College, graduation, first job, marriage, children, annual vacations, recovery, children’s graduations, career changes, cancer.
These are what we define as the “big” events in our life. My mother has missed all of these, having died 38 years ago. The last “big” event she attended was my graduation from high school. She left the hospital in her wheel chair, in 95 degree heat, barely able to make it through. Sitting on the stage, I looked out at the very small crowd, given I graduated with 23 other girls, and caught a glimpse of my mother. Someone, a family member I suppose, was leaning her back in her wheel chair. I looked away. I couldn’t look. Didn’t want to look.
I don’t remember a whole lot from the last “big” event but I do have a photograph from the after party. My boyfriend has his arm on my back as I cutely pose, wearing a balloon on my arm. We wore pink, a special tradition that my private all-girls school still honors. My mom always made our dresses for the “big” occasions. Not this time.
This time, my Mom was too sick. She had been in and out of the hospital (mostly in) since the tumor on her lung severed her spinal column and left her paralyzed from the waist down in December of my senior year. My sister graduated two years prior, so her dress was waiting in the wings. Picking out our own patterns and fabric was a rite of passage in our family. It was an outing, an experience. Walking into the fabric store with my mom, heads turning to say “hello” and make small talk. My Mom always showed an interest in and an acceptance of anyone she came across. Her ability to see people as just people was a gift.
Once, when I didn’t have a date to an event, she asked the guy at the hardware store, Bruce, to take me. Horrified, the only way I got out of it was by pointing out the age difference. I can’t remember if I ever drummed up a date but what I do remember is that awkward teenage feeling of being loved and horrified at the same time.
As the days approached graduation, my Mother–living and acting out her true denial of the terminal illness no one discussed–fed me hope that she was going to make the dress for me and “not to worry.” Thankfully, my friend’s mom had the wherewithal to realize my rite of passage was going nowhere. She so sweetly took my sister’s hand-me-down dress to the hospital so that my mother could sew the hem. I know my mother did none of the sewing, she was too sick, but my friend’s mom never wavered from the story. I don’t know if that was more for my Mother’s benefit or mine, but I am forever grateful. Thank you, Mrs. Wall
The thing is, when your mom dies from an illness, you lose her so much sooner than the actual death. It wasn’t that I missed out on wearing the dress my mother made just for me. I missed everything that went into making it: mostly frustration and worry, pacing on my part and exasperation that my Mother did everything at the last minute. The tension thick, my expectations high, I contributed nothing but fret, judgment and worry.
My mother, somehow appearing cool with a cigarette smoking away in the ashtray by her side, focused on the fabric running under the sewing foot, turning it inside out, measuring it up against me. Sometimes I’d try it on and she’d examine the way it fit, holding pins in her mouth, muffled speech, making it difficult to understand her instructions and comments, the huge glasses sliding down her nose. Her hands on my waist, touching my feet as she measured the hem, adjusting the straps, spinning me around to admire her work. The joy of accomplishment when the zipper went in and somehow, miraculously, I would make it – on time – to whatever event was in front of me.
Fast forward to December of my oldest daughter’s senior year. I am diagnosed with breast cancer. I would be in and out of doctor’s offices, having chemo and surgeries her last semester of high school. In the midst of it all came the big question, “what about a dress?” So I did with her what I knew how to do, what my Mother had done with me. We hit Oak Street, sitting down at the table in Meisel’s looking at patterns and shopping fabrics. This time no one knew us and we knew no one. I hadn’t stepped foot in that store since my mother had died. Nothing had changed, it was like a time warp. When all the pieces were purchased, a seamstress was found, instructions were given and a lot of faith put in her that it would be ready in plenty of time.
The dressmaker came to the house for measurements, pinning and adjusting but so much was missing. She didn’t have the sense of humor, aloofness or dramatic flair of waiting until the last minute. When a stranger makes your dress it is about the dress. When your Mother makes the dress it is about the person, the interactions, casual touch, gaze and admiration for how she wears it, carries herself and feels inside.
We made it to graduation, dress fitting perfectly and in plenty of time and I managed to schedule my surgery so that I was recovered in time for the big day. Aside from my completely bald head, you may not have known I was sick.
This time, as my daughter sat on the stage, I was in the audience with the rest of my family. I don’t know if she ever looked out but if she had, she would have seen me, beaming with pride, probably wiping away some tears as I attempted to conceal all evidence of my cancer and empathy for her because in her I saw myself. Excited and scared. Ambitious and worried. Naïve and confident.
The parallels are uncanny. I didn’t mention the year I was diagnosed with cancer was also the year I outlived my mother. Those milestones and significant events earmark much of my life, but it really isn’t at those times that I miss her the most. It is the times when I have nothing to say but want to touch base, hear her voice, her laughter. I’d love to call her up to ask how she got the chocolate in the meringue pie to be so thick. Do you put the meringue on while the pie is hot?
July 11, 2022 marks 38 years since my Mother’s death. While much has been missed, I have come to realize she planted lots of seeds in the short 18 years that I had her. As my daughters have surpassed the age I was when she died, we are all operating without a map or a blueprint, free to take turns and detours. While I never learned to sew, I can appreciate it isn’t the dress that is important, it is everything that goes into helping them navigate important events in their life. I want to show up for them in the way my Mother taught me….seeing beyond the dress, admiring the person.