ONE MONTH before her untimely death in 2012, my mom was still the life of the party.
We’d all gathered at her childhood home to celebrate our birthdays, her 55th and my 24th. We laughed and danced and took photos. We reminisced about the past and chose not to think about the future. Conversations always seemed to culminate with her delivery of the perfect witty remark or sage piece of advice, and she was as sharp as ever. But I sensed how tired she was. I sensed her shielding us from seeing the pain she was trying to ignore.
Her father was still a practicing doctor at that time and well-known in town. Throughout her illness, he dove so deeply into research that I thought he might find the cure for cancer. Despite the grim prognosis, I don’t think he’ll ever forgive himself for not being able to save her.
During her final week, the family took turns staying by my mother’s hospital bed in the study. The tucked-away corner of the house was where my cousins and I had spent countless nights on pallets in sheet forts, awaiting Santa Claus or watching classic movies on our uncle’s projector. In the early ’90s, that room had housed the first computer I ever used and the fax machine that had sent handwritten letters to my cousin in Singapore. Now, the scene included a hospital bed, a droning oxygen tank, a table littered with medications, and a cascade of cards from her many admirers.
It had been almost four years since she’d been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, barely qualifying for insurance to cover a routine colonoscopy. She was her resilient and fun-loving self throughout, and despite her illness, you would have never known she was sick. She smiled and remained selfless until the very end.
She would go in and out of lucidity, mentioning something about taking “Earth breaks.” We speculated as to what she meant as she mumbled the names of late family members. Was she making contact with something beyond this earthly plane of existence? I tried to fit in all the important questions: What was your biggest life lesson? What was your biggest regret? What should I do with my life? What path should I take? She told me I should do or be whatever made me happy and not to waste time worrying about situations beyond my control.
The unpredictable and tedious nature of dying really teaches one how to be present. Time doesn’t seem to flow. It’s all one moment, and you can’t help but live in it.
I REMEMBER ONE night being woken around 3 a.m. Something had changed in my mother’s behavior, and my grandmother was sure that “the event,” as she called it, was imminent. I got out of bed in my mother’s childhood bedroom, her baby clothes and yearbooks still tucked away in the closet. I descended the staircase I’d once tumbled down as a child, where years before we’d forced the adults to sit, crammed in, and watch us perform renditions of The Lion King and A Christmas Carol, complete with our own original scores and choreography.
We gathered around her hospital bed, and my grandmother suggested we recite and repeat the Lord’s Prayer in unison. I suppose she thought this would be a fitting accompaniment for my mother’s final, and infinite, Earth Break.
After forgiving our trespassers a few times, we realized it wasn’t time.
One by one, the numbers in our circle diminished, tired relatives slowly returning to the bedrooms they’d slept in as children. I spent a restless night sitting vigil by her bedside until the sunrise blazed through a crack in the curtains. I rose to gaze out the window. Shadows cast by weeping privet stretched across the massive front lawn, where carolers had serenaded us with hymns one Christmas.
Sunday came, and my mother grew restless. Most of the family had returned to their own homes by then, needing to get back to work and other affairs of the living. I remember walking into the study that morning to sit down beside her and hold her hand. I listened to her rhythmic breathing, seemingly ceaseless like the flow of the Mighty Mississippi. She stared at me for a long time until finally she spoke: “I love you, but I can’t go anywhere while you’re here.”
As much as I wanted to be there as Mom left this world, it seemed she would hold on forever if it meant she’d have one more moment with me. They always say life is fragile, but the way she held on until she finally let go proved to me what strength it takes to live and to die.
Responding to my mother’s final request, my cousin and I left my grandparents’ house to spend the afternoon in Memphis. Watching the house recede in my rearview mirror, my mind rendered images of the countless times I had arrived there. I could never contain my excitement as we pulled onto Broadmoor Street and into the driveway, The Beatles crooning from the stereo. We’d burst into the kitchen, and the rest of the family would be there awaiting our arrival, preparing dinner or wrapped in towels still damp from the backyard pool. I can hear the precise intonation of the back door’s creaky hinges. I can taste the collard greens and cornbread.
