I’ve been dwelling on what I lost. But a three-sentence note showed me what I still have.
It had been almost a year; the end of “this time last year” nostalgia was fast approaching. This time last year we went to dinner, argued about my dad, but managed to have a nice time. This time last year I was too distracted over a fight with my boyfriend to enjoy her company. This time last year she surprised me with wine and takeout, and we had the most magical evening talking, laughing, and drinking until midnight. Thinking back to specific dates on their anniversaries – the Super Bowl, our birthdays, two nights before Christmas – was a tick I picked up. It was a form of time travel. Of skipping back to a point in space when I still had my mom. But that was about to end as the anniversary of the phone call that ended making those kinds of memories loomed.
Since the stroke choked out 43 percent of my mother’s brain – leaving her wheel-chair bound, completely paralyzed on her left side, and with severe cognitive damage, most of our interactions have been at her bedside. At first she couldn’t perceive anything to her left, and would hallucinate events and people, like when we were sitting on the porch in summer time, and she was convinced one of her ancestors (she is almost full-blooded Native American) in a headdress was reaching through the railing to run a stick over the spokes of her wheelchair.
Over time with therapy, and the sheer power of necessity and will, things got easier in some ways and more difficult in others. Easier, because her awareness of what’s going on around her has improved, and with trial and error, we’ve all adapted. For her that means managing to take care of her skin, put make up on, eat without food spilling out of her mouth. She cut her hair short for manageability, had filler injected into her paralyzed lips, and bought a new wardrobe of clothes that are easy to get on and off, but look nice. For me it’s getting her on and off the toilet without letting her fall, and watering down the alcoholic drinks she insists on having without her noticing.
One of the last memorable dates before the call, March 11, was Valentine’s Day. The anniversary passed, and for once I didn’t time travel. First I thought it was probably because the previous year I was with my boyfriend, and there wasn’t anything noteworthy to remember of my interactions with my mother on that day in 2016. So this year my boyfriend and I did the same thing, spent the day making memories with only each other, and blissfully distracted, I didn’t think anything of it until a strange piece of mail arrived two days later.
We’d just moved, and with the change of address, mail had not started being regularly delivered yet – especially not personal letters. It was also odd because the envelope was barely sealed, and it felt like there was nothing in it. The address on the front was in handwriting I didn’t recognize, and had been crossed out and rewritten, making its arrival somewhat surprising. There was no return address. Adrenaline pumping from the thrill of the mystery, it hit me, and I almost lost my sight for a moment – it was her handwriting. But it was her new handwriting.
I’d started referring to life before the stroke as simply “before.” Before, she’d had the prettiest handwriting I’d ever seen. I coveted the meticulous notes she wrote out on the back of old photos. I treasured her recipe book filled with hand-written family staples. After the stroke, I was always surprised that her faculty for penmanship had stayed quite strong. I could see her old handwriting in the new. But she could not use her left hand to hold paper still, and often misspelled, scribbled around letters, and had a curious habit of tracing the same word over and over again until the paper almost ripped, so the new script never immediately connected in my mind to my mother after years of watching her write like a 1950’s housewife.
The envelope contained a single slip of paper with her first initial, J, embossed in the corner. She’d bought the same set personalized with a C for me. She spent long hours watching home shopping networks on TV, and unfortunately had memorized her credit card number. She’d also exercised a lot of determination on re-learning how to use a phone, so we received a lot of random, useless packages in the mail. And she always bought us matching sets, no matter how often I protested that I really didn’t need anything new. Off-center on the small slip of paper written in hot pink ink was:
Chloe – I love you my sweet infiniti Dolly Valentine. I consider it a priviledge to be your mother Love you infiniti Mom.
Three hearts and a quirky flower were drawn off to the side, and “Valentines 2017” was written across the bottom. The words “Dolly,” “Valentine,” “I,” “to be your mother,” and “Mom” were all traced over multiple times.
