"I'll go with you, Mom,"" I said that Christmas Eve. "To church tomorrow at 8:00 just like you and Dad always did.
"You don't have to. I'll be fine," she said back.
"I want to even though it's going to suck."
"I hate when you kids say suck."
"We know you do, Mom, but this really sucks."
Every September I write something about my dad and the hole in the family that is still there twenty five years after he died. We've planted plenty since he's been gone and it has been healthy and joy-filled and robust but the hole remains. Much smaller than it was but still there.
The summer before he died is etched into all of us - the good and the bad. One of my favorite goods is when my painfully shy and timid three year old sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame for him.
"And it's woot, woot, woot for the Cubbies. If they don't win it's a shame...."
He laughed until he cried. "You taught Maggie the Wrigley version?"
"Dad, that has been the only version in this house."
What I haven't written about enough is my mom. The way she took care of him. How for years afterwards she would question whether they waited too long with opthamologists instead of oncologists. Her gratitude towards the neighbors who came by every day to see what she needed, and the oncologist's office at the University of Chicago who became their unwavering support through the hardest stuff. Her appreciation for the food that arrived more days than not and her six kids who came every night after work to help her.
Twenty five years ago wakes were much longer affairs than they are now. Mom stood next to Dad's casket for eight hours. At one point she got pulled downstairs for something to eat. "I just need some water," she said and went right back upstairs next to him. The next morning she returned to his side on that unseasonably cold and windy September until we left the cemetery. He got buried. The grief tagged along with each of us but she got the brunt of it.
Through these years we have all watched Mom closely - maybe for the cracks but she has kept those to herself. Just when life was supposed to get easier after raising her kids, running a household and supporting her husband's forty year career, she had plenty of time, a pension and social security but no spouse. What she did have was memories, faith, and a steadfastness that never seems to leave her. She has never complained about her life or felt sorry for herself, and losing her husband at a rather young age was just one of a long list of heartbreaks.
These observations of her have shown something shinier than what we might have anticipated. That showing up for what lies ahead when your heart isn't always willing is how Dad would have wanted it. That a cloak of strength and dignity is the most beautiful of garments. That the two of them will be together eventually. That love that has moved on is still love and has remained with her every day since a few hours past midnight that September morning.
The wad of Kleenex in my purse that Christmas morning lasted about twenty minutes and then I wiped the sadness up one sleeve and then the other. Surrounded by decorated trees and poinsettias, my mind continually flashed back to his casket draped in white in the center aisle. Mom cried alongside of me and afterwards her eight o'clock church friends surrounded her knowing how damn hard that was to get through.
When we got in the car she said, "You know how I could tell Dad was there? Mary Turic was sitting right behind us. Your dad always said she could ruin a hymn just by opening her mouth. I think he wanted to give me a laugh."
And so she keeps repeating the sounding joy.