Grief: Big and Small

I wrote this piece a few years back and it remains close to my heart. My mother died in the last week of January 2000.  That day is as vivid to me now as it was then. I thought I’d share this story with you tonight since Mom is on my mind.  

On the day my mother died, I rushed to the airport as soon as I received the phone call that her health was failing and sat on the 2 1/2 hour flight from California to Texas not knowing if she was alive or had already died. I remember thinking that no one on that plane knew the burden of sadness I was carrying that day. Not the flight attendant who brought me apple juice or my neighbor who was riveted to her book. I was sitting there thinking about walking into my mother’s home for the very last time she would be physically present and I had no idea how I was going to handle her imminent (or perhaps even current) departure.

When I arrived, I found myself uncharacteristically stoic as my brother George told me that Mom had lapsed into a deep coma. I went in to see her and found her sleeping, looking very peaceful. I had seen her only three weeks before over the Christmas holidays and she and I had said our goodbyes then. We both knew death was hovering in the shadows and that the chances were slim that I, with my three school-aged children, could make it back in time for us to have another face-to-face conversation. As it was, only a couple of hours after my arrival, my mother’s closest family and friends formed a circle around her bed and we all whispered how much we loved her as she shuffled off this mortal coil.

That night, after the funeral attendants had taken her body, I elected to sleep in my mother’s bedroom, not on the hospital bed where she had died, but rather in her actual bed, which had been pushed up against the closet once the hospital bed had been moved in. It never occurred to me that it was odd that I was sleeping in the room of a woman who had just died. In fact, if anything, I wanted to sleep in the one place that was especially Mama’s. I could smell her Oleg Cassini perfume on the pillowcase and feel the softness of her covers on my body. I knew her clothes hung in her closet just a few feet away and her chest of drawers was filled with her nightgowns, underwear, and socks. My own children’s photos were part of the family portrait gallery that graced the top of that dresser and I could see their sweet eyes looking over at me as I settled into bed. I wished they were there in person with me, snuggled next to me right then, just as I had snuggled so often with my mother when I was their age.

The next morning, I went into Mom’s bathroom and opened the top drawer of her vanity. Inside the large drawer were two plastic bins with dividers that housed all of her personal grooming needs: bobby pins, Alberta VO5 hair conditioner, combs, compacts, rouges, lipstick tubes, bottles of foundation, tweezers, nail files and chippers, safety pins. Everything was neatly organized and each piece had been hand-selected by Mom. I had loved that drawer for the 29 years my mother had lived in that house with her friend Dorothy after my father died. Whenever I visited from out of town, I always found my way into Mom’s bathroom for a visit to that vanity drawer. I never left without uncapping a tube of lipstick and trying the color on my own lips or opening the lid on a container of rouge and dabbing a few dots onto my cheek and blending them in. My mother and I shared the same dark coloring so her colors were my colors.

That vanity drawer symbolized a sweet secret connection I had with my mother. She lived and breathed in that small space through the colors and scents that emanated from the tubes and containers that she had chosen. I found great comfort in the orderliness of those plastic bins and the collection of objects there. They seemed to say, “We’re Helen’s and we’re happy to all be here together.”

Even twenty-three years later, I still miss my mother and mourn the secondary loss of her vanity drawer. However, I am happy to say that I am Helen’s too and her memory remains alive and well for this proud daughter. 


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Marion Hunt says:

    Beautiful memoirs, Len.

  2. judyalter says:

    Lovely story. We are never quite the same after we lose our mothers, are we? I still “talk” to mine some thirty years later.

  3. So true, Judy. Yes, I talk to Mom too. Death is only a thin veil.

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