This year marks twenty-five years without you.
I took this photo because this sky made me think of you, tumbling me back to a warm late-summer night when I was a college sophomore. It was the year after Dad died, and the humid air felt heavy with unheld grief. Grammy was not in the nursing home yet, you were caring for her and no one was caring for you; I was away at college, mostly, or busy running from reality. You looked shrunken but never admitted weakness or asked for help.
Even so, you had a light, Mama. You were never defeated. I remember walking with you, under a sky such as this one, talking of nothing much, letting go of everything but the shimmering sound of the cicadas in the Black Ash trees that were still so lush and strong, and like you were then–still alive.
The ash trees are all dying now, or already dead, infested with borers. You are gone now, too. But that night, under a blue sweep of sky, under a parade of pink-edged clouds, we walked. I still walk, Mama. You gave me that love of moving slower than a bike or car ride allows, soaking in the small things that are everything.
We got ice cream cones at Friendly’s, peppermint stick for you, plain vanilla for me. We walked and laughed and licked the ice cream.
Back home, the smoke alarms were blaring. Grammy had put a pan of milk on the stove to heat, and forgotten about it, gone back to bed. Mostly deaf, the alarm didn’t alarm her at all. The sweet night turned sticky. Things do.
Her days, your days, my days–all numbered. They always were, weren’t they? No matter how we tried to pretend otherwise.
Looking back, I wish we’d spoken of the time. Not about its running out, so much. About its preciousness. Love, Mama. It is sacred. I see that now. I wish I’d loved you better, been brave enough, awake enough, aware enough to hold your hand and ask you if you were afraid, those Fridays in the Chemo center. We held hands. We watched Clarence Thomas’s supreme court nomination hearings. Conservative, which was your leaning, you never disbelieved that he was a womanizer or worse. Coke cans and pubic hair jokes, we watched, uneasy, as Anita Hill was picked apart, as the poison dripped into your veins and the TV we could not turn off droned on.
I wish I’d asked you about what it was like for you as a white Yankee transplanted to the deep south, about race relations back then, as the civil rights era was just stirring, about what it was like for you as a woman in your 20s, and 30s. About the men who maybe treated you like Clarence Thomas treated Anita Hill. About how Dad treated you, when you became a mother and he a breadwinner. About what it was like to be in love, and what happened after that part ended. About what you’d have done the same, about what you’d have maybe done differently, given the chance.
But I didn’t ask such things. I knew the past was full of traps. I was afraid, you see, to ask you anything “upsetting.”
We were resolutely cheerful and ‘brave,’ those afternoons at the Chemo place. If you can call it brave, on my part, not asking you what was ringing in my soul: “Mama, are you scared?”
Because I sure was.
And I bet you were, too.
When I saw this sky, and felt you magically walking with me again for a sliver of a moment, I knew that you’d have liked to have been asked, about being scared, but you forgive me anyway. Your spirit filled me, told me: Always speak from your heart. Don’t mourn the lost opportunities. Stay awake to the ones before you right now. Ask the questions.
So even though I didn’t ask you then what you’d have done differently, you told me today. And whether I believe in heaven or not—and I’m not sure about any of that, Mama—you are with me still.
In the skies, smiling down at me, pink-edged and glowing with love.