“Instructions” from The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure. Available on Amazon.
Edited by Larry Smith. Harper Perennial, 2012
The challenge was to write about a life-altering experience in under 800 words. This project turned out to be the seed of Eva and Eve. This really was the beginning and for a long time I had no idea what I was looking for or where my search would take me. Finally I just surrendered to the process until, some years in, I had another moment of understanding about how the book could be structured around the search experience.
My mom was the force of nature that ran our family until her death. She worked a full-time job; she paid the bills and prepared tax forms; she cooked meals both simple and ambitious. She knew where to buy good shoes on sale and how to get stains out of anything. She ironed my dad’s pocket handkerchiefs. If my brother or I needed money for a school trip, she opened her wallet, a crack. Whether you wanted them or not, she always had opinions and advice, increasingly unwelcome as I passed from childhood into adolescence. I understand her frustrating predicament now that I too am the mother of a teenaged daughter.
When she was diagnosed in 2005 with mesothelioma, a terminal lung cancer, she began teaching my dad how to manage the myriad tasks that would make his future life without her possible: balancing a checkbook, cooking a meal, doing the laundry. I had a feeling that she was in a race against an unknown but imminent deadline to transfer all the information she had stored in her head. She gave me several recipes during this time that I treasure.
I saw her alive for the last time the day before she died. She could no longer speak, so our final conversation was (for the first time) one-sided. When I asked her if she was worried about leaving, she nodded yes. I told her that my brother and I would take care of our dad, that she shouldn’t worry. I told her that there was nothing left for her to do, that we could handle everything. It was time to go. She waited until the following evening to leave, when we were all out of the house, with only the full-time nurse present. The nurse told us this happens a lot.
Some weeks after my mom died, my dad showed me a small piece of paper. I recognized the quavery handwriting on it as my mother’s, much altered by her illness. This was the last thing she wrote, he told me, the instructions for fertilizing the roses in their weekend house garden. It was autumn when she died, the roses long dormant. In those long bedridden hours of her last weeks, she must have imagined them flowering again in the spring, knowing she wouldn’t see them bloom, but that someone would.
It was somehow in that moment of reading her last instructions that I really knew my mother was gone.