I pulled up to my grandmother’s little stone house so that I could pick out clothes for my mother to be buried in. My mother had been staying with my grandmother at the time. My sisters told me that I could pick the clothes, and that they trusted my judgement. Everything looked the same in the house. The lower, covered porch was still filled with boxes from when my mother moved in. Some were empty, some were full of outdoor items that she never got around to putting away. I was not sure how long she planned to stay with my grandmother. I was also not sure how long she planned to be alive.
I had in my mind what I would pick out for my mother to wear. It seemed silly to me, picking out clothes for her lifeless body. She was not there. I wonder who decided on this tradition and why it stuck. Nevertheless, I was picking out the dress she wore for my wedding just four months prior. It was black with silk, subtle ruffles, and flutter sleeves. There was a little diamond right at the chest. We had picked it out together at Macy’s. My sister once said that my wedding day was my mother’s “last best day.” I think she was right. I remembered her smiling and dancing the night away that night. She had hugged me at the end of the night and said, “I’ll always be with you in your heart.” It seemed a fitting choice for her to wear that dress for the funeral, but again, a strange concept. She would be put in a beautiful dress in her lifeless body, a dress that was worn on a wonderful day.
I walked into the lower entrance and right into the living room of the apartment-like lower floor of my grandmother’s house. A few pairs of my mother’s shoes were set by the door. The living room couch was covered with cozy blankets and a few pillows. I swiftly walked through the living room and dining space to the little back bedroom, where I would find the dress I needed.
A laundry basket full of clothes sat on the bottom of the unmade bed. The room smelled just like her, a smell I could never put into words; I just knew it smelled like my mother. I opened the old cedar closet and quickly found the dress towards the back. I doubted she wore such a fancy piece of clothing since my wedding day, especially since she had been sick so much since. I looked for shoes and pantyhose next. I wondered if I really needed those, but I figured I would grab them anyway. What was the point of putting shoes on a lifeless body? It was as senseless as putting shoes on a newborn baby, and it could not be justified with being cute. It just seemed strange. The pantyhose were even worse. I opened the top drawer of her dresser. It was full of socks. I dug through to find the pantyhose.
At the bottom of the drawer, I found a handful of Christmas ornaments that I had made her.
It would have seemed a very odd place for Christmas ornaments if it were not for the fact that I knew she did not have many Christmas decorations, as all of them burned in our family house fire a few years prior. The fire happened just after Christmas, so our decorations were all still up. The day after the fire, I watched a fireman toss our empty, burnt Christmas tree over his head into a pile, like it was light garbage. The chances of any decorations being salvageable in a basement box were nonexistent. Our tree was always decorated with homemade, sentimental ornaments, so I knew losing them broke my mother’s heart. The Christmas ornaments in her sock drawer were homemade ornaments, but they were made by me when I was 20 years old, the first Christmas after our house burnt down.
They were metal ornaments with painted words on them, which was not done great, but I knew it did not matter. One said, “forever and always,” which was how my mother signed every card I ever got from her. Another said, “love, your bug” with a ladybug drawing. She called me her bug since I was a baby, since I was the youngest. Ladybugs were always sort of my thing for that reason.
Under the ornaments I found an envelope that said, “Momma” with my handwriting.
I gave her the envelope with a card when she left the unhealthy, abusive relationship she had been in just before she moved in with my grandmother. It was a simple, blank card with flowers on the front. I wrote a quote inside from my favorite book, which I was reading at the time. It read:
“She did not speak, but she did hold on, and the warm grasp of the friendly human hand comforted her sore heart and seemed to lead her nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her in trouble.” Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.
I had not cried about my mother’s death until that moment. I had barely cried when she was in the hospital, or when she was sick. I had anxiety and panic attacks, but very few tears. But at this moment, I fell apart on her bedroom floor, like a child. I cried until no more tears could come.
Grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience. If you are grieving, be gentle with yourself. Know that everyone copes differently. And when you do fall apart, know it is normal. Make room for it. Please know that you are not alone.