The Year My Mother Died

Lois MagnoliaThe week after my mother died, I dreamed about her. I was at her home sorting through things and getting paperwork in order. It was a beautiful June day just as it had been when she’d died. I decided to take a break and sit in the backyard for a while. I walked onto the enclosed back porch and opened the door to the backyard. There was Mama! ‘Oh, Mama!’ I cried. I stopped. She had that look on her face, that look that told me she wasn’t happy with me and she was going to tell me about it. Looking at me with that stern expression, she said, ‘Dottie Jean, I am not dead and I want you to stop acting like it.’

A few weeks later, on my birthday, I took in eight just-born kittens. Eyes unopened, they were curled up like a wad of rags or crumpled newspaper. Their mother, who’d been shot with a bb gun and slashed across the back with a knife, was alive and begging me with desperate meows to help her. I did. My partner and I took them all in. While their mother recovered in the hospital, we fed the cats with an eye dropper, we rubbed their stomachs so they would go to the bathroom, we bathed them, we removed fleas with tweezers, we hovered over them with a mother’s concern. Their cat mother survived and came back home but seemed to forget the kittens were hers.

In the year after my mother died, I thought of her every day. Images of the last few days were intermixed with years’ old memories. She was a woman who loved to talk, talked out her whole life, put all her experiences into words, told all her stories. Her first name, Lois, rhymed with voice. She invented her own language when she had to — words like spinister as in ‘Dottie Jean, if you don’t get married soon, you’ll be an old spinister.’ Other words …. deceivious, a mealy mouse, high geraniums for hydrangeas.

At the end, she was no longer able to talk. Her mind could form the words, thoughts. Her vocal chords could make sounds, but the brain, squeezed and pressed by a tumor, could not connect them, could not communicate from one hemisphere to the other. Occasionally, a tremendous struggle would produce a word, usually an explosive ‘no.’ A few days from the end, she managed ‘I want to know.’ Then I realized I had been misunderstanding. She wasn’t saying ‘no.’ She wanted me to tell her what was going to happen. I did. She fell back on the pillow and sighed as if to say, ‘so this is it, then,’ ‘I want to know’ were her powerful last words. I wonder now, what will my last words be. I hope they’re as empowered and forceful as hers.

Mama was a storyteller. She said she’d write a book if only she could spell. I assured her I would correct the spelling. I’ve tried to remember her stories, write them, and tell them. One, Crazy Feet, I tell in her voice. She gave me many gifts but none I treasure more than her stories.

I wish I’d recorded her before she lost her voice. I regret the times I was inpatient with her stories. A week before she lost the ability to speak, two friends of mine came to see her. She held forth all afternoon and told us her life story from the ten-year old girl who lost her mother to her present. Her life flashed before her eyes in one magnificent story that early June afternoon in 1987. We were privileged to hear it.

She was a clothes horse without a racetrack, my brother wrote. Her clothes, jewelry, shoes, handbags, and above all her hats were glamorous, not like any other mother’s. ‘Dottie Jean, I never met a hat I couldn’t wear’, she said with the same pride as when she extended her leg and bragged, ‘I have the legs you read about!’ In several of the early photographs, she seems to be showing off her hat. My favorite is one in which she’s posed in front of a tall, blooming magnolia tree. The hat comes to some kind of point, out of which seems to be growing a large white magnolia flower, and from that, the entire tree.

The last few weeks, I became my mother’s mother. I bathed, fed, and baby-talked her; helped her to the bathroom; watched her sleep; listened to her breathing; fretted that she might be too hot or too cool.

The year my mother died, I realized I, too, would die. I took her place in line, walking, ambling, racing down the same path the end of which we all come. But not having nearly as much fun as she did. Just as she was never able to teach me to flirt, she never was able to teach me how to have a good time, her kind of good time. Lord knows, she tried. ‘Loosen up,’ she’d tell me. How many mothers tell their daughters to loosen up?

The year my mother died, I started noticing how much I looked like her, more than when I was younger. I see her bone structure in the mirror, her graying hair on my head, her smile back at me, not to mention the busted vein in the leg in the exact same spot hers was and the long, black stray hair growing on my forearm exactly where it grew on hers.

The year my mother died, I felt abandoned. Almost two years to the day after Daddy died, she died. Abandoned because she wanted to die, no longer wanted to live, not for anything. Nothing would keep her. She left in a hurry. I worried, though, that she was again trying to be ‘the good little girl.’ She’d make us proud one last time and show us how fast it could be done. Friends noticed her pace as well and said, ‘she wants to be with your father.’ Why? Wasn’t I good enough company? Weren’t we who loved her enough?

I remember the last thing I saw her enjoy. Within a few days of death, she was bed-ridden, catheterized. I made her what she called ‘soppy biscuits,’ something her father made when she was a little girl, ostensibly for himself but really to treat her. She was his pet. He let her taste coffee by splitting biscuits in half and covering them with sweet, milky coffee. She told us so many times about how he would take her on his lap and feed her the biscuits. I made some soppy biscuits and spoon fed her. She could not speak but her eyes talked to me: ‘You remembered my story.’

The year my mother died, I did not take up dancing. The year her mother died, she was ten years old, the change of life baby and the only child left at home as the others were so much older. Lonely and ignored by her father, brothers and sisters, she said she danced every afternoon to fight the loneliness. She would come home from school, turn on the radio, and dance her heart out. Her father only questioned why she was wearing out her shoes so fast. I was not as resourceful.

The year my mother died, I could still talk to her and convince myself she answered. She talked back to me in my head but she didn’t speak unless spoken to. That should’ve been my clue that it wasn’t her.

The year my mother died, I could still dial 704-633-4683 and believe she’d answer.

The year my mother died, I dreamed of her three more times. She was happy, busy with lots of engagements. ‘Just dropped in to say hello, so sorry, can’t stay, lots to do, am loving it, lots of friends, lots of fun, don’t know when I’ll see you again. Bye now and try to loosen up.’ I was struck by how young she looked, younger than me, in her thirties.

The year my mother died, I started playing the lottery, the six numbers a combination of her birthday and mine. I haven’t won yet.

The year my mother died, I played Will the Circle Be Unbroken every day. I’d cry, shake my tambourine, march around the house, sing at the top of my lungs. None of that brought her back.

‘I will follow close behind her ….’

Sisters of Glory/Lois Walden Will the Circle Be Unbroken


© Copyright, Dorothy Kirk, 2010