“Mi mamá me mima mucho”—a silly tongue twister that I use to have my students studying Spanish practice the five vowel sounds. We practice it slowly, emphasizing the tight, precise pronunciation of the vowels; then we practice it with speed, attempting a fluidity we hope to capture over time. We use this easy tongue twister at the beginning of class for the first week or so, and I tell the students that they can call me, stop by my office, or find me around campus to recite it perfectly for extra credit. Like most tongue twisters, the emphasis is on the sound, not the meaning. Nevertheless, the “my mother spoils/pampers me a lot” meaning of this tongue twister has kept entering my mind over the past few weeks. While I am not entirely comfortable writing about my mother being sick or my feelings of gradual, and now imminent, loss, I also feel like I can’t write about anything else right now. Not about terrible governance, unfettered violence, bad politics, or rife social injustice. There will be no informative links today, no self-assured comments about everything I know I’m right about. I mostly just need to keep raining, at least for a little while, even if this isn’t really the point of the Gender Shrapnel Blog.
Last week I dreamt of being chased by a large bear, whose cubs seemed underfoot the whole time I ran. I ended up in a beautiful treehouse enclosed by glass, scrambling to an uppermost branch which appeared also to be a coffee table. As I peered down from this perilously high perch, the cubs were playfully trying to join me, and the mother bear was nowhere in sight. When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t shake the dream. I kept mulling it over, ignoring the obvious signs of what the dream was trying to work out. When I googled “dreaming of being chased by animals” and “dreams about bears,” the quick results managed to take me by surprise and bring a fresh well of tears to my eyes. I was dreaming about my mother, worried about her cubs, one of which I was (or am). I was dreaming about slow decline and hospice and loved ones and fear and loss. I was dreaming about this end stage of life that is such a challenge for us and those around us. I was dreaming about our perilous perches that barely hold us against the devastation and desperation of the biggest loss of our lives. I suspect I was dreaming, too, about my own fear of death.
After I gathered myself and moved towards getting work done, images of the dream kept returning, and with them came some kind of odd release. Suddenly I experienced memory after memory of my mother, who is still here with us, and I gloried in these memories. My mother casing a thrift shop for great looks and bargains. My mother as the matron of honor in her youngest sister’s wedding. My mother with a knife in her hand, looking threatening as the dog took off with one of the 24 sandwiches made for that day’s lunches. My mother pulling me into a hug after I had a tough day at school. My mother dressing up for her first day back at work. My mother in the laundry room on Fairhill Road, surrounded by racks of drying jock straps and baskets of freshly folded laundry. My mother testing me on vocabulary words for school. My mother’s ankles creaking as she walked up the steps to tell us all to get to bed, that she had had it. My mother’s eyes narrowing dangerously as she heard someone mention “a dumb football player,” with her sharp words not far behind, wondering aloud why people don’t talk about dumb tuba players. My mother going to Europe for the first time at the age of 70. My mother at 72 climbing the Segovia tower and vowing to learn Spanish. My mother serving another homemade birthday cake to another excited child. My mother looking beautiful for a party. My mother telling us we couldn’t watch t.v., and giving us a list of things we could do (“You may talk with your brothers and sisters. You may do a puzzle. You may bake a cake. You may play a game. You may knit a scarf. You may read a book. You may do an extra credit project for school. But you may not watch t.v.”). My mother giving my father a good morning kiss. My mother saying that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all (we have had several debates about that one since). My mother holding my husband’s and my firstborn and our second-born and helping us to figure out how to bathe them (we managed to forget in the time between their arrivals, but somehow she didn’t). My mother creating a special jelly bean box for each of the 15 grandchildren and hiding the boxes just before the youngsters’ arrivals. My mother laughing a big laugh, cracking a big joke, living a big life. The image of my mother from the time I met her when she was thirty to now, at 82, always small and beautiful and strong, always smart and funny and over-the-top kind, often stubborn as hell. Thank goodness for that flood of memories, which carries more along with it. Thank goodness for today’s new memories, too, and, well, thank goodness for my mother.
Isn’t it amazing to think about how one life touches so many others, not just in that one lifetime, but way beyond it? I guess this is the theme of at least one-third of the literary canon. In the last few weeks, I have shared stories with my mother (“Remember the time, Mom, when we hit a deer?” “Remember when we went to see flamenco at midnight?” “Remember when you and dad roadtripped with Pat’s parents to meet our son?” “Remember when I worked at the hospital with you and we drove that old bomber of a car every day?”). I’ve also shared stories about my mother. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing memories and tears with some of my mother’s dearest friends, who are wondering about her and loving her as they approach the mourning process. My brothers and sister and I have sat with our dad and told more stories, always with that multiperspectivist view—the cubist painting that is a family.
Of course, a life is the sum of these moments and of the unnarrated spaces between the moments. How to tell the rest of the story about this beloved and loving person? Well, it’s impossible. The rest of the story resides in our laughter, tears, quivering hearts, and little personal memory boxes.
A month after a former colleague lost his mother, I asked him how he was doing. He said, in his gentle, lilting, extrasyllabic Alabama accent, “Well, you know, it’s your mother.” That about sums it up, doesn’t it?