Though my mother died in 1994, my sister and I did not divide up her jewelry or her needlepoint until ten years later. Her will stated that, if she died before I was 21, we had to wait until my 21st birthday to divide up those two types of possessions.
My sister and I haven't lived in the same state (and have just barely lived in the same time zone) since several months after Mom died, so we finally met at our maternal grandmother's house in the summer of 2004 to sort through some of Mom's most prized possessions.
Needlepoint may seem random, but these were items that Mom herself had created and that hung in our house growing up. There were also some prints made by an artist family member and a few other decorative odds and ends. They were the visuals that I took for granted as a kid - I walked by them every day, sat near them while I watched TV, and looked at them absent-mindedly while having lengthy discussions with (...or nagging...) my mom as she put on make-up at her bathroom mirror. Many of those I inherited hang in my home now, and they make my house feel like more of a home. In fact, one of her needlepoints says "A house is made of a brick and stone. A home is made of love alone." Perfect.
Knowing she spent hours with these in her lap, holding the thread in her hands, perhaps cursing in frustration over mistakes or tangles, makes them invaluable.
Some of the jewelry had some monetary value, but obviously it was the sentimental value that led to Mom specifically mentioning it in her will - and also stating that anything her daughters couldn't agree on would be pawned and the money split. (Ahem. There may have been some sibling rivalry and sisterly squabbles growing up that made Mom think we'd need a little extra motivation to agree...)
It was an intense day, to say the least. When we were finally done, there was a collection of jewelry that was very much Mom but that neither of us thought we'd ever wear. Highlights included vintage brass earrings from the 1970s, turquoise jewelry from her many years living in the southwest, and 3-inch bejeweled unicorn and castle pins (I don't know, folks. Maybe it was part of a Halloween costume? Mom was a teacher - it could have been something to amuse her students?).
We didn't want the jewelry to be buried at the bottom of our jewelry boxes or gathering dust anywhere else. My sister said, "I feel like we should spread Mom around."
Out of that came the idea for me to take this jewelry back to college and sell it to benefit the American Heart Association. I planned to get a little table in or near the student union, put out a little information about heart disease, make sure people were aware of why I was there, and hopefully raise a couple hundred dollars (if I was lucky) along with awareness.
I mentioned it to a mentor at school, and she proclaimed that she had jewelry she would donate to something like this. I liked that idea! I sent an email out to friends and family explaining what was going on and asking them to send me any jewelry they wanted to contribute. Within a couple of weeks I was receiving jewelry from all over the country, emails from people I'd never met, and planning a much larger event than a little table with Mom's jewelry!
The support was astounding. Soon there was a group of us planning the event, preparing the jewelry, and creating education and marketing materials. Thanks to the owner of a local vintage shop and the owners of a local fine jewelry store, I got a crash course in jewelry appraisal. A fellow student donated an eye-catching and powerful logo.
That event, in April of 2005, raised $5000! More importantly, there were many conversations had about heart disease. Many people stopped in their tracks on their way through a public square to look at the pictures of my mom and find out who she was and what had happened to her. The connection to the jewelry lasted years. Occasionally, I still hear from friends saying they are wearing my sister's earrings, my mother's necklace, or some other piece they purchased at that original event (and there were events over the next few years, as well). More importantly, they told me they were thinking of my mother's story and reminded of their own health.
I wrote an essay to distribute that day telling virtually the entire story of Mom's death. That is what follows.
Exactly ten years and eight months after her death on August 16, 1994, my mother has an enormous presence in my life. As I begin to write about my mother’s life and death, I am keenly aware of my split personality. I am a 24-year-old college graduate excited about the future who loves her life. I am also a 13-year-old eighth grader, who has just witnessed her mother’s death on the first day of school.
Most people who knew my mother will, when thinking of her, remember her laugh first and foremost. Mom didn’t seem to know how to giggle. I have never been able to picture her as a giggly teenager. She always laughed whole-heartedly, throwing her head back so far you could see the fillings in her teeth! There was a decorative wooden block in her classroom (she was a speech therapist in an elementary school) that, in my memory, sums up her outlook. It said, “Life is for living, love is for giving.” It seems simple and trite, but, save for the memories of the mother-daughter fights we had (or perhaps then most), this little slogan for living and loving was my mother in a nutshell.
Mom kept in great shape. She took brisk walks when the weather was chilly (we lived in the desert of Texas, so it was never too cold), and she swam laps almost every day in the summer. She was so conscientious about her health and that of those she loved that she once scheduled two back-to-back mammogram appointments so a friend of hers, who had been putting the test off, would have no choice but to go.
So why is my mother, a healthy, strong, and vivacious woman, not physically here today?
