I did not need CT results to view a life interrupted. The evidence met me when I turned the key in my mother’s apartment’s lock for thirty years and entered.
A handwritten grocery list for the week hung from a magnet on the refrigerator. In my adolescent bedroom, wrapped presents without name tags but labeled with tiny yellow post-it notes instead lined the floor. Addressed but unwritten Christmas cards to friends and family remained where she had left them in neatly stacked piles next to sheets of international stamps on the dining room table.
The dust ruffle, unmoved since the last morning she made the bed, gathered in all the right places along the floor. A lavender scent lingered on her pillows. Tucked under the one closest to her bedroom door, a book she was reading at the time of her stroke suggested a life still being lived. A change of clothes, neatly piled on the chair by her desk, would never be worn again. Organization resonated with each list, in the stillness of each object, in each room.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
As evening hours ticked into another day, I frantically culled and filed, sorted, and discarded objects, letters, and magazines often over ‘dinners’ of sherry and bowls of nuts and crackers that remained uneaten. Most nights, I wandered through the apartment, absently entering and exiting each room, and mentally sifted through my mother’s belongings to save and pack, which to give away or discard. I silently categorized the paintings on the wall she had collected with care. I debated whether to keep the china figurines of a nurse and a woman dressed in hunt attire. I packed paperweights on the unplayed piano, along with assorted mementos from my grandmother’s house in England.
Once upon a time, my mother’s job was to sort through her own family’s belongings. Diligently she sorted linens and china from bustles and pearls, emptying each drawer and wardrobe of cardigans, cotton nightgowns, handkerchiefs, and blouses. There were blankets and comforters, cast iron pots, and crystal vases to sort through. My mother saved the candlesticks from the front room mantelpiece, my grandmother’s silver hairbrush, comb, and dimpled mirror, the brass turtle and maiden handbell from the sitting room, Shetland wool throws, the hand-carved mahogany bellows from the front hall, and a small collection of books by the Bronte sisters. She found brand new sweaters from a woolen shop in Scotland in an old cedar trunk, still sealed in the original plastic bags.
Sixteen years later, these hints of her family home blended into my mother’s apartment. The hand-carved wooden bellows hung in her hallway, retired from duty, silent and breathless. The mahogany chest of drawers stored her winter sweaters and the local telephone book. My grandmother’s silver hairbrush, comb, and mirror laid on the dresser, unused.
I don’t live in the past, yet, I was still trying to measure the beauty of lost articles, too.
From room to room, I wandered, plucking random objects infused with invisible memory my mother and I both understood, hers perhaps more indelible like a scar, mine skating on the surface like a blemish. Objects I lived with through high school and college, and still, others that my mother added after I left home, I recognized. Others that appeared during the years when I tried to put my own life in order are ones in which no memory resonated for me. No perception of security echoed in my fingertips when I held an unfamiliar vase or a silver salt savor. Instead, my hand stroked objects like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the pit of impending loss away from my mind.
With a routine, I savagely carved through a maze of sleep deprivation and grief; slowly, I dismantled my mother’s life. My mother never returned to her apartment to live, the four walls she once called home.
Mounds of paper I handled with aplomb, but the thought of stripping the walls bare and folding and stacking sweaters still smelling of her hair and perfume crippled me. I moved without focus, hunting through one drawer – boxes and garbage bags beside me – before leaving the room and starting another unfocused search for what I did not know in another room.
One night, I shuffled into my mother’s bedroom and surveyed the contents on her bed’s surface. Decades of annuity and investment records, brown-edged deeds to overseas properties, crisp cream bank statements, tax filings dating back to my father’s death thirty years ago crowded the corners of the floral duvet. A colony of her American and British passports, my father’s too, as well as my own, jumbled our collective web of identity. To sleep in my mother’s bedroom seemed sacrilegious, but to clear her past seemed like I defiled my mother’s waning life, too.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.