Dear Mama Shellie
Letter #2 to my mom who died of early-onset Alzheimer's in 2016
I’ll never forget saying goodbye to you for the last time—kissing your forehead again and again before my flight. The warmth of your skin. Your scent—your presences. The you-ness of you. The way you were still there even though you hadn’t spoken for almost a year—even though your body was inert and you were on morphine and your mind was gone—some much of you was “gone”—and yet there you lay, you, yourself, with your exact hands, with your exact eyes, the you I have come home to since my earliest memories, the body that housed the first inchoate molecular stirrings of my body. Everything I once knew—the universe I inhabited for nearly a year, and the body that nourished me for years of nascent growth—it lay there in its “you-ness” though in so many ways, you were no longer there.
This life—the ethereal way we can both be here and somewhere else at the same time—is the most beautiful enigma.
But there I was, kissing your head, bawling openly, hating deeply that I had to go get on an airplane and thus leave you forever, and never, ever see you again. It was the strangest cruelness—that life required me to leave you behind while your body still contained life.
I remember walking out of the room and then being filled with longing to never leave you and running back to kiss you and cry and say “goodbye, goodbye sweet mommy, I will miss you, I love you so much” over and over again. I am weeping now just writing these words down.
How does one express this kind of longing-filled goodbye? It’s more than words. It’s more than kisses. It’s a goodbye that lives still in my heart, and that echoes even now, even as I sit in this house, in my little writing nook, typing these words and crying as I think of it. It is a goodbye to a shared history that nobody else will ever comprehend in its specific tendernesses, but that somehow also all will understand in its universality as archetype. It is an expression that will live in my heart until the day I die: “Goodbye mama. Thank you for the beautiful gift you gave me. I will cherish your selfless love always always always. I love you so. I will miss you! I already miss you, and I will miss you every single day. I’m so sorry I have to leave to get on a plane. Good luck as you leave your tired, sick body that I adore and honor with deep reverence. May our ancestors carry you home. Goodbye. You were an absolutely perfect mother. I couldn’t have asked for more, and I wish to share the gift of your love with this world. I love you. I’ll miss you, sweet mommy. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.”
Strange how those words have equal potency now as they did in that moment.
I eventually did leave. Jenni was leaving, too, to go home to her kids, and every time we went out the door of your room into the hallway that led to the front doors, we’d get partway out but then we kept running back inside to our mommy like the broken, hurt little kids we are. We ended up going out the emergency exit of your room (no alarms, thankfully) because that door would lock behind us and we couldn’t run back.
The door clicked shut and we fell into each other’s arms and wept.
Getting on that plane was an out-of-body experience. There was something about my carry-on or my luggage—something I can no longer remember now and probably didn’t fully register then—something that made me have to walk down the middle aisle as the plane boarded, pushing past people, a situation that would have normally felt awkward to me, but I was no longer in my body. I felt lifeless and absent. I walked past all the people and back again, and then I sat in that plane I no longer remember what happened next.
I don’t remember much of what came in the next six months.
A few snippets. Lolly being so, so kind to me. Going to Silverwood amusement park and being in a daze, not being able to tolerate the rides. Lots of lying in my bed, mind blank. Gifts being dropped off for me and being unable to interact with the people (or the gifts). No media got through. The world was dead. I still have moments where society talks about things that happened in those months, and I have no recollection of the events. My mind was truly offline.
And you know what came next. My sister recovered her memories and went to the hospital. Dad was diagnosed with MS, got engaged three months later and married before six months had passed. A true whirlwind.
It wasn’t until the next year—nearly a whole twelve months after you left—that I noticed myself start to talk about grieving using past tense instead of present tense. That was the signal to me that I was moving forward.
Moving forward felt hard, of course, because parts of me never wanted to “get better” or become okay.
But, if nothing else, life seems to be learning to allow, learning to accept, learning to not resist its wide-reaching, overwhelmingly complex, seemingly random chaos, which on a certain level deep within me I know is actually cosmos.
And then, just a few months later, Ben gave me a blessing.
He gave me a blessing that said “something important, monumental is coming in the next month or so . . . be ready for it . . . something that will change everything . . .” and in his mind he saw a calendar with a set of dates circled.
Naive me—I thought surely it had to do with writing, with finding another agent, with getting that part of my career more amply running, getting the book I’d been working on out into the world.
I wondered “what could this thing be!” I was excited and gently anticipatory, and then I forgot about it.
Even as life came together in its seeming randomness, I didn’t notice. I’d forgotten the dates. I’d nearly forgotten the words Ben had said altogether.
And then Zina’s sister needed someone to housesit in Jacksonville. So she thought it would be super fun to do a writing retreat. Just me and her, and another writing friend she hadn’t met in person named Monica. The three of us there together, in a house on the beach as summer shifted to fall—and it would land (though I didn’t notice) on the exact dates Ben had seen in his mind as he rested his hands on my head, speaking the words of the Universe.
It was you, of course. You were there orchestrating things, tugging and pulling at the edges between where you reside and where I still was, helping your little boy find his way towards What Was Next.
I had no idea what was coming.
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