Sunday night, like every night, we chatted about our day: today, your solo trip to the greenhouse you’d invited me to join, and my afternoon with a local running club event. It was a crisp and beautiful April day, sunny and briskly windy. I remember that night being the last spring night it was chilly enough to use heating that spring. April 26, 2015.
Some background — I was busy that week, working as clinical coordinator for a fast-paced surgical clinic, and with helping LW, who was on crutches from his recent right knee ACL repair/arthroscopy. He was feeling stir-crazy that weekend. Saturday I’d driven us out to Forked Mountain, where he crutched along the creek to the tall tower-like rock we’d heard was bolted with climbing routes. Indeed, it was a hidden climbing gem. We hung hammocks and lazed beside the tower while our dogs explored in and around the little creek, whiling away the afternoon and evening. On Sunday, I attended the running club event. It was in the afternoon, not all day, but I can’t remember anymore what I was doing that morning. Maybe a slow relaxing morning with LW? I can’t remember.
What I clearly remember is that you’d asked me on Friday to go to the greenhouse with you. Both Saturday and Sunday, either day. You wanted my company and I remember telling you that I already had plans for the weekend. I remember feeling annoyed that you waited until Friday night to ask me to spend time with you, although looking back, I know I would have felt annoyed if you had asked on Monday (how can I know what the weekend holds?) or Wednesday ( it’s the middle of the week, I can’t commit.) If only I had known then what I knew the morning of Monday, April 27, 2015.
I remember spending my weekend doing what I wanted to do, some of which was so memorable it’s been forgotten, and I remember talking to you at length on the phone Sunday night. You had planted your strawberry pots, and you were delighted with how they looked. You’d gathered broken stems of portaluca from the greenhouse floor, and brought them home and settled them into rich moist soil, and you said you hoped they’d turn out. I remember you telling me you were so tired after your day at the greenhouse alone, so very tired…and I remember you telling me that you love me. We ended every visit or phone call with that, assurances that we loved one another. For as long as I can remember, you always loved me and told me every chance you had.
Monday morning, April 27, 2015, was crisp and clear. I went to work, and was busy with my responsibilities placing post-op for my surgeon, rounding on his patients while he was in the operating room, coordinating with nursing staff and physicians to manage patient situations. I was standing next to my surgeon as he dictated his operative report when a call came on the ICU’s phone for me from administration. “The county coroner called here looking for you. Here’s his number,” I was told. My heart leaped into my throat as my stomach dropped to the floor. Already numb with dread, I dialed the number I’d been given.
“Coroner,” he answered brusquely. I identified myself, amazed I could speak. “I was told you were trying to reach me,” I said.
There was a long pause. Then he said “I didn’t mean for you to call me, I wanted to come there to speak with you in person.” He then stated my mother’s full name, and asked me if I knew her. My words tasted as dry and light and bitter as ash in my throat as I told him yes, she is my mother. He paused again, and sighed, and said, “I wanted to see you in person. I’m so sorry. There was a fire in your mother’s house, and she didn’t survive.”
My knees felt weak. My whole world shifted on its axis, a sudden and dizzying change that I didn’t immediately understand was permanent. “What happened?” I asked, my numb mind unable to comprehend his simple, straightforward statement. Kindly and patiently, he explained what he knew. A UPS driver passing through the sparsely populated neighborhood had seen smoke escaping from the eaves of your house and had called 911. Firefighters arrived, and with them, EMS and police, and also a couple of neighbors. On entering the house your body was discovered, there in your favorite chair, near your living room wall-mounted gas heater…it appeared you’d died from smoke inhalation. Did I know where I wanted them to take your body?
Did I know where I wanted them to take your body? Your body? My mother, my touchstone, the person who has known me since my conception? A body? I wanted this to be fiction, an unreality. I wanted to go back in time 12 hours and keep you on the phone and alive and with me. I wanted to curl up and let someone else take over. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to call you and hear your voice, I wanted this to be a mistake.
I told the coroner I’d call him back. I remember hanging up the phone and telling my surgeon I had to leave, my mother had died. I remember making my way out of the ICU, down the hallway through the ER, across the breezeway to the office building. I made my way to our clinic, and found my coworker, my friend and confidant of several years. I told her “My mom is dead. Her house caught fire and she died.”
She held me in a long embrace as I suddenly let the pain and tears escape, and I’m grateful for the simple direction she gave me. “Call LW and tell him, and then call your brother and tell him.”
Looking back, that day is a blur. The next week, month, year, in many ways, are blurred and run together in my memory. I did call back the coroner with our funeral home preference after reaching my brother and talking with him. I called my son, living hundreds of miles away at grad school, and told him you were gone. That was the hardest call to make, to tell your first, beloved grandson that his sweet grandma was gone.
There were trips to the funeral home to fill out and sign papers. There were days upon days of gathering paperwork to settle bills and handle your affairs. There were weeks of cleaning, sorting, inventorying for insurance requirements the contents of your severely smoke- and water-damaged house prior to demolishing it. Tina, your daughter-in-law, shouldered the lion’s share of the housework, and I was allowed to avoid dealing with the physicality of your death, and I am forever grateful for her kindness.
There were innumerable kindnesses bestowed on my by my friends and yours. People reached out to let me know they, too, loved and missed you. They found ways to let me know they empathized with my pain and loss. Losing one’s mother is a near-universal experience, and we all hurt together for that critical loss.
There are no more nightly phone calls with you. There are no more opportunities to go to the greenhouse, have lunch together, share our days. Your voice is silenced. My constant support, my biggest fan, you are suddenly just…gone. Somehow while I was busy with my life, yours slipped away. Somewhere between midnight and morning, your heart stopped beating.
I carry you forward with me, in the love of plants and nature you instilled in me, in my insatiable curiosity and love of learning, and also in my insecurity and self-doubt. You reside in my love of books, and my reverence for the past. I see you in the angles of my face, and in my stubborn endurance. I feel your presence in my delight at a newly opened rosebud, or a freshly unfurling frond of fern. It is also your influence that incites anxiety when I feel overwhelmed by clutter and the heaviness of physical belongings. That is how we mark our children, with our beauty and our flaws. I am learning how to keep what is meaningful to me, and how to release what no longer serves me. I continue on this life you gave me, and I am grateful for you and I miss you every day.
“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.” — — — Thich Nhat Hanh