THE GIRL WHO LOVED CATS AND FLOWERS

THE GIRL WHO LOVED CATS AND FLOWERS

From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

The Girl Who Loved Cats and Flowers

Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young.

Arthur Wing Pinero

Early in the autumn of 1984, my mother—for no apparent reason—began writing down the story of her life. An energetic woman in her seventies, she laughingly referred to it as “my book” and her desire to put down her thoughts and memories became something of a minor obsession.

Once she turned down a dinner invitation, telling me she had to work on her book. I laughed and asked her where the fire was.

The fire, as it turned out, was inside her. She finished her book in early December. Three days after Christmas, her cancer was discovered, and three months later she was dead.

From my mother’s book: I have loved family, friends, nature, animals, music and many other things. It will be hard to say goodbye to those I love and to the beauty in the world.

I read these words for the first time surrounded by packing crates in my mother’s apartment, a month after her death. I tried to picture her face as I read the words, but the memories of the last two months as she lay dying were too painful. I closed her book wondering if I would ever feel healed enough to open it again.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon one year from the day my mother entered the hospital, I suddenly knew the time had come to remember and honor her life—and her death. I knew also that it was time to make my peace, if I could, with the loss of the most important influence in my life.

For a month I pored over the notebook I had kept during her hospitalization and, of course, my mother’s book. When I was finished, I realized that my mother was no longer lost to me; in some new and different way I had regained her.

From my notes, dated January 21, 1985: My mother continues to amaze me. Despite what is happening to her body—the disease is cutting off one function after another, a new loss every day—she continues to appreciate nature and the small bits of life she can observe from Room 235. There is a large magnolia framed by her window, and she enjoys watching the birds busily flying in and out of it.

Her pain is awesome; she can no longer sit up. Today is her grandson’s birthday, and somehow she managed to write a note to him. One day I will tell him of the unimaginable amount of effort his grandmother put into writing this note.

One warm day in February—a day when the smell of the earth seemed to rise up to meet you, promising all sorts of things—I cracked open the window in her room. The soft, scented air spilled in, causing my mother to open her eyes and ask, “Is the grass beginning to grow?”

It was a joke between us. I closed my eyes and a memory ran across the years to meet me: I am five years old and have crept out of the house in the middle of a summer night to watch the grass and flowers in our garden grow. Suddenly my mother is at my side. Instead of sending me back to bed, she joins me. I have never been up so late before, and the sense of adventure is high. We sit there together in white, wooden lawn chairs, listening to the cicadas making whirring noises in the trees.

“Look,” she says, pointing to a shooting star, its light piercing the bruised blue sky. But I am looking at the light in her eyes and her long, black hair, which is a spill of ink against the approaching dawn. Later I fall asleep with my head in her lap.

I remember the day my mother asked that I write a last message from her to each member of the family. “It will make them feel better,” she told me.

I wrote through my tears, aware that while my mother had accepted her impending death, I hadn’t. I was still trying to figure out how to get her on her feet again, to get her home. She saw my struggle and, as usual, waited for me to catch up with her.

I recall with extreme clarity the night I broke through my denial of her condition.

From my notes—January 26, 1985: The radiation treatments, combined with the painkillers, are finally beginning to give her some relief. Slowly I am giving up hope that my mother will ever be the way she was. I think she is going to die.

Over the next few days, my mother wanted to talk about her life, to hold the past like a globe and spin it around until all her memories were allowed to come into full view.

And so we began our long, final conversation, adding pieces to the puzzle of memory until, finally, a picture of a life emerged from the stories that spilled out. And as we talked, and the picture of my mother’s life grew stronger, so did she. Not in any physical way, of course, but in a way that had to do with her being a person and not just a patient.

From my mother’s book: I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be young—all the hopes and anxieties and the overwhelming sensation that everything you do is going to advance or wreck your life. No in-betweens when you’re young.

My ambition was to go on the stage. My sister and I took dancing lessons and practiced the intricate steps holding on to the back of a chair. In those days I thought I’d be a famous actress! It was all a dream, of course.

Lying in the hospital, my mother had other dreams. One morning she awoke, convinced she had just seen a man fall from the roof. All that day her thoughts were of falling. Would I catch her when she fell?

“Don’t be afraid,” I reassured her. “Of course I’ll catch you. For all those years when I was growing up, you caught me. Now it’s my turn.”

Her face relaxed under the oxygen mask, and she closed her eyes. For as long as I can, I thought, I will catch you. But I knew there would come a time—and soon—when I would have to let go.

And so would she.

On a particularly beautiful winter day, five days before she died, we watched in silence as the afternoon light glanced off the side of a red-brick building opposite her window. The wind was tossing the branches of a young beech tree while the sun silvered the promising red buds that already swelled with life at the tip of each branch.

“Close the curtains,” she said, looking away sadly from the beauty that seemed both insolent and innocent in its indifference to her suffering. She closed her eyes, retreating from the play of light and life that was not her world anymore.

Without knowing why, I began taking home her clothes that night.

From my notes, March 1, 1985: She is very weak and her breathing is irregular. But her spirit is still connected to the world. When I held the pot of jonquils close to her, she said delightedly, “Oh, that’s so pretty! Isn’t it wonderful how life goes on?”

She wanted to talk about the family, especially her grandchildren. “Don’t let anything happen to their characters,” she told me over and over again.

That next-to-last day of my mother’s life, one of her grandsons showed up at her bedside. She had been hearing music for the last few days, she told him. A choir singing. “Do you hear it?”

Her grandson gently lowered his head next to hers, listening in silence. Then he straightened up. “I think I hear it, too,” he said evenly, his eyes filled with the life-light that was fading from hers.

For the rest of the afternoon, she wavered between consciousness and disorientation. As it grew dark outside, my mother stared out of the window into the blackness.

“What are you looking at?” I asked her.

“Nothing,” she replied.

“Well,” I said, “look at me.

More than anything else, I wanted her last conscious moments to be spent looking at the face of someone who loved her.

The summer after my mother died, when the first brilliant-yellow lily appeared, I ran into the house to telephone my mother with the news. Then I remembered. Even now, I keep thinking of things I ought to tell her, things I want to ask her. She had a way of giving perspective to my life; of reminding me that I was building my life on the foundation of those who had come before me and that it was my duty to give that past to my children for their future.

From my mother’s book: When I turned seventy someone asked me how it felt to have arrived at such an age. Well, even though my body isn’t the same, I am still the same. I will always be the girl who loved cats and flowers and raced home from school to practice my dancing lessons. Inside I am still that person.

I miss that person.

Alice Steinbach

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