I was busy that day. I was always busy. It was a way for me to mask the pain. If I just stayed moving until I collapsed and melted into a puddle of exhaustion, maybe I wouldn’t understand the gravity of it all as much. Maybe if I just stayed in task mode, the air wouldn’t be so heavy and thick with grief and suffering.
My days were full. I had a toddler. He was just about 18 months old at that time. My dad laid flat in the living room, his cancer treatment pills scattered around the small table he had pulled up beside him on the couch. He kept them there until he had the stomach to swallow them. That took time. So much time. His cancer was back with a vengeance now, serendipitously timed with my mother’s failing health. They were both in their 70s – their twilight years as it turned out. What a miserable way to spend your last days – sick, in pain, broken. We were all so broken.
My mother laid in the bed that day. It was her day off from dialysis. We didn’t have to make the 20-mile trek to the clinic where her sick and tired body laid hooked up to machines all day. We could relax. No wrestling with a toddler, a stroller, a wheelchair that day for me. Just rest.
She was tired. Her body was slowly giving up on her even though none of us were ready. She spent those last years of her life confined to a wheelchair – her feet and legs too weak to carry her anymore, her arms curling in on themselves like a dying vine.
I put her back to bed shortly after breakfast that morning before freeing my little toddler from the prison of his highchair in front of the TV. I kept him there so he couldn’t reach the pills my dad still had sitting by on his little table. They looked like candy to my then 1 year old. Just one more episode of Elmo and maybe I could get the dishes done. Maybe I could take a shower. Maybe I could get out from underneath it all. Maybe… one day.
I crept out of the room as my mom settled in for a nap. I scooped up my soft, squishy baby. He was always so snuggly and smelled like warmed milk – creamy and sweet and warm and soothing. He was so happy to see my face. I smelled his sweet neck and kissed his chubby, succulent little cheeks as if they were the last morsel of love I would ever be allowed in life. We snuck upstairs to read a book, get dressed and get ready to go for a walk on the beach. It was our time together. Precious, savored time. We walked and sang and talked. We played I Spy and he pointed to all the things. I always told him he was right. Mostly, he was. We chased sunshine and searched for ghost crabs and treasures in the sand.
When we came home that day, my mom was awake. The house was quiet and still. My dad was sleeping in his chair. Graham hadn’t made it home awake from our busy, joyful hour at the beach. I laid him down and went to check on my mother.
She was contemplative. Thinking quietly in her bed. We made some small talk.
“How was the beach?”
“Good…Graham fell asleep in the way home. He is full of sand, but happy. He loves the beach.”
“He’s such a love, that little one of yours, Elizabeth. You are so very lucky.”
Lucky. That took me back. She had never really seemed supportive of my decision to have a baby without his birth father being around to support us. As open-minded as my mother was, she still clung to tradition like a cat who scurried up a tree they never meant to climb. She, too, had been a young, single mother. But her story wasn’t as pretty. Her situation seemed to carry the weight of shame seasoned with a healthy dose of disgrace from her mother. So the word “lucky” danced around me like a thousand yellow butterflies. LUCKY.
We talked more, about family and life. We talked about Graham and his absent father. We talked about my curious life and how twisted and turned around it had gotten. I was 32. Single. I was Mothering so many people I wasn’t sure who I even was anymore. I felt lost and alone, yet I was surrounded by people who loved me, who needed me. Their lives depended on me.
We talked about her that day. Her illness. Her life. We talked about her impending death, which we both knew was there but never really wanted to acknowledge. It hung around us all like a giant white elephant in the room. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about her life being over. None of us knew how to talk about the hard things. It was all becoming too real now. Creeping in, silently watching. It lurked in the corners, waiting to make it’s move now.
My only thoughts were selfish. I was scared. So scared. What would happen to me? Who would I be without her? My identity – the identity I never asked for as caretaker – was being stolen from me and I had no choice in the matter. Nothing I imagined of my future seemed to fit me. It was like wearing clothes that were too small. Everything was small now in comparison.
Tears began to roll down my cheeks, tumbling and crashing around me. They felt heavy. Fat. Cumbersome. I was embarrassed. I lived endlessly in embarrassment of myself.
It was at that moment that my mom looked at me, studying my face like I was a stranger to her…like it was the first time she had ever seen me. She reached her hand out and touched my tear-streaked face. Smiling gently, she said these words to me: “You are going to do great things when I am gone. Such great things.”
Those words hung there between us for a moment. It was an acknowledgement of what was to come. My future was sitting in the air around us, equal parts doomed and beautiful. It was full of as much hope as it was grief. We all knew what was coming. We just couldn’t bear the weight of it all.
It’s been 11 years since I had this conversation with my mother, since I had any conversation with her. In those eleven years, those words have become something bigger. They stuck to me, like a prophecy or an omen. It was as though they came from somewhere else – beyond us both. They were a beacon of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. They were my permission and my promise. They were my future.
She gave me a gift that day – the gift of hope. The gift of something to look ahead for and to strive to become: something better and bigger than I was at that time. There was a promise made that day… a promise of more, which is exactly what I needed going into the days after. Her death left me vacant and lost. I floated aimlessly around, wandering and wondering if I was ever going to wake up from the fog. I think of her words to me that day still in these days, it’s weight penetrates my every action. Each day I ask myself this question: “Am I doing great things?”
I don’t know if I have lived up to my mother’s predictive prose, but I do try. I show up. I do the hard work. I make mistakes and clean them up. Maybe that’s all there is to it – maybe the greatness is in the trying. Maybe the simple act of showing up is all that matters. Perhaps the celebrations and lauding shouldn’t just arise when we have arrived, but in the steps in our journey that gets us there.
So the only thing I ever need to ask myself is this: Are you trying? If the answer is always a resounding “yes,” then bravo to me. It’s then that I know that I am, indeed, doing great things.
Libby Williams is a photographer, designer and food blogger living in Charleston. She is inspired daily by a lot of things around her: her growing son, the remarkable city she lives in and the beautiful, big planet we live on. But most of all, she is inspired by light and the stories that she captures and tells with the camera. When she isn’t taking photos, she is traveling or cooking or scheming about her next adventures. To follow more of her work, visit www.libbywilliamsphotographs.com or her blog platesouth.com.