Flight of the Monarch

I was asleep on a bench outside my mom’s hospice room when someone startled me awake by lightly tapping me on the shoulder. It was Easter morning five years ago. I opened my eyes and saw my dad’s best friend hovering over me. He said nothing, but the sadness in his eyes told me everything I needed to know.

My mom died.

My knees knocked together and stomach acid raced up the back of my parched throat. As I put my feet on the floor, the ground swayed, so I half-stumbled, half-ran down the hall to my mom’s room. I pushed my way past twenty somber faces, stopping between my sister and my aunt.

I stood over my mom’s body and waited impatiently for her next breath to come. Waited for her chest to rise and fall. Waited for movement of any kind, but nothing happened. Her body was still, too still. Minutes passed and I knew that there wouldn’t be another exhale from her cancer-stricken body.

The vice around my throat and the fist against my gut forbade me from breathing. And I couldn’t hear anything except for my heart thudding against my ribcage. Then there was the sudden ringing in my ears. Or was that my imagination? I couldn’t tell. My mind was scattered. Nothing was real and everything was wrong. 

The walls of the hospice room spun around me and the ringing in my ears intensified. It was too much too handle, so I screamed. I grabbed my sister and together we tumbled onto the icy tile. I gripped the back of her head, holding a handful of her silky hair. “It’s just not fair!” I shouted. I buried my head in the crook of her neck, rocking us back and forth. “Not fair,” I repeated in a whisper.

My entire world was crumbling around me like rubble after an earthquake. I would never again hear my mom’s voice, see her dance, or smell her perfume. She was gone. Gone forever and I couldn’t make any sense of why. Why her? Why would God take such a beautiful soul? Why would He cut her life short? My mind was grasping for the answers to questions that I’ll never understand. 

After four long years of chemotherapy and weeks of knowing the end was near, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I don’t know if anything could’ve prepared me enough for her death.

Later, when the tears finally stopped falling I mopped myself off of the floor and went outside to collect what was left of my sanity. I looked up to dry my cheeks under the April sun.
It was the kind of spring day that was warm enough for a light jacket and open windows. My mom loved days like those: where the breeze would gently blow her hair around, where we could work in her garden without breaking a sweat, or swing on her porch drinking lukewarm coffee and talking about whatever crossed our minds.

It was the kind of day my mom would have hand-picked as her last.

I looked at my sister, the only person in the entire world who understood exactly how I felt in that moment, standing beside me. Her face was tightly drawn and her vacant eyes stared at some point in the distance, but she said nothing. I wanted to be strong for her because that’s what big sisters are supposed to do and that’s what my mom would have wanted, but I couldn’t be strong. I was much more unraveled than she looked.

I took a deep breath in through my nose and closed my eyes. It smelled of fresh-cut grass and pond water. I exhaled and opened my eyes to see three Monarch butterflies fluttering in the distance. My mouth tugged at half a smile, because they reminded me of a lesson my mom had once taught me.

In second grade, my teacher brought in small caterpillars for the class to have as pets. We raised them, fed them, and cared for them. The caterpillars eventually wrapped themselves in a chrysalis, went through metamorphosis, and turned into colorful winged creatures.

On the last day of school, we released them back to nature and I was heartbroken that I would never again see them. After school, I ran off the bus, down the street, and into my mom’s arms. She held me tight. Then she wiped my tears and said, “oh, sweetie, setting them free was a good thing. Butterflies have to spread their wings and fly. They will never be truly happy while trapped in a cage.”

My mom wasn’t much different than those butterflies. Sickness caged her, preventing her from a career she loved. It kept her on a regimented twice-monthly chemotherapy schedule that she despised. The constant debilitating pain drained her energy and made it hard for her to remain hopeful for recovery.

It may sound crazy, but I believe those Monarchs were a message from her. Cancer and pain and chemotherapy couldn’t hold onto my mom anymore. Yes, I would grieve. I would scream and punch and curse because she wasn’t there on solid earth with me anymore. But somewhere she was smiling.

