Unpacking Loss

I dreamt of my mom two nights ago in a way I’ve never seen her. She was in a hospital bed, sick again – but she didn’t look it. Her hair was short, but not the white, post-treatment pixie. It was softer around her face and was the dark black it had been through my childhood. Lying awake and tear stained at 4am thinking back, I knew I’d seen her look that way, but had no memory of it. As a few minutes passed, I realized where I knew it from – her, in a hospital bed, with that style of hair – that’s how she looked when I was born. (This is supplanted in my brain from the included photograph, I obviously don’t have a genius infant memory.)

In the dream we were lying in her hospital bed together, the way we did at the beginning of my life and at the end of hers.

She was surrounded by thousands of yellow flowers, and there was a smudge of yellow paint across her left cheek. We were just lying there together talking about everything and nothing. About how much she was going to miss me, what would I wear for my birthday in a month, a poem she’d written recently.

The dream ended abruptly the way they usually do: by crying myself into consciousness, and as the soft haze of yellow and safety evaporated, there was a tangible loss of heat. The warmth of snuggling up next to her had physically slipped into the cold dark air.

There are several different kinds of grief dreams that I’ve encountered over the last year. Three distinct and separate types – all shrill and visceral in their own ways.

There are the reminders.

The ones where you wake up startled but sobbing, feeling like ice cream scoops have been scraped from inside of you. These are the ones where she’s alive again and healthy and everything is ok and happy and wonderful, but then upon waking you are immediately forced to remember it’s not. She’s not.  

Then there are the aware ones.

These lock you in a suite in your mind that has the sickness and death phases on replay. You wake up sad, but more numb than the first kind, transitioning from unconscious sadness to conscious. You’re in pain but not startled, because the anguish has been there all along.

And then there’s this third kind – the kind I mentioned earlier – surreal, kinetic, and jarring, the kind that make me wonder how thin the veil between the living and the dead actually is. The ones that are so strange and specific and surreal that I can’t help but wonder if she was really visiting me in some way. These dreams are the rarest and the hardest to overcome, often leaving me in a fog, bewitched for days.

As I publish this on August 4th 2018, it is the first anniversary of her death.

As if I weren’t already acutely aware of this fact, I’ve been reminded over the last month in the form of a stack of boxes in my living room. They’re all roughly shoe box sized, some ballet flat width, some snow boots, some sneakers, and they’ve been arriving on my doorstep every couple days for the last few weeks.

They’re from my father – my sweet, brilliant, patient, unfathomably strong and unbearably heartbroken father – who’s been cleaning out her painting studio for the last month. As he’s progressed, he’s been filling boxes with meaningful items from the room and sending them to me. After putting off opening them for weeks, not wanting to torpedo my evenings with sadness, I finally stacked them all up the other night and took them and a bottle of whiskey into my bedroom to dive in.

The process felt like an archeological dig, a strange and specific look into a past and a culture we can’t communicate with any more. She was so diligent in the last few months of her life about getting rid of things and clearing out the clutter, you can’t help but attribute meaning to everything that’s left.

These boxes, carefully packed, are filled to the brim with whathaveyou’s. Postcards – some received, some blank, fortunes from cookies, receipts from art supplies stores. A paper crane, a silver dollar, prayer cards and business cards and playing cards. Two worn school photographs: her at age 6, me at 15. There are trinkets from 40 years of voracious world traveling: pebbles from Machu Picchu, a rosary from Brittany, coin purse from Beijing, Mardi Gras beads from New Orleans, 1981.

There’s a small stack of worn, filled, moleskin notebooks. The text in which bounces across an expansive spectrum. Stanzas to sketches to recipes. One page simply says Broccoli! Another 22521. A few pages contain a recent love poem for my dad she wrote on a plane a while watching a young couple across the aisle from her. Then there’s a meticulously detailed list of tips given at different locations: Beverly Hilton Valet 5~ Bestia Server 24~ Concierge 5~ Bartender at Baco 12~ And so forth.

Another compelling oddity is that every other page is written facing a different direction – there is no right side up or upside down. She even writes on the diagonal or horizontal. It all feels indicative of the symphonic way her mind moved, much like her paintings – in both broad, dripping strokes and fine, detailed lines.

Along with the notebooks and curio, the boxes are filled with more smaller boxes. The items getting tinier and tinier, but with no lessening of significance. A vintage cigarette tin containing seashells from the Washington coast. Sliding matchboxes housing tiny notes and dried flowers. One holds a shark tooth from Mexico taped to a faded piece of construction paper with her indistinguishable handwriting labeling it as such.