Unfortunately, my mother fell through the cracks in a way that women often do, even now, more than ten years after her death. For about three months, Mom was told that she was having panic attacks and that if they continued she should return to the doctor. She chronicled every chest pain she had. We found her notes in her date book after her death – she woke up with pain around 4:30AM the day she died. She wrote down the time the clock read, and that she should call the doctor that day. According to her death certificate, she died at 8:18PM. She had a heart attack for almost 16 hours!
My sister, Tamara, and I watched as the final hours of her life flew past in a blur. Mom picked me up from my first day of school, dropped off a friend, then dropped me at home before heading off to the store, mainly to pick up requested school supplies. When she came home, she practically threw my supplies at me, let the dogs out in the backyard, and started crying as she shut the back door. She mumbled an answer when I asked what was wrong. At first I thought maybe she was annoyed with me, because I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and had crawled in bed with her to sleep. She had admonished me for sleeping at odd hours all summer, but then she had snuggled me and stroked my hair until I fell asleep. So, when she mumbled an answer, I let it go and watched her walk to the back of the house. The next thing I remember, Tamara was walking toward me and using a tone of voice I couldn’t place. I heard something about calling the doctor. My mom was following behind Tamara, gripping her left arm as if in pain.
A few minutes later, Tamara was about to take my mother to the Emergency Room when her doctor returned my sister’s initial phone call to give us instructions. I ran and got my sister from the car before she left. Shortly thereafter, my mother sort of stumbled back into the kitchen, using various objects along the way from the garage to support her weight. As she slid to the kitchen floor, she told my sister to call 911. As Tamara spoke to the dispatcher, I watched my mother, who was on her knees, place her head on the floor, her hands clasped behind her knees. She started rocking back and forth, obviously trying to deal with pain. I stood helpless for a bit and asked Mom if there was anything I should do. Some of the last words she would ever speak to me were something along the lines of “No, sweetie. It’s going to be ok. The pain is getting better now.” My brain quickly reviewed all the information I had been taught in school or heard on television. I told Mom I was going outside to make sure the ambulance found the house – our street number was difficult to see from the road. She said that was a good idea.
I stood in the yard, not sure which end of the street to watch. I heard sirens, and when I saw the fire truck, I started yelling and waving my arms. They turned the other way! My sister came out, crying, as I stood frozen on the lawn, my stomach in my throat. She told me to go get them. I ran down the street as fast as I could – I remember a neighborhood boy at the corner saying “they’ll come back.” I kept on running. I caught up with the fire truck and got their attention. One of the paramedics ran back to the house with me, carrying equipment. When I arrived back at the kitchen, Mom was unconscious, not responding to the paramedic’s repeated “Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me Ma’am?” At this point I knew it was really bad.
We waited at the hospital for a long time. It seemed like eternity. Finally a doctor came in and started a long explanation before saying the words we all dreaded…but we knew if it were good news she would have started with “she’s going to be fine.” My sister interrupted her, saying “She’s dead, isn’t she.” The doctor said, “Yes. She has died.” The room spun, and I couldn’t stop screaming “NO! NO! NO!” Eventually a social worker was there, and they began to figure out what to do with us for the night, since our father was in New Jersey.
After my mother’s death, I mourned with all my energy. I became clinically depressed and suicidal. My family was a mess – my sister and I lived with friends so she could finish high school in Texas, I eventually moved away to live with an aunt, then boarding school, and then, finally, college here in Oberlin where I have had the chance to put down roots again. This is, of course, the much simplified version.
The Heart Project has been a chance to celebrate my mother’s life, and the legacy that she has left behind. Untax My Heart Day is another chance for me to say goodbye. This time I’ve had the opportunity to prepare myself and even to do it on my terms. I cannot say that I am entirely without reservations about selling her jewelry today, but I hear Tamara’s words, spoken in the summer of 2004 when this crazy idea began: “I feel like we should spread Mom around.”
I know that our mother is smiling down on us today. I know that, even though her death caused so much pain, she would be honored and proud to see that it was not in vain. If this project saves the life of one woman, and spares one child the pain that I suffered (and that I know I will feel to some extent for the rest of my life), I can let go of the senselessness of my mother’s death at least a little more.
Part of me will always be thirteen. It’s the part of me that knows my mother and refuses to let go. It’s the part of me who feels that a great injustice has been done and that it must be righted. It is also a part of me who is grateful to be allowed to come out in public today with the hopes of making you think twice about putting your children first every hour of every day. Taking time for yourself, listening to your body, and not putting off a visit to the doctor or even a trip to the hospital could end up being the single best thing you ever do for your child. I know that my mother always put my sister and me first. I’d rather she were alive today.