On February 7, 2011 my family suffered a devastating loss. My mother, at the age of sixty-three, passed on. Three days ago, marked one year of time since she was not actively at the core of our lives, our advocate and antagonist, our counsel, and our deepest well of courage, strength and love. Three hundred and sixty eight days ago, my family suffered a loss. Three hundred and sixty eight days ago, I lost my longest and my best friend.
Not too long ago, I was presented with the challenge to write a piece that moved back and forth between time periods that focused on one person and one situation. I had no idea what to write about, or how to even begin, so I wrote, I just wrote. As I have for the past year, I continue to reminisce and reflect. In doing so, I came across my response to that challenge and I now wish to share it with you.
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I can do this. Write a lyrical passage that moves from past to present or even into the future focusing on someone other than me – which shouldn’t present a problem because I really don’t like to write about myself anyway – with a singular situational element. But my brain is stuck. I can’t seem to wrap it around any idea, concept, person or element that fits. Can’t develop an inkling of an idea on which to expand. For days it’s been keeping me up at night clenching my teeth in frustration, waking me up with a headache, and otherwise angering me beyond words. Exactly – beyond words! The whole idea is rattling around aimlessly inside my head bouncing off the walls of my skull much like the little white square bounced on the television screen when I played Pong on our Atari 2600 back in the 70’s.
“I’ll write about my daughter,” bounce.
“I’ll write about my father – surely there’s something I can reflect on that will carry me through this challenge,” double bounce off the paddle and into the corner.
“I’ll write about my husband, my sister, my brother, grandmothers, grandfathers – Mom, help me here!!”
No answer, as the ball floats off the screen.
“Mom? Come on, help me out. You’re the lover of English, the one who corrected all of my sentences and showed me how to diagram one because they never taught me in school. You taught me how to speak properly so I wouldn’t sound like dumb country bumpkin. You’re the one who reads all the time. What should I write? What do you want to read?”
“Why won’t you answer me?”
She’s gone. She’s not here. She left last February. Damn infiltrating maliciousness of life-sucking, tissue-eating, organ-destroying evil of evils. Damn cancer. A fellow writer once wrote a story about her aunt who also died in the twisted hands of cancer. Her aunt owned horses and at one time she entertained the idea that perhaps a horse caused the disease. Maybe she was right. We had horses too. Maybe it was a horse that kicked her and gave rise to the tumor, like the horse that kicked Lori’s aunt. Maybe she’s somewhere right now breaking that horse of his nastiness and training him to be gentle, training him and teaching him to be a good, respectable, well-rounded horse the same way she taught and trained me. Or, maybe the horse never existed.
My faith in a higher power lets me believe that she can hear me, lets me find comfort in the notion that she and my father are back in each others arms where she’d wanted to be for the twenty six years since his death in 1985. But I want her here too, I want him here. There must be some metaphysical plane on which we can all exist forever as the happy family I remember growing up. Some existence between here and there, between past and future, living and dead. Maybe Justin Moore was on to something when he sang, “If heaven wasn’t so far away, I’d pack up the kids and go for the day…” Maybe I could visit just to see that she’s happy. Just to know that she’s safe. Oh, and while I’m there, maybe she can tell me which shade of blue will look better on the bedroom walls? I like the cool, grey undertones of Mystic Light, but my husband is leaning toward the green undertones in April Winds.
“Who cares?” I used to say to her when she’d ask my opinion, “It’s paint. If you don’t like it, you can paint over it.”
“I care, damnit. I don’t want to paint over it. I want you to answer me. You left too soon, I’m not ready to be alone. I don’t want to cry anymore. I just want to know what color to paint the God damned room. You can’t leave me here alone!!”
Great, now I’m crying – again!! I cry, but never feel like I cry enough. I scream, I yell, I surround myself with memories but it hurts. It comforts and calms, but it hurts. Pictures, so many pictures. There’s one of her with her first horse, Freddy, that I found the other day. She was so happy.
She always loved horses and was thrilled when my husband, Steve, and I filled the barn again and started our horse drawn carriage business. When I was a kid, she used to take my sister, brother and me to Madison Square Garden to watch the equestrian shows. Thoroughbreds mainly, lean and muscular, tall and distinguished bays with braided manes and tails. Grace and elegance soaring over fences under the expert guidance of their riders.
“I’m going to ride like that one day,” I dreamed out loud.
I did ride, and I did soar over fences, but I never performed in the Garden.
“Heels down, toes up. Keep those knees in. Shoulders back. That’s it – now turn her into the fence – give her her head and don’t lean too soon.” Her expert advice to a teenaged me on my first horse. I’d only ridden ponies until then . Brookvalley’s Whimsical Lady, a sixteen hand bay beauty was being passed down from my mother to me. Whimsy and I won a lot of ribbons and trophies together. But not without Mom there to guide and cheer us on.
Steve and I went to the Horse World Expo a couple of weeks after she died. We watched the Parade of Breeds and when a Friesian pranced into the arena to perform – jet black splendor and power, a long flowing mane and tail with a rider in black tails, crisp white shirt sleeves and red bow tie that exquisitely matched the horse’s leg wraps – I grabbed my camera with tears in my eyes. Tears because I was so touched and moved by the animal’s beauty. Awe inspired tears that turned to tears of heartbreak when I remembered that she would never see the pictures I was taking for her.
I don’t think I can do this. I don’t have enough tissues here at my desk. Plus, it's lunch time and I’m in my office, and if someone walks in how do I explain what I’m doing? I’m most definitely not crying over enrollment statistics and ethnicity breakdowns. How many adult learners do we have here? No! How long will it take to be able to talk about her without blinking through tears to do it? Without welling up with pride and pain every time I try to share with others how wonderful a person she was. I know, I know everyone thinks their mother is wonderful and they should. Mothers are wonderful! Well, most of them anyway. There are those that should have been denied the job, but mine wasn’t one of them.
Somehow I’ll get through this. Somehow I’ll find a way to wipe away the tears and participate in life as a living, breathing, fully functioning member of society. But when? Why don’t I remember it being so bad when Dad passed? Was it because I was so young? I was only seventeen. I miss him too and have so many good and fond memories, and so many of the skills that he taught me before the scum-sucking cancerous tumor took him too. That’s right, what are my odds? Father dies of brain cancer at thirty-eight, mother from breast cancer at sixty-three. Average that out and I’m looking at a good fifty – only six years to go. Oh, stop it! It doesn’t work that way. Nana, my grandmother, is ninety-three – I’ll aim for that. Or is it because the bond I shared with my mother was welded tighter because he died so young? Is it because of the fact that as I grew up, I grew from being her daughter to being her daughter and her friend? A best friend. The first person, after my husband – and sometimes even before him – I would turn to with good news, bad news – hell, any news at all.
I ran into a couple of her friends the other day at the grocery store – I say her friends, but they, too, have become my friends over the years. They said they missed their friend. So do I. We talked for a while about her time near the end, about how she was going out on her terms – she refused chemotherapy and radiation treatments. About how she didn’t want to spend the rest of her days hugging a toilet and watching her hair fall out. She wasn’t going to greet my father like that; she was going to do this her way. She had found peace. Peace in her decision, in her fate and with God. She was going to, once again, hold the hand of her best friend. She was going to be with my father.
I know it’s what she wanted. I know that, through her and because of her, I will find that same peace. And I know that she loved her children and grandchildren, and her mother, but she was leaving us behind. She missed her friend, and I miss mine.
-Laura Duda (originally written 11/28/11; edited 2/10/12)
-Laura Duda (originally written 11/28/11; edited 2/10/12)