"Love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves it's own mark. To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever."
~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
The moment I heard the tone of my dad’s voice, I knew something was horribly wrong. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what he said next.
My mom’s heart had stopped beating. They’d been trying to revive her for more than half an hour, and the doctors were no longer holding out much hope. Even if they managed to get her heart beating again, which was unlikely, her brain had been without oxygen for too long. She wouldn’t be coming back to us.
I don’t know at what point during that phone call that I fell to my knees, but that’s where I found myself when I hung up. I was on the floor in the kitchen of a small AirBnB apartment in southern California, staring at the phone which blurred through my tears. My dad said he would call my brother and sisters, so I wasn’t sure who to call or what to do next. I didn’t even know what I would say or if I’d be able to control my sobbing enough to speak to anyone.
Most of that night is still a blur to me. I called one daughter and left text messages for the other, who was halfway across the world in Ireland. I called or texted a couple of close friends, reached out to delegate responsibilities, and contacted my supervisor to let her know that I wouldn’t be at work on Monday. At some point in the midst of all of this, my grandmother call to let me know that my mom (her daughter) had passed away. I think I spoke to one of my sisters after that, and I might have spoken to my brother. Mostly, I remember sitting in bed with my phone and a box of tissue, crying until I felt physically ill and could no longer see clearly because my head hurt too bad.
My mom would’ve been seventy years old at the end of this year. A few days before, she’d checked into the hospital. Having been in pain for several months, she’d opted for surgery to reconstruct a couple of discs and put rods in her lower back for support. While she recovered, my dad and my aunt sent text updates, including a photo of her standing up and walking with the support of the hospital staff the day after her surgery. She looked tired but happy in that picture. It’s strange to look at that photo now and realize that it would be the last one I would have of her.
I’d visited her the weekend before, and despite her back pain, she’d been lively and hopeful. She’d given me a birthday gift and talked about trying to join us for my daughter’s twenty-first birthday celebration in a few weeks. We ate hamburgers and potato salad at my grandmother’s house on Sunday evening, all of us talking over each other and laughing about crazy family stories.
Now, one week later, I was driving to Las Vegas to help my family plan a memorial service. Over and over, I wiped away tears and shook my head in disbelief. None of it felt real.
The next few days were filled with telephone calls, meetings with mortuary staff, and trips to the airport to pick up family and friends who flew into town to help prepare for her services. We had to decide what clothes she would be cremated in, which urn to purchase, what to put in the urn with her remains, and where she would be interred. My aunt found a location for a reception, and my sister and I started buying all of the Halloween Peeps (my mom’s favorite sugary snack) that we could find in the Vegas Valley. We gathered and printed photographs. We created memory boards and proofread drafts of the program for the mass. We all stayed busy, keeping just one step ahead of the grief that was trying to overtake us.
I felt tired and numb, except for in the few quiet moments between the busy ones. Alone in my car. Laying in bed at night. I wept and prayed that I might wake up to find that this had all been some insanely bad dream.
And then there was the eulogy. I knew I wouldn't be able to speak without having something written down, but I put it off until the night before her funeral. Somehow, writing something to share about her life made her death feel more "real" than I was ready for it to.
I knew that many of those coming would remember her for her service to others, especially for the decades of volunteer work she'd done for the Red Cross, helping hundreds whose lives had been devastated by disasters. I wanted to share my memories of her as my mother and as a grandmother.
So, here are a few of the things that I shared...
She was truly one of a kind. No one I’ve ever met had a mom like her. She knew how to make life fun in the most unexpected ways - like stopping the car to run through the sprinklers at the park in our "Sunday best" because it was unbearably hot. Or smashing half frozen cream pies in our faces after school one day because she saw it on TV and it looked like fun; she later discovered that whipped cream in pie tins worked better and was cheaper which meant more people could join in the pie fights. And when I told her I wanted to take dance lessons, she didn’t sign me up for ballet or jazz like all of the other girls. She signed up me and my sister for country western clogging or for Hawaiian dance - and she went with us. May I never wear a petticoat again...
Then she became a "Nana." Every new grandchild was a treasure and a miracle to her. She fed Amanda pickles and Saltine crackers while I was still feeding her bland baby cereal. She taught Brooklynn to pantomime different kinds of flowers - each one had its own song and gestures. She picked my daughters up from school and then when they got old enough to walk to school, she still drove to a nearby street just to watch them the first few times and make sure they were safe. Of course, I caught her because I was parked across the road doing the same thing.
She loved people - everywhere, every kind of person. She loved her family. She loved her friends. And she loved strangers and would strike up a conversation with just about anyone. She just had that much love to give.
She loved me and found ways to let me know it - over and over again in so many different ways. One of the first memories that came up for me when she passed away was a trip that we took for her sixtieth birthday almost exactly ten years ago. We went to a retreat center in Massachusetts for a weekend yoga workshop taught by a catholic priest. We did yoga and prayed and walked together through a hillside labyrinth in the cool Autumn air. I don’t think mom made it through a single one of the breakfasts - which were supposed to be silent - without talking and then remembering out loud that she wasn’t supposed to be talking and then forgetting again a few minutes later.
But she was silent at the end of each yoga class, as we lay in savasana (relaxation pose). There is this one particular moment that I remember. I was laying next to her. Our eyes were closed. I felt her hand reach for mine. She held it for a moment, and then I felt her fingers moving in my palm. My mom used to be an interpreter for the deaf, and I realized that she was saying “I love you” in sign language. I cried quietly, feeling loved and knowing that I would always remember that moment. And I do.
The week that she passed away, I found myself falling asleep with my palm open - hoping to feel her fingers in mine. I didn’t. But one night, instead of opening my palm, I made the sign for "I love you", and for just one moment, I imagined I felt her palm wrap around my fingers and acknowledge my message to her.
It's been a couple of months now. I still feel her presence. I still feel her absence. I feel gratitude. I feel regret. I feel waves of grief. I feel calm tide pools of acceptance when the grief subsides.
And I feel love - a deep, love that is holding me and carrying me through the profound sense of loss.
For years, I described my love for my mother as "complicated", but now I realize that love is really not complicated at all. Relationships are complicated, mostly because we make them that way. Love is the uncomplicated stuff that's just under the surface of all the other nonsense.
Love is what remains when we let go of the stories of who someone else is supposed to be. Love is what remains when the one we love has moved on.
Written in loving memory, of my mother, Christina Gayle Hook.