Life Without Her
A dull, rose-colored strip of haze stretches across my plane window. It separates the darkness. The in-between is a place where my memories are kept. As the sun sets into its final time zone the profound happenings of these past three months begin to surface.
I woke up on December 17, 2011, later than usual. As I begin to download my emails, I see messages from various family members asking me to call home. I actually ignore them for a moment and read other work-related emails. But when I begin to play my voice mail I hear a shakiness in my sister’s voice that I’ve never heard before. I brace myself to hear that my grandmother was ill or had passed, or that my father was injured. But when I call back the words that come from my computer speakers say, “Kev, Mom’s dead”.
The next day I am on a flight back to the U.S. My father and sisters meet me at the airport in Seattle and we pretend that things are somewhat normal. The drive to my hometown takes nearly 3 hours. The closer we get, the more real this becomes. She’s gone.
I remember the exact moment that I really knew my father loved my mother. They were debating gastric-bypass surgery for her. She had developed weight-related illnesses and her health was giving away more and more each year. His insurance would not cover the operation so they would have to spend their retirement savings. I asked him what will he do when he retires? He looked at me and simply replied, there is no retirement without her.
The post-operation pain left her living in a chair in the living room for the last 10 years of her life. She was getting better and they were both so excited to start a new chapter together. My father retired from the pulp and paper mill two weeks before she died unexpectedly. She was 54-years-old.
As I walk into their house my eyes immediately go to an empty chair that has long been a fixture in our lives. On either side are tables with various reminders of her daily life. I imagine her sitting there with her computer in her lap as we type to each other over Skype. Little did I know that two days previous would be the last words I would ever say to her.
But today, today I will see her for the last time. The mortician has arranged for a viewing for family members before her body is cremated. One last chance to say goodbye I guess. I’m not completely sure why this is a custom in so many cultures. My mind drifts to that thought as we drive to the funeral home.
While the door begins to open I flash back to when I was a child. It is Christmas, her favorite holiday. My mother would make my two older sisters and I stand at the top of the stairs with our eyes closed and walk down hand-in-hand slowly. Each stair was so painful as the excitement mounted. We would squeeze each others hands knowing that the final step was approaching. I used to know the exact number of stairs in the house. I would always try to skip a stair or two to get there faster, but my sisters would pull me right back up. When we reached the bottom she would pause for a moment and then yell out, “Open them!” But things are different. I’m 32 now. My oldest sister has children who will be graduating from high school this year. Christmas will never be the same.
We walk in slowly and I see her lying on a bed with wheels. The room is bare with cheesy, Christian framed posters. Chairs line the bottom half of the wall and a simple box of tissue waits to be used. We each take a wall for some reason distancing ourselves from one another. An oval carpet lays misaligned and I am compelled to jump up and make it geometrically pleasing.
For the first time in my life I am afraid of the woman who gave birth to me. I’m afraid to be close to her. My head is low and I look up at her from behind my brows. She is covered by a quilt supplied by the funeral home. I wonder how many other people this blanket has covered.
I feel compelled to make photographs but I also feel that I cannot. Finally my father asks me to take a photo of her for him. He will later tell me that he wanted some thing to remember her in this state by. He said that she looks peaceful.
I shoot a few frames and sit back down again. I look towards my father on the opposite wall. He covers his face with his hand while hanging his head. He looks like the loneliest person in the world. I don’t know if I have ever seen him cry before. He is a gentle man but very strong. He has worked hard his entire life.
My family leaves the room and I am alone looking at the body of my dead mother. I sit for a moment as I try to compose myself. I am terrified to go up to her. She always gave the most amazing hugs. Hugs that were so tight and so long that the family member being hugged would often grow annoyed. But once in a while I would slow down and hug back. Her skin smelled so comforting. Her soft hair was nice to rub your face up against. I always felt loved.
I reach out shakily to touch her face. Her body is freezing cold. I am not prepared for this. I jump back not knowing what to think. I pick up my camera and take more photographs of her realizing that this will be the very last chance. I don’t want to regret the opportunity to have done some thing different.
My father and I sit outside the funeral home for a moment. I tell him I can’t leave her there alone in the dark. She would be so scared, I know. I picture her so alone and terrified. He tries to comfort me a bit but I don’t even pay attention. I just stare at the building angry, and wishing I had someone to blame for this. I wipe a tear from my face, put the car in reverse and drive away. Her face is a fading memory. Now I begin my life without her.