I hear my mother’s voice less these days and feel like I am missing pieces of heart and gut, those parts from where I instinctively reach for her. I am a spinning top as my lifelong conversation with her trails off. “Speech will go next” one of her caretakers told my sisters and me last week, without mention of if and when. The only home phone number I’ve known no longer reaches her. I call the Memory Care Unit where she is a resident and the nurse takes the phone to wherever she has cruised in her wheelchair. Her brain will let her process one or two sentences at a time, and respond in kind. We share the most important ones: “I love you, I miss you, Lots of hugs and kisses.” When I look at this mosaic of photos, her voice throughout the years still speaks in my heart, where it will always live.
“Be brave” she looked in my eyes and told me when I left for Spain from the hospital where I stayed with her and dad for two weeks after his stroke.
“What else are you going to be?” she demanded when I called from thousands of miles away, in tears, asking, “Do you mean I should be nice to her?”
“Who is he, God?” she set me straight when I once worried that my father might never respect me again.
“I know my daughter, and I can tell by her eyes she is telling the truth,” she stood up for me, squeezing my trembling hand in front of the accuser.
“Whatever you decide, just always know that you can always come home,” I heard much more often than once.
“It will be different every day,” is what she told me about motherhood.
“I am not leaving here until that baby comes home from the hospital,” she told my dad in Atlanta, after the birth of my son who needed to stay ten days in the nursery.
“I just wish I could have been in there holding your hand and getting you out of all of those troubles” she told me after reading a memoir I wrote.
“Don’t give up praying for what you want, honey,” she made me smile with those words a few weeks ago.
Mom sang “You Are My Sunshine” and the “A, B, Cs” as she rocked babies, and hummed as she worked, and she always cooed to birds and children. (She could also slay a person with a word or two.)
Last week, thanks to the nurse who helped her call me, I answered the phone and heard her, “Marianne?”–and my entire body jolted in recognition of what I thought was long lost, tears rising to my eyes.
“Get some pictures of yourself with that baby” she said twenty years ago, after watching me behind the camera when my son was a newborn, so I marched out to the back yard and insisted upon this one below, among others.
Today I thought about how seeing one’s child happy might be the best happiness. I did not know when I had a child how much my future happiness would depend on his. Nor did I know how difficult it can be for a child to be happy when his or her mother is unhappy.
“Nobody knows until they know,” Mom says that, too.
At the most critical moments of my life, her voice calls forth her–and my–love, bravery, dignity, and decency. So though I think I am losing it, I have it.
“We had a good time, honey, didn’t we?” she said after a recent visit. Those are the words I hold closest to my heart for now.