The day I went shopping for an outfit to wear to my daughter’s wedding, my mother died.
For months, Mom had been under hospice care for end-stage Parkinson’s disease. I flew from Baltimore to Miami to be with her on her 86th birthday in late March. When I arrived, she was propped-up in her wheelchair, staring at an old episode of “Dancing with the Stars.”
“Hi, Mom,” I said as I bent over to kiss her. “So, how are you doing?”
She didn’t respond but shot me a look that said, “I spend my days in diapers alternating between the bed and the wheelchair, I can’t feed myself and I can’t remember my caregivers’ names. And you ask, how I’m doing? Really?” I felt embarrassed, like when I was an overweight eight year old asking her for a second dessert.
For the next two days I sat with her but gave up on conversation. Instead, I resorted to a unilateral commentary on “Dancing with the Stars.”
On day three, I took a break from my vigil and went shopping with my sister for my wedding outfit. This was not an easy task. My arthritic knees ruled out shoes that hinted of fashion, I needed a long dress or pants to hide my comfort sandals. A bra was a must, so no strapless nor one-shoulder gowns. I nixed Spanx and similar fat hiders — stretchy and clingy were out. And when I tried on those traditional, beaded, organza or other fancy dresses, I couldn’t take them off fast enough. They felt like costumes, like I was trying to look like my mother, and I had no interest in playing that role. I wanted “funky” or “artsy.”
I flashed back to an image of my mother at my wedding. I had rolled my eyes when she bought silk fabric from Milan and commissioned a seamstress to design two gowns for her — one to wear, the other for a back-up. Mom was a fashionista, an icon of refinement and grace. She never let comfort trump beauty.
As my sister and I pulled into the parking lot of the first store, I called to check on Mom. Her caregiver said she was congested, but not to worry. The hospice nurse had seen her, and Mom had eaten a good breakfast.
Three boutiques later, still searching for that amorphous outfit, I stepped out of the dressing room and handed a navy-blue jumpsuit back to the saleswoman. Just as she was confirming that “it ran small,” Mom’s caregiver called me: “Your mother has declined in the past few hours.”
“We’re on our way.” I called my brother and relayed the situation. He would meet us at Mom’s.
When we got there, Mom was sleeping. My sister joined my brother on one side of her bed, I stood by the other. The room was silent, except for the gurgling sound of my mother’s breath. The hospice nurse said she was in bad shape and having trouble breathing.
“I’d like to give her just a small amount of morphine, to make her comfortable,” the nurse said. “She’s struggling. This will provide relief.”
Not longer after, Mom’s breathing quieted.
The nurse whispered, “she’s failing.”
Tears flowed as I touched her cheek, stroked her arm, kissed her hand. I remembered the advice from those hospice pamphlets and said, “Mom, you’ve been an incredible mother, (perhaps, a tiny exaggeration), I love you. It’s OK — it’s OK. You can go to daddy. He’s waiting.”
And then the nurse said, “She’s gone.”
Now, six weeks later, it’s Mother’s Day — a midpoint between Mom’s death and my daughter Jackie’s wedding.
I still don’t have anything to wear.
I go to New York and consult with a personal shopper. She asks what I’m looking for and “why the funky or artsy?” Her inquiry triggers a crack in my armor, and I admit to myself the truth: In the past, when I had tried to emulate my mother’s finesse and sophistication, I failed. To save my ego, I labeled Mom’s emphasis on appearance as trite and superficial. I distanced myself from her values. She saw beauty, I saw ideas. Now I wonder: Did we fully see one another?
I find an outfit — black pants with a silk cape in a print. It’s not what Mom would have chosen, but it will do. And it no longer really matters. Nothing fits right, because a piece of my heart is gone.
I pray that Jackie relishes her day. I will be present for her; yet, at the same time, I will be thinking of my mother. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to see her, in all her grace and glory, strutting down the aisle.
Laura Black (email@example.com) is a freelance writer working on her second book, tentatively titled: “The Weight of a Woman: A Memoir of Pounds, Power, Pressures and Purpose.”