“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Athena humphed. But tears trickled out of the corner of her eyes. I put my arms around her. She started sobbing.
“Something bad at school?”
“We were starting a new unit on poetry. There was a book of Emily Dickinson poems…” Athena was crying too hard to continue. Finally she managed to squeak, “It reminded me of Grandma Lynnie.”
My mom was 73. She was a young 73. That day in mid November she had recently returned from a work trip to Mexico. She biked to her lab at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst every day and she went swimming at the pool there in the winter and across Puffer’s Pond in the summer. She had just taken on two new students. Like she had been for her whole life, she was full of energy and ideas, working on half a dozen projects at once, full of life.
In her home office on the third floor, writing a letter of recommendation for a former graduate student.
She did other things that day: she mailed a package to me and she bought tickets on a flight to come visit us in January. She was too busy to come for Christmas, she told me, but she would come before school started again.
I couldn’t open that package.
It arrived after she died.
I closed my computer. Athena and I hunkered down on the couch together crying and talking about Grandma Lynnie.
“I’m glad you miss her,” I said, tears streaming down my cheeks. “It’s good to remember.”
Athena nodded and clung to me.
“I wish she hadn’t died,” I said. “I know that’s how it’s supposed to happen. But I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t really think my mom would ever die.”
How could my mom, who was so full of life, whose theories revolutionized our modern understanding of evolution, who always had time to encourage and support other people, who was as eccentric and articulate as she was compassionate and impatient, be dead?
She never regained consciousness after the blood gushed out of a broken vessel in her brain.
My brother called me the evening she collapsed, as soon as he found out.
“It’s urgent,” he told James, who passed the phone to me in a rush of concern.
My toddler and I got on a plane at 5 a.m. the next morning. But I live so far away that I didn’t get to her bedside in the neurological ICU until that evening.
I grabbed the hand that wasn’t paralyzed. I leaned over and gave her an awkward hug. There were so many tubes. She was on a ventilator.
“I’m here now, Mom. It’s okay. It’s Jenny. I’m going to take care of you. Everything’s okay now. I’m here.” I put my hand on her chest and felt her heart race. The doctors opened her eyelids and showed me there was no consciousness behind them but I know she knew I was with her. She talked to me in my head. She told me what she had been telling me for twenty years: that she wanted to die at home.
“Maybe we should open the package today?” I suggested to Athena. It had been gathering cobwebs in the corner of my office. I just couldn’t bear to open it. She sent it to me the day she collapsed. After I opened it my mother would never send me anything again.
“Okay,” Athena said, drying her eyes.
By now the whole family was crowded into my small office. The baby wedged herself onto the couch. My 9-year-old son put an arm around me. Hesperus, my 13-year-old, came bounding in like a firefighter poised to stop a blaze. James stood beside the couch.
My mom sent me a white blouse embroidered with purple flowers that she got in Mexico, a country she has always loved so much. A country that has always loved her too.
She sent me a postcard of a pyramid from Uxmal, Yucatan.
And she wrote me a note in her signature lopsided scrawl but with an uncharacteristic lack of punctuation:
Pls call me when you find a quiet moment, no hurry
I wish you were here, Mom. I wish I could call you. I want to tell you how Athena wrote an essay about hiking for four hours in the hot sun; how when you’re on satellite TV, you sit in a pitch black room with floodlights blinding your eyes staring at and talking to a blinking red light, hearing the hosts in Toronto talk through an ear piece without being able to see them; how Roxanne Hawn’s dog Lilly has been severely damaged by vaccines and how she wrote about my book; how Denise Schipani is brave enough to admit she still feels bad about her births; how I miss you every single day.
“Still?” People ask me, surprised.
I wish we had a day of the dead in America like they do in so many other countries. I wish it were okay to admit to being sad.
I met a young mom this weekend who lost both her parents and three other relatives, all within a year, all before her own two sons were born.
It too much to bear alone.
I want to share her burden, carry some of the weight of that loss on my own shoulders for her.
Maybe if public mourning were more accepted, more a part of our culture, the pain of the death of a parent or a spouse or a child wouldn’t be as great?
Or maybe grief is always heavy, no matter how many loved ones and strangers share it with you…