Twenty-two years ago today it was raining. I recall being on Route 17 in upstate New York, heading north in late morning. I was a passenger and my high school friend Jackie was in the driver's seat. I was crying. We both were.
Several hours earlier I'd gotten the phone call, one of many we all ultimately get and all of which we dread. The phone jangled horribly at 5 a.m. A ringing telephone at that hour is always horrible even when everybody's okay. In my case on that rainy day 22 years ago, everybody wasn't okay. My mother had died suddenly in the night. Stroke, or heart attack (or both); we never knew for sure. All we did know was that she'd been at her camp with friends and family, had come rushing out of her camper, banged on her brother's camper door, and died minutes later in her sister-in-law's arms. My mom, Iva, was 69 years old. This loving, friendly, caring woman who had tucked me into bed and brushed tangles out of my hair and bought my first pair of kindergarten shoes, who included a 20-dollar bill with each letter every month I was in college and with whom, as a grown-up, I sat at a kitchen table drinking coffee and eating donuts and laughing and learning about what's important in life, had simply vanished from the world in a matter of minutes. While I was asleep in my bed in New York City, my mama had slipped away.
My father, John, had died in 1980. By the time Iva left us to join him he'd already been gone 12 years. So there I was in 1992, riding along in the rain, without parents at the tender age of 36.
After getting the call, I don't remember much. My mind seemed altered, as though a protective sheath had been tossed over it. I pulled out a suitcase and packed a bra. Then another bra. "Well," I remember thinking. "I'll certainly be noticed at the funeral, the woman wearing two bras and nothing else." I finally managed to get some suits packed, and pondered this: "Good thing I went shopping recently, who knew I was buying a suit for my mother's funeral!" The thought was funny and tragic and wholly inappropriate. But then, what's appropriate when your mother has just died? The sheath got thicker, and for the next year my brain took a vacation.
Oh sure, I remember some things about the next 12 months, and certainly about the next week. I remember how many people flocked into the funeral home to say goodbye to Iva, I remember dearest of friends showing up unexpectedly, many in tears. I remember going back to Queens and changing my driving route so I would never have to think about crossing over the same bridges I did the day my mom died. I remember my lackluster work ethic in the months that followed, shrugging when called on it and saying, "Oh who cares." Then in April of the following year, while on a six-seat plane over of all unlikely places the Maasai Mara in Kenya, the brain sheath chose that moment to remove itself. My poor friend Liz, with whom I was on vacation, took the brunt of being with me when my mind returned. We still talk about it (although now we can laugh). Suffice to say hysteria doesn't begin to explain the situation of a grown woman cracking into ten pieces on a tiny plane where below there are hungry lions waiting.
It's hard to believe that more than two decades have passed since last I heard my mother's voice. Her hands always smelled vaguely of Clorox -- she was fond of bleaching things ... clothes, the sink, the tub, once even suggested I use Clorox to fix my hair when I accidentally died it black. I still see her fussing with flowers or hanging bird feeders. People loved her, especially family. I did not inherit that lucky trait, but I'm told by some that they see qualities of her in me. I could not be more proud of that. She was, truly, a dear person. Maybe one of the kindest souls ever to walk the planet.
It's raining where I am. In fact, we had a bit of a microburst here this morning. Huge trees have been uprooted on a roadway outside of town, property damaged. Another monumental thing happened on May 16, 2014: Barbara Walters, after a long and proud career that shattered the glass ceiling for women in broadcasting, has retired. It's been an interesting day for me, one of microbursts and retirement and rain and tears. Lots of tears. Not for the downed trees, nor for Ms. Walters. Today is the day I became an orphan 22 years ago.
I love you, Mama. I wish I could hear your voice one more time, wish we could have a donut at the kitchen table, wish I could tell you all my troubles and have you tuck me into bed and say it's all going to be all right. But I can't. That's how life goes, isn't it? I guess I should consider myself lucky that I had such a wonderful mother at all, for however brief a time.
Wherever you are, Iva, I miss you so. Every single day.