You never know when a trigger is going to pop up. After 18 years without my mother, you’d think I’d be immune to them by now. I’ve learned how to avoid things that can ignite a crying jag–like the CVS aisles that house Aqua-Net Hairspray, Duracell hearing-aid batteries, and Efferdent. I generally avoid perfume counters, since the chance of encountering her Anais-Anais or Liz Claiborne is not zero and catching a whiff of her fragrance could easily ruin me for hours, if not a day.

But on one of the first really cold days of this season, when the heat started cranking full-throttle, the faint scent from the hot-water heater sent me right back to our apartment in November of 1996, when my mother lived with us in Hartsdale. That radiator smell, the one so prevalent in pre-war apartments and old houses with heavy plaster walls–it’s so powerful to me, even after all these years.

I can remember it all so clearly. I’d just made breakfast for my mother: scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, and orange juice. She preferred sunny side up, but I figured that if I made scrambled, I could sneak in an extra egg without her knowing it. She needed the protein, because the chemo was ravaging her immune system, and the whole grain and folic acid in the juice were essential. But her appetite was almost non-existent, so I’d try little “tricks,” as she called them. Tricks like using a larger-than-normal plate so that it would seem like there was less food on her dish. “I can tell there’s more here,” she would say. “I can’t eat that much, Doll.” And, on this day, since she’d figured out the plate trick, I thought I’d disguise the extra protein in a scramble.
“How many eggs are in here?,” she smiled, “ten?” “Two,” I said, with the straightest face I could muster. The recliner creaked as she pushed her way up, and tried to run to the kitchen past me, shuffling comically in her pink terrycloth duster and scuffs. Quickly I ran to block her, because I knew she was going to look in the garbage pail to see how many shells were in the trash. I stood firmly in the doorway, and, frail as she’d become, she tried her best to tickle me out of the way. We fell into each others arms and had a much-needed laugh. “You need the protein, Ma,” I said, my laugh quickly turning to tears. “I know, Pa,” she said, wiping my tears knowingly and kissing my nose. “Thank you, Honey. I’ll try. I promise.”

I was amazed that my Mother could still laugh. The cancer had taken 75 pounds from her once robust body, the rosiness from her cheeks, the strength from her muscles. It had taken most of her hair, which fell out in clumps daily, and I’d try to roll her pillows with a lint-roller before she could see how much. But it hadn’t taken her spirit–at least not all of it–and I had no intentions of letting it. As we hugged in the kitchen, I could see that my mother was winded. “Come on,” I whispered as I helped her back to the recliner. “Let’s go sit.” I kissed her on her forehead, which felt hot, though she said she was cold. She’d been getting frequent fevers and needed Tylenol now almost constantly. I covered her with a patchwork quilt, and we turned on Jenny Jones. Trash TV was still relatively new, maybe 10 years, and, though my mother had never cared for talk shows, let alone the staged-first-fight variety, this was something we’d started half-watching pretty regularly. The sheer ridiculousness of it took her mind off of the tumor that was slowly killing her.

We’d entered a new stage in her illness and my mother, who, at 65 could still jitterbug, was now confined to a wheelchair for all but the smallest excursions. “I’m heavy,” she’d say as I marveled at her limber dance moves, “but I’m light on my feet.” Now, less than two years later, she’d ask me to “take her for a ride” around our small sunken living room, and I’d push her as we listened to Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and her other Big Band tapes.

My Mother’s oncologist made no bones about the fact that she was terminal, telling me coldly that September as I collapsed in grief, that she had “months, if that” to live. I couldn’t bear to tell my mother–we’d talked about life-and-death things a number of times over the years, and she’d made it clear to me that she wouldn’t want to know. And I refused to believe it. Who the fuck was he to determine how long my mother had on this earth? I was going to prove him wrong, and do whatever was humanly possible to help her fight this cancer and live. In hindsight, I was, of course, in denial.

“Drink this,” I said, handing my mother an Ensure. I tried to make it look as much like a milkshake as I could, serving it ice-cold in a freezer-frosted glass with a straw. Ensure, like her Duragesic pain patch, was one of those things she just accepted, without asking too many questions. “Thanks, Babe,” she said, reaching for the icy glass. I told her it was the same as an energy drink–even athletes drank it. Perhaps I was trying to hard, and I think we both knew it, but still, I thought she could use that thought as healing imagery, part of visualization, a notion she initially resisted but one which we’d come to practice regularly.

“Ma, I’ll be right back,” I said, repositioning her quilt. “Are you alright?” “I’m fine, Love,” she said softly, her eyelids beginning to droop from the ever-increasing doses of morphine that helped minimize her pain. “Be careful, Baby,” she said, her words slowing and trailing off slightly as the medicine kicked in. “I love you.”

Looking at my sweet Mother in her pink terrycloth robe made my heart break and I didn’t want to leave her. “I’m okay,” she smiled groggily, reading my mind. “Go—you’re gonna be late.” Her glasses made her brown eyes look bigger and sadder, which is why, I suppose, from the time I was a little girl, I always had a soft spot for anyone who wore glasses, even strangers.

I kissed her again and couldn’t help thinking how much like a baby she looked, her hair thinning to peach fuzz, her skin so warm and smooth, her toothless smile like that of a 6-month-old. My Mother wore dentures, but frequently took them out when it was just us. When she was healthy, I’d often joke that she was the only person I knew who took their teeth out to eat.

“Ma, you look cute, like a little baby chick,” I said. “I don’t wanna look like a chick,” she replied, summoning a spark of her former feistiness, “I wanna look like Sophia Loren!” She blew me a kiss and smiled again. These were her darkest days, but my mother still smiled. I stood quietly for a second as she drifted off to sleep, then tiptoed out the door.

“You’re right across the hall and you’re still late,” my OB/GYN said as he closed the door, smiling. “Sorry,” I said, as a tidal wave of panic, fear, and hope engulfed me. I sensed that my life was about to change forever, yet the only clear thought in my head was how much Dr. M looked like Harvey Keitel.

“Congratulations” he said softly, and hugged me. Just then, I knew. “My Mother is dying!” I sobbed. The news I’d been praying for—a baby, I’m going to have a baby—hit me like a ton of bricks. “No she’s not,” he said gently, nodding toward my tummy and squeezing my hand. “No. She’s not.

“My baby’s having a baby,” my mother said as I walked in the door, having washed my face and smiling broadly. She held out her arms, and I knelt in front of her and hugged her. “I’m so happy.”

My mother died less than three weeks later.

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2 thoughts on “Missing My Mom: Sounds, Smells, and Other Grief Triggers

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