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Let Me Call You Sweetheart

November 5, 2012

Mum and me – 2009

I didn’t foresee still visiting her nearly a year after her death – though every time I left her in the three years before, I’d look out the windshield of my car as I’d ready to back out her driveway and I’d see her small frame standing on the other side of the screen door, she no longer the statuesque 5’7” of her younger years but a fragile being of about 5’3”, as she’d gaze out over the lawn and through the branches of the ancient trees that lined the driveway and on up toward the street and to her mailbox, studying her one acre of land that my father and she bought in 1957 when I was two. When she’d hear my car start she’d look toward me and I see her say “Bye, Mare” and I’d prematurely mourn my mother’s passing as I’d watch her and wonder, “What will I do when she’s gone?”  The thought would shatter me and I’d drive home with sorrow tightening my throat and melancholy filling the rest of my day and guilt permeating my heart for not doing more for her.

Sundays were my days to visit though I didn’t get there every Sunday. But when I did we’d chat about everything and nothing and I’d give her a backrub and put lotion on her skin and try in any way to make contact in a soothing and comforting way.

I took her to her doctor appointments, so, often I’d have an afternoon with her during the week. I cherished my time with her, knowing how much I’d miss her and how sad I’d be when she was gone.

We laughed a lot when we were together. Often, the laughter came about after one of her spoonerisms, for which she had a long and humorous history in our family, or one or the other of us – both shy by nature – suffering through a social embarrassment as we bumbled along, she wheeling her oxygen tank and me tooling along as I wheeled the spare behind me.  I’d joke that she’d lived so long I’d grown into her age category and wouldn’t it be fun to be old together.

Often in her last years and after a day with her, I’d say, “Mum, give me warning before you leave. I’ll need time to pack for the journey.” Covertly, I’d add, “I’m going with you! There’s no way you’re going on the big adventure without me.” We’d laugh as we thought of the faux pas of our day and imagined ourselves fumbling through the gates into heaven. Really, we both knew I was trying to ease her thoughts of death, trying to let her know I’d be with her for as far as I could go. And I was.

My mother was lovely, always gracious. She was pretty even at age 89, her age when she died. She had warm blue eyes. In her final days, all twelve of her children would sit with her ‘round the clock – in shifts or all together, desperate in twelve different ways to spare her any suffering. We’d talk softly to her when she no longer could, and we’d pray aloud the prayers familiar to her, and we’d sing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, one of the first pop songs she remembered liking as a child.  And I could hardly get out the line, “let me hear you whisper that you love me, too” because, in that final week, one of the last recognitions that passed between us was when I had to wrap my arms around her and move her to one side as I helped her nurse change her bedding, and when I held her, as gently as I could, she grimaced in pain. It upset me to cause her more discomfort than she already had. With all my heart I said, “I’m so sorry, Mum.” She opened her eyes and gave me a weak smile of forgiveness. As I held her gaze, I said, “I love you,” and she whispered, “I love you, too, Mare,” before she closed her eyes again.

So now, I find myself on Sunday afternoons, driving to her house and letting myself in and absorbing the impact of everything being just as it was when she died last November, except that she’s not there. Until October, we didn’t know she was dying and she lived fully late into the summer. So her house is as it was on any given day for the prior 55 years. The placemats are on the table, the sugar bowl on the counter, her spices ready by the stove. Her ironing board leaning in a corner, her b&o waiting for Billy Holiday, her easel and paintbrushes sitting, waiting, her windows to the outdoors longing for her appreciative look.

I walk past the bedrooms of our youth until I reach the door to her room at the end of the hallway. I’m struck by the silence – an unnerving stillness, and her empty bed. In my mind, I greet her as I always did, “Hi, Mum!” And I can now just barely hear her say, “Hi, Mare!” as she always did with real delight.

