I can smell my mother’s prayers like perfume around my days; I feel her watching eyes at every birthday celebration. If she were here, the cake would be home-made and almost as pretty, but certainly more delicious, than the showy cakes I purchase at grocery store bakeries.
My kids ask why I buy Doublemint Gum when there are so many new flavors to try—gum that whitens, gum that won’t stick to your teeth, and gum that has little exploding particles of cinnamon that makes you think you cracked a crown. I don’t explain to them that Doublemint is the flavor Mom used to cover up her cigarette smoking. Oh, she had no qualms about the medical wisdom of smoking; my childhood unfolded before the surgeon general realized what dire toxins Americans were puffing into their lungs. Rather, Mom thought that smoking wasn’t quite ladylike, but she occasionally needed a cigarette to calm her jangled nerves.
Mom carried in her body an illness that stalked her like hypochondria, like low-blood sugar and psychosis and asthma all at once. We grew accustomed to our attractive mother lying on the couch with a terrible migraine. One time, her minister’s wife told her that it was no doubt the manifestation of sin in her life. After all, more than one Baptist man had aroused his wife’s ire because he made an guileless comment on Wanda Cairns’ attractiveness. If she had been dumpy and depressed, all that sin wouldn’t exist in her, and she’d be well right now. Funny thing, that minister’s wife got brain cancer and expired long before my mom, and all her critical, dowdy spirituality had not preserved her physical body.
Anyhow, the illness blossomed and killed Mom in a spectacular fashion in a very short time span, once it finally was diagnosed. My subconscious couldn’t accept the fact. I mean, one month I was flying up to be with her for chemotherapy. The prognosis was positive. We were making doilies to sell at Ft. Ligonier days and she was showing me her new diamond engagement ring. Two short months later she couldn’t breathe, and would I arrange something so she could get her money? How many pills had she taken? How many socks were in the drawer? And the world spun out of control as Mom no longer held it in the palm of her hand. She was out of home remedies and herbal cures and the chiropractor couldn’t very well come work on her there at the apartment.
The day she died, I dreamed that her spirit lingered. "I won’t go until you tell me what you are going to do with my Tupperware." I dreamed that my brother had put all her things in a yard sale, and I saw them displayed in a restaurant window. It did end up pretty much that way after we all took what we could practically assimilate into our own households.
On the day of the funeral, I was sick with a high fever, the seed of the same disease Mom carried. Brisk wind swept the hillside where she would be buried, and we didn’t linger long. Just as well; there was no comfort there.
For months after the funeral, I kept dreaming that I was first hearing the news: "What? Mom’s sick? How can that be? She’s dying—are you sure?" My mind turned it over and over like a strange foreign object, a puzzle beyond solving.
Then I would weep and gasp and wake up crying, and it was all dim reality. The last dream of her dying came one blessed night. I was facing a dark universe. I peered into a black, cloudy sky and not one star sparkled; no moonlight eased the oppressive nightmarescape. I shouted defiantly through my grief into the dark: "I am alone in the cold, cold world." As I looked searchingly into the night, two Olympian arms stretched toward me. There were no legs, nor a face nor voice, but they were the arms of God. The meaning was clear. He took hold of me and offered to be my mother as well as my Father. The night became warm and my sore heart was soothed.
After that, I have never again dreamed of my mother in illness. I see her shining, young, and helping me— wrapping Christmas presents, cutting roast, putting Krystal’s hair up for the prom. In dreams, I hear her laughter and see her with my Dad, who died in ’91. In my sleep, she is right there on the periphery of whatever occasion we are celebrating or struggling through. And in my waking hours, I know that the fabric between this life and heaven is very thin.