Something about August

It's been 4 years now. Four years since I moved my mother 1,300 miles to Minnesota, the state where she would spent her final 3 months of life. She was never fond of this August, a month she associated with bad memories.

But it was the loss of memory that prompted this move. And fortunately, she still knew me, Mr B, and my children. And we were blessed to have her, if even for a short time.

So August reminds me of her, reminds me of how phenomenally fortunate I was to have been loved by such a woman. Shortly after she died, after funeral services in Minnesota and Texas, Mr. B and I spent a weekend in Galveston, a place she loved, a place we both came for rest.

And I wrote these words, a letter to her of sorts, a way to reach through the veil . . .

Break of Day, Galveston, November 12, 2005

Good morning, Mom

I’m sitting on the beach at Galveston, looking at the sunrise. Lots of waves today, and where they are not Galveston green or foamy crests, the water is pink. It’s a partly cloudy morning. It makes me feel close to your memory to be here.

It’s been 6 days since you died in my arms before dawn, since I kissed your snowy head and told you over and over that I loved you, and your breathing slowed, became quieter, shallow, whispery, then stopped, like a windup clock that’s ticked it’s way to silence. It’s been 7 days since I held your hands, all warm and twitchy, and asked you if you wanted to have a party in Galveston, and you somehow managed to move-grimace-grunt an affirmation through your labored breathing and closed eyes. And they said you were non-responsive!

This isn’t the party. That will come later, maybe spring, probably August. Yesterday was your funeral mass; last night, Randy and I came here to collapse. I woke up ridiculously early again, so I decided to watch the sun rise on the beach.

Crossing the dunes on the arched wooden bridge that connects Islander East Condominiums with the sand, it looked like a passageway to the heavens, and that brought the tears again. But after I got to the apex of the bridge, and started actually approaching the beach, I began to feel the beautiful peace that Galveston h
as always given us both.

Pam told me to take special note of birds during these weeks and months. People who lose someone they’ve loved deeply often seem to notice winged creatures, she said.

So I’m watching two gulls standing side by side on the beach, very close to the water. They’re facing the tide, occasionally twitching their feathers and looking from side to side. Just this moment, they moved toward the water in lockstep and stood in the shallow surf.

One took off to west, but the other stood a while longer. Up and down the beach she looked, then she turned her head back to glance at me. After eyeing me for a moment, she took flight, wings beating so hard, up and up, reaching seagull height, then arced to the west until it became north, flew in front of Islander East, and left my sight.

Sandpipers have been skittering up and down the beach, too. They look like little children at play, but I know they’re hungry and searching for food.

When I brought you to this very spot last August, one day before you moved to Minnesota for the last three months of your life, you seemed so very much at peace here, and I’d swear your heart swelled like the Gulf waves. You practically squealed when you bent over to take your shoes off and you dug your toes into the warm sand, proclaiming how wonderful it felt. We moved closer to the water, spread out a towel for you, and you lay there, staring at the sky, floating in the memories this place could still evoke in you.

Alex cartwheeled across the sand with those 11-year-old legs, creating art with her coltish body. She busied herself building drip castles and Sean went for a swim in his boxers. It was sunset then, a buttery breeze loving on us, and we talked about clouds, how magical the moment is when and sky and water became the same color, and how my children’s green eyes are like the color of Galveston at different times of the day.

I really think you’d love the cloud formations right now. There are long sweeps of soft gray shrouds. A small golden white is rising behind a dip in this shawl. Further to the east, the sun is rising and backlighting a kind cloud sand castle in soft purple and gold. A layer behind all of this is morning.

A gull just stood less than three feet from me, giving me the stare, most likely trying to see if I was some poor slob he could con some food from. I didn’t have any to offer. He took off after standing on those skinny little legs and poofing his feathers like an insult.

Now the sun is breaking through more boldly, with fans of light shooting skywards, emanating from a burning center that isn’t infinite but will certainly be around a long time. It just pulled out of the cloud bank to cast a golden trail on the surf, and it’s lighting me up as well.

