Three Black Dresses

Less than twenty hours ago, I returned from four weeks in Ireland. I’m jetlagged and can’t sleep, but that’s not what has me here writing in the too bright light and with the dark outside next to my left shoulder. I’m here because of the pull to write. To dig.

Before we left for Ireland, I packed three black dresses into our suitcases for my daughters and me. I believed we would need the dresses for my mother’s funeral. Yet again, my mother has defied doctors, caregivers and us her family and I’ve come home with the three black dresses still on their hangers inside plastic. It’s almost funny.

I have to believe there’s sense to be made of suffering. Otherwise life is meaningless. I’ve tried to make sense of my mother’s impossible cling to life (even God is scratching His head) and decided she remains because she still has things to teach me, to teach others too if they care to see.

On this trip my mother drove home three important truths I will never again doubt or forget:

I’ve often raged against my mother for being weak. The truth she wanted me to know on this visit is that while yes she could be weak and wrong, she’s also strong and fierce and powerful.

The onset of degenerative eye disease in her twenties devastated my mother and as a result she gave up her independence and spirit. On this past trip, I felt most struck by the fierce light and power in my mother’s eyes. I found great hope in the idea that the one thing in life that most crushed my mother, her broken eyes, is ironically at the end the vessel of so much life and light.

During every visit, I held my mother’s hand. The first time I took her hand in mine, she kissed the back of my palm. When I kissed the back of her palm in return, she kissed my hand again. This went on.

Whenever it came time for me to leave, my mother wouldn’t let go of my hand. The strength of her grip both amazed and startled me. This from a woman who has been bedridden, completely helpless, and choking on gruel and thickened water for over two years. She didn’t want to let me go. Only she didn’t know it was me. My mother has been erased by twelve years of Alzheimer’s. Cancer’s going at her now too. What my mother taught me by holding on so hard to me is that she didn’t want to be alone. Her kisses also taught me that at her core my mother is love.

My mother weighs seventy-six pounds. I had to pull my hand out of hers, so hard I felt afraid I’d break her.

The three black dresses hang on my white closet door, almost like shadows, except that shadows don’t stand in wait or whisper.

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