Today I worked outside in the yard. Tending the gardens. Raking. Planting. Pulling weeds. Taking inventory – lilies, hostas, poppies. And rhubarb. The large, elephant-eared leaves growing atop the crisp red stalks triggered thoughts of my mom. The plant was handed down from her garden, as were her recipes for rhubarb sauce and cobbler.
She’s been gone three years. That sounds like a long time. It seems like a long time. Or, maybe not so long at all. Losing someone dear is like that – like taking the Band Aid off slow and fast all at once. A double whammy. It hurts either way you tear it.
Three years, and it’s small things, like rhubarb, that make me miss her.
I was sprucing up the yard this weekend because at our house, we’re prepping for a high school graduation, along with the company that will accompany this major event. I wish my mom could be here to celebrate with us. I pause to think how proud she would be of her grandson.
It is important occasions – big ones like this – that make me miss her.
I gaze down at my hands that are growing to look more like hers as the years pass. I wear her wedding ring on my index finger as a constant reminder, and I am glad for the memories it stirs.
This is relatively new. Wanting to remember. At first, memories hurt because my psyche was stuck in the end stages of the Alzheimer’s that stole her being like a thief in the night. The disease is a boa constrictor, gradually tightening its grip until it completely incapacitates its prey. We watched her struggle. Helpless. It was an empty feeling.
After she died, I couldn’t push beyond the Alzheimer’s cloud to get to the memories of a mom before the disease. I tried not to remember – actually pushed my thoughts away – because they hurt.
Now, I wear her ring. And the real memories gradually return. Time has become a friend. I don’t remember her with Alzheimer’s all the time now, and I’m glad, because she was so much more. She loved knitting, playing hymns on the piano, shopping, perms, dolls, her grandchildren and ironing. (The last one is hard to believe, but it’s true.) Her fingernails were always polished (usually a light mauve). She made lists. She liked her meat well done. She claimed to hate cooking, even though she was darn good at it. She was a teacher, Avon lady, sister, wife, mother and friend. She was smart, sassy and fun. She laughed full and free.
I think she’d be disappointed if I forgot all those things just because, at the very end of her life, an ugly disease took control.
So, I find it’s the little things, like rhubarb, or the big things, like a high school graduation that summon thoughts of her. I miss her when I’m busy and when I’m bored, when I am alone or in a crowd. When I succeed she’s the first person I wish I could call, ditto that for when I fail. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and for a moment I believe it is her face staring back at me. I realize I am a lot like her.
Sometimes, I know what I want to say, but can’t find the right word, or I’ll enter a room and forget for a moment my purpose for being there, and I contemplate Alzheimer’s and what it might be like to be squeezed by a boa constrictor. I admit, at times like this, I’m a little afraid – but only a little – because I’ve come to understand this is a reality I live with. We all live with. Every family has some sort of Alzheimer’s lurking in the corner. It just may be called something else – like cancer or diabetes or heart disease.
Three years ago, I didn’t harvest any rhubarb. This year I will pull the stalks from the ground to make sauce and cobbler and I will miss my mom because it will remind me of her. But that’s okay, because missing someone is a privilege. It means you have loved. And as painful as it can be at first, once you’ve been through it, you understand that as time goes by the missing becomes less of a burden and more of a gift.
(Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, playwright and author of "The Do-It-Yourselfer’s Guide to Self-Syndication" You can read more columns at the Slices of Life page on Facebook.)