This is the letter I wish I’d written before you died. There are things I wanted to tell you. Things that needed to be said.
I wish I’d told you how often thoughts of you fill my mind. Sometimes they come when I’m doing something ordinary like washing the dishes. I’ll hear your voice telling me to run some “hot, soapy water” and rinse the plates thoroughly, because “the dishwasher doesn’t have fingers.” It used to bother me because I thought you were admonishing me. But now I think of it fondly. I realize you were trying to teach me something.
There are other things you taught me long ago that I do automatically, like ironing clothes. I line up the seams on the pants and press them one leg at a time. Before I iron a silk blouse, I put a paper bag over it.
Every day I make my bed before I leave, even if I’m running late. At night I try to pick things up in the living room before I go to bed. “If something happens and the police come, you want your house to look nice,” you said. I used to scoff at this, thinking it was silly, but I find myself tidying up anyway.
The other night as I was cleansing my face before bed, I remembered the array of skin care products you used. I thought Mom wouldn’t like that I’m using cheap drugstore cleanser.
“You get what you pay for,” you would say. Your favorite was Estee Lauder—only the best for you—even though you didn’t need it. You were blessed with beautiful skin.
This morning I was sitting at my vanity “putting my face on” and thinking of you. I remembered the precise way you drew on perfectly arched brows. You were an artist, and your face was your canvas. Every day you created a new piece of work.
When I put on moisturizer, I sweep upward from my neck as you taught me. I usually spend too much time on my brows because I’m trying to get them perfect like yours, but I never can. Sometimes I’ll see myself in the mirror and for a few seconds, I’m startled. I’ll see your blue-green eyes, fair skin, and prominent cheekbones. It’s me, but it’s also you.
Where do you end and I begin, Mom? I’m not sure, because you’ve filled my head and my heart for so long. You own such a large piece of me that it feels like I’m carrying you with me everywhere I go.
I hear you telling me how to make black-eyed peas and cornbread for New Year’s Day. I remember your delicious tomato gravy, which I’ve never been able to duplicate. I can see you standing in the kitchen mixing up tuna salad, using tuna in oil and adding boiled eggs, the consistency and flavor perfect. Sometimes I’ll hear myself telling Wally to make sure he cooks the pork chops thoroughly. Pork must be done!
These memories are ingrained. They are like grooves on the highway. If I veer across the line, I hear the thump-thump-thump reminding me to get over. To do it your way.
Some days I picture you from long ago. I am 10 years old and you’re in your 30s, your lovely face dewy and barely touched by time, your pretty blonde cloud of teased hair. We’re in our avocado green kitchen in Bayshore West, Anchorage, Alaska. There’s a round table with vinyl chairs. Beads hang in the doorway. You’re standing at the counter chopping vegetables for beef stew and humming to yourself. You smell of Youth Dew (Estee Lauder).
I’m in charge of the cornbread. I pour the batter into hot oil in a cast iron pan, until it bubbles, and then finish it in the oven. When it’s done, I flip over the skillet and cut the bread into triangles like a pie. Each piece has a thick crust and moist center. It’s the southern way to make cornbread, handed down from your mother to you to me.
I hear you humming and try to pick up the melody, but there isn’t one. It’s not a song I know; it’s a sound you created, a mild buzzing that went up and down and didn’t land anywhere. It couldn’t be repeated by anyone. It was your song.
I didn’t realize then how comforted I was listening to you hum while you worked. You were so focused you probably didn’t know I was watching you, but I was. Hearing you made me a happy girl because you seemed happy. In those moments, you were all right.
Were you really, Mom? In retrospect all these years later, I’m not certain. I want to believe you were at peace, so I tell myself you were. Maybe not joyful but satisfied. Free. Able to breathe—the sadness inside you muted.
I know it’s too late to ask now. You always said I’d wait too long, and you were right.
“Don’t bring flowers to my funeral if you didn’t bring them to me when I was alive,” you said. I did send you flowers many times, but I know that wasn’t what you meant. That wasn’t all of it.
I should’ve asked you how you were—ten years or five years or six months ago. Not a breezy “Hi, how are you, Mom?” over text or phone, but a deliberate, sit-down, taking your hand and looking into your eyes: “Mom, tell me what is going on. How are you doing? What can I do to help you?”
So much wasted time. I could’ve asked two months ago. A week before you died. The day before you died. I had countless chances, but I ignored them.
I didn’t ask because I was afraid. I was riddled with fear, Mom, steeped in it. Consumed by it.
I was afraid you’d say you were miserable, and it was my fault. I wasn’t a good daughter. Not now, not ever.
I was afraid you’d say I wasn’t doing enough to help you, and it would be true.
I was afraid you’d expect me to keep coming back no matter what, even when you were not happy with me. Even when you pushed me away.
