Faces of love, letting my mother go

My mom died on Nov. 10, 2015, six weeks before Christmas. A constant of the first holidays following her death has been the concern I see in the eyes of my family and friends. They touch my arm, search my face, ask if I am OK, ask how I am doing.

I find that I nod and smile and say: "Oh, fine. I am fine. Thank you for asking."

And I feel sort of shallow, responding to that kindness and love with a stock answer.

I am not trying to be evasive. I am deeply grateful for their worry about me. But the real answer feels like it would take a very long time to sort through and explain. That process would probably involve a lot of Kleenex, red wine, at least a few bags of Fritos and multiple cans of squeezy cheese.

The loss of my mom is complicated. She was an alcoholic and chronic smoker. Both addictions consumed her life so many years ago; her death was mostly a relief. A great exhale at the end of watching her horrible deterioration of mind and body. An end to confusion about how she could ignore her squalid living conditions. An end to her terrifying self-neglect, the steady crumbling of her basic humanity into filth and subsistence.

But in the great silent hole where she used to be, there is also a longing. I feel compelled to find and cling to good memories. To reconnect to the echoes of happier times. Where did the loud laugh, the excellent cooking, the guitar playing and harmony singing, of this fierce, angry cussing Catholic mother go?

This was the tiny but athletic lady who dragged me and my three younger brothers through 16 years of Catholic education, through first communions and confirmations and holiday giving and community involvement, through funerals and weddings and huge family dinners, through sports and plays and chorus concerts and science fairs. She was our taxi driver, our costume maker, our owie-kisser, our crazy, intense, indomitable Mom.

That lady disappeared into her addictions a long time ago, but shadows of her dance on the walls of my mind, like flickering old movies cast onto a tacked-up bed sheet. Flashing glimpses of a face. A tanned leg. A muscled arm. Hands on guitar strings, on a steering wheel.

Two days before she died, two of my brothers, my two sons and I went together to see her and say goodbye.

As my brothers and my sons each took turns touching her and talking to her, I sat in a chair next to her bed, near her head. I found myself rubbing the small patch of exposed skin on her shoulder. It felt like crepe paper stretched over chicken bones. There was mostly horror as I watched her body shake in final palsy, heard the rattle at the back of her gaping mouth, but there was also the urge to bury my face in her neck. To inhale her smell one more time. To nuzzle into her like I must have done as an infant, more than 50 years ago.

I didn't do that. After the men left the room, I came back and grabbed her foot, and told her to look at me. She opened one eye.

I told her it was time for her to leave. That we were all fine, and that we would see her again, in heaven. I told her that I was fierce because she had been fierce. That I was strong and stubborn just as she had been. And yes, I used some Catholic cuss words.

I heard her voice, coming through me. In the exact tone she had used as she yelled into the rearview mirror of our station wagon, "Don't make me come back there!" I heard myself saying: "Don't make me come back here. You need to go. Right now. I mean it."

Her one open eye glimmered a bit, then snapped shut. Was that the tiniest glint of recognition? Did she hear me? Did she hear herself? I kissed her on the forehead and turned to the door, and found my youngest son Duncan leaning against the door jam, eyes large.

"Wow, Mom. You can be scary."

I smiled up at his face, raised my eyebrows menacingly, "You have no idea."

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

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