I wake up late, 7 in the morning, in the guest room of my mother’s house in Florida. For a second I am lost, my mind operating in the time that was the day-before-yesterday, or last week. One night, there’d been a knock on the door at 2 a.m., from the nurse worried about Mom’s violent coughing; another night, I was up around 4, hurrying to Mom’s bedside, feeling a premonition of the end.
But I have slept through the night. And then I remember: Mom’s gone. She died yesterday. Later, I will teeter on the edge of the terrible black hole of her absence, forever, from my life. But today, my first reaction is relief that the days and nights of her suffering are finally over. That she is free.
The effort to get up, make coffee, is enormous but makes me feel steadier, almost normal. Sliding open the door to the outside patio, I glance into my mother’s bedroom, where I am not yet prepared to go, and see Mom’s bed empty except for her small orange-and-white cat, Mittens. He is curled into a tight ball; his head is facing the wall.
Mom’s cat lay pressed up beside her, immovable, throughout the final weeks of Mom’s life. When he did decide to eat or use his litter box, he’d dart to the kitchen then quickly return to his job of watching over my dying mother.
I sit outside with my coffee, listening to the morning song of the mockingbirds. Mom was diagnosed with cancer four years ago. She had the gift of time, my brother and sister and I tell each other. Time to make sense of the story of her life, to find peace with her belief in God, and time for all of us to say what needed to be said to each other.
Later, when I dispose of the dozens of bottles of medications that were prescribed to keep her illness at bay, I come across a note my mother must have written to herself to try to keep track of all the drugs. As I hold the sheet of notepaper, with my mother’s familiar handwriting become so weak and shaky that it is hard to read, none of the explanations or reassurances I can think of can stop me from crying so hard I have to sit down on the floor.
Her bedroom smells like soap and the perfume she wore. During the next week I sort through her clothes, packing some things up for Goodwill and deciding to keep some things, too. Her scarves and sweaters smell like her. Like Mom. When I come out of the closet to find another packing box, Mittens the cat is standing at the foot of the bed, watching me. He ducks his head, rejecting my attempt to pat him. Still, he doesn’t retreat.
How did Mom find the strength and clarity to organize everything? Her files are labeled and alphabetized, her keys tagged with helpful information. Her phone book is on the kitchen counter with all the numbers we would need once she was gone. She made sure that everything was right were you would think to look – which you might do if only your mother had not just died, if only you were not a basket case, sobbing again.
The front of the house has a screened-in entryway and a couple of chairs. One evening two weeks after Mom has died, I am sitting out there, doing nothing. Mittens appears and jumps into the chair beside me. “Do you think,” I ask him, “that people who die hang around a little? Maybe that breeze in the palm fronds, or that cloud passing over us, maybe that’s Mom?” Tears stream down my face and Mittens butts his head against my arm, the first sign that perhaps we are, after all, comrades in our grief.
Alan arrives for Mom’s memorial service. My sister and brother and I have divided up Mom’s furniture and other possessions, and Alan has rented a van to take these things home to Colorado. Mittens watches as couches and chairs, beds, tables and boxes are moved out and the house he lived in becomes empty.
The last promise I made to my mother was that I would take care of her cat. It seemed silly at the time. It doesn’t anymore. The van we rented has room up front for three. Alan, me, and Mittens are on our way home to Breckenridge.
Christina Holbrook’s column “Lark Ascending” publishes biweekly in the Summit Daily News. Holbrook writes about life in the mountains, from the beauty of the natural surroundings to the quirkiness of friends and neighbors to what makes a good life. She moved to Breckenridge in 2014 and is the author of “Winelands of Colorado.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in the Summit Daily News, October 28, 2019