The woman was caught off guard. After all, she had talked with her mother not three hours earlier. Now, from 700 miles away, a nurse at the retirement home where her mother lived was calling about a "sudden crisis." Her mother was sent to the emergency room.
The ER nurse had seemed evasive. "You'll have to speak with the doctor," she said. "I'll put you on hold."
The woman kept telling herself it would be all right. Her mother, at 87, had a long list of ailments, and this sort of thing had happened before. Anyway, hadn't they talked just three hours ago?
When the doctor finally came on the line, she would remember only one thing he said: "I hate to have to tell you this on long-distance, but . . . your mother has expired."
Shock takes many forms. At first the woman fought it with anger. Anger at the doctor's word, "expired." Yes, she knew it was a medical term — but warranties expire, not people! Not mothers.
It was while she was packing a suitcase that reality hit. Ever since her teenage years she had used the word, "Mother." Always, "Mother." But now tears came, torrents of them, and she heard herself saying, "Mama . . . Oh, Mama, Mama.
The woman and her husband drove through the night, and the darkness made it somehow easier to confront visions of the past, voices of the present.
She recalled earlier times with her mother when, giggling, sharing secrets, they had seemed like sisters. Had even been mistaken for sisters. But as her mother aged through widowhood and advancing ailments, her universe narrowed, turned sharply inward, and there were frustrations on both sides.
Even at its best, the mother-daughter relationship is filled with complexities and contradictions — rocky shoals one day, a safe haven the next. Yet the woman believed this: The umbilical cord may be cut, but the tie of the womb is forever.
With remembrance came, unbidden and unwanted, echoes of guilt. For guilt and grief often mingle, and when a loved one dies, every slight, every failing — real or imagined — comes boiling to the surface. She recalled a book by Kaye Gibbons, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon. How appropriate on this day, this night. If only she could have been with her mother on her Last Afternoon. Did she know she was dying? Was she afraid? Please, God, let her have gone peacefully. Unafraid.
In the blur of the next few days, passing vignettes would become, in her mind, permanent fixtures.
A tearful daughter calling to ask, "Have you, uh, picked out what she's going to wear? You know, to be buried in?"
Yes. A jade green outfit.
"What about jewelry?"
She hadn't thought about jewelry.
"Well, you know how I'm always late with things, Mom. But this year I started my Christmas shopping early — and I, uh, bought her some earrings." The daughter's voice hits a higher pitch, the rest of her words coming out in sobs. "Do you think maybe she could wear them?"
Of course. She would have liked that.
A pastor at graveside repeats the familiar words, "Let not your hearts be troubled," as a 5-year-old reaches over and pats the woman's hand, the gesture recalling other words, "Except ye become as little children . . ."
Finally she faces her mother's room at the retirement home — and the task of emptying it. With the help of her husband and two daughters, it takes only one day. One day to divide, or dispose of, what remains of 87 years. A bed, a chest, tables, chairs. Clothing, cosmetics, medicines. Pictures by the numbers — hanging, framed, stuffed in drawers and boxes. All manner of "keepsakes." So many memories.
In the end, after everything is divided among grandchildren, donated to Goodwill, disposed of, all that remains of a lifetime fits into two small cartons. But it isn't "things" that matter, the woman realizes. Possessions fade. Yet the pull of the womb, and the heart, abide. Her mother had lived and loved, had laughed and cried, had done her best — and sometimes fallen short. Like the woman herself, like everyone else.
As she closes the door on her mother's room, she feels, not hears, a weeping inside. It feels like the voice of a child.
Mama . . . Oh, Mama, Mama.
Tampa Bay area resident Faith Barnebey spends her summers in Blowing Rock, N.C.