My mother appears when I am in the linen closet folding bath towels. Straightening the washcloths or color-stacking the different sizes into neat rows.
I hear, clearly, “you have GOT to be kidding me,” the c-minor tone of her disapproval filling the closet. I am now fifty-six years old and my chest muscles still constrict the same way as when I was ten, fourteen, twenty-two, then my ears ring and a little vertigo shifts my gaze. I frown and peer in between the snowy face cloths, knowing better, but forced to defend myself, talk back into the soundless, empty closet.
“Go away. You know this is what I like to do!” I say, feeling like an idiot.
She has been dead twenty-nine years.
We joked about these encounters before she died. I shook my finger at her with a smile on my face, told her not to float out of the linen closet, that I was born tidy, and attentive to details — wasn’t she always glad one person in the family knew where everyone’s shoes were? So leave me alone. We got a good laugh but I think she had a twinkle in her eye, or that could have been the elevated morphine to dull the steady march of rogue ovarian cancer cells. Secretly adding ‘linen closet’ to her list of places to visit me ‘after.’ And adding to the many diverse places that grief can sideswipe me on any given day.
Twenty-nine years is a wink of time when you have loved someone so deeply and their death has re-landscaped your heart. Read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ book, On Death and Dying, written in 1969, the bible of sorts on what to expect from bereavement. I did, from cover to cover, the four years my mother was ill. Trying to anticipate how I would strategize through each stage when the time came. But denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, the Kübler-Ross model of grief, did not, as it happens, present in a straight line. Instead, I rocked and rolled in a scrambled, upside-down mess for a long time —years — after my mother died in 1986. The good news and the bad news is that the roller coaster continues today: I have come to realize over twenty-nine years that grief — the breath-snatching, heart-tearing, body-numbing strike of familiarity or sadness or even humor — presents itself, for the rest of your life, in utterly surprising and unsurprising ways.
Try reincarnation: My mother appears when my oldest daughter —conceived unknowingly in my mother’s final days and named after her — laughs, throwing her head back and gulping in air, so that I often have to look away, blinded by the sound, the tilt of head, the evenly shaped teeth so familiar it hurts.
And smell: When my youngest daughter sits down, pulls out a pencil, and draws a sketch of the scene in front of her I am swept back into my mother’s studio, looking over her shoulder as the lines magically fall from her fingers onto the page. My awe, and my own artistic talents, have not changed since kindergarten. Now I have another grown woman in my life who makes magic on the paper, who asks my opinion, who humbles me with effortless talent.
She complains, “Mom, what’s the matter with you, are you paying attention, what do you think? my youngest is impatient for praise and dismissive of any criticism, the sure-footed ego of an artist rebuilt from my mother’s DNA into hers so seamlessly. I stammer out admiration, while all the while the smell of old studio oil paint and my mother’s Balmain Vent Vert perfume fills my nostrils and stings my eyelids, making my mouth go dry and words to stick.
Always, memory: A month ago, when going through the death of a friend, my son came home for a family dinner. When our meal was over he stood up, cleared the dishes, and carried them into the kitchen where he proceeded to wash them all by himself, methodically and meticulously, bending his long frame over the sink and dishwasher in a steady, thoughtful rhythm. I let him be. His concentration and silence, his solace from this task, shot me back into the Bainbridge Island farmhouse kitchen in 1986, the summer my mother was dying. My brother, at twenty-three years old, carefully leaning over the sink, unscrewing the washer, tapping the faucet, running the water, silent but occupied, finding solace in his task, in this distraction, in his usefulness, while my mother’s breath grew shallow and infrequent in her bedroom upstairs. My heart broke for my brother then, my son now, and myself that we are veterans of death, survivors of loss, expert in the ways of sadness.
It is conceivable to say that we always grieve, because we will always remember. But I have come to understand we will be reminded in surprising and beautiful ways not so much heart breaking but consoling. I see my mother in my children. I hear her annoyed voice in the closet and laugh as I slam the door shut on her. I know how to stand aside and let grief work.
My mother would approve of her grandchildren. She will always give me a little shove and remind me to loosen up. She will always be with me in so many ways.
And I am glad.