My mom was free.

Photo courtesy of Mathias Reed/Unsplash

Bad Apple

Amanda traded her pencil skirts and Manolo Blahniks for jeans and faded leather boots, and her high-paying career as an attorney in New York, for solitude on the farm.

Walking away from her New York life was easier than expected, but then again…

***

She stared at the sun setting behind the rows of apple trees. Most apples were likely to never get harvested. Instead, they would rot and fall to the ground or be ravaged by beetles. She vowed to breathe life back into daddy’s orchard, no matter the cost.

The last happy memory she had of that place was picking apples with him. She longed to hear his voice again, reminding her the proper way to choose fruit for harvesting, to watch him smile as she tried to grab the branches just out of her reach.

But her daddy never was the same after her mama died. It was so sudden. Suicide, they said. After her death, he let everything go, no longer paying the employees, or caring for the trees.

Her fingers touched the chipped paint on the porch railing. A bit of white peeled off and fell to the ground, starkly standing out against the green grass.

The glimmer from her wedding band caught her eye and Amanda hastily pulled it off, ripping the skin on her knuckle. She swallowed the bile rising from her belly, and walked down the splintered stairs, stopping just before the trees. With a look of disgust, she tossed the two-and-a-half carat ring into the hole. It bounced off the gun, making a tink sound.

Using her daddy’s favorite shovel, rusted from years on the field, she filled the hollowed ground with soil. One pile at a time was scooped and dropped until she finished burying her secrets beneath the pale moonlight.

Amanda wiped the sweat from her brow and tossed the shovel aside.

***

…She preferred boots, anyway.

Photo courtesy of Rico Bico/Unsplash

Grandma Pink

My grandmother was a firecracker until the day she died. Her nails were always painted fuschia, even in her seventies. And her skin, soft and thin between each wrinkle, smelled like baby lotion and Freedent Gum. She always had a wild cherry Luden’s tucked beneath a crumpled tissue in the pocket of her pastel pink sweater, which she would stuff in my hand and wink when my mom wasn’t looking. I thought I was getting a real treat.

During her last years at the upscale assisted living facility where my mom also worked, she got her kicks stealing Oreos off the dessert cart for my sister and me. She’d swipe clothes from the laundry room with names like Fanny Mae or Matilda Jean stitched into the collar for my mom. And she insisted we take at least one roll of single ply toilet paper from her shared bathroom every time we visited. My grandma was Robin Hood with a cane.

Before my mom moved her there, my grandma lived with us for a couple years. Though she spent the majority of her time watching soap operas in her blue velvet rocking chair, there were a couple of occasions when she called a cab to drive us to Big Lots for discounted Cabbage Patch Dolls and orange cream soda pop. Her ass was on fire and she couldn’t sit still even when the years wanted to catch up.

Aside from my sister and me, the only things she cared about were The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, shopping, and Elvis. Mostly Elvis and his swaying hips. In her mind, he really was a king. She knew every record, word for word, and owned every movie. I think in some ways she loved him more than my grandpa. Each year, she celebrated his birthday and mourned the anniversary of his death. She kept his obituary in her jewelry box, but part of her believed he continued to live happily on some remote island, because The National Enquirer said it was true. Some days we couldn’t convince her otherwise.

She wore lipstick and fur-lined coats to the grocery store, swore like a sailor, and told me that cookies and milk were a perfectly acceptable substitute for dinner, as long as my mom didn’t know about it.grandma-1

Her duplex sat on Lagrange Street, in the heart of Toledo’s poorest neighborhood. She stayed there, in the neighborhood that she was born and raised, even when it wasn’t necessarily a safe place anymore. Shootings and stabbings happened almost every day on her block, but she’d be damned or dead before she’d let her kids sell it.

