a little bit more.
I wished I could go back a month and share what I'd learned with Mom. It might have made her passing a little bit easier to know that there were lessons she could teach even after death.
I learned another of those lessons just a few days after she died.
What I learned was that after Mom's father died, she had been looking for a way to use the money he had left her to help others, as he had requested. (Not that he had to ask.) Mom had read about a particular community health project in the paper and thought for a while before deciding that she wanted to give the money to them. She thought very highly of their efforts to prevent low birth-weight babies by making sure low-income women have proper prenatal care.
So Mom called the project's number and asked to speak to someone about making a donation. The woman said she could take the information to have someone call back, and asked how much Mom would be donating. Mom told her.
There was a silence—a dumbfounded one, I'm sure, because it was a fairly substantial sum. The woman asked Mom to confirm what she'd just said, which she did.
"You're an angel," said the woman, awed, and meant it literally.
As that conversation was taking place, the project's board of directors was in a meeting to determine whether the project would have to be shut down for lack of funding. They were literally raiding every funding source they could find, including their own pockets, to keep the project going until its next year's funds came through. They were writing down a list of who would be let go in a last-ditch effort to keep things running for the next three months. Mom's donation erased all but a few hundred dollars of that need. Mom literally saved the project, and at the last possible hour.
It's too convenient a turn of events to stand up in a movie; no audience would buy it. It just doesn't satisfy to have the whole struggling noble-yet-doomed enterprise saved at the last moment by some White Knight from out of nowhere, this external beneficiary unhinted at throughout the rest of the script, who is herself afflicted with an incurable disease and will be dead within a few weeks.
But in real life, it does far more than satisfy. It gives one pause. Such events really do happen. Saviors do appear at exactly the right moment. One person's generosity can make all the difference in the world.
It is an incredible gift that Mom gave them, but I think an even greater gift is given to those who hear the story: a moment of purest hope for ourselves, and for the future.
I wish I could tell her.
A few hours after getting word that Mom had no more than a week or two to live, I called to tell her I loved her. She was disoriented and her memory was shattered; she asked me twice who was calling and repeated the same sentence three times. She asked who was calling not because she didn't recognize me, but because she'd forgotten that we'd been speaking at all. When she said she loved me, I could hear it even through her raspy, exhausted voice.
I hung up and wept. She had always feared losing her mind, and now it was partly gone. Not in the ways she'd truly feared, the ways where she didn't know who we were any more and started screaming at us to get out of her house. Not like that. But still diminished.
I wiped away tears, looking blurrily at our back yard. Less than a week before, Mom had walked through our tiny garden with Kat, examining new growths and pulling up weeds. Afterward, we'd all gone to lunch at a local diner. Now she could barely stand or keep a grip on the passage of time.
At 11:47 that night, as I was composing e-mail to send to editors, colleagues, and bosses, the phone rang. I picked it up with the same feeling of dread I'd had every time the phone had rung for the previous twelve hours. Even when you have a week or two left, you still fear the worst.
Sometimes, that fear is justified.
"Eric?" came my father's voice from the receiver.
There was momentary confusion as Kat picked up another extension. "Eric?" my father asked again.
"I'm here, Dad."
There was a short pause, maybe half a second that I desperately wished would never end.
"She's gone," he said.
And that was that.
Seven and a half months later, on a snowy Friday afternoon, the phone rang again. The man on the other end of the line told Kat that a little girl had been born, and that the birth mother wanted Kat and me to adopt her. The following Monday, we went to the hospital and saw the tiny little infant that was to be our daughter, with her pale, pale skin and thick shock of dark hair. She could barely open her eyes, knew little beyond the deep primary needs that fill an newborn's entire existence. When she was handed to me, she snuggled close to my chest and fell asleep.
Against all expectations, we'd gone from zero to baby in eighty hours.
Kat and I named our new daughter Carolyn in honor of my mother, a plan we'd formed in the wake of Mom's diagnosis and kept to ourselves for some time. We had hoped to be able to give the name to a granddaughter while Mom was still alive, to have her hold her namesake in her arms, but on Christmas Eve 2002, I told Mom our plan. She knew what I knew: that to tell her our naming plan was to admit that she wasn't going live long enough to see her grandchildren.
Every now and then, as we get Carolyn ready for bed, the wind-up musical mobile above her changing table will play a few notes completely on its own. Although I know this is caused when some subtle, physical vibration jars the winding spring, at the same time I feel the aching hope that Mom's spirit is visiting us—to send a song of comfort to Carolyn through the small bells of the mobile, to watch over her granddaughter as she sleeps.
I have found that when I read to Carolyn, there is a change in me. The words come out with inflections and pacing and tonalities that are not entirely my own. In those moments, it is as though my mother reads through me, although of course the truth is that my reading style was shaped by the way Mom read to me and my sister. Still, it is an echo of her, reflected through me. It is as close as Carolyn and her future siblings will get to their grandmother, and perhaps it is closer than most children in similar circumstances get. I am glad to be able to bring them even that much, to be able to hear a little bit of Mom in my voice. But I will always wish that another voice, a softer and wiser voice, were reading to them instead.
So much of grief is based on regret, and it is such things I regret the most deeply. So much we would have shared, mother to son, parent to parent, and cannot; so much love Mom would have given to her grandchildren, and never will. But she gave me the love and courage that I hope to give to my children, and I know that if they come to love me as much as I loved Mom, if they think as much of me as I do of her... then I will be truly blessed.
It is a gift I am humbled to have received, and am proud to give.
15 March 2005