I was crying before my brain even processed feeling sad. A teardrop almost fell in the ink, and I quickly yanked the paper up to stop it. The rush to save this new artifact stopped the crying and then I was laughing. A somber laugh at the fact that this scrap of paper that any passing person would dismiss as a discarded grocery list or one of those pads at stationary stores where they let you test out novelty pens, had just entered my life to be cherished whether I liked or not. Aside from the spelling and penmanship anomalies, it was a note she would have written before. Dolly was her nickname for me, because she’d wanted to name me after Dolly Parton. “Infinity” was family shorthand we’d developed a long time ago. One of us would say, “I love you,” then the other, “I love you more.” The first person would end, “I love you infinity.” When I was small we would make it a game to see who could say “infinity” first, until we ultimately shortened the exchange to just that word as mother-daughter code for “I love you.”
Since I was a kid I had always been dreadfully sentimental, a symptom of being an only child of musician parents. I collected little treasures like tiny glass animals, or lucky pennies, or anything really that was small and had been ceremoniously given to me or found. I kept them in different bejeweled boxes that I also considered treasures themselves. I also had an old cigar box I kept letters and cards in that had stayed with me through the years. I knew this scrap of paper was headed for that box. Part of me was happy to have something new to put in the box from her. Part of me was overcome with the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that had set on because of grief, according to therapists. That part was very concerned with the fact that this new relic should go in a new box, for a new era.
As I held the homemade valentine in my hand, I had an internal debate on whether or not to let it crumble me into a ball on the ground, which would be simultaneously exhausting and cathartic, as it always was. I hadn’t realized how impactful my relationship with my mom was until it was gone, after the stroke I’d started self-medicating and self-sabotaging without even noticing. I would drink a bottle of wine a night as a starter before going out, and then come home from the bar and cry on the bathroom floor, occasionally throwing up, until I was ready to pass out. It took almost losing my boyfriend to truly realize what I was doing.
As time went on I grew into the grief. I put my energy into my career, and started trying to rebuild the relationships I’d hurt before I had nothing left, with him, with her, with friends who were overwhelmed by my drinking, with my dad who’d had to take on two parenting roles at one of my lowest points. The holidays into the New Year had been relatively breakdown-less, because I had been determined to not let the holidays be sad because it was too cliché, and I was equally determined to let 2017 be a fresh start, which was cliché too. Not wanting to lose the momentum in stability, I just stood there in my kitchen, the dinner I had started to prep staring at me, as motionless as I was. As I continued to stay there frozen, it occurred to me that I had made memories with my mom on Valentine’s Day the year before.
We’d had a whole day together while I waited for my boyfriend to get off work. We’d gone to brunch. She hadn’t liked the restaurant, but she usually had some kind of neurotic issue with most restaurants. She had been rude to the waiter, and I remember having to not let my embarrassment ruin the day. She’d said that she thought Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance was racist against whites, which depressed me.
She wasn’t one for big gestures. After a life of rejection in love and creative aspirations, and my unruly spirit almost breaking her during my teen years, she was too tired and afraid of vulnerability to really put herself out there anymore. When she told me she hadn’t gotten her husband anything for the occasion though, I convinced her to walk up the street with me to a homemade ice cream shop where I knew they did a great coconut, his favorite. She ordered a couple pints for them to share for dessert later, and I watched as a warm smile glimmered across her face. It was a smile I didn’t see often. An old, extinguished light in her turning on for a moment. She was excited to give him a gift, and a little surprised at herself. She put her arm around me and quietly said, “Thank you, Dolly. This was a perfect idea.”
Compartmentalizing had become a friend of mine over the last eleven months, as my mom and I re-learned one another. But that moment in the kitchen with the valentine, everything was all around me: the real past, the time-travel past, the anger, the sadness, the joy. Sometimes when I talk to her now, she just stares back at me, and I often wonder if the part of her that died is watching over us. As an atheist who didn’t believe in heaven to begin with, it is nonsensical and out of character for me to be imagining that 43 percent of my mom’s dead brain into a guardian angel or ghost. But maybe the valentine was proof that she was. That somewhere deep in my mom was the ghost of our past, and on Valentine’s Day she’d gone out of her way to send me a reminder.