Ashes and Lent

When my mother died, I had an agenda you don’t know you have until someone central to your existence is gone.

This was mine:

• First, empty the most personal of properties, her vanity. Her lipsticks.

She kept on her sink a plastic box filled with her powders, lipsticks. Blush. Eyebrow pluckers. Tiny. Personal. Things.

The intimate.

As if in a terrible rush, I quickly swept it all into a garbage bag. A big black trash bag too heavy-duty for such delicate items.

But there were things I needed to do quickly.

•  Sweep out enema boxes. Stool softener bottles. Cotton balls. Fragmented face-powder compacts. Tired old bandages. Things I don’t remember because I disposed of them so quickly. I was in a rush.

Except for some things. Her hair brushes. Her ceramic pill bowl. Hair dryer. An ancient bottle of perfume.

By her bedside table she’d kept a ceramic tray filled with odds and ends I periodically would try to organize. Really, just rearranging the clutter.  As in the ceramic cup holder. A letter opener. Cat-nail clippers. Her own nail clippers. Nail files. Comb to clean out the cat’s brush. TV guide.  Neck night cream. Stamps. The ceramic tile with my phone number in ink on the bottom to call for me when she would begin to forget my phone number.  Old business cards. Ticktacs.

It’s a hunger. This. Now. To  remember in detail everything on my mother’s bedside table.

The things that would wind up under her bed. Socks. Hairbrushes. Basket of old catalogues she would toss.

After my mother died, the next thing I would do is have that blue bedroom carpet that had been stained with blood ripped up. From her last fall, when she almost bled out after gashing her head on the corner of her bureau. She had been on Coumadin that can thin your blood to the consistency of water.

I would return to the house only once before it was ripped up. The blue bedroom carpet.

I could not step into her bedroom; the hospital bed in which she’d died now gone, her bed back in its rightful place.

As if nothing had changed.

The next time I would return to the house, the carpet would be gone. The bed moved to another wall. With the relief of someone coming up for air after nearly suffocating beneath an avalanche, I was deeply relieved. To feel nothing.

I can feel nothing.

I want to remember all this and then I don’t.

When she died, I was in a rush.

Only later would I wonder why was I in such a rush? Well, exactly this — that I might linger over the lipsticks. As I would the ashes from her urn, seeking out fine bones that hadn’t been pulverized.

I would keep her hair brushes. With her hair…the ladybug pillow she would take her last breath against.

Next on the agenda: to empty certain bureau drawers. Not all. I would empty into a new trash bag all of her underwear. Her mastectomy bras. Her stockings carefully rolled into balls. I would toss the balls hard into the bag as if I was mad. I wasn’t mad. I was just in a terrible rush.

Next: I would toss stained T-shirts. The ones she wore at the end of her life, ones stained with food from her aide trying to feed her purred food she would choke on after her stroke.

And it would only be months later when I would chastise myself for not giving her a proper funeral.

For landing myself in a hospital ward where my roommate claimed to be a psychic medium who told me my mother had been with her all along and only wanted me to know how much she appreciated all I had done for her.

All I had done for her.


I look at her picture I keep of her, sketching. In her element. Mom!

And for never even thinking to change her out of the only thing she was wearing when she died — a white T-shirt that I’d put on in my panic, as she was in the throws of actually dying. Having vomited black bile on her  nightgown, I had to cut it off of her because she was too weak to move.

She died in a white stained T-shirt under a cheap green fleece blanket. In a Depends.

When the starched men from the funeral home came to take her away, I had never thought ahead to that — that they would strip her of the green blanket, down to her  bandaged gangrene leg.

And that is how she would exit her house,  her life. Why hadn’t I dressed her?

I read that somewhere, about how a daughter had carefully dressed her mother after she died, preparing her for cremation.

Why did that never occur to me? She was to be cremated. It didn’t occur to me!

To dress her?

It’s Lent. I couldn’t bring myself to go to Ash Weds services. I am in retreat. From ashes. The sifting through ash for the last remnants of life. Of bone.

John. My brother who died two days before Christmas. I was not in the room with him either when he died. I don’t know what he was wearing. No doubt a hospital gown.  I just know that he lay alone in a cold room; the morning he died the nurse made a point of telling me they had turned down the thermostat to keep the room “cool” until I could make “arrangements.”

How did he die? I asked. As I had asked my mother’s aide, because again, I just wasn’t there. In the room.

