By: Vickie J. Litten
When she was a little girl, on hot summer days, she would steal the glass salt shaker from her mother’s kitchen and sneak out to the garden. The tomato plants, taller than she had yet grown and heavy with fruit, like a thicket of small trees, hid her from view. She would sit in the shade, on the cleared path of soil between the rows, and pull off large red fruit, warmed by the sun. A little sprinkle of salt and she’d bite into the sweet richness, wiping at the juice, dribbling down her chin, with the back of her hand.
She still loves the taste of tomatoes, but she doesn’t pick them off the vine anymore. Now she eats them in the nursing home, with the other residents. The nurse pushes her wheelchair as close to the table, as it will go, and locks the wheels in place. She leans forward in the chair, her eyes never leave her plate, as she concentrates to make her weak, trembling hand attempt, in slow motion, to spear the tempting red slices. I sit across the table watching her struggle to eat her meal. I haven’t seen her in eighteen years, and now, her cancer has brought me back to her.
When I first entered her room I almost didn’t recognize her. She’s pale and gaunt. A few wispy strands of white hair have replaced the curly auburn locks she once had. I knew her eyes however. Lively, bright cobalt blue, they are exactly the same. “Hello Mom,” I said.
She grew up on a farm, hard working, and a tomboy. She preferred to be outdoors, working with her dad and three brothers instead of inside, helping her mother cook and clean. Perhaps that is why, when she had grown, being married and taking care of four daughters, rubbed and chafed at her, choking her, like a dog collar that was much too tight. Perhaps that is why she broke free and slipped away, leaving behind the uncomfortable collar, the husband, and the children. Too soon, my visit ends, it is time for me to go home. My plane is leaving in the morning. She gives me a tight hug with her good arm. I say, “I’ll see you late . . . ”. I stop myself. I won’t see her later. I will never see her again. She will die soon. I battle to keep my emotions under control, for her sake. I lose. “I love you mom,” I say, the tears rolling down my cheeks. I can’t hold them back, they come unbidden from some deep well I hadn’t known was there. She is also crying, her tears quietly slipping out of the corners of her eyes and soaking the pillow beneath her head.
She looks away, speaking to the wall. “You know I love you girls,”she says, in a low voice. She has never been demonstrative, or affectionate, the words mean a lot. With the fingers of her good hand, she rubs her chest, in a circular motion.
“Are you in pain Mom?”
“Yeah,” she moans.
“Do you want me to call the nurse? Do you need your medicine?”
“It’s not that kind of pain,” she answers in a shaky voice. She turns her head and looks at me, her bright blue eyes lock onto mine and tell me more, in a mere moment, than her words ever could, or ever did. My heart hurts too. I can feel it cracking. Uncontrollable, wracking sobs explode from my throat. I hold onto her frail body, and bury my face in her blanket. I cry. I cry long and loud and hard. I cry for me and I cry for her. I cry for all the things we should have said, for the time we wasted, and for the anger that isn’t important any more. I cry, because I don’t want to lose her, and I cry because, . . . she waited until she was dying to let me know she loved me.