“Can you call me back?” she asked that afternoon.
“Sure, Mom. I’ll call you back,” I said.
I never spoke to her again.
Six days later, Mother’s Day arrived. We were going to spend it together because that’s what we’d done almost every year of my life. Of course, it was too late to call her back – it will always be too late, but it wasn’t too late to write her another poem. I’d written her some type of poem or prose for Mother’s Day since I was old enough to hold a crayon and spell my name, and I’m proud that I never once gave her a store-bought card. I have my father to thank for that. He always said homemade cards are the best and this I truly believed from him, though I didn’t trust him for most of our short time together. When he died suddenly, I was nineteen. He and I had finally begun a respectful relationship and one that I could trust. I was devastated and in shock. He was gone in a flash and just as we were getting started. All the pieces of the puzzle were flying around in the air and landing in obscure places, but it was my mother who held my hand and helped me find the strength to pick them up. I helped her pick up her jagged shards too.
We moved out of my childhood home that she and my father shared for over thirty years, and I helped her begin a new life in a town nearer to the majority of her children. That’s when she became my closest friend, though I didn’t know it at the time. My siblings and I rarely saw one another or spent time together. I felt they hardly knew me, and it was like this for most of my youth. They were so much older and successful, and I was way down at the bottom, overlooked and unimportant, yet my mother made sure I knew I was valued and remembered.
When I would visit, I’d find my poems displayed on her piano, her coffee table, her dresser. This gave me hope that my words were making a difference in her new home and in her life. There was always competition between me and my siblings in one form or another, there were just so many of us, and I was painfully aware that I needed to set myself apart or I’d get lost in my family’s collective, noisy voice. Writing became a way for me to find my own voice in a loud cast of Italian characters, and it also gave me a way to thank my mother for the confidence she’d instilled in me throughout my youth. Her love and support, and her belief that one could achieve anything if they worked hard enough at it, gave me hope and the reason to keep going with my writing. I’d lost faith in life after my father died, and I know she did too but immeasurably more. Then, less than a year after my father was gone, she too was diagnosed with advanced cancer and chemotherapy began. She lost all of her hair and all of her strength. I continued to write poems so she’d keep reading how important she was to me and to everyone else, and I hoped and prayed she’d keep fighting. She was weak and beaten by life, but she kept reading and kept going.
I don’t know why I didn’t call her back that day. I had always called her back. Always. It was our norm.
“I’m watching a really good Jeapardy! right now. Call me back?” she’d say, and I’d call her twenty minutes later when I knew Jeapardy! was over.
Then it was my turn.
“Mom, I’m about to get my hair done. Can you call me back?”
An hour later we’d be talking again, picking up where we’d left off, telling each other stories about our day. We’d never gone even a week without hearing each other's voice.
By the time she reached her late '80s, I knew the end was closing in, though there had been many false alarms and triumphs over her failing body throughout the years. The afternoon before her last day I called to remind her I’d be with her for Mother’s Day, but one of my brothers answered. The inside of my stomach tore open, terrified she was already gone. My brother told me her voice wasn’t strong enough and she was too weak to pick up the phone. I wanted to get on a plane that night after hearing him shout, “She SAYS she LOVES YOU!!”
It was the first time anyone had ever expressed my feelings for me and at that volume.
I called her back the following afternoon, regretful that I hadn’t taken the red eye out to California, and there she was again just like she’d always been, in the middle of something but wanting to talk. Her voice wasn’t shaky or slurred and she’d picked up the phone after just one ring. I almost expected her to say she was watching Jeapardy! or 60 Minutes or Hardball with Chris Matthews.
“Hi, Doll,” her voice strong and steady -- she seemed ready to talk but just unable to in that moment. And then: Can you call me back?
Five fickle words that play on repeat.
Though she never saw me become a professional writer and she never read my essay about death that landed in the Washington Post, she did, however, see me give out my first business card, the word “Writer” printed below my name; she was the only person that didn’t laugh or think I was full of crap when I handed it out long before I’d published anything.
It’s been exactly three years since she left, and my heart still aches for my closest friend. Each time I sit to write a new sentence or tell a new story I suppose I’m calling her back, recalling the amazing woman who believed in me, the same person who listened to all my stories, read them, embraced them, and helped me make them better.
She is my mother and with all my heart, I love her. Happy early Mother’s Day, Mom.