Nonfiction by Kim Heikkila
After My Mother Died
by Kim Heikkila
After my mother died, I stayed awake every night until 12:14 a.m., the exact moment of her passing. I would lie in my bed and stare at the clock. When 12:14 came, I shut my eyes and journeyed back to my mother’s final seconds, her fingers curled awkwardly around the blanket beneath her chin, her mouth open, her temple glowing blue beneath wisps of white hair, her breath slowing, s l o w i n g, slow i ng, then stopped. Sometimes I would even recreate the scene, become my dying mother. It was my hands grasping the blanket, my head tilting just so, my jaw hanging slack as my breath stilled. Then, at 12:15, I’d breathe again, roll over on my side, and let sleep take me.
After my mother died, a swirling black cloud rose above her house on Hague Street. I’d be driving down Summit Avenue, to the south, or crossing the Hamline Avenue bridge, to the west, and feel a dark vortex pulling me to Hague Street. I’d look toward her house – the one that was only three miles from my own, the one she had moved into just months before our son came home so she could be close to him, the one where she died – and there it would be: an aerial maelstrom hovering just above the treetops. No one else seemed to notice this giant grief magnet. Passersby pushed their babies in strollers along Hague or ran along Summit as if nothing had happened, as if the tiles of life had not been rearranged into an utterly incomprehensible pattern.
After my mother died, we sold most of her things at an estate sale. The estate agents told us to go through all of her belongings, taking what we wanted for ourselves and leaving the rest for them to arrange, ticket, and sell. No backs, they said. Once we’d left something for them to handle, it was theirs; we’d have to buy it back from them to claim it for ourselves. So we spent days sifting through my mother’s clothes and jewelry and dishes and knick-knacks and books and furniture. My brother, a real ascetic when it comes to material trappings, took a book or two, maybe one keepsake trinket. The first day, in an attempt at discipline, I took only a couple of wall hangings, some old costume jewelry, and a salad bowl. The second day, I took a few sweaters that were far too big for me and an old Underwood typewriter that didn’t work. The third day, I took some bookends and a mirror and an old bottle of cheap perfume and a decorative mask made of papier-mache and a sculpture of an outstretched palm and a gold lacquer plaque. On the fourth day, it was time to turn the remaining items over to the estate company. We came back to the house once after the agents had staged it for the sale. My mother’s plates and bowls and linens and Christmas decorations and garage tools and pots and pans were all lined up neatly, by category. Among the kitchenware was the green cast iron Dutch oven that she’d had for as long as I could remember. I’d forgotten it, and now it was for sale, destined for a stranger’s stovetop.
After my mother died, I did the things she used to do, ate the things she used to eat, visited the places she used to visit. I strolled the aisles of Target, just for something to do. Imade macaroni hotdish and tuna pasta salad with peas. I stuffed our son’s Easter basket with Peeps. I sent leftovers home with my brother after he came for dinner. I drove three hours west just to pass through the tiny town of Echo, where she’d spent several years as a child. I became a faithful fan of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But I could not watch The Wizard of Oz, the movie most emblematic of my childhood. Even now, my breath stops and chest tightens when I hear Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
After my mother died, I wanted to savor the sting of delicious, precious grief. After my father had died thirteen years earlier, I resumed my normal routine quickly. Partly, this was out of necessity: he died during my first year of graduate school. I remember feeling relieved that it had happened over spring break: he died on Sunday, the funeral was on Wednesday, I was back in class the following Monday. I didn’t even have to tell any of my professors that I’d just lost my father. A year later, though, when my dog died, I cried for two days straight and told the professor for whom I was a teaching assistant that I’d have to miss class because I’d just suffered a terrible loss. When my mother died, I wanted to dwell in my grief. I wanted to wake up with sorrow, spend my days in its clutches, see it on my eyelids before drifting off to spend the dark night in its dream-world incarnation. I wanted to carry sorrow on my back, taste it on my tongue, swallow it down and let it swirl through my blood and settle in my bones. I wrote a blog for the first year after my mother died, to document my mourning. I found myself telling strangers – the teller at the bank where I deposited some of the money I’d inherited, the clerk at the Barnes and Noble where I purchased a book about “midlife orphans” – about my mother’s death. I took a writing class and wrote an essay about the loss of my mother, in response to which a classmate named Hayley or Suzie or Tiffany told me that I obviously had trouble dealing with grief. I couldn’t imagine what she meant. This was me dealing with grief head-on.
After my mother died, certain images became seared in my mind. Mom at our front door on a cold January night, laden with Target bags filled with toys for our son after he had surgery to crown seven of his cavity-plagued baby teeth. Her white hair, usually so carefully coiffed, lying flat against her head as she gamely entertained colleagues from the office, serving them cookies and tea in her living room all the while realizing it was the last time she’d see them. The glowing windows of the houses I could see in the distance from the second-story bedroom where I slept on the nights it was my turn to stay with Mom. The tiny piece of cheese that got stuck in her teeth one day during her final weeks, when she ate mostly to please us and spent most of her time sleeping in her recliner. My stocking feet wading through a river of urine as I helped Mom, too late, to the bathroom, me pretending nothing was wrong, Mom blessedly indifferent to a lack of control that would otherwise have mortified her. The red shroud covering my mother’s body on the stretcher as the men from the mortuary hauled it down the narrow staircase.
After my mother died, I thought no one, really, could understand my sorrow. My sadness felt unique and personal and profound. Then I talked to a friend whose mother had died while my friend was on her honeymoon, and whose father died ten years after that. I listened to another friend who lost both her parents in a car accident one snowy February day. My aunt-in-law said that, even decades later, she can be brought to sudden tears when thinking about her deceased parents. I wondered how my mother had felt when her mother had died, suddenly, of a heart attack in 1989. All this grief, all around me, always.
After my mother died, I marveled at friends, older than I, who had not only living mothers but living grandmothers. Sometimes I looked on in envy. Sometimes I immersed myself in their lives and their families, trying to recapture the feeling of being someone’s daughter. But of course it wasn’t the same, however graciously they had absorbed me. I wanted my mother. It was only after she died that I truly realized how much I had relied on her – for help, for support, for conversation, for communion. I tried not to become impatient when my friends complained to me about their mothers, frustrated by their interferences or tired of their grievances. Just imagine, I’d think to myself, what it will be like after your mother dies.
Kim Heikkila teaches U.S. women’s history at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her first book, Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam (2011), was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. Her current project focuses on her mother’s experience as an “unwed mother” who relinquished her first baby for adoption in 1961 while residing at the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital in St. Paul. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Broad!, the Story Circle Network’s True Words anthology, and Adoptive Families magazine. When she is not writing, researching, or teaching, she spends her time boxing, running, and hanging out with her husband and son.