I still remember my first diary. It was small with a bright red velvet cover. I loved running my fingers over its smooth softness, marveling at the gold gilt edges. I felt special when I wrote in it, not noticing the way my misshapen words ran outside the narrow lines. I was five years old.
Fast-forward twenty-five years. My mother was dying. When I arrived at my parents’ home, the hospice nurses had administered morphine for the first time. That afternoon, sitting beside her in a living room filled with light, I fed her cherries. They were the first cherries of summer, hard but sweet, full of juice that stained my fingers.
It was her last meal.
Sometime in the night she lost consciousness and never recovered.
So we waited. It’s a strange thing to wait for someone to die. Part of me wanted it to happen quickly, the anticipation excruciating, but another part of me wanted her to stay as long as she could.
Family arrived to help. They shopped and cooked for us, they filled our house with love and reverence.
One day my cousin told me she was going to the bookstore and asked if I wanted anything. “A journal,” I said, surprising myself. I hadn’t kept a journal in years, but right away I felt something shift inside of me, a space opening.
She bought me two. They were beautiful. I picked up the smaller one, white with blue and silver birds decorating the cover. I brought it upstairs to my mother’s room and I sat in my usual chair beside her bed.
I wrote these words: “Dear Mama…”
That journal became my lifeline, my connection to my mother, while she was dying. I wrote to her every day, often several times a day.
I poured all my despair and fear into that journal while I sat by her side. I cried while I wrote, blurring the words beneath my pen, blotting it with tissues, and continuing. I felt an urgency to keep going, to document every detail, though I didn’t know why.
Eight days after I arrived, on the first day of summer, she died. My father was with her, and later he told us how peaceful it was, how painless, how her breath ebbed and flowed in slower increments until it stopped.
I wrote her eulogy for the funeral, which was the next day. Afterwards, I picked up my journal again, only this time, instead of writing beside her, I wrote alone. But my greeting was the same every time, I still wrote to her.
My parents had recently moved to a beautiful beachside house, and though my mother did not have long to enjoy it, the house was a gift to those of us left behind. Every day I would take my journal to the rocks on the jetty and find my favorite one, wide and flat, warmed by the sun, smoothed by sand, wind, and time.
I wrote to her about my all-encompassing sorrow, how my chest felt as if it had been cracked open.
I wrote to her about how grief was such a lonely journey, a hard lesson I was just beginning to grasp.
I wrote about how angry I felt at everyone who was trying to speed up my grief, suggesting ways I could feel better when all I wanted to do was stay inside it, wrap it around me like a cloak.
I wanted to feel everything.
Writing to my mother helped me do just that. I wept and wrote, I raged and surrendered. As the ocean roared in the background, my heart roared with sadness and soared with love.
Then, later that summer, a new petal of grief unfurled when I started to slowly reenter my life. I realized, with painful clarity, that while time would not necessarily heal me, it would soften the rawness of my loss.
This made me panic. I didn’t want softening, not yet. I wanted to revisit those harrowing days, when every sense was heightened and fierce, when my heart beat faster, and my tears could fill an ocean.
Witnessing my mother’s death had been brutal, but also powerful. I didn’t want to forget it. So I dove back into my journal, rereading it from the beginning, and let myself go back and forth between both worlds.
Seven years after her death, I don’t have as much time to journal. Life has grown busy and full with two children under the age of six. But there is a bin I revisit on occasion, filled with my old journals. The red velvet diary is there, as well as my white one, covered with soaring birds, a reminder of the last week of my mother’s life.
A gift to myself.
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