The day after my mother passed I found myself searching for her. Perhaps this is normal. Perhaps even the first stage of grief. All I know is I could not get enough of her. Every dusty photo became a treasure I was seeing for the first time. Even braving the traffic from New Jersey through Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge and past Prospect Park, to stand on these steps, the very ones my mother skipped up and down, the steps her many beaus walked, and finally through this doorway went my father. This home, 1510 on Albemarle Road, that housed my great-grand parents and their ten, then my grandparents and their eight, a house where I brought two of my own for visits. A place to celebrate Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas. Where my grandfather’s casket was brought and the house filled with condolences. The house my grandmother packed up and said goodbye to, and yet I found myself here, sensing the shadow of generations, of a mother who I miss.
Two days after her funeral a crew of us jumped into cars and drove to another favorite haunt of my mothers, high up in the Catskills. I have written about Mohonk Mountain House many times; its dirt and water and air run through my veins. My family has guested here for five decades and in all those memories only good ones exist. We seven dove into the lake, walked the forest paths, hiked to Sky Top and together laughed, echoing that big laugh that anyone who ever met my mother would recognize, all the while catching bits of her through the veil that lifts when one is still enough. My sister kept telling us, mom is everywhere, and although that expression seems rather easy, on that day we all agreed to believe her.
There was a sort of manic passion in my searching that first week. I braved her closet, trying on jackets and skirts, spraying her perfume, looking through her jewelry boxes and slipping on her ring, using her famously orangey-red lipstick, wandering everywhere in her home and neighborhood, even sleeping in her bed. Sounds a bit morbid but not if you can picture that fabulously glamorous mother of mine who was suddenly out of the picture. I find myself unable to grasp finality, only aware of her missing all the fun. After all, her grand-kids were here, and she would never miss their visit. We were out and about in New York City, visiting special exhibits at the museums, strolling along the High Line, dining in little cafes along long tables, and musing about all the life directions we were embarking on. No, she would never miss that.
Eventually, siblings and spouses returned to work, children flew back to L.A., but all I could think about was the ocean. Only last summer we spent two weeks with my mother on Fire Island; with good fortune on our side, one brother and I hopped the Bay Shore to Saltaire ferry to spend the weekend. A friend offered his place. Hit traffic but still made good time. Found parking. (With 8.1 million people finding parking is classified as a miracle) Caught the packed ferry. Jumped into the surf. For my family, any body of water is where we find our balance, our past, and our vision. Each roll of the wave a remembrance to breathe, to let go, to float in what comes our way. Solace.
My brother and I swam in the waves, walked along the surf, and sat in the sand for hours. There was little beyond memory in our discourse. Little beyond our mother. Even when our conversation ventured into the future, it was a discussion of what our mother would still love. We used the present tense as we spoke. As we both surveyed the horizon we saw her mostly, heard her mostly, all the while letting sand slip through our fingers, all the while missing her.
Waking up on Fire Island on a Sunday morning we discovered friends and family were having a mass said for our mother at the local catholic church, Our Lady, Star of the Sea. I was curious to discover Lady Star was another name for Mary. “The title was used to emphasize Mary’s role as a sign of hope and as a guiding star” (Our Lady, Star of the Sea). Guidance, hope, certainly needed, we attended the 11:00.
Hearing our mother’s name, Eileen McAllister Donovan, spoken out loud in that quaint wooden church surrounded by sand and sun caused us both to turn to each other and smile. For isn’t what is voiced made real, our smiles seemed to say. Yet, ironically during the sermon the parish priest stated nothing is real, only floating atoms forming what appears to us as solid but in fact is only a moving mass. Take this pulpit, appears to be solid, he showed us with a bang of his hand, but it’s not. He told us that when Jesus said I am the bread of life he was talking about this other life, the inner one that we don’t recognize because we are concentrating on the swirling tiny particles as whole matter instead of what is just beyond. He continued with the whole ‘eat of my flesh’ part of his metaphor but my attention drifted to the stain glass windows, the bare rafters rising to a high peak, to the hot summer air being moved around the sparse congregation by the large ceiling fans. The priest’s measured cadence shifted to finale so my listening returned. He reminded us that we need to form community, with each other and with our God. That word, community, he repeated several times. Community, this is real, he said. This is the body the scriptures were referring to, the ethereal, the emotional, the crazy strings crisscrossing between us. Then he said one word, looking straight at us, with our collective attention focused on him, loudly and clearly: love. He ended there. He stepped away.
After we left our ocean respite we agreed to visit Sister Rosalie, a Franciscan Missionary Sister residing at Our Lady of Angels Convent in Tenafly, NJ. This 93 year old was my mother’s dearest friend, and fellow Hospice caregiver, who has been a constant confidant and ally to our mother. We brought her a scarf of our mothers as a memento and she wore it with a flourish. She told us that each time the phone rings she thinks it might be her. Or when she is buzzed by the office she imagines my mother coming to take her to visit the shut-ins as they did for almost 30 years. And when she prays to the many who have gone from this world she wonders where they are. She said, “Death is a mystery. I have no idea where any one goes.” My brother and I exchanged surprise. We had hoped she would. “You know heaven is not up there,” she lifted her hand to the ceiling and paused as we followed her gesture, “but instead,” she told us in her faded Irish lilt, “heaven is right here, surrounding us. Eileen is indeed with us. Heaven is here.” Her eyes teared, as did ours, as we three struggled to understand what we could not see but indeed felt as tangible as a pulpit, as a wave smoothing over sand, as past melds into memory, as present as our breath. Community. Love.