It was July 4, 2002, a week to the day before my 26th birthday. I had fallen asleep on the couch and woke up from an all-too-real dream. My mother, my sister, and I were fleeing from a burning house. We were scurrying like mice women, trying to gather our belongings when all of a sudden my mother looked at me and said, ‘You aren’t coming with me.’
‘What are you saying to me, Ma?’
She ran out of the door and jumped from the porch into the arms of women fully clad in white. They lifted her up to the heavens, and then I woke up. Startled, I called her hospital room, where she had been lying since her body had betrayed her again—this time with a vengeance. It had spread from her breast, to her spleen, to her spine, then to her stomach. I got no response. Frantic, I called again. My act of persistence reminded me of how I would call her office as a child to ask her ordinary questions like, ‘Can I make a grilled cheese sandwich?’ or ‘I finished my homework; can I watch TV now?’
Except now, it wasn’t as mundane as that. Now, if she didn’t pick up, I knew she would never, ever pick up. I wasn’t ready for that.
Finally, she answered.
I told her about my dream. She laughed and said, ‘You know we have always been connected in that way. Just keep paying attention.’ I said ok. There was a moment of silence, and then it just came up and out like a volcano erupting, hurried and hot. ‘Can you at least write me a letter, or something?’ The momentary silence was extremely loud. I could hear she was out of breath. She said she needed a nap. ‘Go on your birthday trip now, and I’ll see you when you get back,’ she said. The phrase “Write me a letter,” proclaimed and solidified, in my mind, that she was going to write me one.
My husband and our best friends went to Portofino, Italy for my birthday. The week I was away, she went away.
We flew back to Alabama and buried her, then began the dreaded task of packing up her things.
As I was clearing out her chestadrawer (chest of drawers), I remembered the letter. I combed every inch of her room; searched every old purse, shoe box, file cabinet, and spent nights going through all of her piles and piles of books to see where she could have possibly left my letter. I knew that she remembered, and my letter was somewhere in the house. I discovered a junk drawer containing tons of receipts, bills, and divorce decrees—I hadn’t known my parents were divorced twice.
I kept at it.
I mined and excavated for hours that turned into days, as if my life depended on it. It did. As if the letter held for me momentous insight into a last goodbye, a last ‘I love you,’ or lessons I shouldn’t forget. After all, I was a 26-year-old, motherless child who needed to be walked through life. I found nothing. I found emptiness.
With her pots and pans, books, her tattered Bible and the junk drawer in tow, I headed back to New York. Two weeks later my father died. She wouldn’t have liked that. But he was too broken hearted.
I decided it was time to give up my quest for the letter.
Years later, my husband and I had a baby boy. We were getting settled into our new home, and I began to unpack my mother’s stuff: the books, the pots and pans, and the junk drawer. I found poetry scribbled on driving directions to Florida, quotes, sayings, and prayers on the corners of recipes for the best sour cream pound cake and southern fudge. There were index cards with Bible verses written on them. I read all of the leaflets she kept, the get-well soon cards, and each precious note to self she had written. The sight of her handwriting was a catharsis for my aching soul.
And then, I came upon all the letters I had ever written to her. Letters that I would sneak under her bedroom door or drop in her purse; frivolous, adolescent, and teenaged pleas of permission and forgiveness littered the bottom of the junk drawer that I had been carrying with me all these years; my letters.
Then it dawned on me, the letter I’d been searching for was right in front of me; I was the letter she’d left behind. Though not delivered how I imagined it to be, I finally got it. I was—I am her letter.