I’m flying home from San Diego after 3 days of helping my dad move out of his townhouse.
He’s taking an entire house full of things and settling into a room and a bath. The rest—beds and tables and rugs and pots and spices—are being absorbed into my sister’s household, beautifying every corner. Mom’s bookshelf stands by the living room fireplace and her lamp lights a dark corner. At the heart of the room reigns the soft deep chenille couch where my dad slept during mom’s illness and where I lay on the night she died. I never noticed before the way it turns gold in the morning light.
Packing the kitchen I find the watermelon-sized cartons of protein powder purchased in one of my dad’s last desperate measures to nourish mom. Box after box of her favorite crackers cram the shelves. I knew she liked them so I kept buying more—apparently so did everyone else. Most of the dishes had been boxed, but on the windowsill sat the blue water bottle that my dad constantly refilled with ice water and the crystal glass that held cranberry juice mixed with daily medicines. He always brought both to her in a tray lined with a bright cloth and cheered her on as she drank the berry/chemical brew.
In the bathroom, I throw away her toothbrush and the crumpled tube of toothpaste but I open the silver lipstick tube and try it on, admiring the pinky color in the mirror despite my tearstained face.
Everything makes my cry, everything. Each item is a symbol of the life my parents built in San Diego. A life I wasn’t a part of. I never visited when she was well; we never went to dinner or walked the beach or picked out a dress at one of the many shopping centers. I’m not in the photos that line the wall. This isn’t the clean sweet sort of grief I’ve been feeling in the past few weeks. It’s angry and muddy and maudlin and like the bear hunt, I can’t go around it, can’t go over it, can’t go under it; I have to go through it.
My mom and I were sitting by the pool two years ago when she told me they’d decided to move to San Diego for the winter. With Mary in my lap and the boys splashing below I protested and whined and complained that we wouldn’t see them enough. We’d been getting along so well! But Utah winters are icy and miserable and she wanted to walk every day, to swim and regain her health. So I ended the conversation by apologizing and congratulating her and on the drive home I cried so hard that Erik had to pull over, afraid that I’d be ill.
But it was a good move for my parents. Dad spent more time with Mom than he had in decades as they swam and walked in the perfect 70 weather. Nearly every day they saw my sister’s family and had dinners and parties and strawberry picking expeditions. Ruth’s little boys became comfortable on my mom’s lap as she told them one pig story after another.
And my worry, that I wouldn’t see her anymore, became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s hard, to leave my dad in San Diego. He’ll still fly to Utah every week or two where he has a business and a beautiful home. But he’ll be there on weekends and holidays. It wouldn’t make sense to move him into my home, with my family. But I wish I could.
And then, every item is packed and the lavender releases it’s heady scent as I brush past it with box after box after box. I drop a pile of books on my big toe and it’s purple and throbbing and I’m trying to ignore it with every heart beat.
Armed with bottles and brushes and rags I scrub the grout in the kitchen and mop the floor 3 times until it shines. I wipe the bathroom counters, then the sink and carefully wipe the water spots from the faucets just as my mother taught me. Xander and my dad fill the house with the rumble of vacuuming and a steam cleaner and I am free to sob as much as I like—out loud and with some fist pounding.
I pull all the cleaning supplies onto the front porch and clean the tile entry way on my hands and knees, the entry where Mary kicked off her flip-flops and where Ben flew the remote helicopter and where I dropped my bags when my mother raised up and smiled at me on the night she died.
Working backwards, I scour every smudge and lift every bit of dirt and leaves and strand of hair until I am on the porch and giving it one more sweep, stand and lock the door.
This morning we went back with shovels and buckets to take plants from my mother’s garden for my sister’s home. It was a barren patch of soil when mom moved in, and now it’s overgrown.
I forage for overripe strawberries and chew leaves from a basil that’s gone to seed; my dad digs up a lemon thyme that fills the yard with it’s intoxicating scent. We take roses and lilies and jasmine but leave enough of each plant for it to fill in and become a rich garden for the next occupant.
Except for the butterfly bush. It has no starts and can’t be divided so we dig up the whole plant and place it in a silver bucket. As I carry it to the car a monarch butterfly follows me and flits around the car searching for it’s home.
Silently, my dad and I watch the butterfly dance and glide, soaring up to a nearby tree and then back to the car. Halting almost in mid-air it seems to be making a decision. I beckon to the bush in the backseat, but it won’t be restrained in such a small place. It turns, and without pause flutters down the street, soaring toward a new bright resting place.