We arrived in Phnom Penh in late July. It began as one of the softest landings we’ve had. The trans-Pacific flight was predictably brutal but our excitement overshadowed all of that. We went to temporary housing for ten days, happy to have an immediate internet connection and access to two refreshing swimming pools. The Bushbaby had recently hit her stride back in the States with cannonballs and independent swimming and she was eager to continue in this 90 degree heat.
Things went smoothly as we moved into our beautiful home in a great, walkable neighborhood, a ten minute tuk tuk ride from the embassy in one direction, 10 minutes to Colette’s school in the other. All of our household things met us at our new place the day we moved in, having traveled from Chile back in March. Snakes’ new truck had even made it here unscathed. I was amazed at our good fortune.
I snapped some quick “before” shots so I could do my favorite presto-change-o blog post to welcome you all into our new home once I got things sorted. We were humming along, Snakes adjusting to his new position, me and the Bushbaby unpacking and organizing things. I felt like we had finally shaken the wicked jet lag which had taken nearly two weeks!
I received an urgent text from my sister to call her immediately. Aw, I thought, her 12 year old family dog, a sweet old lady, weimy-mix had been up and down with health issues recently and I feared the worst. I signed in to skype and dialed her up, ready to listen to dog stories and offer comfort to my niece and nephew. But I was wrong. It was our mom. And she was dead.
This all happened a month ago, and now as I glance at the date- I realize it’s to the day. Nothing can ever prepare you for this. My mom was healthy. I HAD JUST SEEN HER. She was turning 70 in October. She was vibrant and creative and strong and funny. She was the lady you wanted to have a glass of wine with and brainstorm about everything, if you could only stop laughing long enough to jot some things down. She was my best friend. She was so many people’s best friend.
Snakes got out of bed and onto the phone with his boss. We are given an allowance from the State Department for one bereavement ticket. The cost for my family to fly the next day to Michigan from Cambodia is something I’d rather not discuss, but I couldn’t understand the idea of doing this alone. I desperately needed those two with me for the 23 hour flight back home. This is why we have credit cards, right?
My sister and her family had gotten in a day before us from Colorado and started with the funeral arrangements. I admired her so greatly for finding the strength to discuss embalming and select appropriate casket-wear. I still couldn’t understand what it meant that our mom was dead. I stumbled through her house, running into her everywhere. Tripping over her shoes in the hallway, picking up her jacket that kept falling from it’s hook when I walked by. I looked at the tomatoes arranged on the windowsill in her kitchen and wondered if she’d bought them. I ate one whole. I put all of her clothes on, step-sistered my size tens into her size eights and wrapped myself up in her scarves. I slathered myself with her expensive face creams. I searched her lipsticks for a kiss she may have left behind. I replayed one of the many many many messages I have from her on my phone. “Hi Dollface! It’s your mommy!….”
Snakes took the kids out to movies, breakfasts, Lake Michigan and anywhere else in a 30 mile radius that seemed remotely like fun. My sister and I pressed on the best that we could. She went to the florist to commission a big tangle of wildflowers to be draped across her casket. Absolutely NO carnations!! Stop on the roadside for Queen Anne’s lace if you have to. She dropped the clothes at the funeral home. She touched up the electric yellow fingernail polish that had chipped from my mom’s nails. She met my mom’s hairstylist and dear friend who had offered to style her hair one last time. I wish I could say she was beautiful, but there is no beauty in the unexpected death of your mother.
I spent my time organizing an after service luncheon in my mom’s garden. A neighbor had generously offered to have it catered, but for any of you that know me or have been following my blog- you know I couldn’t sit by while ham buns happened. Not while I was still drawing breath. I resolved to honor my mom in the only way I knew, throw a party. I hadn’t slept in days and the jet lag had me running on fumes. About the only thing I was capable of was chopping and whisking.
Snakes did a pulled pork. I threw together a tangy dijon potato and green bean salad, broccoli slaw, a giant pile of crudite with my mom’s famous blue cheese dressing. I juiced bags of citrus for carafes of grapefruit-forward margaritas. Girlfriends from Detroit brought lemon bars, a rhubarb blueberry pistachio crisp, coconut corn muffins with pineapple butter and chocolate chip cookies. When I tired in the kitchen, I went outside to string up these bamboo fans I’d found in one of the markets in Phnom Penh the day before we’d left.
Everyone came back here after the funeral service. We played Loretta Lynn and BB King and Lucinda Williams. We drank margs, toasted to my beautiful mommy and watched her grandkids chase each other through her yard. This should’ve been her 70th birthday party. I kept imagining it was. That any minute she’d walk around the monster rose of sharon bush and squeal with laughter. I’d hand her a drink and give her a huge squeeze. She’d marvel at the Willy Wonka “lollipops” hanging from the trees, wheels already turning on how she’d fashion them into an elaborate mural on her dining room wall. I’d kiss her on both cheeks and look into the smiling eyes that are my own. I’d tell her what an incredible lady she is, how greatly I admire and love her. How much she inspires me every single day. All of these people would. All of these people who’s lives she’s touched, here in her backyard. What fun!! All of these people eager to line up, raise their glass and share a laugh.
I don’t know how to begin to handle this grief and this loss I feel. It’s a dark cloud that follows me everywhere and I know once I slow down it is going to consume me. I keep moving forward. I know I can’t outrun it and I will eventually need to turn around, brace myself and step into it with as much grace as I can muster.