Before she lived with us, and when she was well enough to care for herself, she would have me sleep over with her. We’d listen to crime calls on her police scanner or watch wrestling together on the big faux wood television, rooting for our favorites like The Macho Man and Hulk Hogan. One time she even took me to a WWF event at the Toledo Sports Arena and I got to see Jake the Snake wrestle live. I can smell the dripping sweat and buttery popcorn after all these years, if I close my eyes.

***

I insisted on going to see my grandmother one last time after she passed away, even though my mom tried to convince me that I shouldn’t. I didn’t believe it was true: my grandma was too wild to leave me. But at seventy-six, her fire fizzled.

In the hospital, I stared at her lifeless body, cheeks sunken and thin lips gaping from her last breath. I kissed the skin on her forehead goodbye, no longer soft, but cold and hard. The last bit of air was long gone from her lungs and her fingers were rigid, but her nails were perfectly pink.

 Nothing stopped her from having a good time: not her age, her kids, or even the stuffy nursing home. I knew that she had one hell of a good time while alive. And maybe, if she sweet-talked the right guy in heaven, she’d finally get to meet The King.

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Love you, Grandma Pink!

My Mother, The Hairdresser

When I was young, my mom worked at the K-mart salon, making a living giving perms to the elderly while they were shopping.  I would go to work with her, watching her flawless beauty as she mingled with clients.  She was elegant then, with long hair that reached the bottom of her shoulder blades in waves like the ocean cascading against the sand.

Her hair, dark and lovely, was unusually long.  On warm days, she would pull it back in a loose braid at the nape of her olive colored neck, keeping her bangs feathered and full of Aqua Net, a style she couldn’t quite let go of.  In the evenings, she would drag me, by the hand, over to the couch so I could brush her long locks as she watched television.  I would fill it with colorful barrettes, pretending I was the stylist and she was my client.  Of course I wanted to be just like her.

One summer day, her Irish temper ran to a boil and she impulsively chopped every bit of it off.  We both stood in the kitchen, a mane at our feet, and cried, mourning the change.

Eventually, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, she left that job at K-mart and started styling hair in our kitchen.  My mom would wash clients’ hair in the same porcelain sink that she cleaned our Tupperware, never once dropping the Virginia Slim hanging from her burgundy lips.  Gold bracelets rattled as she scrubbed, then rinsed the suds with the faucet. I watched her long fingers, painted brightly, as she permed, trimmed and shaved, always in aww of her artistic flare.

After many more years, one more child, and a nursing degree, my mom eventually stopped doing hair.  Though she loved hairdressing, she thought that nursing, and helping people, was her true calling.  And it was.  Her kind-hearted, selfless nature made her the perfect kind of nurse.  Unfortunately, not long after she started nursing, she also found out she had cancer.  By the time the doctor spotted it, in her routine colonoscopy, it had already metastasized, and overtaken her body, spreading from her colon to her liver and her lymph nodes.  Though she was against it, she started aggressive chemotherapy to salvage what she could of her body.  My mom was devastated because she could no longer practice nursing.

In the end, the chemotherapy only delayed the inevitable.

Four years later, on the day that she died, cancer and the poison of her drugs forced everything about her, including her hair, to change drastically.  It was no longer thick and flowing, but instead brittle and matted to her ashen skin.  Her eyes were closed tight, as she slept away the pain with a morphine drip.  I used her brush to gently untangle her thinning brown tufts and move them away from her eyes, though I don’t know if she could feel my presence.  I wanted so much to remember how it was to be on our couch as a child, filling her waves with colors of the rainbow, but the papery, unnatural feel of her hair was forbidding me.  Still, I let my fingers linger there, wishing for a different outcome.

Despite my mom being gone more than four years, I think of her often.  When I think of her, it’s sometimes as the hairdresser, or sometimes as the nurse, but always as the most beautiful woman; selfless, loving and easy to get along with.

And today, more than ever, I want to be just like her.

