It just seemed logical. For her to watch over me a bit on her journey up, up, up. And I felt her in the birds silence. In crickets, singing their song in the background. In the Cicadas stuttering harmony, stuttering, then still. Stuttering, then still. And especially in the pool, warm and comforting. It cradled me as I floated around by myself in the night, watching the clouds open and close across the star speckled night. Even the backyard foliage seemed to work to give me this space to mourn.
I kept my eyes up to the sky and wondered why I didn’t cry now. Now, when there were no kids to comfort, no phone calls to take, no head to stroke and hug to give in sadness. There was just me. Me and my gulping ache just at the bottom of my throat. So welcome was the water, with the sky as my focus. Crying was the whole reason I ducked into my friend’s pool. So I could just let my own sadness have it’s time. I needed to sob, and to ache, and to contort my face into pain where no one could see. But the tears didn’t come, and I found myself concentrating instead on the stars. I knew they were just points of light. And constellations. And things to count when I was snuggling down to sleep on my lawn during summer, long ago. However to me, this night, they were beloved members of life’s families and friends, watching over us beings still alive.
Maybe she was looking back over her shoulder, I think, as she went further and further on her journey to new things. Maybe she was already there and was looking to see if I could handle her grand-kids with the same patient love as she did. Maybe, and a bit of an angry sob stuck in my throat, she was just floating around somewhere and didn’t care anymore at all. Just part of the universe in a ka-jillion motes of nothing.
That was a secret fear. What if, after all I have been taught and comforted with, she was just really gone? Nothing to look forward to, no reason to look forward to meeting her in another place and time. Just gone? That would mean that I really didn’t have a reason anymore to forgive her for my petty thoughts. My busy life. My assumption that she would just be there in the background. Like these crickets, you know? Chirping beautifully, and adding to my life, but not acknowledging them as a beautiful accompaniment in my life. Enriching whatever setting there is. It would mean that I chose to go into HER background, when I could so easily have stayed engaged in her life. Crap. It’s true, either way.
I felt her here, though, as I wandered through the water. I felt comforted for a few minutes and remembered the same blatant comfort that I felt the first time I met her in her kitchen. In that messy, cluttered, busy kitchen. It was cramped, and well lit. Cows themed that place, and salt n pepper shakers, and miniature spoons from all over the world (a gift from her husband as he wandered from one military assignment to another). Nicknacks abounded and needed a good dusting. It had that country feel of not needing to impress anyone, not even the owners. It was full of bodies and jokes and laughter. And come-on-in-and-leave-your-troubles-at-the-door-ness. It was obviously the heart of the house, and she was the heart of that kitchen.
I remember walking in to it as a new girlfriend to her middle son, in that awkward, stiff way that meant to me, “I am new, and have manners and will not hurt your son while i know him.”, but to her meant, “I got a lotta hurt, and judgements. Just love on me a bit, for as long as I am here.”. And she loved me. Right from the start, and right there in that kitchen. She did about the only thing that would have kept me there. In that kitchen full of teens, and huge dogs running through everything with hair and slobber spraying into the kitchen air, she put me to work. Making food. The kind of food that should never exist in a healthy lifestyle. If she was in the South, she would have put Paula Deene to shame with her fatty, creamy food. From the first mouthful, it was happy goodness. And total indulgence kept me there. So different from the disciplined life that I grew up with. The life of constant repentance for deeds and thoughts not quite pure enough. The life of order and making sense and purpose with a schedule and a routine. And chores and strict manners. (That above all, in my angry, dramatic, teenage view, was what mattered). …That life had no place in this kitchen. Here, I was enough. Just as I was that day, that moment, that instant. And that was a craving I never knew I even had. So I stayed. I stirred and opened cans, and eavesdropped as the chaos of off-color jokes and suggestive retorts blended with some strange feeling of acceptance. I put the slobber and hair and clutter out of my head that day and just reveled in it. In her.
That is what I was experiencing as I drifted along, toes and belly and fingertips sticking out just a bit, and chilly in the night air. The rest of me feeling decidedly luke warm, which was enough. A gentle breeze blew and I went back to my childish view of a dead person sitting on a cloud in their robe of white, strumming a harp and singing a bit in adoring bliss. Then I chuckled. NOPE. That view stopped right there. For one thing, she would never have worn a robe without adornment. Maybe a gold mu-mu with a white cord…. now THAT would have made a statement. Or been fine sitting in one place. Jumping from cloud to cloud, with strays following her as they look back to see if they will get in trouble… that seemed more her style. In addition, that harp would be replaced with an 80’s boom box, stuck on the sappiest song station. She did love music, i thought with a smile, and sang absolutely off-tone. So seemingly tone deaf was she, that she only sang when she thought others were not listening. But then, by darn, it was with gusto. Without reservation, and decidedly feminine. Her 5’11’’ solid frame would delicately reach for the high notes as she swayed along to the music as she washed dishes. Maybe that would be her heaven, I think. Belting it out and loving her voice.
Eventually, I sit at the edge of the pool in the shallow part. I squat with my legs in a sitting position, just my head above the water. I look down through the clear water to my knees, the lining of the pool, and my red toenails. And think of nothing. That’s when the tears come. And the regret for Not Being There Enough. All those things that people must say when a loved one passes away, I said em to myself. Why did I just move on and let the phone calls get shorter and shorter? And less personal and intimate? Why did I feel like I had outgrown her advice, her jokes, her empathy? Because I was an adult now, I thought. I can make my own decisions, and did not need to consult her or any parent. And, I say quietly to myself, because as she got older, and sicker, and less of her boisterous self… I started resenting her. I resented that she chose to keep eating those wonderful meals and snacks even when the doctors said it was making her sick. I got haughty and angry that she didn’t listen, so she must be stupid, or crazy, or just too old to care about me anymore. Otherwise why would she choose to be sick??? I made it about me. Always about me. My tears and sobs let loose as I found how petty and selfish my thoughts were of her. Not that she was a saint or anything. Lots bugged me about her, but these particular thoughts were so one sided!. She loved and loved and loved and loved. Her kids, her in-law additions, her adopted ones, her grand-kids. She loved us the best she could and knew how. Her 100%. Could I say the same? I loved when it was convenient and when I visited. I loved with considerations. And I loved while I gossiped. (that last one hurt the most.) As she got weaker and weaker, my view of her changed. CRAZY!!!!! Even when her mind started doing quirky things, she was still the quick-witted woman that loved me through the crap part of marriage, kids, and life. And the dark and light parts of me. It just hurt too much to see her look and act different. And I resented her for it.
My tears and sobs went on and on and on. Clear fluids leaked from my face to the pool water and I was glad no one was there to see. I was glad the chemicals took it away.
Eventually I focused on the good times I remember we had. Camping. The jokes and hours of playing cards, and sitting on her bed watching TV in her crazy cold room. The looks of anticipation and joy on my kids faces as we drove into her driveway, knowing they would soon be riding the converted riding lawn mower around in her field. And the advice we both shared openly from the ends of our phones, miles away from each other. She was the Wicked Witch of the West. That made me the Wicked Witch of the East (until my new sister-in-law moved to Jersey). She gave me permission to be human. And still loved for it. That was when I knew she was there. Just reminding me that in this instant, this minute, this night, and any night I needed, she could be there. Her memories are there for the taking. Her love is there for the keeping and sharing. That made it a bit easier to get out of that pool, dry off, stick my shoes into my flip flops, and head home. It’s a gift that I can give back to her family now. Some thing I can use to stay close to her with. And when I see my strays, my adopted kids walk through my door and ransack my kitchen….. well, then, I know she is there, too.