By Brianne DeRosa
Sometimes the reality of life is this: you will be in your slippers, making waffles, and suddenly be forced to remember that your mother is dead.
Nothing will have happened to spark this remembrance. You will just be going about your business, hands busy, mind wandering. Those are the dangerous times, because when the mind has nowhere else to go in particular it will inevitably bring itself to the brink of the carefully guarded clear space you’ve neatly set up in your consciousness, marked with emotional barbed wire. It will, if you’re not careful and quick, crawl under the fence and stand in the bleak lands beyond, bringing you back to the place where there is nothing but the relentless insistence of your memory of sitting in a hospital room where your mother lay, but was not there.
You will grip the edge of the kitchen counter as the wave of dizziness and exhaustion hits you, recalling that your mother’s warm body and her carefully perfumed embrace are ashes now and lost to you. If you allow yourself to linger on that thought for too long you’ll spend the next week avoiding even a passing glance at the rainbow-swirled glass orb that sits on top of the bookcase, where part of what remains of her has been transformed into some eternally beautiful prison like Glinda the Good Witch’s shimmering technicolor bubble.
Your hands will continue making waffles. But the rest of you will retreat into a small, dark corner because suddenly you have remembered that your mother is dead.
My mother has been gone ten months now, and I have never opened a single condolence card, nor the holiday cards that streamed in with their usual cheer last December as I absorbed the shock of her death. I kept them, every one of them, disregarding my personal yearning for a cleaner house and my desire to embrace the minimalist movement that seems to promise a peace I don’t feel. I know I should get rid of them, but I save them anyway, thinking maybe there’s a different kind of peace in their good intentions, yet unread.
Lately I’ve been reading about Swedish Death Cleaning. My mother’s side was Swedish. She didn’t death clean anything; the 2700 square feet of her home still burst with mementos, notes, knick knacks, and all that fine china and crystal, rarely used. My father tries to remember to dust it all. She was 64 when she died unexpectedly, a week after her birthday; she didn’t have a chance to death clean. I wonder if my purging these sympathy cards would be a form of death cleaning by genetic virtue.
I have no time for cleaning. Soon I’ll be busy baking the Christmas bread. I’ll make loaves upon loaves of braided bread scented with cardamom, dusted with crunchy pearls of sugar, the way her uncle Olof taught me. He’s been gone 12 years, the time measured by the growth of my eldest son. Since then more members of that branch of the family tree have withered and blown from our sight. I’ll think, braiding sweet dough, that I should send a loaf to my grandmother this year, give her a taste of her childhood. She may not remember the bread, nor that her daughter, my mother, is dead. At least, she didn’t remember it enough to tell her oldest friends over dinner after it happened. Her mind is death cleaning itself. I wonder if it’s a peaceful minimalism.
When bad things happen, the personalities of grief reveal themselves. I think every one of us has a Grief Personality. Mine is apparently the person who carries on. So I carry.
I carry the weight of those unopened condolence cards and holiday wishes, the weight of guilt (I should call my grandmother more often), the weight of that glass orb filled with my mother’s ashes, chosen from an online catalog while my sister and I huddled at the foot of her hospital bed waiting for the flat line.
Sometimes my sons will hand me another item to carry, sprung from their memories. I am pouring coffee when the 12-year-old, bantering with me, suddenly repeats his grandmother’s last words. He gingerly, gently drops the grenade between us, looking for my reaction. Is it acceptable to strew the shards of his sharp memories at my feet at 6:30 on a Wednesday morning? I know how raw the wounds still are; I sweep up the mess of pain and add it to my load. I can carry this for him, too.
He moves on with his day, shouldering a backpack full of middle-school-sized responsibilities as he ambles down the street to school. I watch him until the bright blue of the pack is out of sight, then go to the kitchen to make waffles. I will make waffles and remember that my mother is dead.
I carry on, never not remembering.
Brianne K. DeRosa is a mother of two and a daughter, which is currently more relevant than it seems. She officially spends her days writing and working as a consultant to non-profits. More recently, she’s added crying in the shower and hoarding mementos of her mother’s death to her list of hobbies. She’s considering adding “Ability to seem really normal and functional under terrible circumstances” to the Special Skills section of her resume.
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