As I was looking over the luggage, making sure we had everything needed, my wife, Kat, called my name. Something in her voice made me drop everything and run to the kitchen. She was staring at the counter.
“They’re blooming,” she said flatly. “They’re blooming.” Disbelief now, as she turned her eyes to me.
And they were. Sitting on the counter was a pot containing African violets given to us at the funeral of Kat’s aunt, four years ago. For all that time, Kat had tried everything she could think of to make them bloom. She’d consulted many times with my mother, an official Master Gardener, duly recognized by the state of Ohio. For all Mom’s advice and assistance, they had never once bloomed.
And now, a scarce thirty hours after my mother’s death, a single purple flower nestled atop the leaves.
Three weeks later, I got up early to cook eight batches of coconut shrimp risotto for a charity event to benefit a battered-women’s shelter.
Partway through, I discovered that the cook standing to my left, serving a sort of meatball stew, had lost his mother just six days before. He and I quickly found that the awkwardness everyone feels in not knowing what to say is universal: when I told him my mother had died three weeks previously, he expressed a muted surprise, and then there was a silence. Of everyone in the entire room, out of the hundreds who walked and looked and sampled and judged, he and I were most likely to be the ones who knew what to say to one another, but we had no idea. We felt as awkward and uncertain as anyone else.
It confirmed for me that when a person loses a loved one, there really isn’t anything to say other than, “I’m sorry.” And when you’ve lost someone and you receive an expression of sympathy, there really isn’t anything to say except, “Thank you.” The words sound stupid and trite, small and inadequate, but our language – or, perhaps, our humanity – has yet to find something meaningful to say in the face of mortality. The best we can do is say something to indicate our sympathy. The best that can be done in return is to say something expressing gratitude not only for the sympathy, but for the reminder that we are not alone.
Standing in a downtown hotel ballroom, dishing up bite-sized portions of what I’d titled Caribbean Sunrise Risotto to total strangers, I’d learned something important. A small something, perhaps, but an important something. In a small way, I grew up a little bit more.
I wished I could go back a month and share with Mom what I’d learned. It might have made her passing a little bit easier if she’d known that there were lessons she could teach even after death.
I learned another just a few days after she died.
What I learned was that after Mom’s father died, she started been looking for a way to use her inheritance to help others, as he had requested. (Not that he had to ask.) After a good deal of searching, Mom had read about a particular community health project in the paper and thought for a while before deciding that she wanted to give the money to them. She thought very highly of their efforts to prevent low birth-weight babies by making sure low-income women had proper prenatal care.
So with not too many weeks left to live, Mom called the project’s number and asked to speak to someone about making a donation. The woman said she could take the information to have someone call back, and asked how much Mom would be donating. Mom told her.
There was a silence – a dumbfounded one, I’m sure, because it was a fairly substantial sum. And then the woman said in an awestruck voice, “You’re an angel.”
As that conversation was taking place, the project’s board of directors was in a meeting to determine whether they would have to shut down for lack of funding. They were raiding every funding source they could find, including their own pockets, to keep the project going until its next year’s funds came through. They were writing down a list of who would be let go, in a last-ditch effort to keep things running for the next three months. Mom’s donation erased all but a few hundred dollars of that need. Mom saved the project, and at the last possible hour.
It’s too convenient a turn of events to stand up in a movie; no audience would buy it. It just doesn’t satisfy to have the whole struggling, noble-yet-doomed enterprise saved at the last moment by some White Knight from out of nowhere, this external benefactor unhinted-at throughout the rest of the script, and who is herself afflicted with an incurable disease.
But in real life, it does far more than satisfy. It gives one pause. Such events really do happen. Saviors can appear at exactly the right moment. One person’s generosity can make all the difference in the world.
It is an incredible gift that Mom gave them, but I think an even greater gift is given to those who hear the story: a moment of purest hope for ourselves, and for the future.
I wish I could tell her.
A few hours after getting word that Mom had no more than a couple weeks to live, I called to tell her I loved her. She was disoriented and her memory was shattered; she asked me twice who was calling and repeated the same sentence three times. She asked who was calling not because she didn’t recognize me, but because she’d forgotten that we’d been speaking at all. When she said she loved me, I could hear that she did, even through her raspy, exhausted voice.
I hung up and wept. She had always feared losing her mind, and now it was partly gone. Not in the ways she’d truly feared, the ways where she didn’t know who we were anymore and started screaming at us to get out of her house. Not like that. But still diminished.
I wiped away tears, looking blurrily at our backyard. Less than a week before, Mom had walked through our tiny garden with Kat, examining new growth and pulling up weeds. Afterward, we’d all gone to lunch at a local diner. Now she could barely stand or keep a grip on the passage of time.
At 11:47 that night, the phone rang. I picked it up with the same feeling of dread I’d had every time the phone had rung for the previous twelve hours.
Sometimes, that fear is justified.
“Eric?” came my father’s voice from the receiver.
There was momentary confusion as Kat picked up another extension. “Eric?” my father asked again.
“I’m here, Dad.”
There was a short pause, maybe half a second, that I desperately wished would never end.
“She’s gone,” he said.
And that was that.
As we approached the highway, those blooming violets falling ever farther behind us, I switched on the car’s radio and found myself in the middle one of Mom’s favorite songs. With a ghost of a smile, I turned it up, remembering the time we’d gone to see the artist in concert and how Mom had danced, her eyes closed as she concentrated on the music to the exclusion of all else.
And as we merged into the Interstate traffic, I found myself slotting in behind a hatchback station wagon, the kind of car we’d owned and taken on many a field trip in my youth. Scrawled in soap across the top of the wagon’s rear window were the words i love you and below that, across the bottom of the glass, in larger letters that glowed in a slash of spring sunlight: mom.