Mom’s Pet Cemetery

Seven pets, at least, are buried where my sister and I played, digging and swinging without fearing the future.

The sandbox, swings, and siblings left, tears fell, weeds overgrew. But five dogs, a bunny, and a bird named Lucky remind us of life’s fragility, even after so many years.

Photo by Brandon Couch on Unsplash

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I Measure in Cups

While loading the dishwasher I ran out of room on the top shelf, now overflowing with mugs. I lifted some out to examine them: an old freebie from work with a United Way logo on it, a hand-me-down from Mom with a huge chip on the side, and a thrift store find in a hideous shade of green with words painted on the side that reminded me to love Jesus. Not that it matters, but I bought that one for the size, not the words.

The mugs disgruntled me. Not because I don’t appreciate the goals of the United Way, or Jesus for that matter, but because not one of them was special, just screwball stragglers from the hard-to-reach side of the cupboard.

Several years ago, during the height of Mom’s disease, unwashed beer glasses filled my counters. You know, the slender ones that won’t fit in the dishwasher because they’re too damn tall. They stood like hangover trophies next to the sink, taunting me with my bad decisions until I washed them for the next round.

After Mom died in 2012, wine replaced beer. Most nights of the week, I‘d have two drinks or more. Stemless glasses shared a small amount of the top dishwasher shelf with sippy cups and my other coffee mugs, the grey Gordon Ramsey ones that came in the set – a gift from my husband.

I like wine. Love it, even: it’s the friend that comforts me on a cold night and eases the stress after a long day of chasing children and folding other people’s underwear and the therapy that numbs the burn of grief lingering from losing Mom.

I’ve said more than once that I am never drinking again. I fooled myself and made promises about staying away from those bright red blends that I wasn’t ready to follow through on.

So what? We all make mistakes.

I haven’t given up. I’m mapping out the person inside part by part, good decision by good decision.

For the last year, I’ve been drinking less and less alcohol. Each week I have to remind myself drinking wine isn’t my friend or my therapy. Sipping hot chamomile tea with a drop of lemon juice and a teaspoon of honey can comfort and ease me in a similar way. It won’t take away my grief, but that’s something I need to work through on my sober days.

I collected my misfit mugs in a grocery bag to donate and wrangled my child from her Elsa dress in her playroom to her car seat outside.

After unloading my band of unwanted oddballs at Goodwill, I hopped over to the new Hearth and Hand section at Target, which I’ve been drooling over since before Christmas. I’ve dreamt about Chip and Joanna Gaines renovating a fixer-upper for me, complete with a shiplap kitchen backsplash. Adding their coffee cups to my cupboard would be a distant but decent second.

I paced in front of the Hearth and Hand display, in complete awe of the details on the cream-colored stoneware, the sturdiness of the clay, the simplistic design. I grabbed one from the collection and Mom’s voice reminded me, pinch your pennies, Danielle. Hard times come fast, so save where you can. “But splurging can be fun and rewarding,” I said. Those mugs wouldn’t ever go on sale, and I could find cheaper ones on clearance, but they molded to my hand like they belonged there.

I bought four.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Join me for this week’s challenge over at YeahWrite!

What I Remember

I don’t remember how sick Mom looked at the end. Or the number of days I sat watching her cling to life in hospice. I don’t remember what her breath sounded like the day she died. Or the faces of the strangers who stood beside me grieving because my mom had changed them for the better in some way.

But I do remember her beauty. The way her smile always reached her eyes and how she laughed from her belly each and every time. I remember how I wished I had her dark, flawless skin. I remember that her cascading brown hair smelled like coconuts and Rave hairspray.

Her nails always had red or pink polish covering them. She filed the tips to a point.

I remember we didn’t go to church because she said God lives in our hearts. She said miracles are all around us, and if we pay attention we will see them. Her beliefs didn’t fit neatly into one religion. She prayed, but also carried stones in her purse for good health and mustard seed in a charm for faith when she needed it most.

I remember that her good jewelry never sat in a box. Gold rings encircled each finger. Bracelets jangled from her wrists.

I remember her love for nature and that she liked getting dirt on her hands. She didn’t like flowers in a vase because they belonged in the soil. I remember the sound of her flipflops as she padded through the backyard, watering and pruning her garden. She knew how much light and water each of her flowers needed by heart.

I remember that she couldn’t sing and didn’t care. She’d shout the lyrics to any song while driving. She loved Whitney, Madonna, Diana Ross, and the Carpenters. At home, she’d move the couch and play Motown records so we could dance.

I remember her desire to do something more. She kept a scrapbook with pictures, cards, kind words, and trinkets she received from each patient she cared for while working as a hospice nurse. She grieved for them when they passed, but did her part to keep their spirits alive through sharing her memories with anyone who’d listen.

I remember her love for coffee. All day, every day. Never creamer or sugar. Always hot.

I remember her lesson to slow down and enjoy the little things. She always stopped to smell roses, and she always put her bare toes in the sand if she had the chance.

I don’t remember everything, but I remember what matters most.


When You Mom So Hard…

Today I literally mommed so hard I smelled like corn chips.

***

I was in the middle of some deep, dreamless sleep, drooling like a puppy onto my Egyptian cotton sheets when my kid startled me awake by tapping me on the temple.