The nurse said he just turned away and his color changed.

My mother died quietly too.

Death is so final that I’m astonished at any quietness about it.

But perhaps grateful. Perhaps not. Perhaps I would be more at peace with these losses if the sky had exploded with shooting stars.

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You think you have a handle on the grief. The loss. Until you don’t.  And are keeling into the crater hollowed out before you.

A knock. A jostling in an uncaring crowd. And you are falling into that gloaming darkness.

Just like that.

You’ve avoided for months those songs that reduce you to a weeping mess. Coldplay:

“For a second I was in control, I had it once I lost it though…”

Now you wail. Into the crater, into a room emptied of all but you.

“The tears come streaming down your face when you lose something you can’t replace.”

The sun flits frantically across bare wood floors. Shadows brood. You open your mother’s final sketchbook — and there it all is, the raw simplicity of a life ending, her only remaining vistas napping cats:
cats copy


searing sunsets:


and the weekly sunflowers her daughter would nestle into a glass bowl:


Seven months, and you still have not cleaned out her closet. You can only open the door, contemplate her handbags hanging askew on hooks. Knowing too intimately that there are old tissues and lipsticks in their worn pockets. You shut the door as if on a sleeping child.

After she died you did some things quickly: threw out all her underwear, her mastectomy bras, worn turtlenecks, gave away all her shoes, disposed of all her makeup, that was the first thing…

Then there were things you had to keep but put out of sight: her hairbrushes. Old perfume bottles. Ceramic pill boxes.

You kept her jewelry but cannot wear it.

You took down from the walls her paintings that she no longer was able to recognize as her own. A truth that one night brought you to your knees…

You rearranged the rest as best you could to avoid the sharp edges of missing YOU, Mom…

You told yourself you would get. used. to. this.

But you cannot touch her paint brushes. Unfinished canvasses…

“All I know, is that I’m lost, whenever you go…All I know, is that I love you so, so much that it hurts…”

Their last conversation, she’d called to tell her daughter this: “Sandy, I’m dying.”

“How do you know you’re dying?”

“Because I know.”

She knew.

The daughter had pressed one hand up against the cold windowpane. She remembered the details of that April morning, the sun white against a flat blue sky… an old cobweb on the outside sill wavering in a breeze. Then the daughter had headed out east to see her mother one last time.

The daughter arrived in time for her mother to rally and drink pear juice. Until the business of dying took grip and she vomited black bile.

And her mother began to count. She counted one, two, three, one, two, one, two. The daughter, a frightened child, counted with her not knowing what else she could do. Her mother’s hands flit around her blanket as months later the sun would flit around an empty room. Frantically.

There is no comfort.

“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” her mother had said.  Over and over, for hours it seemed, straining to sit up when she couldn’t…

You are dying.You are learning how to leave me.

“To find yourself alone in the world…”

For weeks after she died, the daughter would wrap herself up in her mother’s sweater, careful not to disturb the grey hairs tangled in its matted fleece.

And she would fail at trying to remember her mother not as sick with a gangrenous  leg, frail, afraid, but as she would want to be remembered, a young woman riding a horse bareback down mountain in a thunderstorm…

“You’re always in my head.”


Mom. Walk through those sliding doors one more time. Show me broken shells along the beach. Tell me again, “You are a most satisfying daughter.”

“You wonder when you wake up will it be all right…”

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This is a link up to Alphabet Thursday, the letter H:

It should have felt harrowing. Combing through her mother’s cremains.

It didn’t. Because she was as focused as only one can be combing fingers through ash seeking out the tiny bone that hadn’t been pulverized – and finding it.

She felt a rush of satisfaction, the thrill of finding a ring, some prized possession, lost at the beach…

And ash is a bit like sand — all grit.

Though finally nothing like sand; so fine, the ash that spilled on the kitchen table became ingrained in the wood as she tried to divide up the cremains. Her mother had been returned to her in a black plastic box the size of a small office wastebasket.

She would bury her mother. In the black box which would be lowered down into the columbarium via a black net.

But she would keep some of her in the old brass cigarette box she remembered from her childhood, engraved with tree branches. The cigarette box that sat on her parents’ coffee table back when she was small and they both still smoked.

Though human ash tastes nothing like sand.

She licked the tip of one finger. It tasted at once both sour and sweet.

The taste of her mother…

No. Harrowing was not in the seeking. It was in the tasting.

