I had my first sleepover when I was four. My best friend and I got into a fight. One that seemed so momentous that there was nothing to it but to run away. I packed a small bag—in my memory, it was a handkerchief tied to a pole, but this can’t be right, can it?—and prepared myself to leave.
“Before you go,” my mom said, “how about a peanut butter cup?”
I listened, my bag abandoned by the door in favor of lips ringed in chocolate.
Years later, and still before the days of cell phones, or even cordless phones, my mother sat on the floor of the kitchen, fingers wrapped around the coiled cord. Her laughter filled the room as tears filled her eyes.
I listened, too young to understand the joke, but not too young to understand the message.
I ran upstairs, sure that I had been wronged. Loudly stomping, making a big show, and then slamming the door to my room.
I was not inside my room, though. I sneaked back downstairs, all Harriet the Spy, minus the notebook. I listened, secretively, tucked into the shadows.
My mom’s voice was soothing over my dad’s angry tones. “I think she just needs a little T.L.C.”
“Mo-ommm,” I drawled in that way that only an eleven-year old can. “I’m bored.”
I sat on the stairs while my mother stood below me, our eyes level.
“Being bored is a state of mind,” my mother replied.
I groaned. I sighed. But I listened. I got up from my perch and, eventually, I flew.
These were some of thousands of everyday moments, nearly all of them forgotten. I don’t know why they stand out. There was nothing memorable about them, really, other than that they happened to stick. But they have become poignant, because they are all I have now of my mother. There have been no new memories of her for over twenty years.
My mother died when I was in high school. Although she tried to fight the cancer that clung viciously to her brain, tried to visualize it away, tried to make it into a state of mind, she could not.
My mother knew she was going to die, although she didn’t tell me or my brother right away. Even if she had, we wouldn’t have listened. She was our mother! She was invincible, immortal.
The Thanksgiving after she was diagnosed, she took me aside. “I want to show you how to make poached pears in wine,” she said. “It’s a really elegant dessert, and very easy to make.” I watched, I listened, sensing somehow the immensity of this. Yet to this day, I have never been able to bring myself to make it. The snowy pears sheathed in crimson, innocence lost.
Easter, several months and several strokes later. My mother went in and out of moments of lucidity. No longer invincible. Decidedly mortal. My extended family was gathered in the kitchen. We were constructing my mother’s famous Easter cake. It was coated in coconut, with three green coconut nests perched on top. Inside the nests, jelly beans and peeps – the chick kind of course. I had never made frosting before. My mother called out the ingredients. I listened, but I didn’t quite believe her. Her brain could no longer be trusted.
July, a few days before she died. She was lying downstairs in the hospice bed. She had been largely silent for days, not saying much besides “water.” We were given long swabs with green sponges at the end. These were dipped in water, used to trace along my mother’s lips, to erase the ring of mucous that clung to them, to alleviate her thirst. I sat in the room with her, reading one of my summer reading books for school, when she spoke. I ran over to her. I hadn’t expected to hear her voice again. We talked for a few minutes. I no longer remember about what. But I listened. I still know what she meant.
I listened not to her words, but to her.
Chocolate heals, if not all, than most. Surround yourself with people who make you laugh. Sometimes, all you need is a little kindness. Find your own happiness. It’s not the recipe that matters, it’s the tradition. You are loved.
I listened as she taught me about selflessness, as she protected me and my brother even as cancer left her defenseless. I listened as she taught me about grace and grit. Forgiveness and acceptance. I listened as she taught me that life is short, way too short, and that I cannot let a day go by without telling my children how much I love them and why.
As a mother of three young children, I wonder what they hear. It is often painstakingly obvious that they do not listen. “Sweetheart, please clear your plate,” I’ll remind my daughter. “I am!” she will cry, as she continues to draw.
But I know somewhere in there, it’s registering. Not the actual clearing of the plate – though wouldn’t that be nice. But more – Be polite. Be helpful. Be calm. Be kind. Be persistent. And most of all – you are loved.
Ali Wilkinson lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, three small children, and two large cats. She is a lawyer, writer, knitter, runner and over-consumer of Nutella. She blogs about parenting and other things that make her laugh (and cry) at Run, Knit, Love. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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