Losing my mother looked and felt like a lot of things.
On the seventh floor of a hospital in Ottawa is a giant container of Breyer’s chocolate ice cream with three spoonfuls taken out of it, that no one else will ever eat.
Losing my Mom meant balancing each day between two of her worlds and trying to keep where she really was in perspective.
We were at the hospital where she lay dying, and back and forth to her apartment, but she wasn’t in either of those places.
The Mom I visited in those final days was my mother, but she was not my Mom.
She was there in flesh, but barely recognizable as my Mom, with her stapled head, jaggedly sharp limbs and misshapen face from the swelling.
She wasn’t my Mom in her lack of cognition and joy, and she wasn’t my Mom in her inability to join us in the storytelling at her bedside. When the original storyteller is no longer able to tell the stories, your Mother has already departed.
We would alternate between the hospital and her apartment. In her apartment, bits and pieces of her were all around us.
A glass of half-sipped water sat on a table by the front door; left there by someone who thought they were returning.
Her slippers lay kicked off by her bed, where a small garbage can had lain to catch her sickness the night before she went into hospital.
These things had the power to break hearts, these remnants of a life.
But all around us in that apartment was ‘Mom’. The giant, healthy plants all around, the beautiful frames, canvasses, curios, prints and international knickknacks that make a house a home.
That power of Mom’s to turn a tiny apartment, a giant house, a bathroom, a kitchen, into a world of beauty was there all around us.
Her clothes, her jewellery, her scarves and hats- they all held pieces of her in them.
We sorted that apartment day by day, and took with us what held the most Mom-magic in it, but when we left that apartment at night, I had to remind myself that she wasn’t there either.
She had been in that place for only a year and she had Hated it.
The more we stripped away what was beautiful, the more we realized how hard Mom had had to work to make that space what it was. I remembered all of our phone conversations where she said she hated the building, she didn’t like her neighbours, and she shouldn’t have moved there.
Leaving that apartment didn’t feel like leaving Mom. It felt like destroying all of her creations, but it also felt like liberating her from a place she had wanted out of.
Each night as she got closer to death and her apartment got more and more empty, I would have to remind myself where Mom really was.
The Mom I was going to miss was already gone.
Mom’s house no longer had any of Mom’s joy left in it.
But each time I would look up from Mom’s bedside or cast my eyes around her apartment, I would find her again.
I find her in my sister Sarah’s face. In her smile, and the way she can whip up a fashionable outfit and make any house a home.
I find her in my sister Victoria. In her devotion to her loved ones, her spirit of independence and her stubbornness.
I find her in myself. In my quirkiness, impishness, creativity and storytelling.
She lives in all of us.
When it was time for her body to be free of suffering, I had already realized that someone as vivacious and epic as Mom can never truly be gone.
The night she passed, while we were at the hospital, a homeless person came by our house and ripped our garbage bags to shreds all over the front sidewalk.
That felt rude. We had brought some of Mom’s garbage back from her apartment for disposal at our rental house. And there it was.
Strewn about on the street; the contents of someone’s life.
A wig. An envelope with her name and address on it, wet and sticking to the pavement.
Some of these details I’ll forget with the passage of time.
Some of them I won’t.
The last full sentence Mom said to me was: “I don’t know where I am.”
She said it in a small, confidential voice, like a child asking its mother for reassurance.
I answered like I would a child.
“You are at the hospital. You are safe. You are warm. You are loved. And your job is to sleep.”
In these moments, there is nothing to do but trade places. The line blurs between parent and child. It is strangely comforting to be able to offer a gift like that. How many times has my mother reassured me when I was afraid? What a gift to be able to do the same in return.
The night she passed, she looked peaceful. She looked ready to go.
She waited for us to say goodnight; our final goodnight in a long, long line of goodnights gone by.
It felt nice to spread my hand across her chest and feel it still rising, still falling.
I had wondered what the final moment might be like. Would she be scared? Would her body resist? Would I know when it was coming?
She made it so peaceful. So easy. One moment, her chest was rising and falling under the gentle weight of my spread fingers, and then it wasn’t.
Not even a whisper, and off she went, to wherever it is that people’s spirits go.
I was so proud of her. So happy that she didn’t have to suffer for long. That she left on her own terms, and quickly.
She waited for us.
She waited for us three to arrive in Ottawa and have our last coherent visits with her.
And she waited on November 30th for us to come back from cleaning her apartment and say our final goodnight.
In the days since she’s been gone, I look for her everywhere.
I look her for in the sky. I look for her in squirrels and in crows. I look for her in the moon and the clouds.
I see her in the gloriously huge and long-lasting rainbow she sent us the day after she passed.
She gave it to us as we entered her apartment for the final clean-out. A thankless task that none of us felt particularly up to doing on the day after her death. Right as we entered her apartment, she made magic appear in the sky. A giant thank you. An ‘I am well.’
When we left her apartment that last time, six bells tolled from the church across the street the moment we walked out of that sad place. A ‘farewell’. A celebration.
Yesterday as I was packing my suitcase, preparing to head back home, a cheeky, plump grey squirrel climbed up and sat 8 inches from my face on the patio chair, inspecting me through the window as I squirrelled away my treasures from Mom’s apartment into my luggage.
We’ve combed through our family photos, and taken photos of photos with our phones so that we can look at them whenever we need.
I find myself hungry for any of her handwriting. I see that beautiful script of hers and I pounce on it; wanting to know and see and discover everything.
Some of her letters that I have read have broken my heart. Some of her poems that I have read have me laughing with delight.
When I come home, I’m going to start writing the book she never managed to publish. I’m going to make that my mission.
But in the meantime, the sadness gets me in the most peculiar ways.
I was in the grocery store the other day. I saw a plum and broke down in tears. ‘Mom will never eat a plum again.’
Sometimes it’s a song. Sometimes it’s seeing someone my age, out shopping or on a lunch date with their mother. ‘Why does their Mom get to live?’
Sometimes it’s a fear. A fear that I’ll forget what her voice sounds like. A fear that Sadie won’t remember her.
The last few days have been manageable because I’ve had my sisters by my side.
I have no idea what grief will look like in the weeks and years to come, but I’ve almost made it one whole week in this world without my Mama in it.
Today, my sister and I both got sad at the airport. It felt like we were leaving someone behind. We had already parted ways with our eldest sister, and that was starting to hurt, but it also felt like we were leaving Mom somehow.
The thought that came to me then was sadness that Mom could never get on an airplane again, could never travel. But the moment I said it out loud to Victoria, it sounded silly.
Victoria and I are the ones confined to a metal tube in the sky with wings- Mom doesn’t need an airplane.
She’s already free. She’s already in the clouds, and she’s travelling to a place right now that I can only imagine.
The copilot just announced as we are landing that the skies are so clear that Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are all visible from Earth today. Who was I- to think that Mom needed an airplane?