I haven’t been able to sit down to write until now. Besides not having many moments to myself, to sit, to think, to cry, I think I’ve been trying to make the whole thing not such a big deal. My mom died. It is what it is. But the reality of those three small words has been so much deeper than I expected.
Part of what’s making me realize how deeply this is affecting me is me, what I’m feeling, how the sadness just washes over me at times like a rogue wave out of nowhere. Part of it is the outpouring of love from family and friends and old students of my mother’s. I didn’t expect either. And then there are the moments. Moments like when I was walking through Whole Foods and looked down to see that I was accidentally calling my mom’s number on speed dial. I think I must have audibly gasped, caught my breath and fought back tears as I walked in a daze through the produce department. I didn’t even think about the possibility of that happening. Who thinks about that?! And yet, it happens. I’m not ready to delete her name and number yet, so I know it could happen again.
So now, three weeks and one day later, thanks to my friend Dave who took my boys for a couple of hours, I sit and I write. I dug through her collection of cd’s that we brought home and now Helen Reddy is playing on the stereo. “I Am Woman”. I can’t help myself from crying for the memory that flashes in my mind. I’m driving to school with my mom. We’re in her little burgundy Fiat XI9 with the top down. I’m in Jr. High. We sing loud and strong. Like nothing matters and the world around us isn’t even there.
Today, I have a sense of who I am. I have a strong outer shell. I’m not someone to be bossed around. I have a firm grip on what is right and wrong. These are things that came from her. She was the loud one. The one who gave you her opinion if you asked for it and even if you didn’t, and, her opinion was always right, even if it wasn’t. My father, he was the quiet one. He ruled the house from such a different side of the fence. And somehow, they found each other. She told him once that life with her was like a roller coaster. It’s better if you just sit down, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. They were truly two halves to one whole.
And now, I sit, without either of them. I know that they’re there, somewhere for me to call on, to reach out to, but I can’t pick up the phone and hear their voices. I don’t know many people my age who can relate to having lost both parents. It’s kind of a strange thing.
I’m wearing their wedding bands. Hers on my right hand, his on my left and I feel like they’re with me. I can remember looking at their rings when I was young. I loved them then, the color of the white gold, the lines that created the pattern in them. That they matched. Hers thinner, his thicker but the same. And now they’re mine. I know that at some point I’ll take them off of my fingers to wear something else and change my jewelry to fit my outfit like I did a few weeks ago. When I do that, maybe it will mean that I’m in a different space with all of this. Maybe one that doesn’t feel so raw. A place where I’m one step further in the healing process.
My father died 16 years ago from a large tumor in his brain. He had an astrocytoma that was inoperable. It wasn’t our first experience with cancer and wouldn’t be our last. When I was 17 my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had seen Nancy Reagan on television telling woman that they should have a mammogram. She had never had one. Not long after she saw that commercial they removed her left breast and 24 lymph nodes from under her arm. She had a run of chemotherapy and then a continued dose of Tamoxifen for ten years. She was told she was cancer free. She had 21 years in between the second diagnosis of breast cancer. This time it was in her bones. This time, they told her she had 2 years to live.
Some of the years between my father’s death and now were really good years. Honestly though, the last 17 years for her were difficult because she had lost my father. She never quite recovered from his death. He told her near the end, “Maria, I will see you again in the blink of an eye. Before you know it.” My sister said the first thing my mother will probably tell him when she sees him again is, “Blink of an eye to who??!! Maybe for you but it was 16 years for ME!”. And that’s one of the best gifts she ever gave us. Humor. Humor in the face of disaster. Being able to find something funny in a situation where most people can only see darkness.
I do have to say though that her humor, although sharp and quick witted, lingered between appropriate and inappropriate most of the time. I just have to shake my head and laugh at that. She was definitely one in a million.
I have received emails and notes from people that my mother knew for years, people she knew lifetimes ago and people she met only once. People who genuinely cared for her. Deeply. She was an art teacher for many, many years and she gave her students not only an appreciation for art but for life. She gave people a sense of belonging in a world that maybe they didn’t think they fit into and a confidence in themselves they never knew they had. She built peoples self esteem. She was so good at that. And now, 15, 20, 30 years later, I’m receiving notes from old students and friends telling me about the impact she made on their lives. One former student wrote to me and told me that she was having a conversation just last week and mentioned my mother and the things she taught her over 20 years ago. That’s pretty amazing. It really is.
My mother taught me many things. How to drive, how to dust, how to draw a building in correct perspective. She taught me to appreciate art and life, and to express myself, fully. Not to be shy, to tell people what I think, to be brave. She taught me to fight and not to give up. She taught me how to spread my wings and fly.
My mother was a woman who felt everything. She truly lived life. She went to deep, deep valleys and high, high peaks. She took most things off the chart and that is a memorable quality. Her cousin Phil Danze wrote to me to send his condolences. He said, “I remember her well and liked her a lot. She was humorous, self deprecating and a truly wonderful person. I am proud that she was one of us, a Danze”.
Mom, I miss you so much. I don’t have you to call to tell you that I’m getting on the airplane or that I’ve arrived somewhere safely. I can’t call you to tell you that Miles is swimming or that Mason drew another picture for you. There are answers to questions that I’ll never know, at least not while I’m still alive. I hope/know that I will see you again. You and daddy. And that you’ll both be smiling, arms wide, ready to hold me again.
Maria Joanne Baptiste Goldsmith
September 9, 1934 – June 21, 2011