“Mommy. I neeeeeed breakfast right now,” she said. I looked at the clock. I slept in again. Crap.

“Okay, okay,” I said groggily, swatting away her hand. “I’m up.” I stumbled down the stairs with one eye opened, served microwaved mini-pancakes for breakfast, and choked down day-old coffee. Once I was adequately caffeinated, the late-start morning routine looked like a circus on speed. Little people were running half-naked, dogs were dancing on their hind legs, waiting for morsels of food and attention, husband was walking a tightrope between all the living things, trying not to get syrup or slobber on his freshly pressed suit, and I was the acclaimed ring mistress at the center of it all.

At that point, I could feel the underneath of my arms moisten. Yes. I said moisten.

After my husband and oldest child headed off for the day, the toddler and I meticulously built a six-foot-tall rainbow Lego tower. Well she watched and chewed on some Legos while I built. Then my half-blind Beagle knocked it over and the toddler cried, so I quickly built it again.

My pits were no longer only moist, but the underarms of my shirt were sticky too.

Then I watched an episode of Shameless during the toddler’s nap while elliptical-ling. Yep. I multitasked the shtuff out of my kid-free time. BOOM. I washed the dishes without breaking any (a feat any day with my butterfingers), mopped the floor whilst calmly shooing the dogs to stay away (thanks to my stress-relieving kava tea), and did two loads of laundry. That’s washed, dried, folded, and placed in a basket until further notice. I don’t bother putting it away, because that, my friend, is a total waste of time.

Sweat was sticking to that…place. You know the one, ladies.

After that, I chased my oversized Double Doodle past two houses, and three acres, down the street in the pouring rain (because it always rains after I mop). The dog, a muddy mess, was chasing an elderly neighbor with a cute little fur-ball of a pup. They were wearing matching rain coats, for God’s sake. I knew he only wanted to play, but their faces were all twisted in terror so I figured it would be best to rein him in before he tackled the frightened pair in a puddle.

When the toddler woke, I corralled my dogs into their kennel, rushed my oldest daughter to dance practice, and shimmied her sweaty legs into tights in the ‘cozy’ bathroom stall.

That is precisely when I noticed the unpleasant smell coming from under my arms – I forgot deodorant.

I know what you’re thinking, but seriously I wasn’t even embarrassed. I had done enough for the day. If the worst thing I did was forget some personal hygiene, then I’m pretty sure I was momming like a master.

I smelled like corn chips and owned that shit like Mary Catherine Gallagher – superstar! I wore my stink like a Girl Scout badge, or a Supermom cape – with pride. I talked with my hands flailing in the air like those inflatable tube people at the car dealers. I let my stench fill that tiny closet of a room with moms and dads piled in like tuna in a can.

 

Photo courtesy of Seth Doyle/Unsplash

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

Light and Love

My daughter shoved her finger at a photo of my mom. “Gigi is up,” she asserted, a story I hadn’t told her.

My mom’s voice echoed, believe in miracles.

That night, darkness unfolded from dusk and I saw her shining among stars.

Her Bravery

I distinctly remember the day my mom first showed me her bravery.

We were in my parent’s Chevy Celebrity. I think I was five. The corduroy seats itched the back of my knees, so I kept tugging on my skirt hem. I played with the hand-crank on the window, turning it up and down repeatedly. Each time it was down, warm air seeped inside and got stuck in my nose. And despite the floor being out of reach, I kicked my feet back and forth trying to touch my toes against the carpet.

We were car-dancing to Madonna when my mom gasped and slammed on her brakes. Our heads flew forward then slammed against the seats with a thud. I stopped kicking and car-dancing. Stopped playing with the window. Stopped breathing for the shortest moment.

Everything stood still as our eyes connected in the rear-view mirror. There, I saw concern and love, then determination and strength. All before she blinked.

“Oh, God!” she shouted. I exhaled and the world rotated again. “That car hit the little girl so hard she…” her voice trailed off. I heard the clicking and clacking of the car going into park and her seatbelt being unbuckled, then the slapping of the belt raveling up.

She climbed out of her seat, slammed her door, and stopped in front of my window. “You stay here,” she said, using her voice that meant business. Perseverance filled each line on her face in a way that I had never seen before.

I gulped down a breath bubble and scratched the corduroy seat to feel the fibers under my nails. I nodded yes.

“I mean it, Danielle,” she said.

“Okay, Mommy,” I whispered to her, but she was already jogging away.

I craned my head up to peek out the window and the smell of exhaust fumes overwhelmed me. It was a busy street that felt close to home, but I couldn’t tell which one it was. I saw my mom approach a girl lying face down on the pavement. She wasn’t much bigger than me. And behind the girl was a car. Its windshield was caved in and shards of glass glittered against the street. I looked away, afraid and unsure of what was happening.

Time isn’t the same when you are a child, so I don’t know how long I sat there avoiding the scene out of my window, but it felt like hours. I heard sirens and voices just beyond our car. I saw the flashing lights, but I couldn’t bear to lift my head and watch.

Eventually everything slowed. No more sirens, lights, or commotion.

My mom opened her door, sat back down in the driver’s seat, and cradled her head in her hands. “I couldn’t save her,” she wept. “I couldn’t save the little girl’s life.”

Photo courtesy of Pexels