My mother is sitting at my dining room table with a book and a cup of tea. I remember that she loved to read, and loved tea. Although, in all honesty, I don’t remember ever seeing her actually sit down with a cup of tea. Or a book, for that matter. Eight children and mounds of laundry, cooking, and housework were what I remember. I remember slurping the dregs from her neglected, cold teacups and getting into trouble for “borrowing” her library books as a child.
“Mom, what are you doing here?”
“Reading. Having tea.” She set her book aside with a smile. She didn’t look tired, or sick, or any of the ways I remember her looking.
“I see that, Mom. But…you’re…” my voice cracked.
“Dead?” she asked softly. “Yes, I am. Grab a cup, sit down and join me”.
“Mom,” I am truly stymied. “Really, I have to get ready for work.”
“Pfft. They can wait. They don’t deserve you.”
“You know my employers?” I asked incredulously. I take a seat at the table.
“Oh, of course I know them. Certainly you know I’ve been there with you more than a few times.”
I knew exactly the times she is talking about. Wait. Hold on - is she really here talking? To me? My mom’s been gone for more than 30 years. But she’s at my table this morning and wants to chat. Who refuses their dead mother’s request for a visit? Not this gal. I have wanted this for years – no, dreamed of this for years. Work can wait. Work will wait.
“You were there when I told my students about colon cancer, and colostomies and screening and how you died so young,” I said, remembering one of many times I felt her presence in my classroom.
“Yes, I was there,” she said, her voice soft like I remember. “ You weren’t going to tell them. About me, I mean.”
“No, I…I didn’t think I could talk about you without crying. I felt you there, though, and I didn’t want even one of them to know what it was like to lose a parent so young. I wanted them to nag their parents if they had to so they would get screened for cancer.”
“I’m glad you told them. They love to hear about your stories, about being a nurse and nursing school and your kids and grandkids. Your surgical scare, your broken ankles. Your concussion. They just love your stories. ”
“I know,” I smile. “I try to always tell them the truth – about how hard it is to be a nurse sometimes. How saving someone isn’t always the happy ending you think it will be. How dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. How some patients fill your heart with joy, some with sadness, some with terror,” I laughed.
“They love you,” she smiled.
“Well…” I can’t think of anything to say.
“Did you ever want to have a job? I mean besides being a wife and mother?” I ask her. I am ashamed that I don’t already know the answer to this question.
“Oh, that doesn’t matter. I was too busy with such a big family. I wanted to get my high school diploma someday, and would have if…” her words trailed off. “Women didn’t have careers so much then, you know. They were expected to stay home, care for their families. I really did want to finish raising my kids though…” her voice trailed off again. We are both silent.
“But look at you. A college professor and all. A nurse,” she changed the subject brightly – and I remember her doing just that, always deflecting the focus away from herself.
“Mom, “ I start slowly, not sure what words would come next. I remember her playing along with Jeopardy on television – keeping score and for an uneducated woman, knowing so very, very much. I remember seeing her standing at the stove, silent tears streaming down her face, stirring another pot in an endless stream of meals. I remember sitting beside her on the couch when she told me, without looking at me, that I could leave if I didn’t feel safe but that she hoped, no – prayed, that I would stay. I remember her pain and her terminal illness. Her wasting away before our very eyes. Her selfless, shy ways. The wit and humor which never left her. I remember her hands, so much like my own, with short puffy fingers and soft, flimsy fingernails. I remember her hugs; her soft arms and cushiony warmth. The way she smelled of Jergen’s cherry almond hand lotion. And, sometimes, like onions.
“Mom,” I close my eyes and start again. I want to ask her so many things – how she managed so much sickness and pain in her 42 years on earth. How she managed abandonment, infidelity, cruelty, and disappointment without anger or bitterness. How she forgave so easily. How she asked so little for herself yet always had so much love to give. How she could bear to leave her children.
I am suddenly ashamed. Mortified by my whining and bitching and the definite lack of grace I have been exhibiting lately. Ashamed of my pissy attitude and ungratefulness. I am embarrassed by my incessant irritation with my first world problems; by my impatience and unhappiness. Ashamed for not appreciating the health and bounty and opportunities placed before me each and every day. For not appreciating that I am given, undeservedly, a new and beautiful chance at happiness each and every day.
“Mom,” I open my eyes to try again. She is not there, of course - but she is not really gone, either. I get up from the table and go to the kitchen to start my morning coffee. I stop. I reach into the cupboard and take down the tea instead.