The presence of her absence is profound.
It’s been nearly a month since my mother died and the depth of pain I feel doesn’t have words that can adequately describe it.
Today, opening the door of her apartment, still filled with her scent, her things, herself in wispy spirit, I remembered reading Sartre’s “L’Etranger” in French class, decades ago, and seeing the opening words: “Aujourdhui, maman est morte.” The words terrified me as I never wanted to see them again, think about them again or say them to myself. I was as old then as my mother was when she lost her own mom: sixteen and barely cooked as a person. But, of course, so many years later, those words whizzed through my tired brain and it seems that they are what I am seeing today in a neon blaze behind my forehead.
Memories are funny things as they can serve as ‘cheat-sheets’ for times long ago that creep slowly into our consciousness, often sparked by something so out of context. It’s been nearly a month since I watched my mother tap her feet in small dance steps, sitting in a chair in the hospital, bolstered by pillows, her head back, a smile on her face, eyes closed with a knowing look that was so very private to her own memories that the Sinatra tune my daughter was playing for her so inspired. A few short hours later, she was gone and I will never see her do that again.
My mother grew up in post-Depression upstate New York, the oldest daughter of six children borne by my grandmother who emigrated from Southern Italy a decade or two earlier. “Mama” was her center, her core, the foundation for all things right and just, a kind woman – judging by the few photographs I have of her – who loved her children dearly. My mother rarely spoke of her father who was an angry, abusive alcoholic who would come and go and go and come without announcement. My mother and her sisters and brothers were raised by Mama and my Grandma Pape, her mother. My grandmother owned a candy store and was a good businesswoman, according to my mom. Life in West Haverstraw was quiet and had a sameness that rural living seems to bring with it. The family pulled up stakes, and headed to Staten Island when my mother was still a child and I suspect the move was initiated by the settling of most of the other members of the Izzo family in New Dorp.
When I began working with the homeless in New York City, I had a vague sensation that I was somehow connected to them, to the experience though I had no idea how or why. I largely ignored this vague feeling until one day, sitting on the fieldstone patio behind our bosom-y old house, my mother blurted out to me that once upon a very long time ago she and her sisters and brothers spent several months in a Volunteers of America orphanage. My grandmother had been taken quite ill and there wasn’t a relative who could take in all six children at once while their mother was hospitalized.
It was a languid summer’s day and I was watching my two year old daughter play with our Golden retriever, admonishing the poor dog for doing something she found offensive. With her chubby little fist and wagging finger in the pup’s face, I recall her saying in toddler-speak, “No Wo-Wo! NO!” I barely heard my mother’s words and my lack of reaction spurned her to say it once again, “Did you know that we were homeless once?” I was wordless and simply turned to her as she spoke. It was one of my mother’s secrets that she courageously held beneath her heart, allowing it to come out at the right time, in the right place…a secret that was one of many she revealed to me over time.
More than twenty five years have passed since that afternoon. Our work with the homeless continues and there isn’t a time I’m not quietly reminded of my own mother’s time spent without a home of her own to return to.
It’s been nearly a month since my mother has died and I suspect that in time, the craziness of my grief will ebb, replaced with the acquired knowledge of simply learning how to live without her presence, as I gently and simply learn to live with her absence.