My mother died on Christmas Day, at home, around three in the afternoon. In the first months afterward, I felt an intense desire to write down the story of her death, to tell it over and over to friends. I jotted down stray thoughts and memories in the middle of the night. Even during her last weeks, I found myself squirrelling away her words, all her distinctive expressions: “I love you to death” and “Is that our wind I hear?”
If I told the story of her death, I might understand it better, make sense of it—perhaps even change it. What had happened still seemed implausible. A person was present your entire life, and then one day she disappeared and never came back. It resisted belief. She had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer two and a half years earlier; I had known for months that she was going to die. But her death nonetheless seemed like the wrong outcome—an instant that could have gone differently, a story that could have unfolded otherwise. If I could find the right turning point in the narrative, then maybe, like Orpheus, I could bring the one I sought back from the dead. Aha: Here she is, walking behind me.
It was my mother who had long ago planted in me the habit of writing things down in order to understand them. When I was five, she gave me a red corduroy-covered notebook for Christmas. I sat in my floral nightgown turning the blank pages, puzzled.
“What do I do with it?” I wanted to know.
“You write down things that happened to you that day.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because maybe they’re interesting and you want to remember them.”
“What would I write?”
“Well, you’d write something like ‘Today I saw a woman with purple hair crossing Montague Street.’ ”
I still remember the way she said that sentence: Today I saw a woman with purple hair crossing Montague Street. It is one of those memories that I carry around, and always will, like the shard of a shell that falls out of a bag you took to the beach for a long summer.
I hadn’t seen a woman with purple hair crossing Montague Street, of course. But in that sentence was my mother’s sense that one might want to capture the extraordinary, her grasp of children’s love of the absurd, her striking physical presence—in my memory, she was leaning toward me, backlit, her black hair falling forward—and her intuition that my seriousness needed to be leavened with playfulness.
My brothers and I spent an inordinate amount of time with our mother when we were children, not only because we went to school where she worked, as the head of the middle school, but because she loved being with kids. She was a bit of a child herself. She had married when she was seventeen, and in some ways never lost the teen-ager inside her. Over the summer, she would study the names of Northeastern birds in her Audubon books and, with utter focus, write a list of the ones she’d seen. She had a vivid sense of what makes children feel safe, and she believed in a child’s experience of the world. Students trusted her, even when they’d been sent to her office and she was asking them why in the world they had done whatever it was they had done.
She spent hours with my brothers and me, making gingerbread houses or sledding or cutting out paper snowflakes. She taught us all to make apple pie, and read “The Black Stallion” out loud to us at night—though she also had a habit of promising to read a book out loud and then giving up partway through. The boxes of memorabilia she kept for each of us were always disorganized. One of the things I found there after she died was a card I had made for her birthday when I was about six. It began:
I LOVE YOU.
I LOVE THE STORIES
YOU MAKE WITH ME.
On a hazy October morning, after months of chemotherapy, my mother and I drove down to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in the near-dark, listening to traffic reports like all the other commuters. The cancer had spread to her lungs and her liver. This wasn’t likely to be a story that ended well. But, in a last-ditch effort, we had enrolled her in an experimental treatment program. I thought, darkly, that the creeping cars around us were like souls wandering in Hades. My mother was quiet. I worried that she resented my fussing about what she was eating and whether my father had given her the right pain medication.
I had often picked my mother up after her chemo treatments, but I had never seen one in progress. It is a brisk business. Needles and bags are efficiently hustled into place, as if it were not poison that is about to be put in the body. The nurses were funny and frank, though they’d just met my mother. As the drugs slid up the IV into her arm, we watched stolid barges plug up the Hudson like islands, the water silver in the haze. I read poems, and she asked me about poetry.
“I don’t really understand it,” she said. “I never have. Do you think you could teach me to read a poem?”
I said that I could.
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