How Comfort Comes
The month after my mom died I kept looking for cards in my mailbox. I'd received only five, three from people I barely knew. I'd been told things die down considerably after a month.
My father was swamped with hundreds of cards. A month after Mom's death he still got something in the mail almost every day. Mid-afternoon he'd pull a handful from the giant bowl that held them and read a few again, putting the cards back in their envelopes sideways, so he'd know which ones he hadn't yet re-read. I was with my father for several weeks after Mom's death and we'd read the cards together. I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sorry for your loss. I'm sorry for your loss. It became an incantation.
After returning to my own home, I tuned my ear to the arrival of the postal truck, its intermittent acceleration as it moved from box to box. I tried not to rush down my drive when I heard it. Instead, I savored the possibility, anticipating putting my finger under the flap of the envelope and hearing the tear of glue against paper, seeing my street number written with a different pen than my name because they’d had to hunt for my address, noting the simplicity or filagree of the card, which identified the sender as surely as their thumbprint. At the mailbox my hand reached in, my eye spotting the one square gray envelope that held promise. Then I saw the bulk mail stamp, the appeal for money from St. Jude's Hospital for Children in exchange for the address labels contained inside. Then an REI catalogue. An offer from AARP. The earnings report from Lincoln Financial. I slipped it all into the recycling bin. Maybe tomorrow.
I did this every day.
The day Mom died was the worst day of my life—that and the day just before. Despite what we can do in this twenty-first century—the shower chairs, the elevated toilet seats, the Ativan cream, the morphine, the pot—death hasn't changed much since the beginning of things. The body struggles to live. The mouth hangs open. The spirit leaves. The body loses its color, it cools and stiffens. Just like always. It's very old-fashioned in that way.
And intimate, too. I held my mom's hand and stroked her skin and bent over her sweating body to pull off her nightgown and put on something soft and dry, unlike I had ever done in the previous 58 years we had been together. I swiped a warm washcloth under her breasts. I kissed her. I called her Mama. I told her I loved her a thousand times to make up for all the times I hadn't said it because what was the need? It was something we both already knew.
Even though I understood her death was imminent—she had been under 24-hour home care for more than four years—the shock of it buckled me. How could the world continue in its orbit? How could people get on with their day?
Here's the thing: people who send cards don't get on with their day. They stop. They buy a card. They struggle with what to say, chafing when the ink blots on the page or they have to cross out an errant word. They find your address and then a stamp. They pause over the signature. Sincerely? With love? It takes time. That it's so much work is part of its goodness. Something important happens, a human connection that feels strong as a braided rope.
One day, sitting on the couch with Dad while he opened that day's cards with his jackknife, he gave me one sent by Wendy, a family friend. Inside she'd written in her loopy script, “You must be brokenhearted and exhausted.” Yes. Exactly. She knew. I couldn't stop my tears. This sentiment straight from the hot center of her open heart felt like the voice of my mom, with the kind of honest comfort my mom knew how to give, the comfort that anticipates, provides, holds you in a death grip while you storm and rage and cry.
I couldn't have that, so instead I waited, once again, for the mail. I heard the postman's truck, I walked to the mailbox, my hands stuffed into my pockets, rubbing my thumb along the smooth edge of my one unbitten fingernail. I peered into the box to see the catalogues, the weekly advertising bulletin, and a large manilla envelope without a return address. Four stamps with roses on them in the upper corner, uncanceled. My name spelled wrong.
I stared at it the whole time as I walked up the drive, climbed the stairs, sat on the couch. Already I could feel the strings of my heart giving way. I eased my finger under the flap and tore, pulling out a handmade card, a magazine cutout of roses glued to the front, the word “love” written in script above. Inside, two hearts in pink felt tip marker outlined more roses above a letter from Paula, whose mom died several years ago. “I know saying goodbye to a mom is one of life's deepest, most poignant journeys. There is a beauty in the darkness and a comprehension about love that is otherwise inaccessible. I hope you will find comfort, peace and insight that will fill your heart.”
I held the card, ran my finger down its deckled edge. I read and re-read it, tracing the glued edge of the roses with my thumb. It was old-fashioned and intimate, that handmade card. It was what I'd been waiting for, the closest thing I had to my mom's hand, to the folds of her skirt, to the sound of her listening breath as I tell her all the ways I feel so sad.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >