Life is packed with unexpected gifts, especially when I take the time to listen. I’m thinking about a conversation I had with my mom a few years ago.
She had recently sold her house in Chehalis, Washington, a place she called home for more than thirty-five years, and was moving back to Los Gatos, California. In a soft voice she said, “I had to say goodbye to Pearl today, it was hard. Then I attended my last exercise class, one of the ladies made brownies, and we enjoyed a treat as we said our good-byes. It was hard. I had my last bridge luncheon a few days ago, last PEO meeting on Thursday, and Sunday was my last church service, twenty-nine people stopped by Kit Carson to say good-bye, and that was hard.” Then she was silent.
“I know Mom, I’m so sorry.” My words do nothing to mend her broken heart. I swim around in a pool of memories, searching for something to say, a life preserver I can throw to her. Saying goodbye is painful but it is the grief in her voice that tugs at my heart.
I close my eyes and feel myself being pulled back in time. Her grief triggered my grief and a deeply buried memory begins to surface. It was early December, The Carol of Bells by George Winston, was playing in the background. That was the last time I looked my Dad in the eye and said goodbye. I knew I would not see him again, well at least not in this life, and I was bartering with God for a little more time. I held his gaze through a blur of tears, lingering in that wretched space, knowing my beloved was close to death. Although I was not granted more time, embedded in that gaze was a lifetime of love, and I am grateful for the sacredness of the moment. I usually keep that memory tucked away, as it painfully stretches my heart, but that day it must have been what I needed. Mom’s goodbye to Chehalis was layered with memories of my Dad, and I can not separate the two.
On his last night, my sister Nancy sat by his side, and listened to his labored breathing. In the wee hours of the morning, she bent close to his ear, and said, “We got this Dad, we’ll take care of Mom, we love you, and if you’re ready, you can go.” Yeah, that’s my sister, she’s my rock.
He held on to life all through the night, I believe he did this so my Mom could rest, and gather her strength. She woke early the next morning, rushed to his side, knowing their time was coming to an end. She warmed his cold hand with her own, kissed him on the cheek, and that’s when she felt a gentle squeeze to her hand. He wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye, that was his final gesture of love, to the woman he adored. I know, with every friend she bids farewell, when she takes their hand into her own, she is remembering this one.
The older I get the more I try to avoid goodbyes. I don’t even clean out my closet, I find it extremely difficult to let things go, and by the way, I hate the Good Will. Whenever I drop something off, I have to restrain myself from running back, grabbing it out of the truck, and bringing it home. I still have the vest I wore to a Donny Osmond concert in 1970. (Please keep that bit to yourself) I also have this really ugly dress my husband Larry bought me when we were in high school. It’s stored in a dusty memory box in the back of my closet. I’m sure the moths have nibbled away at this memory but I refuse to let it go. I mean what kind of boy buys his girlfriend a dress for her sixteenth birthday? I know, the kind you marry, right?
I hold on to the past, as if it were a misplaced jewel, but the search never ends, because the past no longer exists. Maya Angelo says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That dress Larry gave me, ugly as it was, made me feel like a treasure. Trey Parker adds, “Saying goodbye doesn’t mean anything. It’s the time we spent together that matters, not how we left it.”
I’m left searching for words of comfort, but as we all know, words are impotent if they don’t reveal truth. Then I remember something my coworker Ellen said, “What a beautiful gift your Mom has been to her community, look at the memories, the involvement, and the wonderful friendships she has developed over the years. This is the fruit of her labor, her legacy, it is the mark of a life well lived.” I really should have leaped over my desk and given her a kiss.
That’s the gift, the nugget of truth I was searching for, I just had to listen. So I said, “Mom, you are such a gift…”
Originally Published on Living in the Gap