Freshly Dug Graves: image of a freshly dug grave. Photo Credit: Lauren Housman.

Freshly Dug Graves (A list essay on what to expect when you lose your mother.)

‘-Less than 24 hours home from vacation, I reach for my phone. To call my mother to say I’m back, that I’ll visit soon.

Then I remember, she’s no longer here.

-Flying back east from our Arizona Fiesta Bowl adventure, I check my phone calendar. “Order flowers for Mom’s January 15th birthday.” Throat tight, I delete the reminder.

-I bring up my saved voicemails, hoping there’s at least one message from Mom but knowing there’s not. Months ago I deleted all of them, dozens, thinking,

She calls all the time. Surely there will be more. I was wrong.

-Passing the Flagstaff exit en route to the Grand Canyon, I recall the time my family traveled by train to Arizona in 1973. What a grand adventure that was! Mom would love that we saw two elk and a pack of wild peccaries. When we visited the Grand Canyon back then, did she panic as we four kids stood near the cliff edge to peer over the layers of red glory, like I did when Junior-Man took in the russet grandeur?

-An email from one of my newspaper readers–a former Marshall University colleague of my father’s–is so touching I read it four times, once out loud to my husband and son.

Mom would love his words, treasure them. Except…

-At my request, my husband takes a photograph of me, my aunt, and my cousin the bride, at her wedding reception. There we are: the three remaining Burke girls, all with bright blue eyes. If only the other two were here, Mom and Aunt Lo. If only I could show Mom the picture.

-Packing for our Fiesta Bowl trip, I slip Elizabeth Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, into my backpack. Mom loved the collection of linked stories so much, she wept at the end. If I read it, will I recognize what affected Mom so profoundly? I wonder if she was a bit in love with Henry, Olive’s husband, or if she agreed with Olive that the tension between loneliness and annoying people is “tricky business.” Perhaps it was Strout’s gorgeous prose that split Mom open.

-As my Red Lion Amaryllis prepares to burst forth in glorious crimson bloom, I tell myself,

“When the flower opens fully, snap a photo for Mom. Oh, wait…”

-For our family’s “Elf” movie night, I don a charcoal sweater vest festooned with holiday items. And a red and white striped top. Plus a Santa necklace. All, my mother’s. I make a mental note to search her storage tubs for a Christmas sweater for each of us to wear next year. Mom owned so many.

-In a bookstore in November I try to find a title or three to buy my book-loving mother for Christmas.

Then I remember once again, she’s not here.

-Before the kids arrive for Thanksgiving, I empty our silverware drawer, removing the flatware Tony and I have used since the 1980s. In goes my mother’s good Oneida silver. I love the heft of it, the polished gleam. Knowing Mom held the pieces at every holiday.

-Tackling the mountain of mail that arrived while we were away, I think, never again will Mom use a butter knife instead of one of the three cute letter openers I gave her to open envelopes, some containing columns and blog posts I wrote. I wish I knew if she read some or all of them out loud to her Rummy Club, the group she helped found.

-Gratitude fills me as I consider the Rummy Group ladies as well as the staff at Maplewood, Mom’s senior living facility. At least twice in the last ten years Mom shared with me her longing for a deep friendship or two. For the longest time community eluded her. Playing cards almost every afternoon at Maplewood, though, surely she and the gals enjoyed the intimacy of almost daily contact. Certainly they spoke of the triumphs and heartaches they’d known.

-My mother told me just last year, “I’m not the person I used to be.” She spoke of who she became in her final couple of years. More confident, more social, happier. The journey there was not easy, but helping her get to that point is one of my finest accomplishments.

-And her final summer, as devastating diagnoses heaped one upon two upon three, staying by her side, marveling and mourning her stoic receipt of each newsflash, was a heavy honor. I didn’t know she fully recognized the gravity of her situation until she removed my grandmother’s wedding ring and pressed it into my palm.

“No, not yet,” I protested. “Okay, fine. I’ll keep it until you’re ready to wear it again.”

With her eyes focused on the road before us, she murmured, “Take me home.”

-In the final months of 2018, my mother transitioned from being my greatest antagonist to my beloved heroine. The beautifully painful process served to confirm a personal philosophy I’ve held for decades now:

Never say never.

-I miss you, Mom.

Freshly Dug Graves: Image of a cute woman, a mother, holding pussy willow branches.

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