My mother died only a week after my visit in September 2018. I thought she still might have weeks or even months, but was relieved that she didn’t have to wither away in an understaffed nursing home.
I got the unexpected news while at the beach. It was my first time since moving back to Florida, and the thought that it would be an appropriate day for my mom to die crossed my mind on the way there. She loved the beach and took us often during my childhood because it was a free activity. I think it also reminded her of her short-lived, carefree days of modeling and water skiing before kids. Never a mom to succumb to a sensible vehicle, we would pile into whatever sexy, cramped, used, two-door sports car she had at the moment (none of them ever had working air conditioning) and blast classic rock on the way to the nearest blistering hot beach. We’d pick up gas station chicken and sides (because eat sand-sprinkled, steaming food while sitting on burning sand with no shade in sight spells R-E-L-A-X-A-T-I-O-N), and eat it using maxed out credit cards as utensils, since she’d always forget the silverware. At least I would get a blue Nehi soda out of the deal.
My mom also liked the beach because it was an escape from the watchful eyes of our family. One time I was thirsty, so she let me take a sip from her plastic travel mug. I thought her hot pink lipstick smudge had made the water taste off, but it was actually the vodka that did it. It was the 80’s and she was a glamorous train wreck of a single mother who walked a tightrope of brilliance and insanity, spontaneity and irresponsibility. And she was effortlessly cool.
I was not (am not) that mother, for better or worse. On our September beach day, I was collecting treasures with my son for our sandcastle masterpiece and avoiding jellyfish in the Atlantic Ocean with my husband. I answered the phone expecting my sister to say my mom’s time was running out, but instead she tearfully said, “Mom’s gone.” My saint of a husband knew immediately as the tears streamed down my face, and gathered our belongings without me saying a word. We let our son play on the nearby splash pad as I struggled for reception to talk to family members. The sky and sea were beautiful shades of blue, my son was joyful in the spraying fountains, and a breeze was blowing. I looked at every mother and child around us with a full heart, suddenly feeling like it was all very precious. The dichotomy of the day is something I can’t explain, just like my mother herself. It was simultaneously the worst day ever, the day the body that created me stopped working, and the most peaceful day. All at once, I felt heavy and light; I was anchored into a place of deep sadness while an effervescent spirit seemed to buzz around me. Or maybe it was just the first stage of grief: shock and denial.
The rest of the day was sort of a Mother’s Day to me with my husband catering to my every want. We ate fro-yo and gourmet veggie burgers, while watching cat videos on YouTube. (You lose your mother your way and I’ll lose mine my way, OK?) He even made me margaritas from scratch and fielded phones calls from family and friends. Over the next week, flowers, fruit, chocolates, balloons, and cards would arrive on my doorstep, and while I felt loved, I also felt like I wanted a rain check on all of that. I didn’t think I was feeling however it is you’re supposed to feel after your mom dies. When my grandmother died, I couldn’t come up for air. I couldn’t stop crying, I started having panic attacks, and I became borderline agoraphobic. As I’ve since realized, grief has taken a very different shape for me with each loss I have encountered.
This time, I lost my uncanny ability to easily drop into meditation. My mind was a clusterfuck of radio stations all playing at once. It became a struggle to become still, and when I would get there, my mom would be there. My once breathtaking Secret Garden was snow-covered and I would then involuntarily bounce back to reality. I didn’t want her to be everywhere I was.
In November, I flew to Santa Fe to be with my older sisters as we sorted through the remainder of my mother’s belongings and to scatter her ashes. The trip wasn’t as sad as I had anticipated. In fact, we made some great memories together, for the first time in decades. I did feel acutely detached, however, as my sisters naturally talked about “happy” things. I dissolved into tears as I wondered why I didn’t care about the things I once cared about. I couldn’t care less about interior design choices, for example; I wondered what really mattered anymore. It’s not that I didn’t find any humor or joy in life, but there had clearly been a shift and an emotional Novocain had taken hold.
My mom didn’t have much left to her name when she died, and there certainly wasn’t anything worth fighting over. It was mostly a trip down memory lane for us. If you haven’t experienced this already, you will learn a lot about your parents when you go through their most cherished belongings. My mom held onto so many letters of encouragement from her father and even the most minor certificates of achievement. She also held onto every record of hurt in her divorce files. She had typed and hand-written, copied and notarized documents, in addition to newspaper clippings and reports from private investigators, to create paper trails of evidence in regards to our fathers. So scorned, she literally took these heartaches to her grave. Tears were shed by all three of us when we sold her beat-up but beloved vehicle, the last possession she cared about, at a car lot.
Mom had wanted to scatter my stepdad’s ashes in the Pecos River, a spot they had loved to camp and fish, so we thought we would “bury” them together. Carry on My Wayward Son came on the radio as we made the scenic drive up to Pecos (a song my mom had requested to be played at her funeral). She’d failed to tell us exactly where their favorite spot was, so we had to pull off where it was safe and hope they would approve. It was a truly beautiful sight. The trees, the mountains, and the rushing river were incredibly tranquil. I understood it to be Heaven.
We three took turns crouching over the slippery rocks to pour her cremains into the frigid water. When it was my turn, I watched them rushing away like sands through an hour glass (an appropriate reference for the lifelong fan of Days of Our Lives that she was), and suddenly felt compelled to try to catch them with my free hand. Once the bag was empty, she would really be gone. My vision became blurry, my face tightened, and my sinuses liquefied as I felt her slip away. Nothing will make you more aware of your own mortality than to feel the powder that was once the warm body that MADE you, and to watch it dissolve into the earth.
I have a photo of myself and my sisters next to the river from that day. Angelo likes to explain to people that my mom is also in the photo; that she is now the river.
My mother’s sadness was deeply ingrained within her, as if indelibly woven into a tapestry that no human could ever unravel, and yet I would try till her death to “fix” her. I would tediously pick out each rusty, barbed thread and replace it with a shimmery, silken one. I tirelessly worked on a never-ending blanket that would ultimately catch fire. I watched the threads turn to ashes, stream through my fingers, and wash away into the river. There is nothing left for me to grab onto, but my hands haven’t gotten the memo yet. I would keep a Zen garden of her ashes if I could, so I finally understand why some people want to keep their loved ones’ cremains forever. She wasn’t mine to keep, though. Terese Shannon was a wild horse.
My mother lost her battle with cancer on September 17, 2018. You can read more from this journal in upcoming posts.