Driving through town, it didn’t take much to imagine the place my parents had known when they were young. That Bookstore in Blytheville still stood, though now hosting far fewer best-selling authors on book tours. Bits of cotton still flew through the air after their run through the gin. The train still chugged through town, though with much more graffiti scrawled on its boxcars. The Dixie Pig was a constant, that classic Southern vinegar hot sauce still as savory and spicy as ever. The only evidence of change in the house were the framed photos, which depicted how much we all had grown.
Despite sharing the same small hometown and a penchant for rebellion, my parents didn’t meet until college in Fayetteville. They fell in love and married young. They raised one daughter. My favorite memories of them are the fleeting moments: telling stories and laughing at the dinner table, crying over an episode of Winnie the Pooh as a child, with my dad weeping along with me, singing along to the radio as a teenager with my mom, making up our own words to rap songs. They divorced when I was 12 after 22 years of marriage, but they never stopped being friends. I believe the spark of that friendship continues on, somewhere.
We drove down Main Street on our way out of town to pass under lighted metal archways installed under Papa’s mayoral administration, remnants of a once-bustling downtown. Out the car window to my left was the house whose patio was the setting for my first kiss. We passed Granddad’s office, where he gave more charity checkups than paid services, then the First United Methodist Church, where my parents held their wedding, where I’d attended Vacation Bible School and whose advent candles Granddad had lit at so many Christmas Eve candlelight services.
Not long after we arrived in Memphis, I got the call. It was Sunday, March 25, 2012, around sunset. In the sky, I noticed the sliver of a waxing crescent moon.
A FEW DAYS after my mother died, I found a note she had written on a Post-it and left in one of her books: “I am bigger than this problem. I am created to overcome. I am destined to live in victory because the greater ONE lives inside of me.” She may have written those words for herself, but she left them for me to find. The resonating message was that no matter how terrible life can feel, even if you think you cannot go on living, you can, and you will. There is something inside of each of us that existed before we were born and lives on after we die. The human spirit is a resilient force, and if we take every moment as it comes, I believe we can make it through anything.
In the years that have followed, I’ve been reminded of the words she told us as we were preparing for her memorial. She said, “Tell them not to think of me with sadness, but to be happy and kind in my memory.” We asked how we would know that she was still with us. She said she would be the butterflies. It’s almost comical how prevalent they’ve been in the lives of the people she loved. Butterflies seem to follow me while I’m hiking. They often flutter through my car when I drive with the windows down in spring.
But even as those ties to my mother have been strengthened, my ties to her hometown have withered by comparison. Not long after my mother died, my grandparents put their two-story, four-bedroom home on the market. By the time it sold, years later, they’d already decamped for the condo life in Florida. It was ours for so long, and suddenly, it wasn’t. Since then, the town began to feel less and less like my own—even more so after my father died eight months later, more after I’d left Fayetteville for Santa Fe, desperate to be in a place where no one knew this story.
I remember holding on to moments when my mother was alive, feeling so happy to have her with me. That happiness was tinged with sadness and worry about losing her. But maybe it’s the combination of the two emotions that makes life so sweet. Even in her final days, when I could barely look at the withered reflection of herself she had become without breaking down, I knew I needed to be fully present. She was alive and physically with me for the last time, and it was beautiful.
It’s been six years now. As much as I miss them, remembering my parents doesn’t hurt anymore. I can look back on the memories with warmth and fullness in my heart instead of a cold void. It reminds me of the duality, the impermanence of everything.
This story is something that I once let encompass me, but we can’t let the bad things that happen to us be our defining moments. The only way that works is if they inspire us to take advantage of our lives, or to make a positive change in our communities. What’s the point of living in fear and worry when none of us is promised tomorrow? I spent a lot of time in a stage of resentment, my recurring thought being, Why me? What’s done is done, and it is what it is. I won’t let anger dictate the rest of my life.
I will be leaving Santa Fe this year, not completely sure where I will land. Living in The Land of Enchantment has been like a retreat, but after cutting myself off when digging in was too intense, I’m ready to reconnect to my roots—to find myself again. I hope to spend some time in Arkansas this summer. Maybe I’ll even make one last trip to Blytheville.
Grace Gude is a storyteller whose preferred mediums are words, photos and graphics. She graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2012 and currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her fiancé, Frank, and their spoiled pup, Chili.