The pinks are gone now, so fast, and the longest part of the sky, which meets the horizon, is a gold wash. The sun’s gone under the shroud of clouds for a while, but I’m pretty sure it’ll vanquish that shade as it keeps it march, steady and slow, and predictably upwards. The surf is the color of Sean’s eyes at the moment, well, maybe a little darker and there’s still gold on the water where it reaches the sand at its shallowest point. It’s a choppy surf today, loud, but not deafening. My little yellow beetle flew off.

I just spotted on the sand in front of me two small lengths of water-logged bamboo amidst a smattering of shells. And now I see a third. I love how proud you were of the bamboo you grew in our backyard, how it took off like crazy under your nurturing attention. I just took a stroll down the beach. Bold grackles seemed to be my company this time. As I walked back, five landed near my towel, started “crabbing” at each other, then flapping off elsewhere.

Yes, the sun’s winning out, making the shroud fade—more white clouds are taking over, and to the west, blue is a much broader canvas for your assortment of clouds. The water is the color of Laura’s eyes now, though not an exact match. Maybe it’s even more like Sean’s at the moment. The sun fan has changed directions, with rays pointing downward, and the sun’s gone behind a bank of clouds, though I can still see a sliver poking through.

When it was darkening and time to leave Galveston, you were ready. Sean, Alex, and I helped you up from the towel, and walked you back to the bridge. The walk up was hard on you, and you had to stop a couple of times to catch your breath. But when we got to the top, you turned back to look at the surf and sky and you said, “What a fitting, beautiful way to leave Texas.” I promised to bring you back same time next year, which means August. “Yes,” you said, “God-willing.”

We’re going to build a sand castle for you near the water’s edge so you really can be the royalty you dreamed of when you were a little girl, and then the sea and surf and you can decide what you want do and where you want to go next. Perhaps you’ll be parts of birds or sea life—perhaps all of them. But wherever you go, you’ll be free to travel at will.

I love you, Mom, and it’s so painful to know that I cannot hold your warm, tender hands any longer, or kiss your forehead or cheeks, or help you in and out of cars, wheelchairs, bed, or up and down stairs. But what a full and loving life you had. What a legacy you built for me and my children and Randy. Your love has infused us all with memories, strength, and warmth beyond measure.

No, you weren’t perfect—sorry—as hard as you tried to be. But you were way better than good enough. And that’s about as good as it gets in this world.

Peace be with you, Mom. God knows you gave it to me throughout my life—bringing me to Galveston, holding me when I hurt, being available to me with an open heart, even during your own painful moments. Okay, so you didn’t make my sporting events. Big whoop; I’ve not stayed all that active anyway. But you typed my high school papers when I was desperate for sleep, you made me frothy Mexican hot chocolate, you sewed my Halloween costumes so I could be anything I wanted, you tucked me into bed each night, called me your Chachi, brought me aspirin to bring down my fevers, spread Vicks on my chest and covered it with a diaper when I had a cough, read Call of the Wild to me when I was only 4 years old.

You were an extraordinary Mom and Grandma. I adore you, Mom, and will cherish your memory all the days of my life. We’ll be back next year, right here. God-willing, that is.

At least for now, the sun has won, and the clouds are its ornaments, your ornaments.

Larry Ludtke gave your eulogy yesterday. He modestly identified himself as a sculptor but talked about how you had challenged him to paint when he said for the “umpteenth time” that he wanted to try. He took up the challenge on one condition—that you’d sit for it. You agreed, and the portrait is stunning.

These were the final words Larry spoke to a church crowded with people who loved you:

“I have never, since I painted Celia, ever successfully put color into any portrait I tried over the years. The portraits I have done since then have all been monochromatic. The attempts at adding color have not worked for me. It is almost as if the colors I managed in Celia’s portrait drained from my pallet and placed themselves in her painting, never to be used again. It’s just as well. She deserved the colors. Full of life, she was always like a rainbow that touched us all.”

9:30 am. Hey, Mom! The sun did win! It’s a gorgeous day, and the sea is the color of Erik’s eyes.

That walk I took down the beach this morning? Larry’s colors washed up on the shore. They’re in little bits of shell, a soft fuchsia color, and then a luminescent abalone fragment–curved, almost like a long fingernail. I also found a couple shells that remind me of the tops of your delicate-strong hands, when your tendons and knuckles were so pronounced, moving under your thinning, baby-bird skin.