I was afraid I couldn’t live knowing I was a disappointment to you. Not just something I did, but who I was. Who I still am. The pain and the shame would be too much. I’d keep trying, keep striving to earn your love. Striving and failing.
I was afraid and desperate, Mom. A pathetic, needy 50-something woman still striving for a fantasy—a healthy, nurturing relationship with her mother.
I wanted your love—no, I needed it—so badly, it blinded me. It made me fearful and selfish. I could only see my needs, not yours. My pain, not yours.
It’s been seven weeks since you died, and I live with this question in my mind. It’s a sore that never heals. I’ll think I’m better and then I’ll make oatmeal raisin cookies. Whenever I visited, you’d leave the ingredients on the kitchen counter. I imagine making them for you, taking one warm from the oven and handing it to you on a napkin like a gift. I see you smiling as you bite into it, exclaiming, “Leener! This is delicious! My favorite!”
Or I’ll hear Vince Gill singing “Look At Us,” and see you crying. My heart sore will rip open again, bleeding regret.
Last week I was walking through Dillard’s when they announced free samples of cosmetics. On a whim, I stopped at a counter and let a saleswoman sell me an expensive cream. I felt guilty because it wasn’t Estee Lauder, your favorite. It was the next counter over. I told myself I’d call you later and ask if you’d tried this other brand. It was high-end so I thought you’d like it, and it was easy for us to talk about shopping and make-up.
Suddenly—as the saleswoman dabbed my face with foundation and prattled on—I felt a sob swelling in my throat and tears pricking my eyes. An image of you flashed before me, the last time I saw you. You looked breakable—so slight your head seemed perched on your body, your legs stick-thin. I took your arm and carefully walked you across the lawn to my car. It was just a short distance, but you were unsteady and winded. Your skin was whisper-thin and papery. It reminded me of Dad’s skin before he died.
When I hugged you, I felt the bones in your back. You were fading away.
We had three good days together, a really nice visit. We went to dinner and sat outside on your swing and chatted like girlfriends. We drank lots of iced tea and I played with Cody. One morning I brought you two glazed doughnuts and sat with you while you ate them. I was so glad to see you eat something.
I showed you videos and pictures of Dad on my phone, some just a few months before he passed away. I played songs I had played when I visited him. But when I got to his favorite, “Break It To Me Gently” by Juice Newton, you only made it halfway through. Your eyes filled with tears. You said, “Stop honey. I can’t stand that.”
I didn’t want to make you sad, so I played an upbeat song I would play for Dad when he cried, “Family Tradition” by Hank Williams Jr. He would always laugh, and you did too. So did I. It was so good to hear you laugh… to share that with you.
But the day before I left, you were sad again. I was talking and you started to cry. “What’s wrong, Mom?” I said.
“You’re leaving,” you said.
“Not yet, Mom. We still have all day tomorrow.”
But you weren’t hearing me. You said, “I don’t think I’ll see you again. I think this is the last time.”
I wish you had been wrong, Mom, but you were right. You were right so many times in my life about so many things I never acknowledged, but this was the hardest one to accept.
Just a few months after that day, I got the phone call no one wants to get. A call that filled me with cold dread when I saw the number because I knew it was bad.
Every day since then, I’ve thought of you. Not just once but all throughout the day. Most nights, I dream about you. I don’t remember much except you’re there. Wally says sometimes I cry and talk in my sleep.
Other times, I wake up feeling distressed. Something feels wrong. I’m unsettled the rest of the day, like a picture askew on the wall. I keep trying to fix it, but it wants to be crooked. I wonder if the Lord is trying to tell me something. Is the picture your life, Mom? Is that what is wrong?
Several nights ago, I dreamed Dad was dying and I was trying to tell him something. You were there, sitting behind me. I couldn’t tell how old you were, but you looked younger and healthier. You were in the background. I was really upset and anxious because Dad’s breathing was labored. His eyes were closed. I didn’t know if he knew I was there. Time was running out and I was near panic. I couldn’t see or hear you but in my mind, you said, “Be sure you tell him now, honey! Hurry!”
This dream haunts me. I don’t understand it because I told Dad everything I wanted to tell him. A few days before he died, I spoke with him. He was in pain but was mostly alert. I told him I loved him and what a wonderful father he was and how Jesus had prepared a place for him. And I said it again on the day he died. I got in the bed and held him while he struggled to breathe. I remember my tears fell on his face and I left them there for a while.
I don’t know why Dad was in the dream too, but if God is trying to tell me something about your life, Mom, then I want it to be something good. I want to I believe you knew joy. Not all the time, but at least sometimes.
But then I imagine your last day, your last hours, and anguish floods through me. I think of you alone in your apartment, clothes and trash piled up in your bedroom, Cody, your little dog, in the crate next to you. The social worker said you were on the side of the bed. Were you trying to get up? I wonder if you were scared or in pain, not able to get help. I picture you struggling and it’s more than I can stand. I close my eyes hoping to erase the image, but it remains.
