When someone dies, it closely resembles a nasty breakup. You constantly think of things that you should or shouldn’t have said once it’s too late, while the presence of all of their stuff still in your house seems to be openly mocking you. The first two things I did when I came home from the hospital was clean up her dirty dishes in the sink and empty out her closet. Three fourths of her clothes were placed in white garbage bags to be taken to Goodwill, while the other fourth was kept between my sister and me. We never once argued over who got what, as sisters often do, which was a miracle. I wordlessly claimed her black down North Face while my sister reached right over it to grab her long brown trench coat. As we transplanted her clothes from her closet into our closets, making them our clothes, our dad tiredly told us to, “come on in here, we have a lot more to look through.”
My sister and me both walked into the living room to see our dad sitting in a sea of photographs, hundreds of them. A couple of them were peeping out from under the blue denim of his Levi’s that he wore, but I thought it best not to say anything. We proceeded to sit in a circle, Indian style, after my sister and I made space for what looked like two tiny islands in the middle of the photographic ocean. Funeral slideshow prep had officially set sail.
I had seen nearly all of these old pictures at least once before. I even knew the backstories to a few, going even further beyond the thousand words that a picture is worth. I held two of my favorites in my hands, looking back and forth at them with a slight smile on my face. One of them was of her posing like Vanna White to reveal her very first washing machine (men, it’s moments like these that women treasure). She wore baggy acid wash jeans circa 1990s with a head of thick brown permed hair to match; her oversized Aztec cardigan would be all the rage right now. My dad had once told me that he bought her that washer to keep all the men from hitting on her at the Laundromat. In the other hand, I held a picture of both her and my father. This time she held a plate in one hand and a teacup in the other, both covered in the same giant pink flowers. My dad and her both had their mouths open, laughing at the camera. She told me once that those dishes marked their very first fight as a married couple, she had wanted them badly but my father refused to give in. A couple days later he bought the dishes and she demanded a photo to document her victory. There was another picture of her and my dad on a beach in Tahiti, but ever since she let me in on the fact that “you were conceived on that night,” I swore that I would never touch that photo again (it still somehow made it into the slideshow).
As time went by, we were slowly but surely filling a gallon-sized Ziploc bag with pictures to take to the funeral parlor. As we kept sifting, my dad must have finally realized that he could say absolutely anything he could right now without her hearing.
“…she liked watching me smoke when I flew, she thought it was sexy…”
“…she got her ears done after her perm that hid them went out of style…”
“…she sometimes used the f-word when she got mad at me…”
These were things that never in a million years my sister and I would have ever believed about her, she would have whopped him upside the head if she ever heard him say such things. That woman preached until her dying breath that smoking was next to murder, that the way God made us was just fine, and that even darn was a bad word. In our eyes, she was always the perfect woman that we had always labeled her. But as I looked in my dad’s piercing baby blues as he said these things, at such a time as this, deep down I knew that he was telling the truth.
Which then made me wonder, why did she portray herself as perfect when she clearly wasn’t? Was everything I knew about her while she was here a lie? I didn’t know what to think anymore, I may not have ever really known this woman…she no longer fit into the mold that I had so carefully formed to fit her perfectly. When I thought long and hard on what exactly was causing me to get internally worked up in such a way, I slowly began to realize that it was over the fact that she actually had a will of her own, a willful spirit. I now realized that I had actually caught glimpses of it in those first two photos… She had a spirit that she suppressed whenever she was around my sister and I, but not when she was around my father. That spirit thrived whenever she first married my dad, but it slowly withered away once she started having children. All of my life, I never gave her a choice as to who she really was. To me, she was my mother. But to her, she was her own.