Fifty years after she dies, Wallace Stegner uses these words to begin a long overdue letter to his mother. He tells her, “You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound.” I first read this essay days after I lost my own mother, but I surprise myself by recalling it this morning when I return to the last place I saw her alive. Of the many voices I expect to hear on the other side of the sliding glass doors at Hilton Head Hospital, Stegner’s isn’t even on the short list. He barges in anyway, displacing all the memories I drove a thousand miles to confront. They are his words, but I am the one saying them. The person I should be addressing, the person I long to see again, left this place on a brilliant March morning in 1995. So I stand in the once familiar lobby of a hospital in South Carolina and say, to no one in particular,
“May I help you?” says a volunteer behind the round oak reception desk.
I am not expecting this, an elderly woman with hazel eyes, neatly cropped gray hair, creamy coral lipstick and a voice that shakes with the Parkinson’s, or stroke, or perhaps the polio she contracted decades earlier. She chooses to ignore these challenges, chooses not to sit home complaining, feeling sorry for herself. She can still be of use, can offer comfort, direction, guidance. She is my mother at age eighty, and I suddenly miss what might have been.
“I don’t know if you can,” I say, wondering how to explain a pilgrimage I can’t even justify to my family.
My sister Jo and I came through, ran through these same glass doors years earlier. We flew south in response to a phone call from my father. Every year, I replay all of these events in the days leading up the anniversary of Mom’s death, but the memory of my father’s call that February morning astonishes me even now. It has been fifteen years, but I can still feel the chill in air, still see the stack of mail on my desk, still hear the patter of my three young children running through the house we’ve just returned to in Seattle where I answered this call.
We skied our way through Idaho the week mom checked into Hilton Head Hospital for the last time. I spoke to her several times that week, and she always sounded upbeat, more interested in hearing about our trip than talking about her blood counts.
“Twenty inches of new snow!” She said then, “It’s a wonder you didn’t lose little Beejer in that.”
Mom couldn’t believe our kids started skiing as soon as they learned to walk. She took up the sport at the age of forty because she wasn’t going to miss a chance to share some fun with us when we headed north every weekend. It terrified her, but she did it. She zipped up her long, navy-blue down jacket, tucked her hair into her faux-fur red Russian hat, strapped on short skies and closed her eyes in prayer when stepping off the chair lift. Once, she got stuck on the side of the hill at Schuss Mountain. One by one, we rushed past her yelling, “Mom, watch this outrigger.” or, ”Mom, did you see that jump? “ She smiled, waved back, and hoped one of us would eventually notice she wasn’t moving. But we were all too happy to have this captive audience, too willing to believe she chose to stay there just to watch us, clap for us, cheer us on.
For thirty years, we took our mother for granted, both her presence and her delight in our presence. At the end of her life, though we knew she was very sick, knew the chemo wasn’t working, know she was already on borrowed time, it was still a shock when dad called to say “Your mum may not be in her final hours but I believe she is in her final days”