The Doves Have Cried

When I heard the tragic news of Prince’s passing today, I literally could not believe it. My heart has been aching all day for his family but, even more than that, for the world. His death affects people from one end of the Earth to the other. Prince’s music has spanned decades, brought barriers down in the recording industry and his sound almost exclusively could have defined the eighties.

I can remember dancing around my dining room while my mom played Raspberry Beret and Little Red Corvette on our stereo cassette player long after the albums were released. We would be wearing our stone-washed jeans with white Keds and t-shirts tied in knots at our hips. I’m sure my long brown hair was in a side ponytail and I was probably missing a tooth or two.
I had a Purple Rain movie poster hanging above my bed even though I’m pretty sure I wasn’t even allowed to watch the movie at the time.
And I’m sure many people have belted out Kiss with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, because I know I have on more than one occasion.
The remix of When Doves Cry was epic in Romeo and Juliet and Party Like it’s 1999 has always, always ALWAYS been the go-to song for New Year’s Eve at any party I’ve ever been to.
Ever.
This was the music that molded and shaped me in my formative years. I ate it up like candy back then and still, to this day, I have a physical and emotional connection to Prince and his music, much like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.
This kind of music transcends generations and he is the definition of what pop music is and should be.

It breaks my heart that we have lost another global pop icon and even after the dust settled this afternoon, I still have trouble grasping that Prince, like so many other influential artists from my childhood are not here any longer to continue making music.

Photo is courtesy of Buzzfeed.

 

And She said to Follow my Dreams.

I can remember it like it was yesterday.  I was sitting with my mom in white plastic chairs on her front porch talking about life.  I was roughly 21, so my true sense of life had literally barely begun to show itself.  I was probably more  worried about getting to the bar to play some Golden Tee with my brand new boyfriend, Justin, than to sit there and fully grasp the conversation she was trying to have with me.

“Don’t do what I did, Danielle,” she said, shaking her head slowly.  She took a long hit off of her menthol light 100 before finishing.  She exhaled and a cloud of smoke drifted over the porch railing, blue paint chipping of from bad weather over the winter.  “Don’t wait until you’re forty to figure out what makes you happy.”

“But I am happy,” I said.  And I was, or at least I was a superficial version of happy.  One where my judgement was both blissfully ignorant of how cruel the world can be and also clouded from too many late nights at Club Sin where I danced my troubles away over loud music and Jager Bombs.

“I’m serious, Danielle.  Find what makes you happy and do it.  But don’t just do it; do it with your whole heart.”  I rolled my eyes at her for trying to be way too serious.

But my mom was such an intelligent woman who only ever wanted the very best for my sister and me.  And she was often ‘way too serious’ in her conversations, but she was also full of wisdom and life lessons.

This happened to be one of those lessons.

You see, my mom decided when she was in her forties that she wanted to be a nurse. Helping people had always been her passion and it took her forty long years to realize her dreams.

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After she graduated, she worked in hospice and loved every moment of it.  I had never seen her happier.  She would go to work and come home with a smile on her face.  She was happy like that until the day she found out she had cancer, at which time she was no longer able to be around her sick patients.  Having to quit being a nurse made my mom incredibly sad.  Her dream had been crushed by cancer.

Last week, on the four year anniversary of her death, that conversation from her front porch crossed my mind and I literally had a come-to-Jesus moment.

We need to do what makes us happy, no matter what that is, because we have no idea what tomorrow holds.  If we hold off on our dreams they will only ever be just dreams.  And I don’t know about you, but I have big things in store for my dreams, so not going after them TODAY isn’t an option.

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Empty Bottle

The wine bottle is half empty,

But it still doesn’t let me

Forget the painful past.

My cup has stayed  full,

As my mind has been pulled

Back to the breath you took last.

So I poor another cup,

As I try to add up

The reasons God took you away.

I’ll keep on drinking,

Until I stop thinking

About that painful day.

My tears just keep falling,

And my life has been stalling.

Tomorrow I’ll get back on track.

But today it still pains me,

That your smile; I can’t see

I only want my mom back.