Off the 8’s: An anniversary — remembering my mom

Editor’s Note: Off the 8’s is a new WTOP Living feature, in which staff inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center share stories from their lives when they’re off the clock.

Hillary Howard, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – My dad died alone, face down on the beige pile carpet, his feet trapped beneath the bed frame. The scene is branded into my memory with a searing heat that draws tears. I envision his silver highlighted hair, his straight, strong nose and his Herculean hands, irresistibly powerful and thick. One of them sports a permanently placed gold ring, dedicated to my beautiful mother. And all I want to do is hold it. I imagine my mom would have wanted that, too. And at her bedside, along the metal rail, I silently vow she will not die without my hand around fingers. It was an oath I very humbly honored. Exactly one year ago.

Can you picture my mom? She was the prettiest in the neighborhood with a freckled Noxema Girl complexion and thin eyebrows that arched up and disappeared in unanswered questions. Her nose was a perfect ski slope that began between her brows and launched off an upturned tip into the most beautiful smile. It would lift her cheekbones impossibly higher and squeeze her bedroom eyelids into slits with crinkled bookends. Oh, those eyes. Impossibly forest green with deep, honey brown flecks that seemed to ignite when she was happy. Or mad. I miss them.

Last month, with my husband and son beside me on the winter cooled tile of our kitchen, I lit a short white candle that flickered in mom’s memory on the stove. It burned for 24 hours. Each time the dancing flame caught my gaze, I spontaneously acknowledged mom with a slideshow of images that inflated a balloon of sadness where my heart beat.

There’s the young mom with her dark hair swept up in a ’60s sculpture, her face highlighted with a curving flourish of black eyeliner. There’s morning mom, in dad’s sail of a T-shirt making breakfast in our small suburban New York kitchen. There’s mom in ponytails, a smile and green leotard, teaching fitness classes to a couple dozen women who jump, bend, stretch and secretly ask to be like her with each groaning gasp. But my favorite is mom at night; shiny, slippery and fragrant with a thick layer of Pond’s cold cream on her smooth freckled skin. She would lean across our four bodies in the quilted darkness of bedtime and cover us in quick kisses that left a sheen of cream and love across our cheeks and foreheads. There were always 13 of them. I kiss my son the same way.

Nine years ago my mother partly died. A stroke strangled her limbs and ability to speak in understandable sentences. My mom, Lynne, now uttered lines of obscure and abstract poetry. Unraveling its meaning could be difficult, though sometimes it made sense. Once she blurted, “Oh honey, you look beautiful today.” She was in a New York wheelchair and I on a Virginia telephone and couch. Mom probably meant I sounded good. Maybe she was just happy to hear me. I called every day; even when she stopped replying.

Over the years my mother receded into some deep place of memory and comfort. While it’s impossible to know who she spoke to at night, my dad would sadly listen to the animated conversations she denied him and wonder how she could communicate so clearly in sleep. And she’d laugh. Wherever mom was, she was happy. But awake, the reality of her stolen life was too heavy to lift.

Two years can be a very long time. And I can’t imagine how long the final two years of my mother’s life were. Despite extraordinary care from our singularly devoted dad — and an aide who loved her — mom developed sores that ground her tired flesh into deep and rotting potholes. Her spiral of suffering painted dad’s exhausted complexion. It made his heart hurt. And eventually, my father’s innate optimism, inescapable laughter and steadfast belief that his wife would wake up, faded. He died of suffocating loneliness eight months before my mom.

In the days after dad died on the beige bedroom carpet, my mother kept calling his name. It was like she was testing this new reality, much as a toddler tests a word or name. Besides that, she barely spoke.

On the Thanksgiving before she died, my brother, sisters and I encircled mom’s big bed with the humming mattress motor and wrapped her in old memories and endless hugs. When we clarified that all her kids were there, she pushed out two throaty words: “That’s nice.” I can still hear it and see her brilliant, beautiful smile. But when we left my sister’s house that weekend, mom retreated to prison life. Stuck in her room, she stared at a blank ceiling or sat in a chair waiting to be fed. She was even denied the simple human pleasure of tasting her meals. Mom was now fed through a tube. She was ready to die.

It was one year ago when I put down the silver rail on mom’s bed and crawled onto the shifting mattress designed to keep hungry sores from eating. The sheets were clean and pretty. That day, they were white and dotted with small pink flowers sprouting from little green stems. Mom was still conscious when I laid belly down and lifted my head to look squarely into her half-blind eyes.

For the first time in many years, mom looked squarely back. Her eyes were still a honey brown speckled forest green; her gaze unwavering and disarmingly honest. No pretense or decoration, now. Her beloved black eyeliner was long gone. But, she wouldn’t look away.

I don’t know what thoughts flickered behind those eyes that day, but I do know this. My mom was taking me in. Studying me so as not to forget? Was she comparing my face to the strawberry blonde who emerged from her in a Bronx hospital many decades ago? Or the girl she read books with on summer afternoons beneath the brown roofed porch? Or ate cherries with on her bed during a late night storm, promising thunder was the rumble of two clouds bumping? Or maybe it was my wedding day when dad inhaled short, loud cries in big gulps as she held his hand and herself together? Or all four of her kids romping through the house and testing her sanity? I cannot say and will never know.

When my mom closed her eyes for the final day’s journey I slipped beneath the flower-dotted sheets and would not leave her side. Occasionally, I jumped up to trade a CD of ’50s music for mom’s favorite Italian singers. And I sang to her. I retold family stories about our legendary car trips to Florida, full of flat tires, sick kids, pink flamingos, Key West sunsets, fighting and fun. I retold stories from the extravagant Caribbean cruise she and dad probably went broke paying for, like the morning we pulled into St. Thomas and dad fingered something on the salt encrusted rail. Sparkling crystals around the words glowed sweetly in the early mango sunlight: “Don and Lynne.”

That night, after sharing a lifetime of songs and stories, I nestled closer to my mother’s broken body, softly stroked her forehead, memorized the ski slope of her nose and silently listened to the changing rhythms of her breath and heartbeat. I gently pried open her grip and once again held her fingers in my own. As dawn broke, I refused to let go, until she did. Quietly. With a last puff of air. And I kissed her.

Hillary Howard is a WTOP anchor. Listen to her on air 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @WTOPLiving on Twitter.