If You Knew Mary Evelyn… is inspired by If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter's Notebook by Katherine Rosman, the choice-of-the-month of new online book club, From Left to Write. It was difficult to read this keenly-observed, beautifully-writ memoir without reflecting on my own relationship with my mother. How would I eulogize my mom? What do I treasure and remember about our relationship? What do I know about her and what remains a mystery? I sat down, prepared to write an essay that addressed these questions, but a very different essay poured out of me—a processing of and meditation on the death of my mother-in-law, Mary Evelyn, who died four years ago, on July 5th, 2006. Following the lead of Rosman, I have written a letter to Mary Evelyn that is part eulogy, part a preservation of memory, and part a communication that her legacy lives on.
Four years ago this weekend, my husband’s mother passed away. Though she had suffered from MS for decades, it was ultimately not the MS that stole her, prematurely, from us. She was preparing for a Fourth of July picnic--I can picture her in the kitchen, sitting on her stool, impossibly deep dimples framing her smile as she cooked for the people she loved—when suddenly she got the worst headache of her life. She went to the couch to lie down. Moments later, her husband couldn’t rouse her. He called an ambulance.
The aneurysm in her brain had already ruptured and was hemorrhaging, leaking blood into the surrounding tissue. She did not regain consciousness.
Halfway across the country, we received the call from his father. Still childless, we quickly made the decision to get in the car and drive. I drove all night, not wanting my distraught husband to take the wheel. It rained, making a dark night even darker. Mist, blackened hills, and sadness. We listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Losing love is like a window in your heart.
Everyone sees you’re blown apart.
Everyone hears the wind blow.
And now, I cannot hear that song without thinking of her. Without remembering the feeling of that night, the wind blowing through the hole in my heart. Driving, hoping, fearing. Viscera clenched with anxiety.
When we arrived around 6am, it was already too late. The operation to stop the bleeding—an endovascular coiling—was unsuccessful. Her body was still alive, kept so by a respirator that rose and fell with mechanical breaths beside her, but her brain was not. In the hospital bed, she was a doll-like version of herself, her muscles flaccid, limbs flopped to the side, facial features bland. It was all that I could do to look at her. She was no longer Kevin’s mother. Her life force, her capacity for joy, the light in her eyes was gone.
We wanted proof before we made any decisions. They gave her an EEG and showed us the evidence that Mary Evelyn was gone. “Okay,” I remember saying.
She had made it easy for us, preparing a living will with a do not resuscitate directive. She wanted to be an organ donor. And so, different parts of her were shipped across the country to anonymous recipients. Her body was incinerated, the ashes given to us in a box.
The next day, friends and family members came to spread her ashes over the lush, vibrant gardens she had lovingly cultivated. They reached into the box with their bare hands, scooping out what physically remained of her. I couldn’t do it. I felt sick. I sat on the sidelines and watched, remembering my mother-in-law.
I remember the first time I came to visit. You showed me every photo, every scrap book, and every video of Kevin that you had recorded and catalogued over the years, thrilled to have found an interested audience at last. I remember how, that first Christmas, you gave me my own stocking, a felt angel. And how I wrote on it, “Melissa, the token Jew.” I remember our talent show, your beautiful, wordless signing of “Morning has Broken,” by Cat Stevens and your completely unselfconscious improvisational dance that you paid for later in pain. I remember driving away and thinking that I felt like I was leaving home. I cried as you waved goodbye.
I remember when you showed me your dissertation. Telling me how you, the child of a dirt famer-turned insurance salesman, a little girl who hunted squirrels with a stick, became a professor of speech and language pathology. I remember when you told me how difficult it was to spend years apart from Kevin, when he was only 11, as you pursued your doctorate in Indiana.
I remember your devotion to Kevin. Your unrelenting desire to know every detail of his life, and the frustration you felt when he painted pictures of his days in wide swathes. I remember how I could bring you such satisfaction, sharing these details, when we talked on the phone.
And I remember all the things Kevin told me about you. How you read him feminist, gender stereotype-free fairy tales. How you dressed him up as a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day when he was home sick with the chicken pox—and then took photographs. How the days you spent at home with him when he was young were some of the happiest days of your life.
I remember your voice that sang words more frequently than spoke them. I remember you holding your tongue when agitated, your mouth a thin line. I remember how you could toss of a musical “oh well” with a graceful gesture of your arm. I remember never really knowing how you felt about anything.
I remember your last visit to us in Philly. How you asked me if we were “trying” when I didn’t have wine with dinner. How I lied and said that we weren’t, and that I wasn’t drinking because I was driving. I remember your look that said you didn’t believe me. I hope you didn’t. I wish you had known. I wish I had told you about the miscarriage I had just suffered. I wish you had been there for the two subsequent miscarriages that followed our conversation. And I wish you could know that I did carry a baby to term. And that you now have a grand-daughter, Sophia, who is so much the image of you. She dances, not walks, from point to point. When she smiles, her dimples are holes that go all the way to China. She embodies joy. She speaks with a fluency and clarity that would have made you proud.
I feel a kinship with you as a mother. I sense that what I value as a mother, you valued as a mother (minus the leprechauns). I have wanted to call you—to ask you a question, to share something amazing Sophia just said, to hear the ways in which Sophie reminds you of Kevin at that age. But I can’t.
Nevertheless, you are here with us. Every time Sophie smiles, every time she dances, every time she speaks with a clean Mid-Western dialect, we are reminded of you. And we keep you with us. We tell Sophia she has two grandmas. One who she can see in real life, and one she can only see in pictures. Both of whom are very much a part of who she is.
The book, If You Knew Suzy, was provided to me free of charge by the publisher as part of the former Silicon Valley Moms Group and the new From Left to Write Book Club. I was not paid for this review. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.