Today, six years ago, my Mum died.
As those of you who know me or share our blood are aware, she passed away from breast cancer (after keeping it at bay for an impressive forty-one years) in 2007.
I woke up this morning with her foremost in my mind…and I thought about what I could do today to honor her memory.
My mother loved quotes. One of her favorites (especially toward the end of her life) was “Love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone”.
I’m not sure who originally said that, but in the last days of her life, Mum made a point of paraphrasing it over and over…either to comfort me, herself, or both of us.
A quote that has become one of my favorites since her passing is by Banksy, a prolific UK graffiti artist.
“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time”.
Well, there was nothing I could do about the death by which my mother stopped breathing, but there is a lot I can do so that her name continues to be spoken.
Today I will “say her name” in a way way people have from the earliest of time; by telling you a story about her. It is one I have told before, but today of all days, I feel that it bears repeating. As all good stories do.
This is the story of the very last conversation my mother and I had. Even six years later, the memory still sets my heart aglow. Hopefully it will warm yours as well.
She was in Hospice and I had been camped out with her in her room for the prior ten days. She had been spiraling downward and I was, quite honestly, afraid to leave.
When I made the decision that I was going to stay with her 24/7 until the end, I asked her “Will my being here make it harder for you to go when the time comes?” She closed her eyes for a few moments and then said, “Perhaps…I don’t know…but let’s see.”
(As it happens, she left this world the following day while I was in the community kitchen making myself some tea, so there’s your answer.)
Anyway, my last conversation with my mother…
We’d had many discussions over the years on what happens after we die. Neither of us had really adhered to the Judeo-Christian ethic, and both of us had very open minds when it came to global culture and belief systems. I tend toward the Agnostic but if asked, I say that I consider myself Jewish (in homage to my Grandfather, yes, but to be honest, mostly for the food). Mum started out the requisite Jewish of our patriarchal line, somehow almost became a Catholic nun due to her one true love being a Priest (story for another day) but in the end, she called herself an Atheist.
Suffice to say, they were interesting discussions.
At one point when life was easy and she was healthy…and no doubt over a bottle of wine or two…during one such conversation, we had made a pact that whoever died first would, if indeed we carry on in some way after death, come back and haunt the other – not in a scary way, but in a “hey guess what, there really IS an afterlife” kind of way, and we vowed we would do it in an unmistakable, undeniable manner that left absolutely zero doubt that it was us, and that we were somewhere watching over the other.
So, our last conversation that day in Hospice began with my mother saying, rather out of the blue, “Well, I guess it’s going to be me doing the haunting.”
I looked up from the book I was reading, my mouth open in surprise, to find her grinning…a twinkle in her eye. We both chuckled. What else could we do?
“Make it good,” I chimed in. “Nothing polite or ladylike (her trademarks in life). Be loud and unruly for once; make sure I know it’s you and not the wind. But not SO over the top that I think it’s Aunt Sandy, okay?”
Her boisterous sister, the aunt to which I referred, had passed the year prior, unexpectedly, from botched surgery that she should have survived.
She laughed at that, and shot me a look that said, “Good one!” An image of Sandy’s broad and unmistakable smile flooded my mind and I wondered if Mom was thinking about her too. She met my gaze and nodded, as if in answer to my thought, and after a couple progressively faint little laughs, her eyes fluttered closed and she dozed.
The humorous moment had come and gone. I just sat there and watched her chest go up and down for a long time.
Breathing, it occurred to me then, is something we take entirely for granted. Until we are sitting in Hospice with someone we love.
Eventually she opened her eyes and weakly patted the bed by her knees. I smiled and went to sit beside her. She took my hand. I looked down at it, frail and wrinkly and spotted with age, her paper-thin skin crinkled where my fingers intertwined with hers.
“It’s up to you to carry the torch now”, she said, and she somehow managed to hold my gaze with a brief flare of awareness, strength and determination.
“I know,” I said, silently willing my voice not to crack or falter. “I will. I Promise.”
“I know you will,” she whispered, “I know.” Her chin went up ever so slightly; a gesture I recognized from times I had made her proud, and her eyes fluttered closed again.
We sat there for several minutes like that. She would occasionally nod, pat my hand and mutter, “I know”.
My family came over from Russia in the early 1900’s. My grandfather, her father, was born here in 1907, but some of his siblings were born in the old country. We are a tough, feisty, determined, stubborn, loud, emotive, take-no-shit kind of people who are intensely driven, sometimes to our detriment. In the typical old school European way, the men rule the roost. But in our family it was really the women who were the strong ones.
“The man may be the head of the house”, my mother’s mother once told me while attempting to teach me how to make noodle kugal and dispensing advice about boys, “but the woman is the neck…and the neck turns the head.” I have never forgotten those words, or the twinkle in her eye when she said them.
Like I said…strong women.
And man oh man, my mother and my aforementioned aunt (who, due to my mum being in and out of hospitals most of my life, had served as my second mother) were two of the strongest you’d ever want to meet. I can’t think of a woman in my family that wouldn’t give you a run for your money, but my aunt was a veritable juggernaut. My mother, a force of nature. If you knew either of them, you are nodding your head emphatically right now.
These were the women who raised me.
Carry the torch.
Hers, my aunt’s, my grandmother’s…all of the women in my bloodline who came before.
Be strong yet always kind. Stand for what you believe yet keep an open mind. Speak your truth but always with respect. Lead yet remain humble. Seek ever the high ground. Own every room you enter. Never forget your worth. Take nothing for granted. Do not ever give up. Live life on your own terms but always, always with honor and integrity.
The legacy of generations of stout, solid women with wide faces, wind blown cheeks, firm jawlines, colorful babushkas and penetrating eyes. Pointing with gnarled fingers.
I saw them, gathered around my mother’s bedside that day. Hands entwined, eyes alight with that mischievous twinkle, chanting in a tongue I didn’t understand but felt instinctively in my bones none the less.
“All I ever wanted,” she had told me once, decades before, from another hospital bed, on a day we had both been convinced the cancer was going to win, “was a daughter.”
I blinked away the introspection and gazed down at my mother’s sleeping face. I gently released her hand and when I had satisfied myself that her breathing was steady, I went to make myself some Quietly Chamomile.
When I came back, I knew immediately that she wasn’t just sleeping. She had gone.
I opened the window and lit a candle on the sill to show her the way to move on. The Hospice nurse had told me days earlier when she placed the single white candle there, that was their tradition. And Mum loved it when we learned a new tradition and made it our own. Here was a final one.
I kissed her on the forehead, told her goodbye, that I loved her, and that I hoped to hear from her soon.
The room was silent. The ‘babushkas’ were gone. It was just me now.
I took a deep breath, swallowed a sob and went to fetch the nurse.
That was six years ago now. Two weeks after her 73rd, and final, birthday.
So today, as I remember her, it is with that familiar twinkle in my own eye, for I am filled with thoughts of her life, not her death.
I am keeping her alive by sharing her with you…and she would like that very, very much.
Nancy Ann Sanel, you are alive in my heart and by my love, and the love of those who’s lives you have touched, you will be immortal.
I am remembering you with a smile. With gratitude. With respect. With awe.
It is my honor to carry on your legacy…with brightly burning torch ever in hand.