I fill with tears as I enter her room. I stand and think, what shall I do first this time? Look at her paintings on the walls and be tempted to touch each stroke? Raise the shades and fill my eyes with the view she loved? Open her closet and look at her clothes and remember helping her in and out of them through last year, touching something that not long ago touched her? Or open one of her twenty-five year-long journals and listen to her describe an ordinary day in her life. I know what I’ll find on almost any page. She’ll mention news about or a visit from one or two of her children or grandchildren or a friend, she’ll comment on the political scene in Washington, which she followed like an avid fan, she’ll plot out her frugal expenditures to keep the house lasting as long as she, she’ll describe the weather and mention the scenes of nature out her window. She might say, “Read in the sun on the patio for three hours! A perfectly beautiful day!”

Always, I choose to sit at the table by the windows in her room and read from her journals. Sometimes, I get so lost in her talk, I am with her. I’ll smile at a simple something she’s written, but when my eyes lift from the pages and I’m brought up sharply to the reality that she’s gone, my heart breaks again.

She was more than my mother. She was a unique woman who loved the gift of life on earth, a place she loved – troubles and all. She was both feminine and strong. She stayed current but held tightly to the social standards, courtesies and morals of a by-gone era. She was nobody’s fool, and we all aspired to have some of her grace.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever get used to life without her.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2013 10:41 pm

    I signed up for an email subscription. You seem like an interesting person I’d love to get to know!


  2. January 7, 2013 10:34 pm

    This is so close to home for me I am literally sitting here stunned; I am and will be in your shoes. My gosh, your description of looking out at your mother as you drove away is so close to that last one I wrote. And I know SO well all those mixed feelings of guilt etc. driving away, knowing I need to do more for her. And I dread that: the days when I will have to walk into an empty house. And everything will be as she left it. She too is/was a painter and my house as well as hers is full of her own strokes on the walls. You are a kindred spirit.


    • January 7, 2013 10:53 pm

      I remember reading the post you wrote about driving away and seeing your mother in the doorway and thinking how similar it was to the post I’d written –
      kindred spirits for sure. And many of my mother’s paintings are on my walls here in my home. I’ve had them for years and they mean so much to me now.

      Sandra, what’s so great is that you know now how much you’ll miss her when she’s gone, as I knew the same about my mother.
      So you will make sure you cherish every moment with her, as I did. I have no regrets, for which I am so thankful. I did everything I could for her. In the end, I lived with her more and more. (My children were ages 25 and 21, so I could.) From April through August I lived with her from Sunday afternoon till Tuesday evening. By mid-September, I’d moved in with her completely. She died in early November. As you’ll read, I have lots of siblings, so there was lots of help. But there was lots of disharmony, too. It was so sad. (I didn’t get caught up in any of it but some siblings are still out of sorts with one another. I think time will take care of the rifts…I hope.) We each were desperate to do everything for her, but there were 12 opinions on everything! Thank God, I think every time there was a deadlock, my vote swayed. My brothers (all ten of them) really did everything I asked. I am so grateful to them. And in the end, the final three weeks, we hired two nurses so that my mother could stay at home. One came from 4pm – 11pm, the other from 11pm – 7am. Many nights I only slept four or five hours, staying as much as I could with the nurses so that my mother would have the comfort of my presence.

      When your posts about your mother pop up in my email, it takes me back…

      I’m getting all teary eyed! I still miss her so much.


      • January 7, 2013 11:03 pm

        breaks my heart that I can’t be with her more — I have a 7 and 9 year old and a husband who isn’t home much. At the same time, I DID spend the week after xmas with her has my husband was home to take care of the kids and it was very stressful; I’m guilty in feeling that I coudln’t wait to leave. I was just wasted emotionally. Along with wanting the good moments, there is frustration with the bad.


      • January 7, 2013 11:19 pm

        That’s only natural, Sandra, especially if you don’t have people to share in the care of her. I’m glad you had that week with her. But I can imagine that it was emotionally difficult. Even with help, I felt as if I were out straight. It’s like having a newborn. And you have your children and the puppy!!! Just do what you can and be at peace that it’s the best you can do.



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