Mema was just 22 when her dad died. The two were close; quite possibly, she was the favorite of his four children.
As my granddad, who we call Pepa, drove her home from the funeral, he warned, “You know, everything you see is going to make you think of him.” To which Mema responded, “You’re right; it will. And everything will be a beautiful memory.”
That’s the story as Pepa retold it to my sister and me 60 years later, as we drove him home from a new funeral. Now he was the one left with all the beautiful memories.
Infinitesitale: An extremely small story. 100 words or less. This was a second attempt.
Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please look all around. Something is missing that needs to be found.
Those are the words my mother would recite every time something was lost in our household. Except she’d replace the “something” with the name of the misplaced item: my homework, a favorite pair of shoes, or most often, the car keys. She’d finish off the request with a triumphant “Thank you, Saint Anthony,” always confident in her faithful patron saint of lost things.
Saint Anthony usually pulled through for her, too. With the exception of her engagement ring – and I’m sure he did his best with that one – I can’t remember a single time the requested item wasn’t found. And believe me when I tell you, we kept the poor guy busy.
Maybe it’s because my mom was such a spiritually keen woman. She was on a first-name basis with many saints and angels. Or maybe she just had that mother’s instinct, the sixth sense of knowing where something was without ever having seen it.
“That’s what mothers are for!” she would have sung at me upon finding something I’d lost. I’d just shake my head in disbelief, dumbfounded by her mom-magic.
The trouble is that not all lost things are meant to be found. And the thing I’ve lost now is my mother. Despite my prayers, all the patron saints and angels in heaven cannot help me.
When I was younger, mom once asked that if something was ever to happen to her, would I want her to come back as a shooting star or a rainbow? Perhaps even a budding rose? A question to which I’m pretty sure I responded that coming back from the dead in any form was going to scare the shit out of me, and she should probably just rest in peace.
So I guess you’d call it ironic that just four months after her death, I find myself constantly concentrating on the night sky, hoping to spot even the faintest star taking a dive.
Thus far, I haven’t seen one. Some nights I can’t see any stars at all.
But there are other times when I sense her presence without the help of stars and rainbows and fresh blooms. Like when I walk into a cafe that’s playing Paul Simon’s Graceland on repeat. Or when I find an old photo of her that’s fallen down the side of the fridge. Or even last night, when I grabbed a novel from my bedside table, hoping to finish it off before falling asleep, and in the final pages, it quotes the prayer to Saint Anthony.
And in those moments, I’m flooded with memories of her. Memories I’d completely forgotten. Memories worth more than shoes and homework and engagement rings and everything she and I have ever lost combined.
I have to believe it’s because of her. That somewhere not-so-far away, my mom is still calling on her old friend to find the things I’ve lost.
So thank you, Saint Anthony, for bringing her back to me.
You probably didn’t know, when you forced me out of you, when you squeezed and contracted and pushed…You probably didn’t know that screaming ball of hot pink flesh, who grew in your womb for nine months and two insufferable weeks…You probably didn’t know that little hungry, demanding child would grow into a woman who wanted to be nothing more than a reflection of your energy, who longed to sway beneath the shadows of you and breathe you in.
You probably didn’t know, when I was two and hooked up to tubes and monitors in a hospital emergency room…When one of my organs wasn’t formed quite perfectly and the surgeons offered no promises what the next moment would bring…And you held my tiny, soft hands and stood by my bed and whispered gentle lullabies in my ear…You probably didn’t know that I would return the favor 25 and a half years later…And stand guard alongside your hospital bed…And sing you songs and tell you jokes and pray, and pray that you would stay a little while longer.
You probably didn’t know, when you brushed my hair and pulled it into a taught, perfectly smooth ponytail, when you pinned a giant bow to the very top – one with glitter or buttons or polka dots…When you tied my shoelaces and smoothed my ruffled skirt hems and wiped the dirt off my elbows and told me I was brilliant and beautiful and could be whatever I wanted to be…You probably didn’t know that I believed every single word…And never let doubt or fear settle anywhere near my dreams.
You probably didn’t know, when you tucked me in at night, and we read A Wrinkle in Time or Mr. Popper’s Penguins…When we said prayers out loud in that intimate space, when you kissed my forehead and pushed play on the cassette tape so I could fall asleep…You probably didn’t know how hard it was not to follow at your heels when you turned to go. How I longed for you to come back to me before you even left the room.
You probably didn’t know, when you planned my elaborate birthday parties – with goodie bags and piñatas and birthday cakes thick with sweet cream frosting…When I inhaled until my lungs felt as light as the balloons tied to the back of my chair and blew forcefully at the candles, trying to extinguish those melting time bombs before the wax collided with the cake below…You probably didn’t know every wish I made was for us to be healthy and happy and together forever…Every flame held the promise of a long life…Or so I believed as watched their reflection flicker in your endless brown eyes.
And I guess I didn’t know, when I talked to you 10 days before Christmas, and heard your hoarse voice on the other end of the phone telling me it sounded worse than it really was…And I told you to rest and carried on buying coffee mugs and goat’s milk soap and chocolate covered cashews for your stocking…I guess I didn’t know that would be my last, “I love you.” And there was so much more to say.
And I guess I didn’t know, when we sang the hymns and hugged and wept, when we called it a celebration even though we all knew it was a funeral…When we sat on the rows marked “reserved,” the rows that no one ever wants to be waiting for them…I guess I didn’t know how broken my heart would be.
And how much we all need our mothers. And how I would still need you.
I could be getting the story wrong, but my dad once told me that his great-grandfather was mortally wounded in the Civil War. Not in a famous battle, but in some unremarkable episode of fight and fatality that took place in what is now suburbia in metro Atlanta.
The wound in his leg was deemed fatal. But when he did not die from it, he instead half-limped, half-walked the many miles back to his home, where he ultimately fathered my great-grandmother, which led to my grandfather, which led to my father, which led to me.
So on Memorial Day, am I grateful to those who have served our country? I am. To those who have pledged to give all they have and at many unfortunate moments, had to cash in on that pledge? Yes, I am forever grateful.
But I can’t help but think of all the lives lost. Not just the lives of our soldiers. But the lives of their unborn sons and grandsons and great grandsons. All those little beings that never came to be. All those lives destroyed before they could even begin.
When we lose our brothers and sisters to war, there is so much more we also lose. An eternal loss of people and dreams and hopes and destinies that will never be realized.
This Memorial Day, all I can do is give thanks to those who serve. Mourn the ones we lost. Grieve the lives that will never even begin. And pray, above all else, thatthere is such a thing as peaceand we may find it still.