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The cold goaded me forward, half reluctantly, as I strolled down the familiar cemetery row to her grave. I pulled the collar of my jacket up as the morning air chilled my bare neck on the bright September morning. I do this ritual on holidays as well as on her birthday – today she would have been seventy-eight. As I walked, passing row after row of grave markers I imagined what it would be like if these lying here could shed their posthumous state and have a final speech. What would they say? One stone was of a baby no more than a month old. The speech would have been nothing more than babble and the thought saddened me greatly. The next, a young man in his early twenties. Each marker I passed represented someone. Someone loved by someone else. Their graves, most of them, were certainly well watered with fresh tears at some point.
Nicole J. Gleeson born September 13, 1930 – died May 25, 1988
I squatted down and brushed the leaves from the aging stone as if pushing hair from her face.
“Happy birthday, mom,” I said. A gust of wind came from nowhere sending a chill down my spine and cleared the last of the leaves. For a moment I wished I had worn the wool sweater I taken out the night before. I lay a single, black rose across the stone just under her name as if underlining it. It was her favorite kind of flower. As I stood, I realized I was not alone on this early morning in fall. A woman standing next to me wore a long black coat and hung her head with her hands in her pockets looking down at the stones. I glanced around the cemetery for a moment, thinking how engrossed I must have been to not have heard her walk up. Looking at the parking lot I spied my old, overused minivan. Man, I need to retire that old machine, I thought to myself as my eyes then returned to the lonely rose as it lay on the cold cemetery floor. The stranger and I stood in silence; our hearts aching in similar fashion for what could no longer be reached.
My heart ached as I saw the grass growing around the cement marker. In the end, we are all fertilizer, returning to the earth. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. It is like this every time I come to mom’s grave. Though I usually have the place to myself, I always dread coming, and yet once here I always find it difficult to tare myself away. I began to think about the last time I had seen her alive. Silently, I began to cry, wiping my tears as they emerged.
“It never goes away, does it?” said the stranger softly.
Somewhat startled, it took me a moment to reply. I looked at her as she stared at the ground. Her long, gray hair fell around her shoulders in a glorious flow. The wrinkles on her face were evidence of a full life lived with all it’s pain and joy. I imagined that at her age she had lost many more loved ones than I.
“No, it never does,” I said and returned my gaze to mom’s grave marker. “It’s been just over twenty years and I still come here and cry.” Silence fell between us once again as we stood as if suspended in time. I felt another tear make a trail down my cheek in an unstoppable journey to the grass beneath me. “I don’t know why I come here,” I said, feeling overwhelmed by the emotion of it. I really spoke more to myself then to anyone else, but the stranger standing there provided me a pleasant confessional and so I allowed myself to ramble. “We barely spoke to one another. I wasn’t even there when she died and I knew she was sick. She… uh… she really wasn’t much of a mom. I basically raised myself.” I stopped my rambling for a moment and saw she was looking at me. Her wrinkled face was drenched in compassion so rich it was almost painful for me to look at. I turned back to the marker with the unspeakable impression that I had just made a friend.
“She really left quite a hole, didn’t she?” said the stranger in the sweetest voice.
I nodded and the tears rolled as if from a broken dam. She put her hand on one of my shoulders and my words gushed forth in an inexorable current.
“It’s okay,” she said compassionately, giving me the reins to pour out my secrets.
“I can still hear the sound of dishes smashing as she threw them against the wall in one of her manic rages.” My own voice surprised me as I began to allow my heart to drain the pain I’d held in for so many years. “I remember trembling, cowering in my room like a frightened mouse as I heard her slam my step father into a wall, causing a plaster piece of art work to smash onto his head… then the subsequent cries in panic as she called for help. Even years after I left, I would cry as I sat on my bed in my foster home as my foster mom would hug me and say, ‘I wish I could be your mommy for you.’ She abandoned me and yet, somehow, I can’t abandoned her.” The stranger gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Oh man, listen to me, confessing to a total stranger.” I felt sheepish; foolish. “Sorry to puke my guts on you. I’m sure you came here to see someone.”
“Yes, I did,” said the woman with a gentle melancholy smile as she dropped her hand from my shoulder. “I came to see my daughter.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, feeling very badly that I’d rambled on about my mom. “It has to be really tough losing one of your kids. They’re supposed to out last you.”
The woman took a deep breath and let it out slowly; the steam drifting away from her in the cool air. “It hurts more than anyone could possibly know.” There was silence for a moment before the woman continued. “I think I know why you cry at your mother’s grave. There is an invisible bond between a child and mom. Its unexplainable really. Its unbreakable and therefore either heavenly or cruel depending on who you’re born to. I believe you feel the tug of the bond that should have been. What a mother and child relationship should be is haunting when it is denied. I think you stand here and cry, not just over her loss, but over the loss of what you will never have.”
I burst into tears all over again and she put her arms around me as she began to cry, too.
She continued her comforting speech. “I think if your mother was here, she’d say how sorry she is. She’d tell you how strong and how amazing you are – how she watches you from Heaven every day, proud as any parent can be. She’d hug you and tell you it’s all okay – we both made mistakes; mine were more costly. Then she’d beg your forgiveness.”
“I’d forgive her,” I sobbed. “I miss her so much. I’d give almost anything to hear her call me by the silly pet name she had for me. She never even got to see my kids.”
“I think she sees them.”
We both cried for a moment longer before releasing one another. My phone chirped and I pulled it out to see a text message from my oldest daughter.
“My daughter can’t find her swimsuit and she’s going to be late for her lesson,” I said with a smile, the text message breaking the tension of the moment. I put my phone back in my pocket. “I better go.”
“Always another crisis to solve as a mom, isn’t there?” said the woman with smile as she wiped the last of the tears from her cheeks.
“You know it,” I said with a slight laugh. “Look, I don’t know how to thank you. I feel like I’ve just been through therapy.” I smiled a little self consciously, even though I had a feeling of genuine peace from our meeting that I had not felt in years.
“It was therapy for me, too,” she said, pulling a small business card and a pen from her pocket. She scribbled something on the back of it and handed it to me. “Maybe we’ll see each other again someday.”
“Sure. Maybe.” I felt a closeness to this stranger who understood my pain like no one else ever had.
“Beautiful flower, by the way. I love black roses.” The stranger motioned to the flower I had placed on the grave.
“Yeah, they were her favorite.”
“Okay, well… have a good day.” With her parting wave she turned and began to walk away.
“You, too,” I said as I looked down at the card. The card was blank except for a short note in familiar handwriting: “Mandy’s swimsuit is under her bed. Love you, Munchkin.” I raised my head to try to find her and began to run aimlessly; searching. But she was nowhere. She had simply disappeared. Only then did it dawn on me that there was no other car in the parking lot that morning but mine. My mother had never gotten her drivers license her whole life. Apparently, she still walks in Heaven.