My contest winning (almost) piece. Check it out here on the Momoir Project and again here on ParentsCanada magazine's site. Full text below:
Holding my twin boys at their bedside, I've been rocking back and forth so long that my legs are numb. I look down at their tiny faces, amazed at what they've been through. I can barely see their pale skin under a mass of wires and tubes and I am sharply reminded of the multitude of obstacles they still need to overcome before we can bring them home. I close my eyes, focus on the warmth of their bodies against my chest. The familiar sound of the cardiac monitors around us becomes nothing more than white noise. I am lulled into a trance.
Asher and Nolan have been in the neonatal intensive care unit for three months. Since their birth at twenty-six weeks gestation, weighing only two pounds each, my husband, Jordan, and I have spent every day coming and going from the hospital while trying to keep life as normal as possible for our three-year-old daughter, Rio.
Knowing it must be late now, I look up to check the clock and see my mom walking in. She hadn't told me she was coming today, and as she moves towards me, I sense that something isn't right. She gives me a reassuring smile and my posture loosens in relief.
I open my mouth to say hello and instead, I'm startled by the sound of a ringing monitor. I see Nolan's skin begin to turn a familiar shade of bluish-grey. I glance at the screen to see the numbers plummeting. As my own pulse quickens, he pinks up and his heart rate and breathing stabilize, just as quickly as they fell. His nurse watches closely. I give her a nod letting her know we're both fine and take a deep breath. These scares never get any easier.
I look around for my mom and she's no longer there. I am momentarily confused. Then, reality sets in.
How could I have been so silly? Of course, she's gone. She was never here. She died when I was nineteen and I am left with only fantasizing about her presence when I need her. I shake my head, wishing that, for once, it had not been a dream.
There have been countless times over the years when I could have used my mom's guidance at all the important moments, like when I got married or when I was pregnant with Rio or when I was buried in grief after the loss of another daughter. But I could also have used the little things I missed out on learning from her, like how to tie your husband's tie in a perfect double windsor or how to make a turkey dinner for twelve.
So like when I read through her recipes, trying to guess at the correct cooking time that was kept only in her head, I muddle my way through motherhood without her here to counsel me. I desperately want her advice, so I go looking for it.
"Where could it be?" I mutter to myself with increasing urgency.
I pull every book off the shelf, leaving a pile scattered across the floor. I grab a box from the top shelf of the closet, wipe the dust off and open the lid: nothing. I run frantically downstairs and begin rifling through drawers, even though I'm sure it's not there. As a last ditch effort, I brave our cold, musty garage to see if my box of mementos is tucked up in a far corner. I balance on a dirty ten-gallon bucket I've turned upside down, reaching in without seeing. I can't feel it and exhale in dismay.
The letter that my mother had written to me on her deathbed is gone. My last tie to her has vanished to a hidden nook of my house.
I had last pulled it out while the boys were still in hospital, trying to find some sage words of advice that would help me get through the exhausting, and often hopeless, journey we were on. I didn't find them.
What I did find was the scrawling, nearly unrecognizable handwriting – a sign of the cancer that was ravaging her. In it, she told me what a surprise it was to find out she was pregnant with me, the fourth child, when she was forty. She advised me to choose my husband wisely, although she knew I would. She made jokes about how many grandchildren she would have. She reminded me that everything happens for a reason, even if it's hard to understand. And then, with a "Love Mom," it was over. That was it. No answers to all of motherhood's great questions, just a dying mother saying her final goodbyes.
Now, months later, after Asher has been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy as a result of the brain injury he suffered at birth, I am trying to find that letter again. I'm hoping that maybe this time, I'll uncover some jewel that I had previously missed, to help me to deal with this life-altering news. But if I can't find the letter, I can't find my answers. After searching every plausible hiding spot, I fall into Jordan's chest in frustration.
"We'll find it," he assures me as he smoothes my hair.
"And what if we don't?" I ask dejectedly.
There's flour all over the kitchen floor and sprinkled down the front of Rio. We're making sugar cookies and while I roll out the dough, she carefully imprints the butterfly cookie cutter. I resist my urge to do it for her, trying to speed up the process and minimize the mess, reminding myself that she's having fun. She laughs with abandon as I catch her sneaking yet another mouthful of dough. She is the image of me at her age, wearing the blue Bambi apron I once wore, a little worse for wear, but still intact.
I think back to baking with my mom. Standing on tiptoes to see fresh cookies on cooling racks is one of my fondest childhood memories. I look over at those very same racks on my own counter – another of the many things I pilfered from home after my mom died and I moved away.
As I observe this interaction with Rio, I reflect on the many parallels between my mom and me. Sure, there's our love of baking, our ability to be a great hostess and our penchant for making a good list. More importantly though I realize that it's the bigger things. I may do things differently than she did: she was strict and old-fashioned, while I am much more liberal and communicative. But the fundamental morals and values remain the same. My mom gave life lessons by example and she taught me how to be a mother long before I became one: to be a good person, to fiercely love your family and friends and to believe in your own strength.
I now strive to bestow this upon my own kids.
I'm back in the bedroom, tearing the bookshelf apart one last time.
"It has to be here," I tell myself as I pull out all of the same books, hoping the letter will fall out from between them.
I resign myself to the fact that, at least for now, it's lost. As I begin to load the books back on the shelf, I see a glimpse of white. I take a closer look, and sure enough, there it is, an envelope tucked along the back wall of the shelf.
I quickly grab it and clutch it tightly to my chest for only a moment before putting it back safely where I know I'll find it next time. Strangely, I don't need to read it. I just need to know it's there. I know the answers to motherhood that I've been looking for have been inside me all along, waiting for life to show them to me. My mom may only be here in spirit, but with the foundation she provided, I am becoming the mother my children deserve and one I hope that she would be proud of.