Friday, October 11, 2013

Colorful October

This is my kitchen window today. The candle burns as a kind of remembrance. I pulled it out from under the cabinet and lit its wick this morning because I can't make the phone call I want to make.

I can't call my mom and wish her a happy birthday. It's been almost two decades since I've been able to hear her voice squeal out my name in that way only she could say it, as she picked up the phone and realized it was her youngest daughter on the other end of the line. A call to fuss over her, on her important day, that would so quickly turn into a phone call about me. Almost immediately she'd be asking about my welfare, how my hubby was doing, and of course those two grand-babies she loved to spoil.

We lost her in 1994, and with her passing, I lost my time with her. Instead of making plans to go antique shopping with her, or check out the latest country music band at the county fair, my interactions with her came down to a candle. A candle on my kitchen window sill to remind me, and remind her in some remote way, that she is not forgotten.

Today or any day.

There are two days a year that inspire me to pull out the candle under the sink. The first one, August 30, is the day we said our last goodbyes, when it became clear that her traumatized body would not recover from the massive stroke she'd suffered while country dancing three nights before. And the second one falls on October 11th, the day she joined the human race, way back in 1945, in a small hospital in Waco, Texas.

It's sad and ironic to me that I was never fully aware of her birthday until she was gone. My mom was the kind who was skilled at diverting attention away from herself. Her days were spent doing all the mundane chores required to keep a household full of natural children, and foster children, alive and healthy. She made a point to wave off our attempts to pat her on the back or celebrate her in any way. 

I remember being specifically told not to worry about commemorating my mom and dad's anniversary. "It's a day for the two of us to celebrate, you kids shouldn't worry about it", she'd tell me.

Now that I'm coming close to a 25th wedding anniversary myself I have to wonder if she did her best to draw attention away from her own anniversary for the reasons she quoted, or if it was just too painful to concentrate on a marriage that suffered in the years of raising so many children. I couldn't see her sadness and loneliness until I was a grown up myself, navigating the bumpy waters that come with keeping a marriage alive.

In my high school and college years I knew that my mom's birthday was in October, but if pressed for the exact date, I'm afraid I might not have hit the mark very accurately. Birthday parties were not a big deal in our house. With so many faces around the table, and so little money in the bank account, birthdays generally meant a cake with your name on it and a smattering of candles to extinguish. And that was for the kids, the household demographic who actually cared about a celebration. For the adults, a lack of fuss didn't seem to be a big deal.

The college years ended right as the married ones began for me. One baby came along, then another followed quickly after. We were just figuring out how to relate to each other, my parents and me, in this brave new world of being grownups at the same time, when she was swiftly gone.

And her birth date was forever engraved into a headstone.

A headstone I picked out and ordered, with babies balanced on my hip,  to save my father the added grief of a task that ushered him into an unexpected world of being a young widower.  Standing in that small office, surrounded by polished granite samples, and writing out the dates we wanted added to a stone, seared them into my brain.

So now that date in August is a sad day for me. The second of a pair of dates etched on a headstone. At the end of summer every year I think of her a bit more. I get reflective, especially if I find myself alone in the car for any extended amount of time. The memories re-surface, of all night hospital vigils, and hugs from friends around a fresh mound of dirt.

Then, two months later, this other date rolls around. The opposite of her death date. Her birth date has become something different with the passing years. As much as I get reflective and sad on the date in August, I have begun to think about the positive parts of her when the date in October shows up.

She always loved autumn. The leaves turning bright colors, the air temperature finally easing some as the hot humid summers in Missouri ended. Time to start cooking warm comforting dishes like her delicious homemade noodles.  It was the simple things in life that made her happy and Fall is full of simple pleasures.

When I see the signs of a season she loved so much, my thoughts circle around to my mom. Now that I live in Colorado, where we see fairly drastic season changes, having our first snowfall just a few weeks ago when September was still in full swing, the happy memories of her start sneaking into my thoughts not long after that mournful date in August.

On a drive home from Denver the other day the highway was hemmed in by bright yellow leaves. As I wound my way towards home the air temperature dropped and I could feel the Autumn season almost as distinctly as the jacket I'd thrown on that chilly morning. And I felt my mom.

Not as a heaviness I've fought in years past. But in a presence. I took the time to let the busyness of my day fall away and I let down my car window. I ceased the rushing back toward home, only to jump into the next item on the list so I could possibly be 'caught up' before I then headed off to work in the early afternoon. I let myself relax and think of my mom, and the millions of ways she helped me navigate my life for my first quarter of a century.

Today is her birthday. Even if she's not here to fight me as I try to celebrate it for her. She is on my mind and in my heart. Her spirit was as bright as that little candle that burns in my kitchen window.

Side note: This year there is a bright yellow flower next to the candle. It's the flower I was given at a heart breaking memorial service several weeks ago. As we gathered to say our goodbyes to a baby named Alice, who only got six days on the planet and will be remembered and loved by her parents for the rest of their lives, we were all given a bright colored flower to take home. And Alice's flower continues to stand tall and gorgeous in my kitchen window. 

Days keep passing and it refuses to wilt. Every day reminding me of how fragile life is, and how lucky we are to be given even one day surrounded by the people we love.

I like to think that my mom's had her turn cradling that innocent baby named Alice. After her own relatives welcomed Alice into their fold, I like to think my mom did her magic with one more baby - partially because it's a baby who belongs to a couple I care deeply about and partially because my mom was just great with babies.

Maybe, just maybe, as my mom's candle burns in my window sill today, Alice's flower is there to make sure I don't forget how precious life is, every single life. Whether we get 6 days or 50 years, life is a gift.