Then there’s a box from me – a box that I gave her about 10 years ago. It’s a plastic recipe carton that I decorated with foam hearts and the word “LOVE” on the top in glittery scrapbooking stickers. Inside is a collection of notecards. The first reads:

To the world’s GREATEST Mom ~  There are COUNTLESS things that I love about you, but here in this box are 100 of them. Look at them whenever you need to and see how incredible you are and how much I love you. To the moon and back, more than all the tea in China. Merry Christmas, T

I obviously won’t barrage you with all of them, but here are a few of my favorites:

  • you always make everyone feel comfortable and happy
  • your love & appreciation of other cultures
  • your competitive parallel parking skills
  • that you cry at everything (i do too)
  • that I don’t have to lie when I tell you your paintings are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen
  • the way you separate grocery lists by sections
  • that you sign guest books as Dorothy Gale
  • that you never made us wear tacky matching mother-daughter outfits
  • the way you laugh when trying to retell a joke
  • the fact that you CANNOT turn off the Godfather if it comes on TV
  • that you use “groovy” without any irony
  • That I’m like you

As I was reading them and weeping (is that where that expression comes from?), I got to the last card to discover it says “I OWE YOU 25 MORE.” I’d forgotten – I never finished it.

This gift, which ended up being one of the things she treasured above so much else, I hadn’t even been able to complete. Flash forward to now, and in this exact moment not only can I think of a full hundred, I can think of what feels like thousands.

So Mombo – 10 years later and 1 year too late – here are 25 more things I love about you:

  1. That I ALWAYS knew I could talk to you about ANYTHING. Literally anything. And I was never afraid to.
  2. Your spaghetti and meatballs.
  3. The breadth of your knowledge and references, from high brow to low, you could discuss almost any topic. 
  4. Your fearlessness. 
  5. That you not only made time for your art amidst consuming professional and personal lives, but continued to evolve in your work AND be prolific in your production.
  6. The little shrug and laugh you would give when you’d acknowledge you’d been factually incorrect in your storytelling but couldn’t be bothered to care.
  7. How you were always present in every situation. 
  8. You were the most compulsive, consistent & articulate correspondent I’ve ever known.
  9. The way you would sing Donna Summers loudly and publicly and we’d all pretend to be annoyed but couldn’t stop laughing (and would eventually always give in and join you.)
  10. That I KNEW after talking to you I would feel better.
  11. You refused to let marriage or motherhood de-prioritize your friendships.
  12. The unmistakable sound of your slippers shuffling on the tile.
  13. That the only 3 rules I had as a teenager were: “No lying, No babies, and No White Powders.”
  14. The little notes you’d leave everywhere. I remember even as a kid always getting excited – never embarrassed – when one had been planted in my lunch bag.
  15. You were unapologetically imperfect.
  16. Your voracious support in anything I created – laughing the loudest at every play, being the first to read anything I wrote, even applauding my (often questionable) sartorial creations.
  17. Your superstitiousness.
  18. That you were always so emphatically, exquisitely in love with Dad.
  19. That your name was synonymous with a great time.
  20. The way you handled the realization of your impending death with not only extreme grace and courage, but also with diligent preparation and long-term thought for those around you, so as to spare Dad and I as much pain as possible.
  21. How you could spend 3 days in a new country and be conversational (or certainly verbally winning) in the native language.
  22. That you bruised your tailbone in your 50’s doing the splits on the dancefloor of a gay bar in Hillcrest.
  23. Your smell. DAMMIT do I miss your smell.
  24. Ditto the above by a million about how much I miss your laugh.
  25. That I’ve wanted to call you every single day since you died – not because you’re gone, but because I wanted to call you every day you were alive because I loved sharing my life with you.

Now that I’ve finished the list, I can put the box back inside another box, and shove them under my bed to unearth another time. I like knowing they’re there, close by. That whenever I need to, I can sift through all these little things that mattered to her and think about how much she matters to me. 

This has been both the longest and fastest and certainly most painful year of my life. Unpacking something new everyday, each month scattered with unpredictable emotional land-mines. But – as painful as the dreams are, as much as I cry through each one, I hope they never stop. I hope the pangs never go away every time I find a card from her in a drawer. Grief is love with nowhere to go, and with the amount of love I have for my mom, I’ve got a lot more unpacking to do. 

IF YOU WANT YOUR OWN VISIT TO ELLEN’S WORLD, I URGE YOU TO POUR A GLASS OF BUBBLES AND VISIT THE WEBSITE WE CREATED: HTTPS://WWW.EBVANSLYKE.COM

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