The Conversation You Need to Have with Anyone You Love
The author of I See You Made an Effort reveals how a few simple questions returned her mother to her.
Illustration: MoMo Productions/Getty Images
"You're not going to ask about my sex life are you?" my octogenarian mother said in a tone that suggested she might actually want to share juicy details.
"No, Mom, no!" I shrieked.
The night before our phone call, I'd attended a gathering thrown by author Claire Bidwell Smith whose recent book, After This, is a contemplation on mortality and the afterlife. Claire invited a group of friends for wine, cheese…and the opportunity to write out our advanced health care directives. We would also answer a series of prompts that could serve as a written legacy to pass on to our loved ones, things like: "Amends I wish I could have made" or "Things I have been most grateful for in my life" or "Quotes I've tried to live by," all suggested by Amy Pickard's "Good To Go" Empowering Advanced Care Workshops.
I jumped at the chance because my teenage son sees me as, "The Harpy who tries to get him to eat breakfast every morning." And you know what? The food, drink and a soundtrack including Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" and Death Cab for Cuties' greatest hits made for our most memorable girls' nights to date. The next morning, I woke up determined to share this experience with my mother, who has stage four breast cancer. Our family has taken to calling her The Energizer Bunny because she's weathered chemo, surgeries, hospitalizations and she just keeps going and going.
I launched into the suggested questions.
"What hobbies brought you joy?" I asked, expecting her to say something to do with my sister and me. Instead, she said, "Doing needlepoint." When I was in high school, she got into animal prints. Leopard-, tiger- and zebra-patterned pillows were piled onto every chair we owned. Entering in our living room was like going on safari, but since moving into a senior community she's given so many away that I'd forgotten how crafty she was.
"Favorite music, Mom?"
"KC and the Sunshine Band."
Classical music was always playing on our stereo when I was growing up; now she attends chair exercise classes. Apparently, at the age of 80, my mother has developed a full-blown case of disco fever.
"Mom," I ask gingerly, "What do you think will happen when you die?"
"I will be touching many countries. I always loved traveling. Remember, I want to be cremated and have my ashes spread at sea."
"And I hope to be reunited with my star sapphire!"
I had no idea what she was talking about, so she told me this story: Every Sunday during World War II, she and her sister, 10 and 12 years old, respectively, wrote letters to an uncle serving in the Marines. He sent them gifts from all over the world, including matching sapphire rings from India.
"It was so pretty. The stone was so smooth and I don't know why but I popped it in my mouth and swallowed it!" Her mother "checked" every day and when it reappeared, her mom boiled the ring and after all that effort, my mother misplaced it.
"It goes without saying that I hope to be reunited with my family, but I'd love to see that ring again…"
"Mom, there's a company that can take a small amount of your loved one's ashes and turn them into gemstones. Then they make them into jewelry. Would you mind if I had your ashes made into a diamond ring?"
"You're joking, right?"
I wasn't. I liked the idea that she'd be transformed into something that could be admired and I'd get to keep her with me.
"I don't know, diamonds are so cold…"
"Wait, I've got it, you could be a star sapphire!" When she stopped laughing, she said, "I'd like that. Just don't swallow or lose me, honey."
The next question seemed pretty far out but I couldn't resist, "Should I look for signs that you are trying to contact me?"
She said, "Oh, that's easy, it always looks like a tornado has touched down inside your closets. So when you open a closet door, I'll remind you to clean it."
I should have seen that one coming. My mother was the original declutterer. The night before one of her surgeries I had to stop her from organizing her pantry at 2 a.m. so she could get some sleep. A few months ago, she "fired" me while I was helping her recover from a surgery because my shirt was untucked.
I saved this question for last: "How would you comfort me in a time of grief?"
There was a long pause. "I don't really know, honey. You're the one that does that for me."
It's true. Growing up, our family faced financial upheaval numerous times. Weathering those storms took a toll on our relationship. There were years when I shut her out of my life completely, so it was a surprise to both of us when I turned into a doting caregiver.
"You know what, Mom, you've been teaching me how strong I am and that will be comforting."
She replied, "I like that."
As I hung up the phone, I realized that this was the only conversation we'd had in years that wasn't about doctors' appointments or how my father leaves crumbs under the breakfast table. This simple set of questions shined a light on how far we've come and did something else astonishing. It returned my mother's dry wit to her and reminded me: When that day comes that I do lose her, I won't actually need that ring, because I'll always keep her sense of humor with me.
Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of I See You Made an Effort.