Friday was the third anniversary of my mother’s death. The only reason that I know this is because my father set a white candle out in the kitchen. Apparently, it is a Jewish tradition to light a candle and let it burn for twenty-four hours in memory of a family member on the anniversary of her death. And, even though my father never talks about my mother (or her death), and even though he is one of the least religious people I know, he always lights a candle to honor my mother’s memory.
It’s kind of strange and terribly sad all that the same time, isn’t it?
As you can see by the date of this journal entry, when my mother died it was Fall, almost Halloween. After the funeral, I went back to the third grade and my life continued as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
I was just like my father; I didn’t discuss my mother’s death with anyone. And it certainly never occurred to me that my teacher, Mrs. Gold, had told my classmates that “Sophie Green’s mommy died.” That the class had had a “meaningful discussion” regarding my “unfortunate situation.” Well, the class minus one – the girl whose mother was gone.
Sure, Mrs. Gold and the school’s principal, Mr. Robinson, came to my mother’s funeral. But did either one of them say anything to me personally about my mother’s death? Of course not. Instead, everyone just let me fall back into my pretend perfect world and my regimented daily routine.
But, then, something happened.
I was walking out to the bus one day after school when my friend Emily handed me a letter. It had lots of brightly colored stickers on it. That’s what I remember the most, lots and lots of stickers. I opened it, and my eyes immediately fell to the words, “…sorry that your mommy died….” I didn’t read anymore. Instead, I crumpled that sheet of stickers into a tiny little ball, threw it in the nearest trash can, and ran to catch my bus without ever giving Emily’s letter a second thought.
However, a few days later, it happened again.
This time it was a classmate I didn’t know very well, a boy named Christopher. At the end of the school day he gave me a pumpkin painted with a jack-o-lantern’s face. It wasn’t a big pumpkin, but it was fairly heavy in its brown paper bag. He gave it to me as a present, and he didn’t say anything about my dead mother. But, I knew. I knew that that was why he had given it to me.
Instead of throwing it away immediately, this time I actually took the pumpkin off of the school’s premises. In fact, the jack-o-lantern made it all the way to the local gym. But, then, just as my weekly gymnastics class was about to begin, I ran out into the hallway with that brown paper bag, and I hoisted that pitiful pity-filled pumpkin into the nearest garbage can. The sense of relief that I felt when the bag landed, with a thud, at the bottom of the can was instantaneous.
Not surprisingly, I put both incidents completely out of my mind as soon as they happened. In fact, I had totally “forgotten” about Emily’s letter and Christopher’s funny little jack-o-lantern until I had my epiphany. But, now, thanks to my recent obsession with all things related to my mother, these memories (and a million more) swirl around inside my head and taunt me with their presence until I want to howl like an animal caught in a trap.
But, I don’t howl. In fact, I don’t do anything. I didn’t talk about my mother’s illness or her death back then, and I don’t talk about it now. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t talk. I talk about a lot of things. I’m especially good at talking about my “problems.” You know, the sort that pale by comparison.
For example, when I was in the second grade I was the shortest person in my class, and I hated it. And, even though my mother was sick and probably dying, I was totally consumed with my size and the fact that the boys in my class were always teasing me. They called me “Shrimp,” and “Shortie,” and stuff like that. And it really upset me.
I went to the school guidance counselor and I cried enough to fill an ocean. But, I wasn’t crying because of my mom’s illness. I was crying because the boys were mean. And I was crying because they teased me. And I was crying because they hurt my feelings.
Anyway, I liked talking and crying, so I went again. And again. Soon, I was going to the guidance counselor every week. This meant that I got to miss class, and I got to write my name on the board with “Friday, 10:30” next to it. And no one in my class knew why, or where I went. I liked that. I liked the privilege, and I liked the attention, and I liked having a secret all my own. I know I probably sound pretty pathetic right about now but, don’t forget, my mother was dying.
Not that you’d know it from my conversations with Mr. Roberts, the guidance counselor. Week after week I’d go to his office and complain about the teasing. And, every week, I’d cry another ocean’s worth of tears. But, in all that time, I never once mentioned my mother or the fact that she was ill. Mr. Roberts just listened to me go on and on about nothing. He never mentioned my mother either.
Summer came, and I stopped seeing Mr. Roberts.
In the Fall, when I started the third grade, Mr. Roberts made an appointment to see me the very first week of school. But, the boys weren’t teasing me anymore (or, if they were, it didn’t bother me the way that it had the year before). And, although I went at the appointed time, I didn’t have anything left to say to him. Then, when my mother died a few weeks later, he made another appointment to see me. But, I never went back.
In fact, I never spoke to Mr. Roberts ever again. I was so incredibly embarrassed that I’d even talked to him in the first place, that I started to walk in the opposite direction whenever I saw him coming down the hallway.
Why? Well, unfortunately, it probably wasn’t because I had realized that my complaints about the boys were silly and merely a distraction from my real issues. More likely, it was because I was afraid that if I talked to him, he’d ask me about my mom. And, as I’ve already explained, I didn’t talk about my mother’s death with anyone.
Why would I? I mean, it’s not as if we ever talked about my mom at home (my father may light candles in my mother’s memory, but he doesn’t talk about her, remember?). In fact, we never talked about my mother’s illness even before she died.
From what I have been able to gather (O.K., from what I have been able to overhear), it was my father who didn’t want to talk about my mother’s illness. I don’t know why, exactly. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he felt so helpless. It must have been really hard for my father, a man who makes sick people well for a living, to have to stand on the sidelines absolutely powerless, unable to save the life of the woman that he loved. When you think about it in those terms, it’s certainly not hard to understand why he’d choose to walk around trying to act like nothing was wrong with her.
However, that doesn’t mean that I think that my father made the right decision when he refused to allow the rest of my family to talk about what was happening. I mean, I’m not going to go out and do something stupid like rob a bank someday and then try to blame it on the fact that my father made us pretend that my mother wasn’t dying. But, I do wish that I had been told more about what was going on at the time.
At least, I think I do.
It’s all very confusing. Because, even though I have absolutely no memories of ever having discussed my mother’s illness with her, my aunt insists that my mother did, in fact, try to talk to me about what was going on.
According to my aunt, my mother had only just begun to tell me how serious her illness actually was, when tears started streaming down my face. She asked me why I was crying and I said,
“I’m not crying, Mommy. It’s raining outside.”
But, of course, it wasn’t raining outside. And I was crying. I was crying because my beautiful, loving, kind mother was sick. And I was crying because she had to go to the hospital. And because she wasn’t going to be there to greet me when I got home from school. And because she wasn’t going to be there to put me to bed at seven-thirty every night. And because she wasn’t going to be there to catch me when I snuck out of bed to read my library books.
Well, I imagine that’s why I cried.
All I can say is that this conversation must be lodged really deep down in the bottom of my very being because, no matter how hard I try, I have absolutely no recollection of the incident whatsoever. I’ve been told that it happened. It was obviously a very significant moment in my life. And, yet, I can’t remember it. What room were we in? What day of the week was it? What hour of the day? Exactly what did my mother say to me? What did I say to her?
WHAT ELSE DO I NOT REMEMBER?