By Vivki Mayk
After my mother died, the long silence of my 60-mile commute was the hardest part of the day. I think I missed her most then, after years of talking to her on my cell phone as I sped along, on my way home. We’d gossip about my Aunt Betty or compare notes on Dancing With the Stars. Now there was no sound except rubber meeting macadam or the latest report from NPR.
Sometimes I’d suddenly dissolve into tears, the shaky sobs triggered by surprising things. Dionne Warwick singing “What’s it all about, Alfie?” on the radio once set me off so completely, I’d had to pull over when I heard the line “Is it just for the moment we live?” That hokey question was my reality now, the reality of adjusting to the loss of someone who’d been part of my life for so long – but in the end, not long enough.
I’d grieved slowly. First came the sadness tempered by relief after the months of watching her small frame implode from cancer. Absorbing her loss was not something that happened all at once on the day she died or even when I collected her cremated remains. I let go of her by inches and days – cleaning out her apartment, hauling carloads of kitchenware to Goodwill, carting her designer clothes to a resale shop. Bit by bit I was acknowledging, with every box packed and carted away, that she wasn’t coming back.
My daughter acknowledged that finality much sooner than I. On the morning of my mother’s memorial service, she’d turned to me, her grief raw. “Grandma’s gone, and she’s not coming back,” Katti had sobbed, reminding herself – and me — that this was permanent. My mother was not at her timeshare or away for the weekend. Still, it had taken me months to begin going through her belongings. To do that affirmed what my daughter knew, what we’d all known from the moment of her death. She wasn’t coming back.
“You can’t keep it all,” my husband would remind me as I stood holding a piece of Mom’s costume jewelry in each hand. She’d liked large pieces – heavy cuff bracelets and rings so large they dwarfed her slim hands. I’d taken them all to a resale shop where a woman praised my dead mother’s fashion sense as she appraised the jewelry. “These pieces are very fashion forward,” she said, turning the bracelets in her hands. “I can sell these. “ And so I’d left them with her, those pieces of my mother, to be bought by another woman who didn’t care that other people thought her jewelry was ostentatious and a bit gaudy.
As I cleaned out my mother’s apartment, explaining to the landlord that we’d have to pay the rent for two months to give us time to clear it out, she said to take our time. “I had a family who continued to rent an apartment for two years after their mother died,” she said. They kept it intact, unable to deal with it all. When I’d cleared her apartment, I’d filled a storage unit with Mom’s furniture and paid the rent for a few months, buying us all more time before we parted with another piece of her. Because that is what this amounted to, this selling off and giving away of her things. It was giving her up all over again – and deciding what to keep seemed like deciding what memories we weren’t willing to abandon.
So my daughter asked for the paintings that had hung in Mom’s living room. They were mediocre art, created by unknown artists – but my mother, who’d bought them on lay away at a store in the mall, loved them as if they were Van Goghs. When my daughter sits in her apartment, amidst those paintings, she’s sitting in my mother’s presence again, surrounded by her love. We took Mom’s sofa, and her comfy chair and ottoman and watched our black Lab claim a spot at the end of the sofa where my mother sat every night after dinner for the last three years of her life. The arm at one end of the sofa is soiled, where Mom rested the newspaper when she did her crossword puzzle every morning. My husband keeps saying he needs to clean it, but we don’t.
After everyone had decided what parts of her they could not bear to give away, I called an auction house to take what was left. I met the auctioneer on a windy spring day at the storage unit. I rolled up the metal door to expose what was left of my mother’s existence and reviewed the contents of every carton. First the heavily carved crystal bowls and vases. (“I see a lot of this sort of thing,” said the auctioneer.) Then the life size Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus dolls that stood on each side of her Christmas tree. (“There’s a market for that kind of thing: some people collect them.”) Finally the coffee table that she’d had for more than 50 years, since I was 11. And I was ready to give it all up, to give up all those parts of her.
I surprised myself, amazed that I could give away so much that was her, that was my mother, to strangers. In the months after she died, I heard stories of people who held on to the things that tied them to the ones they had lost. Others had storage units left filled for years. Because they weren’t ready for the final letting go.
I understood. The clearing away is so much more than sorting through old clothes. To let go of the things that belonged to the person is letting go of them again. And who can bear going through that a second time. And a third.
The invisible line that stands between us and the finality of our losses is different for each of us. Sometimes we cross it on an occasion or while handling an object or reliving a memory. The first holiday with the empty seat at the table. The heirloom vase. Recalling the look on her face on the day you graduated from college. And now, in our digital age, we can delay the finality of our losses. We can hold some piece of the person we’ve lost indefinitely. We can resist letting go forever.
The message on my cell phone is dated Nov. 4, 2011 – exactly one month before my mother died. “Vicki, this is mom….” it begins, as if I didn’t know her voice. The message is impersonal, a reminder to transfer money from her savings to her checking account at the bank. “I told you, but I didn’t remind you,” she says. It was another one of the hundreds of reminders she delivered in a lifetime of being my mother. Eat your vegetables. Say your prayers. Brush your teeth. Write thank-you notes. Do your homework. Pluck your eyebrows. Remember Aunt Anne’s birthday. What would I do now without her to remind me?
And so I kept the message, long after I’d given away most of her furniture, clothes and jewelry. When she first passed, I played it almost every week, always when I was alone and sad. Then I played it every few months, to reassure myself that her voice was still there, residing in my purse and in my pocket and on my nightstand. As I deleted other messages, I meticulously avoided deleting hers. And it stayed, like a miracle, a piece of my mother that I can hold and hear, a voice from the other side, saying. ‘I’m still with you.’
I’m not the only one who’s done this. A young man showed me the video of his best friend on his smartphone. The friend is tipsy, slurring his words. It was taken the last time they’d bar hopped on St. Patrick’s Day, months before his friend died. It’s in the Emergency Room, where they’d landed when his friend needed stitches when he fell off a barstool. A woman played me the recording of her boyfriend singing a nonsense song he improvised for her amusement. Three years after he died, he still sings to her. My minister’s wife keeps the voicemail of her son wishing her happy birthday, days before he committed suicide. Do these reminders delay our ability to face our losses or help us to bear them? These digital heirlooms seem more real than a scarf or a ring, more like a piece of a loved one’s DNA that we can claim forever. We can hold them in our pocket.
When I replaced my cell phone, I feared losing my mother all over again. I didn’t trust the claims that my saved voicemails were safe forever in that amorphous place we call “the cloud,” like some digital heaven where data lives forever. How could I be sure I wouldn’t lose this piece of my mother saved on some micro-chip? Sharing my anxiety with friends, they conferred with their husbands and Googled solutions. In the end, I decided to make a back-up recording of my mother’s last message. I sat in front of my computer and held my old cell phone up to the laptop’s built-in microphone. My mother left me her last message all over again, now held forever in a recording I’ll save on a CD and on a flash drive, so I can never lose it. Some part of me wants to believe that keeping it means I’ll never completely lose her.
She’s still there, speaking to me, reminding me to transfer the money from her savings to her checking account. “I told you, but I didn’t remind you,” she says. She keeps reminding me.
Vicki Mayk is a nonfiction writer, reporter and magazine editor whose work has appeared in regional and national publications. She edits the university magazine at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Vicki also teaches a memoir writing class for the bereaved at St. Luke’s Hospice in Bethlehem, Pa., and a college class on the power of story.