And in the holding. She cupped the tiny bone in her palm.

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The Day My Mother Died

Two months into a world without my mother. Hard for me to find the words. But these words finally needed to be written:

I lay sprawled across my mother’s dead body.

I wouldn’t let them take her, those stiff men, absurd in their starched suits, waiting in my mother’s weedy gravel driveway, by the black death van, which had been escorted by a pristine white death car….


They couldn’t take her.

I had been peering at them through my mother’s blinds. I let the slat drop. I realized I was wailing. Because it didn’t make sense to take my mother from her own house. “This is her house!” I cried out, into my mother’s room. Into the April morning, cruel and mocking in all its crisp cool brightness slicing sharply though those blinds, across me and my dead mother, in the hospital bed….

The hospital bed. A  glacial presence amidst the warmth of the familiar, a fragile antique rocking chair now broken from too many nurses sitting to fill out their charts; my mother’s desk, the letter slots packed with my old birthday cards, checkbooks and yellowed cat notepads; photos of me, brittle starfish and shells she’d collected along the beach, lining her bookshelf.

My mother’s aide came in. The undertakers were threatening to leave, she said, trying to keep her voice even, but I could hear the angst – which only annoyed the crazy-grief-stricken-middle-aged child clinging to her mother’s frail bones, bones sheathed in loose bruised dehydrated skin.

With her fingers, the child combed out strands from her mother’s gray hair. The child held the gossamer strands up to the window light.

The child had thought about getting up for a pair of scissors, to clip some hair to keep once her mother’s body was reduced to ash. But that would mean having to get up off the hospital bed. Leaving this moment. Leaving her mother.

I’d been lying there for two hours. After my mother died, I’d found such relief in finally being able to hold her, as she was free now of the pain of just touching her shoulder in an embrace.

I studied her right hand, splaying her fingers. The hand that once held all her paintbrushes, her nails always rimmed with aquamarine blue; the hand that had sketched her cats, or the crooked cherry trees out her sunroom window, when confined to her house after she lost her license.

She was wearing a plastic fake gem ring her ten-year-old grandson had bought for her. The one, later, I would insist she be cremated wearing, I’m not sure why. Maybe because when I’d paid beforehand for the cremation, I was unreasonably baffled by the funeral director assuring me the cremains “would be all bone, no teddy bears.”

Her circulation having ceased, her fingers seemed bloodless now, translucent.

Beautiful in their translucency.

I lifted one eyelid–I needed to see her blue eyes. “You’re beautiful,”  I told her.

I kissed the birthmark on her forehead which she’d always viewed as a mark against her.

“It’s not,” I said. It’s as delicate as a paper moon.

You’re beautiful mom. You never understood, knew, how beautiful you are.

She’d died somewhere between 3-4:30 am, and lying there at dawn, I had whispered, “Hear the first birds, Mom?”

When my mother had called me the previous morning, I don’t remember what I was doing. Some mundane task, walking around with the phone as I usually do.

But I remember exactly where I was standing when she spoke these words: “Sandy, I’m dying.”

I remember stopping and standing still. I was in front of the windows facing out onto our yard and dogwood trees, the scalloped birdbath.

I remember I made light of her words, laughing a little. “And how do you know you’re dying?”

“I just know.”

I just know.

I remember this conversation word for word because it would be the last lucid conversation between us. I don’t remember our saying how much we loved each other, but her aide–who had held the phone, as my mother was suddenly too weak to hold it herself–said we did, that we spoke words of how much we “loved, loved, loved” each other.

I asked her aide if I should drive out there.

She was in tears, as my mother had just put out her hand to thank her for all she’d done. This determined, opinionated woman now sounded unsure:  “I don’t know.”

We didn’t know whether she was actually dying. She had shown no signs beyond a sudden weakness, and a swelling of her left hand which her doctor attributed to her atrial fibrillation.

By the time I was on the road, she had rallied, was sitting up drinking pear juice.

“She had me fooled again!” her aide texted me, as my mother had “fooled” us a couple of times, especially with her unexpected recovery from aspiration pneumonia.

When I got to her house, my mother was still sitting up in bed, but her color seemed off, a shade of yellow.

And then she had what seemed to be a seizure. Her eyes rolled up into her head. She began speaking gibberish. She vomited what looked like black bile.

“I’m sorry,” her aide said. “She’s going.”