I placed those beautiful hands on my cheeks one last time as your body cooled. I had such a hard time letting go that morning, even though I knew you were indeed gone. I’m still not sure how I’ll manage without you and those hands. Maybe Larry could sculpt them.

Anyway, I’ve packed my beach finds carefully, and I plan to work them into a piece of jewelry. You always said your walks on Galveston gave you a new treasure every day.

It appears the same is true for me.

Images from, Millicent bystander, virexmachina, jolyohn


Renie Burghardt said…
Sad, tender, beautiful, loving. I shed some tears while reading it, Kathleen. You were so fortunate to be blessed by a Mom such as she was.

Hugs and blessings,

Gaston Studio said…
Bittersweet and beautifully told Kathleen; very beautiful.
Joycee said…
So moving, so personal and inspiring. The birds and ocean draw us inward and help us to overcome. I hope returning to Galveston each year brings you close again to your Mother and to everything that she loved and has passed along to her family. She left you all with so very much.
Rudee said…
What a beautiful tribute to a mother who must have been completely wonderful.

You're a lovely daughter, Kathleen.
ellen abbott said…
That was very lovely Kathleen. Galveston is my backyard. My parents had a vacation home built on the West End when I was 12. I spent weekends and summers there growing up. We finally sold it about 7 years ago. My dad's ashes are in the bay and my mom's are in the surf. The pictures are beautiful and it brings back so many memories.
Derrick said…
Hi Kathleen,

Such a poignant but also happy letter. I'm sure your Mom heard every word but she would have known most of it already.
Anonymous said…
Big hugs during a tough month, Kathleen. I'm so glad I got to meet your mom. What an absolute dear. And what a grandma. I'll never forget the story about her doing that crazy sufi dancing with them. I look for my mom's presence in birds, too. Cardinals especially.

-- Lisa Schnirring
Kathleen said…
Hey, thanks friends--
I can't believe you read all the way through. You are genuine troopers. Very cathartic to share this, and to read your kind words.
Joycee said…
Two days later and I'm still thinking of this post. Mom's dementia is progressing and she will be changing soon from the wonderful Alzheimer's Unit to skilled nursing. I'm feeling helpless through this all. Your blog and others I love give me an outlet so that I can think about something else for a little while. I know we all face this as our parents age, your blog on your Mom showed such love and compassion. It was something you had to read once you started. Again, thanks for sharing.
joy c.
Lydia said…
Completely beautiful, this. O my, you brought me so close to my own mother's last day at the Oregon coast, where in Nov. 2000, less than a year later, my husband and I scattered her ashes from a rented whale-watching boat and where a whale swam beside us, breaching out of the water after we tossed in the wreath.

My mother still sends me butterflies. And I still miss her hands.

When I was at a local shop making copies of probate junk, sighing under the burden of it all, the clerk sitting at a desk said that I'd joined the sad club of women who have lost their mothers. Somehow that remark gave me more strength than many of the loving sympathy notes and all the flowers....
Lydia said…
Came here to respond to your questions of me after my comment. Now I realize that it was via bona fide email!

Well, since I'm like a homing pigeon to this post...yes, I have written some pieces about my mother's death and occurrences afterward. I have a journal software program that I used. Like a dummy I did not save hard copies or back up the computer, and when it crashed in 2008 I lost everything. (I still haven't run a back up. What's wrong with me?)

Anyway, to satisfy my determination to clear some clutter each day in September, last night before bed I decided to have a peek into the box on the floor of my closet. In a little soft cosmetic holder I found a stash I'd saved at the time of her death, but that I'd forgotten I had. Hairbrush with fine silver hair trapped in the bristles, one hair roller - the one she used for her bangs - still with hair attached, a lipstick. And her last shower cap. Pink vinyl with terry inside, all folded up and that, when unfolded, released the beautiful scents of her soaps and creams. I stood in the closet and wept.

Some items from the box did go to the giveaway sack, but I'm keeping the cosmetic case and its contents.

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