It was a cold late afternoon in November, and the game was tied with only a minute left. Matthew and Andrew needed this win to head to the Ontario finals. I had left my dying mother’s bedside the day before because I didn’t want to miss this important moment for my boys. I would head back to my Mom right after. I sat shivering in a lawn chair on the sidelines, ill-prepared for the cold weather that seemed to have crept upon us overnight. My phone rang, but my numb fingers couldn’t tap the round green circle fast enough. I called my sister back as the football flew through the air. The final whistle rang in my ears.
And the game was lost.
Norma Goldora Hollett became my mother with one foot still in the muddy waters of adolescence. And I wasn’t her first! But little sister to a 22-month old brother and ten and a half month old twin girls! The next few years would deliver another girl and two boys plus several decades filled with visits from the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter bunny, thousands of bags of potatoes, a staple for a family of 9, endless sibling rivalry, break-ups and make-ups, six different homes, a move to a new province, and enough beige pantyhose to fill a 30 Ton dump truck.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
I actually detest this part about being human. In general, we have to lose something before we appreciate it. Probably because we’re members of an overindulged and pampered society, or maybe we’re just ungrateful by nature. So wrapped up in our things, our programs, goals and achievements, we’re too shortsighted to grasp what really does matter. The irony is we think we appreciate what we have but it takes losing it, or nearly losing it, to even know the difference.
I found out Mom had cancer on a sunny March day barely a year after I had finished treatment for my own cancerous breast. I can’t even remember who called me. It may have been my Dad but maybe Karen, I just can’t remember. I also know I didn’t panic but took it in stride. This same existential threat had attacked both myself and my sister, Katherine. We were alive so it just seemed natural that Mom would also be okay, not to mention she was only 63 and wasn’t 60 the new 50? Also, I tend toward denial when I can’t deal with the message, as if my disapproval would negate the reality.
It didn’t take long before the truth slapped me hard in the face. Mom’s attacker was too far advanced and had taken too many healthy cells prisoner before we even knew there was a war. This is the stage when you start to realize how much your Mom loves you. It’s funny we all tell our kids when you grow up you’ll remember this and you’ll finally understand! Turns out this is true when it comes to things like housework and budgets but not love. You never really understand the love of a parent until they’re dying. And it’s pretty much too late then.
I spent a lot of time with Mom in her last months, more than I had in the ten years before. As she slept, I would sit and watch her and remember. Today as I sat in the silence punctuated only by the soft tick of the hanging wall clock, an odd memory surfaced. It was of an argyle-print velour sweater she’d bought for my boyfriend when I was 20. It was ugly. Now that I think back, he kind of was too! At the time the sweater was quite in style and so was marriage in our religious environment and, according to Mom, potential spouses must have a Christmas gift even when there were seven children waiting for a visit from Santa. We walked along the sidewalk freezing cold in our beige pantyhose and modest skirts, me clutching a shiny gold bag stamped with the word BUDDS, the fanciest retailer in town.
“Thanks Mom.” I knew what a sacrifice this ugly sweater was and even felt a little ashamed.
“Well if you love him, then your Father and I do too.” Very matter-of-factly.
That was the closest Mom ever came to saying the words, I love you. And the sound made me as dizzy as the zigzag print on the ugly Christmas sweater.
Mom stirred and motioned for water. I held the straw to her lips and realized I had been so determined to hear these lips form those magic little words, I’d missed the big love that had surrounded me all my life!
In the little Easter dresses, hand-sewn on her Singer machine and the Christmas ones, the birthday ones, the bridesmaid ones.
In the homemade meals nearly every day of the week all of my life, roast beef was my fav!
In the homemade bread baking in the oven every morning at 5am, bread bags in my winter boots but a bellyful of bread.
In the fridge full of food and a Good Housekeeping magazine on my nightstand when I arrive at my new home and life after my honeymoon.
In the way she bathed my infant twins and put me to bed while she took over.
In the ugly argyle Christmas sweater.
I could go on and on, but remembering is pretty painful when there’s no way to say thank you. I’m not sure why Mom didn’t say I love you. Maybe something inside her shattered 12- year old heart died with her Dad on that lonely stretch of highway so many years ago. She adored him, and they would spend many hours together on the water, father teaching daughter to row. Months after he was gone, young Norma would often be found in the shed, sitting in the dark in her dad’s rowboat. Perhaps the last words she said to him before he went off to work that fateful night were I love you.
In her final days, Mom was quiet, but she mentioned her dad several times, he was visiting in her dreams. Soon they would meet again, and I like to imagine him greeting her with those loving words.
As for me, I’m pretty generous in declarations of love to family, friends, and even strangers! Any time I send myself an e-transfer and it asks for a message to the recipient I always say, I love you, Kim. Yet, one thing I know for sure.
Loving words are empty without loving action.
I wish Mom was here. I’d do it differently.
But the sad truth is I probably wouldn’t unless she died.