- Posted September 1, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
Every day the big yellow Bluebird—the bus to afternoon kindergarten—dutifully stopped in front of our home and I’d climb aboard. As I took my seat Mrs. Sweet would grasp the shiny handle, extend her arm and close the door with a loud swoosh. Bus #16 would then gently surge forward while I'd look out the window and wave goodbye to my mother standing on the front porch.
I have only three other distinct memories of that year—the first day of kindergarten, sitting next to mom on the couch reading a children’s book with the word 'cookies' in it, and a very clear recollection of July 5, 1959.
That was the day Paul died.
Never told the specifics, I have since surmised the clinical ordeal that brought my pregnant mother to the hospital that day—an abrupt, intense pain followed by a massive life-threatening hemorrhage. Our father sat on the couch and told me and my older brother and sister that Paul was in heaven. He said Mom would be joining him in heaven. But her obstetrician was wrong. After several weeks in the hospital, she did return home.
The waving ritual ceased the afternoon the bus rounded the corner out of sight and I realized I forgot to wave. The anguish I felt was instantaneous and visceral. It sparked the image of Mom’s flowered print dress and her folded arms prepared to unwind in anticipation of a wave that never came. Far too young to realize I left her to an empty house and the haunting memories of a life that never was, I now know she would have slowly turned, opened the screen door, looked back one more time, then found her way to the couch, and with hands cupped over her face, sobbed.
My failure to wave haunted me for years. The memory was seared into my subconscious like a branding iron. Regardless, neither of us ever again mentioned this unintended stab to her heart, but that day I moved one small step closer to the independence every mother nurtures, and at the same time, dreads.
In spite of the pain in her life after Paul died, she didn’t stop living. She was a beautiful woman who could ride a bike and master the hula-hoop. She sang along to the Chipmunks on the radio and to her back-flips off a diving board were a cinch. She was a gardener and she loved to sew.
As I grew older, we discovered we could communicate in a mysterious way. I honestly don’t remember the first time it occurred, but neither of us seemed too surprised, taking it in stride as if it was meant to be. During one of our typical exchanges she would say, “Have you … ” But, as was oftentimes the case, she was interrupted by any number of things in the daily life of a busy housewife. Several hours later, or sometimes a day or two, I would respond, “The last I heard from Ed was the Christmas card he sent.” Or she’d say, “When”—to which I would immediately interject—“First thing Saturday morning.” We both knew it was the lawn that would be mowed.
Mom and I never tried to communicate in this manner—it just evolved with the ebb and flow of daily life, and as I grew older and life became more distracted, it occurred more frequently.
Our immediate family was as close as any suburban family. Mom grew up in Kentucky and always said she was a “hillbilly.” Dad was from New York City. They settled in suburban Detroit after the war, and despite the distance, Mom remained close to her only sister who eventually developed and succumbed to emphysema. Like her sister, and many women of their generation, Mom smoked. I have few memories of her without a cigarette. As a two pack a day smoker, she’d rhythmically tap the end of each cigarette, before lighting it, on the table like a professional tennis player preparing to serve.
Despite several attempts to quit smoking, the insidious disease that claimed her older sister had her, too, firmly in its grasp. As the disease progressed, her aging accelerated, compounded by osteoporosis and spine fractures. Her emphysema worsened and the resultant heart failure, hypoxia, and final electrolyte imbalance made it clear our time together was limited. I flew home when our brother called and was at her bedside the entire afternoon. She drifted in and out of consciousness, and early in the evening, while still lucid, we reminisced about happier times—trips to Kentucky and bicycle rides with the family. Long forgotten memories flooded my consciousness.
I thanked her for being such a wonderful mom and for being kind to my friends. I knew which ones she liked and the ones she didn’t. She never felt it necessary to discuss my choice of friends or to steer me away from anyone in particular, but I knew. She would occasionally inquire—always discreetly and never too frequently—about certain friends, a gentle reminder to keep them close.
I thanked her for my education. We visited about her grandchildren. We laughed about events, things said, the funny people we knew, and stupid things I had done. The bed shook as she laughed about the cold Thanksgiving morning we looked out the kitchen window to see her miniature poodle dragging the neighbor’s twenty pound turkey behind him up the driveway.
At her bedside the anguish I had experienced that day on bus #16 had enveloped me, as fresh as it was thirty-five years earlier. I gently touched her arm, leaned over the bed railing and said, “Mom, I’m sorry—”
She raised her hand to cut me off. The last thing I remember her saying was, “You didn’t wave.”