My mother died 22 years ago on Memorial Day weekend. She was in her mid-80s and living in a suburb of Cincinnati, in the home she and dad had bought more than 30 years earlier. She’d lived there alone for ten years since dad died–with a home health aide, good neighbors, and Meals on Wheels she was able to stay in her home until close to the end. But then a sudden health crisis led to a hospital admission and then a nursing home and that was it. One of her neighbors called to let me know mom was in the hospital. My sister B and I got to Cincinnati as soon as we could—me from New England and B from her home overseas.
Our cousin P had come to see mom and he went to the nursing home early on Memorial Day while B and I went to the suburban town’s parade. This small southern Ohio town had at one point been the winter home of a circus. To commemorate that heritage there was an elephant in the parade that year–that’s another story—but it’s an image that sticks with me from that day, standing in the shade on a leafy Ohio street watching an elephant amble along.
B and I spent the afternoon and evening at the nursing home. Mom was drifting in and out of awareness–when she was awake she was sharp and present. We worked away at the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle–B and I would be trying to figure out clues, thinking mom was asleep, and all of a sudden she’d call out a possible—and often correct—answer. We finally went home mid-evening, wondering if we should stay overnight but concerned we’d disturb mom who seemed to want us to go–and she died that night.
For the next two weeks, B and I settled her affairs and cleared out the house, slogging our way through hard decisions and easy ones: What should we sell? What should we give away and to whom? What would we each take with us? I took a fragile lamp that had been in the family for a long time because it would be more likely to make it to New England in one piece than overseas. I also took the old and worn armchair that mom and dad had bought shortly after they were married. B took artwork and books and family papers.
By the end of two weeks the house was empty. B and her husband headed home and I stayed one more night to do a final sweep through the house and close it up, ready for a Realtor to show and sell. On my final morning there, I bagged up some trash, called on the neighbors to say good-by and thank-you, and then paused in the living room.
With all the curtains pulled, the house was dim and cool. I sat on the hearth and looked down the hall toward the bedrooms at the end. Such an ordinary suburban house but it was the first and only house they’d owned (previous houses had all been rentals). It had been their—our—home for over thirty years.
I felt peaceful in that moment after harried and hurried days. I had a strong sense of presence–of the air shifting near me, of gentle weight on my shoulders, as though mom and dad were standing on either side of me, leaning in.