My mother had known. But by this time, she seemed to have forgotten what she already knew, asking, “What’s wrong with me?”

You’re dying.

She began to weave in and out of coherency, speaking gibberish until she found a word:


We talked. Her aide rambled on about the cats, how Sam ate too much and was getting too big.

Keep talking.” she commanded.

As long as we talked she would not die.

I pulled up the broken rocking chair to sit beside her hospital bed.

And I sang.

I sang the song that had “inspired” her: “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us from a distance.”

She closed her eyes. Her breaths deep and rapid. Her face tense, mouth open.

She began counting. Up to fourteen, before starting over.

Sometimes she’d only get as far as two. One,two. One, two, one two…

I would count with her, feeling how she clutched at lucidity. Clasping it as tightly as a steel bar, though her grip was already loosening as she struggled against her increasing weakness. She would strain forward, as if trying to get up. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?”

Full sentences began to fail her. As did her strength, with each dose of morphine, when she’d cry out, “pain pills! Pain pills!”

For relief from her pressure sores, we rolled her onto her right side, sliding a pillow under her hips for support.

I’d never been able to imagine myself anywhere else as my mother lay dying, but  literally at her bedside. I assumed we had always been too close for me not to be there when she actually passed.

But the way her dying finally played itself out, afterwards, now, I realize I had imagined a scenario in a bad supermarket novel: At her final breath, I’d be holding her hand, and I would feel her spirit flow through her hand into my body.

I did not imagine what our last moments together would really be like, a disjointed, nonsensical conversation punctuated by random words: socks, coats and half a bike.

“How can you have only half a bike?” I asked.

“A half,” she insisted.

“Where’s the other half?”

We could have argued over this half bike as we could over what was the shortest way to drive home.

But then she thrust her blanket, balled in her fist, at me. “Here.Take it! The coat!”

I reached for the blanket. “Ok. I have the coat.”

When the blanket wasn’t balled in her first, she was reaching her hand out from beneath it to anxiously slide it up and down my arm, tucking her fingers under my shirt sleeve, searchingly. “Socks. Socks!”

I had lost by then my own words.

And she had stopped the counting.

We continued the morphine, and started liquid lorazepam.

She seemed to drift off to sleep around 11pm. Her aide told me to go to bed. “This isn’t how it’s done.”

This isn’t how it’s done.

How should it be done?

I had no idea.

So I went to bed, and her aide woke me at 4:30–My mother was already gone.

I’d missed the moment.

How could you not wake me?”

“I checked on her at three,” her aide said. “She was the same. Then I checked…now.”

And we both looked at my mother. Eyes closed, her face sallow, her mouth open and drooping to one side.

It was only much later when I would realize that my mother would have planned it this way. She would have told me to go to bed and get my rest.

She would have been worrying over me.

And the child, in the end, finally relented, gave in to the undertakers waiting in her mother’s driveway. She allowed them into her mother’s house, the starched men with their shimmering ties perfectly aligned, who promised to treat her mother with “the utmost dignity and respect” – the men the child told to just do what they needed to do, and “fucking leave.”

After all, they were stealing her mother away from her, zipping her into a black bag, rendering her faceless, carrying her out on a stretcher discretely through the side door, as their veterinarian year ago had carried out their dead cat after putting him to sleep, his kidneys failing….

They slipped her mother light as a feather, into the back of the shiny black van, and the child climbed back into the hospital bed. Onto the air mattress that inflated and deflated, and cresting each wave, she cried out for her mother.

Mommy! Mommmmyyy!!  She wailed, growing smaller and smaller, more frail herself, in the void of the rented bed, rising and falling on the waves, crashing over and over…

Emptied of her mother. Left empty-handed.

A lawn mower started up somewhere. Miraculously, a life outside her mother’s house continued.

And now every morning I listen for those first birds. Their singing now laced with the passing of a moment. Of a life.

Of my mother.


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Learning How to See

My mother, a professional artist, who passed last Thursday,  4/16/15, was my greatest teacher–the one who taught me how to “see.”

And then how to translate that seeing, to recreate reality into the transcendent of one’s own unique and memorable statement. For her it was the visual arts. For me writing. But the same lesson applied.

Here she is at work on her own “statement,” which was always the canvas. Which she really worked – with brushes and palette knives, but also textures, and her bare hands. She worked those paintings until she got her statement exactly right. Until she had said what she needed to say:



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