The hairs on my arm stood on end. Tears began to form and I struggled to keep them at bay.
It started, as most days did, with my mother calling me “Mother.”
I laughed. “Good morning, Mama. But I’m Hillary – not your mother.”
“Oh, yes. I know. I don’t know why I always call you Mother in the morning.”
“It’s O.K. You smile when you say it.” I grinned at her and she grinned back. It was going to be a good day.
More and more she was becoming like a sweet child. Always wanting to do her best, asking at the end of the day if she was a good girl, embarrassed if she made a mistake, or spilled something or forgot things. And when she couldn’t get the words out, I’d just shrug it off and say, oh, we’re both tired – you’ll remember what you wanted to say in the morning. Then I’d yawn, more for her sake than my own, and wish her a good night and sweet dreams.
After washing and dressing, she sat at the table as I made breakfast. “Oh, this orange juice is soooo good!” Breakfast is her favorite meal, and I just love making it for her because she always finishes everything on her plate, and shows visible and audible enjoyment. “Mmmmm. You have cooked my eggs perfectly!”
Never mind that for almost every single day of the four years she has lived with me I have made the exact same food for her: a glass of freshly squeezed OJ, a cup of real English tea with milk and a teaspoon of sugar, two fried eggs cooked in coconut oil lightly dusted with Himalayan pink salt, two sausages, three halved cherry tomatoes, a slice of sharp cheddar cheese and a piece of gluten-free bread with butter. I don’t know where she puts it all, but she maintains a steady 125 pounds on her 5-foot-1-inch frame. Occasionally, I try another menu, but she always misses the standard one, and if she misses breakfast for some reason, she always asks for it at lunchtime.
Because she continued to ask about the relationship between us, I told her that I was her baby, but all grown up with gray hair. She squinted a little as she said, “You’re my mother, right? And when you died, you got married again.”
“No. I’m alive. And your mother is in heaven with her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. And one day, you and I will be there, too.”
“Do you believe that?” she asked earnestly.
“I do,” I replied honestly. Some religions believe that we keep coming back to life again and again, and there were certainly times I thought that maybe we were sisters, but now we’re mother and daughter, but I wasn’t going to get into that with her.
“It’s so confusing!” she insisted
I was beginning to see that the discussion was not getting anywhere fast. “Hold on, let me show you.” I went to her bedroom and took a photo of the two of us at my graduation. “That’s you and that’s me.”
“I didn’t know you graduated from college. Where did you go?” Mother always thought that a degree was the key to all riches in life.
“Rutgers.” I could see that she was very pleased. She continued to tuck into her breakfast with a satisfied look on her face.
“We’ll have to start looking at all the pictures Daddy took. It’ll be fun!”
“Mmmmmm,” she responded, and I didn’t know if she was commenting on the photos or the food she was enjoying.
I took the opportunity to go out to the garage to look through a huge black steamer trunk full of my father’s photography. We had just retrieved it from a storage unit, and my ‘to-do’ for the day was to get everything inside the house. I opened the lid and stared blankly at the contents. There were over a dozen reels of 8mm movie film, a huge box of negatives, and thousands of 35mm slides in carousels, yellow boxes from the developer and loose in a large flat tray. It would take forever to go through them! I sighed and grabbed the tray of slides and small boxes.
Mom was still eating. She savors her food and takes a while to finish. She’s learned that I can’t just sit at the table with her and do nothing, so I get up and down, do the dishes or sort through mail. I plopped the box of photos on my chair and thought of my father.
Dad was a shutterbug extraordinaire. One of my earliest memories is of the day when I wore a dress with polka dots on it which had a little matching doll. He sat me on a high chair in front of a white screen and, with his camera on a tripod, took dozens of pictures of me. I felt like a fashion model as he turned me this way and that, sometimes smiling, sometimes serious, looking up, looking down. And then we did magic! He transformed our bathroom into a dark room. The light was replaced with a red bulb and he put an enlarger on a board over the sink. Of course, I didn’t know what all the things were, but I’ll never forget the smell of the developing medium, or how the images suddenly appeared as he held the photo papers with big tweezers and dragged them through trays of solution he had placed in the bathtub. “Now watch,” he instructed. Dad was the most patient person I have ever known, and delighted in showing me how things worked.
Suddenly, and very slowly, the image took form. It really was magic! “We have to take them out at just the right time – not too soon and not too late.
“I think it’s ready!” I said, with a child’s exuberance.
“Just a moment more.” He sloshed more liquid over the picture. “There now. That’s perfect.” He hung the photos up with clothespins on a line to dry, and only then could we open the door to show Mom.
I digress. The boxes of photographs in the trunk were in no special order and were marked, ‘Virginia 1963,’ ‘Christmas 1954’, ‘Germany’, ‘Andrea’s Graduation 1973,’ ‘Sailing with Scott and Chris 1980’ and memories flitted by as I handled them. Then I fished out one slide from the thousands to hold up to the light. What I saw made my heart skip a beat.
It was a photo of my mother and me at my graduation. It was the exact photo I had just shown my mother in the frame that very morning!
Now, I certainly can’t prove it, but I truly believe, in the core of my being, that my father was right there with me – with us. I mean, what are the odds? The trunk just got to my house a few days ago; I put the task to bring them into the house on my to-do list just last night for today; I probably wouldn’t have started till later in the day, but the conversation with my mother compelled me to do it early; and though the framed photograph has been in her room for years (along with others), I chose that one to show Mom rather than one of me as a baby.
I had to leave the room and sit by myself for a moment. The tears rolled down my face. The emotions I felt were inexplicable, but I have experienced this kind of serendipity before, and it has convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are moments when our loved ones who have departed are communicating in the only ways they can. And if we listen, we can hear them.