For anyone who could not make it to the show or just wants to hear it again, below is the piece I read for Listen To Your Mother Boston. It is a longer and edited version of a post I had previously written.
My mother passed away five years ago. She had a rare muscle disorder that slowly but surely affected every muscle in her body. Although she had a lifetime of declining health, the end came faster than any of us had anticipated. I remember I visited her one day and she was her usual self. She was in her bed arguing with me about wanting to get up. I was annoyed that we were having the same conversation again since I knew she couldn't get out of bed with just my help anymore. Her body had trapped her in that bed even though her mind wanted her to be up and about. I'm sure I wasn't as patient with her as I could have been. Our roles had long reversed and it was honestly pretty exhausting for me at times. I then received a call the next day that she was unresponsive. Just like that her body was shutting down. I got to her house in time to hear her last words – my brother's name. I know that she didn't say my name because she knew I was there. I was always there. The next four days involved painstakingly watching her die in front of us with nothing we could do. She held on longer than the hospice staff said she would. I began that week never wanting to let her go and finished it by begging God to take her. I'm sure that she wasn't ready to go but her body had failed her. I remember the exact moment that I heard her breathing stop and I knew she was gone. At that moment I felt relief – relief that the horrible vigil we were keeping could come to an end and relief that she would no longer be in pain.
After she died, we had a pretty quick turn around on her house with moving her stuff out and other people moving in. My brother and I went through the house like a whirlwind and honestly tossed most of the stuff. In hindsight, would I have liked to have taken more time to go through the house and hang on to more things? Maybe. Although, I’m not really a sentimental person. I’m not a keeper, I’m a thrower. I'm too practical to hang on to things. And in the past few years there hasn’t really been anything that I have thought of that I wish I had kept so I think it all really worked out. Plus, when you are living in the moment of grief and loss, who has the time and energy to really know if you are doing the right thing? You just try to make it through the day one task at a time.
So when all was said and done, I walked away from my mom’s house, the house I had spent my entire childhood in, with her photo albums and only one other small box. That box was filled with a few childhood keepsakes and a couple of things that I had to have. One of the items was a large spool of string. The string lived in the cabinet above our stove with other random artifacts that were used infrequently. My mother had told us that my father, who passed away when I was a baby, brought the string home from work one day in the 1970s. The string is old and a bit dirty but it is our string. It is the string that I remember my mother going to get out for any project we were doing, for hanging decorations around the house, and for any other thing that you could possibly use string for. I vividly remember standing on a chair and tossing everything from that cabinet when cleaning out the house and not being able to throw the string away. To anyone else it is a spool of discolored thread. For me, it is a symbol of so many memories. I now use the string at my house with my family. I think of my mother every single time we use it. I can only hope that someday when I’m dead and gone my daughter, Isabelle, will hang on to the string for the same reasons that I did. Oh, and yes I have no doubt that the string will be around long after I am. I mean how often do you even use string? And this spool appears to be never ending.
The other item that I had to keep when cleaning out the house? A Ziploc bag full of toothpicks. It would have been so easy to toss the toothpicks during the big clean out but I just couldn’t. The bag doesn't zip anymore and it's decorated with snowmen that are vanishing. The snowman bag lived in my mother’s hutch. Anytime we were baking she would send me or my brother in to get out a toothpick to test to see if what we were baking was done. Like the string, these toothpicks seem to last forever. They are a reminder of days when my mother was in better health, days where we cooked together, and days where we laughed together. They remind me of holidays and of happy times. Now when we are baking I send my children to our hutch to get out the toothpicks. We talk about how the toothpicks belonged to my mom and how extra special they are. In those moments, I'm so very glad that I didn't throw them away.
If you had ever asked me what would be my most treasured items to keep after my mother died, I never in a million years would have guessed old string and a broken plastic bag full of old toothpicks. I mean they're basically junk. But they are our junk. They are junk that helped shape my childhood. Junk that is now shaping my children's childhood. I think it goes to show that you just never know what is going to tug on your heartstrings the most. Sometimes it's truly the unexpected items that are the most priceless.