My mother flew away on Friday night. I think the cage door had been open for a while, but whether she hadn’t noticed or had her own reasons, she waited until Friday, February 20, 2015. After my father left her side and went home to his bed, she slipped out.
I believe she circled the globe a time or two, flitted past the moon, dodged a few stars and came to rest on the outstretched finger of her Maker. She’s always been His songbird.
“Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Those words of Jesus suddenly hold much comfort. Even in his moment of great agony, Jesus confirmed death was a transition from one dimension to the next. His spirit wasn’t being snuffed out like a candle between the sweaty fingers of his captors. He was moving on.
I’m surprised Mom stayed in her husk of a body as long as she did because moving on was something she was always attracted to. By the time I was twenty-one, she and my father had moved more times than I was years old. I have often wondered if she was searching for the kind of home she would never find this side of the Milky Way. But whatever the motivation, with all those moves under her belt she became a bit of an expert on interior design.
Mom loved to make things pretty.
Whenever I came home from boarding school—whether it was to a thirtieth floor apartment downtown Manhattan, a modest suburban place on the Island, or a 100 year old barge of a house on Lake Champlain—she’d made it lovely even if she had to knock out a wall or two to do it.
This knack for improvement extended to people as well. My parents hired a workman to help with the renovation of the Lake Champlain house. His name was Herb. Herb was a nice looking man, but he had a growth the size of a golf ball sticking out of the side of his head. He was about forty and still single. “Of course he is,” my mother said. “His can never be alone with a woman. He’s always got his friend along.”
We all wondered how long Mom would be able to take it before she pointed out the elephant on Herb’s head. She lasted about a month. “Can you get that thing taken off?” she blurted one day. Herb wouldn’t have come back, I’m sure, but he needed the money. Mom worked on him day after day, chiseling away at that growth on his head.
When the house was finished, Herb went on his way probably relieved to put some distance between himself and my mother. We didn’t hear from him for quite some time. One day, he showed up at the back door with a cute blond on his arm and nothing but hair on his head. He’d stopped by to introduce his new fiancé to Mom.
She saw possibilities others turned a blind eye to.
When my dad retired from publishing, he and Mom moved to Pasadena to manage a homeless shelter. The first thing she did was redecorate the building, then she went to work on the residents. She believed underneath the dirt and scuff marks, behind the misplaced walls, hidden by ugly growths there were gems waiting to be uncovered. And, she found them. Over the years, in various ministries from California to Connecticut, Mom helped those who believed they were bankrupt discover their true value. And, as Herb could attest, she did it with gusto.
My mother wasn’t a quiet woman. She spoke her mind, sang big songs, played dramatic piano pieces and filled our lives with resonance. She was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. Her areas of focus were voice and piano. Some sopranos sing lilting, sweet melodies. Some pianists play music to sooth the soul. Not my Mom. She preferred opera to operetta, Chopin to Bach, minor to major, augmented to diminished.
Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around her baby grand.
I loved watching her tiny hands travel deftly across its black and white expanse filling the house with music. Often after school I would sit upstairs in my parent’s bedroom and watch Gilligan’s Island with the sound on low so I could hear her voice students bellowing below in the living room. And, of course, there was Christmas.
Every room of our home was festooned during the holiday season. I believe she had a secret competition going with Macy’s. She wasn’t about to be bested by the department store’s windows. Once the lights were up, the turkey in the oven and the family gathered, it was time to sing. Aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents all joined in Joy to the World, The First Noel and her favorite, What Child is This. She loved it, not only because of the minor, melancholy key, but because it told the story of a mother’s love.
For me, the hardest part of her later years was the silence.
One Mother’s Day I called Dad and he put the phone up to her ear so I could wish her a happy day. It had been a year since she’d been able to speak, so I had prepared my monologue. I prattled on about the kids, the dog, the weather, anything I thought she’d enjoy hearing about. When I ran out of things to say, I ended by telling her I loved her. After a quiet moment I heard the clear, emphatic words, “I love you too.”
Those were the last words my Mom ever spoke to me and they were the perfect words. I am a mother myself. I know despite occasional stormy weather there is only one overriding, cascading, waterfall of an emotion that pours from my heart to my children—love. No matter what state my mother lived in, Massachusetts or Idaho, lucid or free falling, she felt the same. She loved me with an unconditional, uncompromising love.
In the dark hours of the morning of Saturday, February 21st, I woke suddenly and knew she was gone. I believe she stopped by to look at me while I slept the way she did when I was little and brushed my bangs from my forehead one last time before winging away.
I miss her.
It’s hard to be separated, but I know she’s busy. She’s knocking out walls, decorating rooms, planning her play list and getting everything ready for friends and family the way she’s always done. When I’m in that place between waking and sleeping, right before I drift off, I can hear the music.