“I want you to go through your stepdad’s things to see if there’s anything you want,” my mother told me over a phone conversation a few months ago. I was kind of taken aback by her request; I hadn’t been close to my stepfather. He had married my mother long after I had moved out of the house and was on my own and had started a family. Rick and my mom were married for four years before he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that had slowly started creeping down his spinal column. He died over six years ago, so to hear that she still had his things–and enough of them that warranted sorting–was a bit shocking to me.
“What kinds of things?” I asked her out of curiosity, shifting the telephone from my left to right ear.
“Oh, clothes, shoes, books, personal things. I thought maybe you’d want to see if any of Rick’s clothes would fit Peter.” Peter is my husband and the thought of him wearing my dead stepfather’s clothes sent a shiver down my spine.
“Didn’t you go through all that stuff after he passed away, ma?” I knew how insensitive I sounded, but there was no avoiding it. I realize grief hits people differently and we all deal with it as best we can and there’s no concrete timeline from denial to acceptance, but six years seems a bit prolonged to me.
“Oh, a few things, but not very much. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, Liz. You don’t know what it’s like to have to bury your husband.” The last comment was unnecessary. I could picture her round and slightly wrinkled face hardening as she became agitated with me. Her normally sparkling and cheerful brown eyes turning dull as she sets her jaw, clenches her teeth, and squints her eyes. A look I was all too familiar with growing up and I did something that wasn’t well-received.
“Mom, of course I don’t know what that’s like, and I wasn’t trying to imply that I did or that I know more than you. I just…I don’t know. Yeah, I’ll look through Rick’s things.” At this point, admitting defeat and surrendering to my mother is the best tactic. I haven’t been her daughter for thirty-six years and not picked up a thing or two.
“Thank you, Lizzy.” She hung up without saying goodbye.
Our conversation was four months ago and I am on my way to her house, which is four hours away. The closer I get, the more anxiety is building up in me. I can think of at least a dozen other things I’d rather be doing than going through a dead man’s belongings. I stopped a few miles back for gas and bought a pack of cigarettes, even though I haven’t smoked in four years. It is both comforting and foreign to me to hold one of the slender white things between my fingers again. I light it and inhale, immediately cough and sputter, causing me to jerk the steering wheel of my car and the vehicle swerves on the road for a few seconds before I correct it. My lungs burn in protest to the smoke and the violent hacking, and my eyes water. Despite all that, I finish the cigarette and light up another one as soon as the first is nothing but filter. Old habits do die hard.
I successfully chain-smoke nearly half the pack by the time I reach my mother’s house and pull into the driveway. I reach into my purse to try to find perfume to spray all over my smoke-laden clothes, foolish enough to think that the strong floral scent will mask the smell. It didn’t work back when I smoked regularly, so how I think it will work now is kind of funny.
I walk up to the front door and open it, and step inside. As usual, her house is immaculate. My mother prides herself on keeping a clean house and she laments to me often that I wasn’t instilled with that same mentality. I have two teenage boys. My house is in perpetual chaos.
“Lizzy? Is that you?” Mother calls to me from the kitchen. I set my purse and bag on the bottom of the staircase and walk into the kitchen. Mom sits at the table, a paperback novel open before her and a steamy cup of coffee to the side. She gets up and I walk to her. We hug for a moment before she pulls away from me.
“Elizabeth Paige Allan. Have you been smoking? You stink to high heaven!” she pushes me away at arm’s length and looks at me sternly. I feel my skin flush and my cheeks redden at her accusation and I avert my eyes.
“Moment of weakness, Mother,” I reply sheepishly.
“Well, I hope you haven’t taken the habit up again. I lost a husband to cancer; I don’t need to lose my only child to it, as well.”
“I haven’t. I don’t know why I even bought the damn things. Like I said, moment of weakness.” I pull a chair out and sit.
“Good. You may be an adult, but I’m still your mother and I’m not afraid to hurt you.” She’s half-joking.
“So. How are you, Mom? It’s been a while. You look good. New hairdo?” My mother’s beautiful long silver hair is cut into a modern style that is very unlike her. It’s trendy. My mother has never been trendy in all of her sixty-six years.
She reaches up to her hair and pats it, almost embarrassed by it. “Oh, the gal who does my hair talked me into this cut. I told her I wanted something different and she delivered. Is it too much?” she asks as she runs her hand over her head.
“No, it looks great. She did a good job,” I assure her.
“Thank you, Liz,” she replies. I look around the kitchen. There are boxes stacked neatly by the door to the garage.
“What are those?” I ask and point.
“Oh, just doing some spring cleaning.”
“Gosh, Mom. Are you moving out or something?”
Curious, I walk over to the boxes and open one up. It’s full of photo albums. I look up at my mom and she’s already looking at me.
“What’re you doing with this stuff, Mom? Photos? You don’t want these anymore?” I’m concerned now.
My mother sighs heavily. “Lizzy, come sit. I have something to tell you.”
For the second time today, my skin flushes and my stomach drops to the ground. I sit down hard in the chair and my teeth clack together at the sudden impact. I look at my mother with wide eyes.
“Well, this is a bit more difficult than I thought it would be…” she says softly. Her brown eyes well with tears, which shocks me. My mother is always cool and composed. To see this display of emotion is unsettling. Whatever she needs to tell me is major and I brace myself for what she has to say.
“Lizzy…I…” she coughs, “I have some bad news, I’m afraid.” Her voice waivers. I hold my breath. “I have breast cancer. It’s too late to do anything about it. The doctor has given me a poor prognosis…” she trails off. A single tear runs down her soft cheek, falls, and lands on a page of her book, darkening the paper. She reaches her slender hand up and wipes her face. I have no words for my mother.
“Lizzy, goddamn it, say something!” she barks at me. Her outburst startles me and I jump in my chair. In this moment, I’m not a woman approaching middle age; I’m a scared little girl sitting in front of my angry mother. I try to form words, but none come. My throat clenches as I fight back tears.
“The cancer has spread and it’s only a matter of time now,” she whispers. “That’s why I asked you to come. I don’t know how much longer I have, so I want you to take anything you want. Anything at all.”
My mother died a few weeks after she told me of her impending death. I sometimes wish she hadn’t told me because maybe then her death would have been easier to process. It would have been sudden and unexpected, instead of silently waiting for the inevitable, unable to do anything about it but wait and feel helpless. Here are the facts and you have to accept them. That isn’t human nature; we want to question and deny, not take everything we’re given. We want to challenge and prove things wrong.
My mother asked me to take anything I wanted from her house.
I know what I wanted to take, but what she had, I couldn’t take away.