Only hours before her death,
Mom posed with her students.
Today is a day I have both dreaded and, in an odd kind of way, eagerly anticipated for quite some time.
Fifteen years ago today, my mother was killed in a flash flood. I still remember almost every detail of that day, how I went through my daily routine blissfully unaware of how radically things would change for me after the sun went down.
It's a milestone, noteworthy in a way that most of the previous anniversaries haven't been.
I feel many things on this day. Mostly, I feel a sense of regret — not only for the things I never said, which is something I have learned to live with, but also for the years she should have had and we should have been able to share with her. She was 63, and she was in good health. Her father, who was not in particularly good health, lived until he was in his 70s. Her mother, who was in better health, lived into her 90s.
You never know what might have happened if not for that flood. I always believed that, if nature had not intervened, you could split the difference between her parents' ages at the times of their deaths, and we could have expected her to live another 20 years. I'll never know if I was right, but if I was, today we could still expect five more good years with her.
That's what the flood took from my father, my brother and me ... among other things.
More than anything, I guess, I feel a sense of irretrievable loss, a sense of absence.
I don't mean the loss one feels when someone's death is fresh. That's really something different. That is primarily shock, I believe, and it wears off fairly quickly, but it is rather rapidly replaced with a nearly constant awareness of that person's absence. I have to think that is what Henry Washburn and George Root had in mind when they wrote the Civil War era song, "The Vacant Chair."
And when I say "absence," I'm not speaking in the "absence makes the heart grow fonder" sense. I mean, I know she isn't coming back. I've known it all along.
But that doesn't keep me from wishing she could come back for just a little while. So much has happened since she's been gone. I'd like to share some of it with her.
About a year before her death, she and my father bought a combination telephone/fax machine for their home, and Mom got a kick out of faxing things to people. She liked to compare it to "passing notes in school." I lived about 200 miles away, and by Christmas 1994, she had decided she wanted to be able to pass some notes to me. So my parents gave me a telephone/fax machine. For the next 4½ months, it was a rare day when I would come home and not find a fax from her waiting for me. She even sent me a fax sometime on the day she died.
When she died, the internet and e–mail were practically embryonic. But, considering how much she enjoyed faxes, I have no doubt she would have had just as much fun with e–mail and the possibilities of the internet. I am sure she would have embraced it all, eagerly. She would have been doing her banking online. She would have been shopping online. You name it.
But I think the flip side to that would have been that we would have had to remind Mom repeatedly about the dangers of the internet world. She was a trusting soul, and I wonder if she wouldn't have been an easy mark for someone trying to steal her credit card numbers or her Social Security number — or something else.
She had an innocent, almost childlike fascination with technology (I'm inclined to think she got that from my grandfather, who bought a little stock in communication satellite — COMSAT — long before most people recognized its potential). Maybe that quality was what qualified her to be a first–grade teacher.
When I say that I am aware of her absence, I'm speaking of the gaping hole that was left in my life when she died. It's a hole that can never be patched. I miss her, and I miss the person I was when she was alive. Because I know he died that night, too, and he left behind someone who often seems a stranger to me.
And sometimes I fear that I am forgetting things about her that I always want to remember. It's as if, by forgetting something, I am permitting that part of her to die all over again — and that I am reluctant to do. It was painful enough the first time.
Well, unless the natural order of things is disrupted, everyone must experience the loss of parents. At some point, we all must face a new reality in our lives, a new paradigm for our continued existence.
But, even after 15 years, it can be tough to get a handle on that new paradigm.