I imagine your last moments on this earth, how lonely you were, and how much suffering you carried. The suffering you turned inward, so you smoked constantly and barely ate. The torment you turned outward onto others, so they stayed away. The anguish you tried to numb in so many ways.
I see you sitting in your rocking chair, a glass of tea on the table and a cigarette next to you, the TV blaring some inane show. Only Cody and internet con men to keep you company. Predators trying to take money from a lonely old woman. I know I’m not supposed to hate anyone, but I hate those men. On my last visit, I saw one man’s messages on your phone and your pleading responses. Rage burned inside me. I wanted to hurt him for hurting you.
You used to ask what you should leave me. Did I want your jewelry or clothing or purses? I didn’t like talking about it, but you persisted so I said your photo albums. All those old albums with the pages stuck together and random loose pictures falling out. That was all I could think of then, but now that you’re gone, I’ve thought of something else.
What I most want, Mom, is a do-over. I want to rewrite your story like one of my blog posts. I’ll delete the bad and add good. I’ll make it come out better. Your world will be full of lush, blooming colors bursting forth like Oz after Dorothy opens the door. No more black and gray but endless, winding ribbons of color.
I know it’s too late. I know it’s not possible, but it stays in my mind.
Your life would be joyous and full, each day packed with things you wanted to do and people you liked to see. Every week you’d dress up for church. Before the service, you’d go to your Sunday school class and sit with your women friends. You’d all go to lunch, tell stories, and laugh so hard you’d double over. “Maye, you are a riot!” one of them would say.
There was so much to do. You had your weekly book club, your bridge group, and your monthly dinner parties with another group of women friends. There were six of you and each took turns hosting it. I’d joke that your social life was better than mine. Not really a joke either, because it was true.
Your passion for gardening was evident in the array of gorgeous flowers in your backyard. You also liked cooking, especially making casseroles for your church group or a local charity. But all that aside, nothing made you happier than spending time with your family, especially your grandchildren. You’d go to their birthday parties and sporting events. When you got your hair done, you’d talk to your stylist about them non-stop and show her pictures on your phone.
And the rewrite of your story would also be a revision of our story: Mom and Leener, 2.0. There would be no strain between us. No long periods of silence. We’d be best friends, like the mothers and daughters I see in pictures on Facebook, arms entwined, beaming smiles and sparkling eyes.
Twice a month, Wally and I would have dinner at your house. You’d cook something I liked from long ago, spaghetti or goulash or that chicken covered in potato chips you made when I was a kid. Sometimes you’d try out a new recipe on us.
We’d talk every night before bedtime. You’d chat about your day even though we’d already talked a few times. I’d tell you about a woman at work who was giving me a hard time and you’d give me some tips on how to approach her. I’d hear Cody barking in the background. “Patsy’s at the door, sweetie.” you’d say. “We’re going to make popcorn and watch Steel Magnolias.” But always before we hung up, we’d pray together.
On Fridays, I’d pick you up for our regular outing. Your little yellow house was just down the street from me, so I was over all the time. Usually, we’d go shopping and to lunch. Other times we’d get mani-pedis and have croissants and mochas at our favorite coffee shop. Sometimes we’d wear matching shirts we’d bought the previous week. The barista would say we looked like sisters. “Thank you,” we’d both say at the same time, and then we’d laugh.
At least once a month, I’d get a little frustrated trying to reach you because your voicemail box was full. I’d text you but you were always leaving your phone around, so it was easier just to pop by your house. I’d drive up and find you in the yard watering your flowers. “Hi Leener,” you’d say, your face bright. “Come inside and I’ll get us some iced tea. I want you to try these peanut butter treats I got from the bakery. They’re delicious!”
Mom, it is seven weeks since your death, and this is what I think about every day. I wish I could write you a different story. It would end this way: I’d see you and tell you again how much I loved you. It would be the last thing you heard before you died. When you put your head on the pillow that night, you’d be at peace. You’d be smiling to yourself as you said your prayers.
Instead, I choose to remember how you were three years ago when I went to see you in Illinois. You were better then. We’d just come back from dinner at the Mexican restaurant across the street. I’d dropped you at the door. It was raining and I didn’t have a coat. You were wearing a pink and white polka dot raincoat.
“Here Leener, take this,” you said as you handed me your coat. “The car is far away.”
“No Mom, I’m ok. I don’t want to take your coat.”
“Take it honey,” you said. “You’re leaving tomorrow and it’s going to rain. You can’t travel without a coat.”
It hangs in my closet now, your scent long faded even though I still smell it. Whenever I wear it, I remember you, Mom. My heart aches when I think of how little you had that day and how easily you took off your coat and gave it to me.
It’s all I have left of you.