Today marks two years since my wonderful mother-in-law died from pancreatic cancer. In the days after her death, I wrote the following piece as a letter of sorts to her. I’m sharing it now to remember and honor her.
I made you your last meal. I was determined to get it right. I immediately got it wrong. Too many oats. Put some back. Focus. Measure the water and pour it in. A sprinkling of salt. Two minutes, forty seconds.
You never told me if I put in enough brown sugar. Or blueberries. On any other day, I’m sure you would have rather fixed it yourself, just the way you like. You cook with practiced precision, though you give all the credit to the recipe cards. As if pieces of paper could produce the delicious food your hands bring to the table. Potato casserole. Vegetable soup. Chocolate and peanut butter fudge. Apple crisp. And pies of all kinds.
Each meal I ate put more distance between us. The space where we could stay together stretched as much as it could bear. It swelled, that pregnant time-place for living and dying to cross paths until they had to part ways. Your body no longer needed food, and I had to step away from your bed to sit before a bowl of chili, a shredded chicken sandwich, and some cinnamon raisin toast.
I did not want you to die alone. But I never expected the contracting womb of your first-floor front room to need midwives. Your body knew what to do. You breathed through the labor. Your heart pumped hard, like you were speed walking to get where you were going. Why would you choose a slower pace now? You blaze bustling streets and furious train stations in any city to tour museums, cathedrals, bookstores. We can hardly keep up with you down Michigan Avenue to reach the Art Institute’s latest exhibit. Jacob Lawrence. Van Gogh and Gauguin.
You charged toward death in that bed with marvelous strength. Our only job was to help you meet it. Pain relief, water, and pillows perched at the ready until you were ready to leave them behind. We took turns in vigilance, watching movies on the TV, playing music you love, and wading through remember whens and what wills as we turned to face this natal horizon with(out?) you. I can’t count all the films we have seen with you when we get together. You relish taking in an array of genres and comparing screen adaptations to their book predecessors. I see symbols, themes, and art because you show me where to look.
Your eyes never opened again in the last hours we shared. Your neck and shoulders heaved with syncopated exhales. So much spirit to release into the air. Like a pause in conversation for gathering up the words to build another bridge to one another. To share more life that could be loved. I had more I wanted to say, though nowhere really to begin. More for the middle part about those daffodil bulbs you mentioned a few weeks ago and the Christmas plans still being assembled. More words for bridging the miles in this life, not for the bridge to what awaits you after you breathed your last. More phone calls and visits and Zoom sessions for uttering the one word that matters most when made flesh instead of word.
I held my tongue while you did your work of letting go. It did not seem fair to intrude on your journey with my speech. I saved the abridged version, “Goodbye, Becky, I love you,” for afterward. The extended version would have to include my faltering grasps to express how much you mean to me and how much I will miss you. Since you are not prone to sentimentalities, I imagine you would have smiled and shaken your head, whisking away such sentences as unnecessary. Too limiting a condensation for the myriad of things that intertwined this mother and daughter.
Sheltered in silence you stole away. Your breathless body, blood stilled, rested. Delivered from cancer’s power to take anything else from you. Still I wept. Still I weep.
What becomes of you is pure mystery to me. I hope for the love that is you to endure, for the life that you are to rise anew. But the mystery that is mine to solve is who will I be now: in the meantime-space of aliveness while inhales chase my exhales and meals sustain my comings and goings and the laughter, tears, aches, and strivings are not yet done with me. What new creation will unfold in this grief-struck present where love feels stuck behind bridges broken and hallways haunted by your absence. Where ready or not, forward I move . . .
Joys, prayers, and plans will return. Mundane memories will lose their sting. That future will come. But I am in no hurry. “Goodbye, I love you,” after all, takes a long time to say.
Header image of “Three Yellow Daffodils” is by Ginger Jordan on Unsplash