It’s Easter Sunday and I am content to disconnect for a few moments, walk away from the potato peeling and broccoli cutting to venture outside while there is a break in the rain. The front garden is soaked but I stroll through anyway, admiring the way that the shrubs look, newly green, the way that the birds sound while happily plucking their prey from the soft soil, the way that the grass smells as moisture beads on each blade.
I went to the gas station earlier this morning to fill up my car before our holiday lunch- While en route, I talked to my mother.
“I wish you were here today,” I said aloud to myself. “Dylan’s birthday felt odd without you and even though I found a penny on my seat when I got up to leave, it still wasn’t the same. And oh, when I heard dad stumble to bed at the end of the night and called out, ‘You okay, dad?’, my heart just about broke when he muttered, ‘I miss mom,’ into the darkness. It seems that we all feel your absence.”
Upon rolling slowly up to an available gas pump, I opened my door and found a penny on the pavement, right by my foot. I grinned at the irony as fresh memories came flooding back like a tidal wave.
She told me that it was going to be okay. “You better not cancel your anniversary plans,” she lectured. “You can come home in two weeks and tell me all about New York. I’ll be fine.”
And so we went. My husband and I embarked on our exciting weekend in the city, had a full itinerary to guide us but were not wed to any plan in particular. We had two tickets to see Wicked, a Christmas present, and wanted to visit the Bronx Zoo and compare the park to the Animal Planet depiction on TV. We also flagged bookstores, coffee shops, pizza houses, bagel stops, and breweries along our path, in case we got the urge to stop and indulge in one of our many guilty pleasures.
I remember, looking back, that there were pennies everywhere while en route to the Zoo. Some were on the ground, loose, while others were baked into the Subway pavement. I walked past them all, deterred by the probability of germs on each gem, but smiled to myself, added a pep to my step.
Pennies are treasured items in our family, beyond the typical good luck sentiment. When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to tell us that pennies found on the ground were actually from heaven, sent by her father who had passed on years before. We grew up ‘hunting’ for the copper tokens and found them in the most peculiar places.
My grandmother and I were very close, and one day, we were chatting on the phone. “When I die,” she said, “I will come to you in your dreams to let you know that I am okay.”
“Absolutely not,” I laughed. “You can throw millions of pennies down from heaven, but please do not freak me out by appearing to me.”
And that is exactly what she did. It’s been 13 years since she’s been gone and whenever I lose something, I pray to her and find my item, alongside a penny. When I am stressed, lost, thinking of her, anticipating a big day… she is always there in her copper penny form. My mother, my sister, all express the same sentiment and throughout the years, we’ve had our share of eerie stories.
Our day in New York was no exception. Pennies frequented the ground as we walked nearly 39,000 steps from one borough to the next, back to our hotel and toward our Broadway play venue. We took our seats inside the theatre and received some shocking news: My mother had been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Formally on hospice care at home, slowly transitioning toward more assistance with intermittent oxygen tank support and a walker, I knew that my mother’s cancer was progressing more rapidly.
But not that quickly.
My husband called my father during the intermission of Wicked, came back to his seat with a worried look on his face. “What do you want to do?” he asked.
I got up and followed him out of our aisle just as the doors were about to close for the second act. Tears stung in my eyes and I exchanged final pleasantries with the couple sitting next to us, scurried out of the side exit. I curled the Playbook in my hands, clung onto it so tightly that the ink began to bleed onto my skin. Thankfully, my husband led the way back to the hotel so that all I needed to do was follow with my head down, control my breathing and try not to lose control of my emotions. Pennies continued to line our path, my eyes found them with laser beam precision. Whenever I looked up, other symbols stole my gaze amid the crowds of people. A sign in Time Square that read, “Do Not Be Afraid.” A floral arrangement outside of my hotel, complete with pussy willows, my grandmother’s signature flower. I had never noticed them prior. When we reached our hotel room floor and I spotted a penny on the ground, I nearly fell over. “Are you kidding me?” I choked as I ran toward our door.
We packed in silence, checked out as quickly as we could, and drove through the night to get to Hartford Hospital in Connecticut.
When I walked through the doors of the ER it was exactly 2AM. My dad, sister, her fiancé, my uncle and cousin all filled a tiny room with my mother laying on a hospital bed. When she saw me, tears filled her eyes. “Happy anniversary,” she breathed. “I’m sorry, I tried.”
I didn’t realize that night that she wasn’t going to come back home. When the doctors came in and told us that her two month goal of making it to my sister’s wedding was definitely not a reality… I certainly didn’t think that her cancer was aggressive enough to take her in five days. “Her lungs are collapsing, making it increasingly difficult to breathe” they told us in the hallway. “All we can do at this point is make her as comfortable as possible.”
Despite my overwhelming grief, there was so much to do before saying goodbye. I went into “planner process” mode: Mom hadn’t yet created a will. We hadn’t gone through the house to identify sentimental keepsakes. She hadn’t fully expressed her final wishes in detail, didn’t sign the proper paperwork or teach the family how to continue paying the bills. “What had we been doing these past few months?” I wondered. “How are we going to get through this massive to do list now?”
The answer was, that we wouldn’t. The last few days were quiet, with her going in and out of sleep. Slipping in and out of comfort. As she stopped eating, the pain medication increased.
I sit here now, catch myself holding my breath, remembering how it all ended.
And how it didn’t.
| Death Is Not ‘Doom & Gloom’ |
My mother was a spiritual soul, and she really started to explore her beliefs during the final years of her life. She always felt that ‘dead was not dead,’ and promised my sister and I that she would be with us long after her body failed her. It was something that we heard since she had been diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago… but then she effortlessly triumphed over her disease. We had more time, there was no need to talk about death. She then was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. It was a harder battle to fight, but she was victorious, yet again. When we were told that her ovarian cancer had morphed into something rare and aggressive, were informed that she was quickly moving out of remission… still, the topic of death was never addressed. When my mother broached the subject, we’d tell her that she wasn’t going anywhere. That she was going to be fine.
But my mom had started to do her own research about the other side. She deepened her faith in the notion of souls among us. She went to a medium to talk to her mother. She read books. She started making mention of pennies and continued communication. “Death is not ‘Doom & Gloom,’” she’d say.
And we’d respond. “You’re not dying though. You’re going to get through this.”
She’d smile. “I’ll always be around.”
It was time to get rid of mom’s wardrobe; I felt strongly that my father needed a room of his own things, a space that wasn’t cluttered with her items. Our house was built by my parents and for some reason, armoires were more desired than closet space, so one night while everyone was out I brought some garbage bags upstairs and swung open the old wooden doors.
I stared at a packed assembly of my mom’s most recent clothes, ones that best fit her tiny frame. Goosebumps rose on my arms as I thumbed through sweaters and jackets that I remembered her wearing, just weeks before.
And while swallowing tears, I closed the doors.
The next day, my sister was home and we decided to tackle the task together. We tried on and saved some of her favorite pieces, us both her size, and then worked through baskets of pants that she had on the bottom of the dresser. Indian style, with a garbage bag in hand, we tossed item after item into the white sack. Ashley stopped and said, “Do you think we should check the pockets? I can practically hear mom telling us to.”
“No,” I responded. “I’m sure she went through all of these previously.”
My sister tapped on the pocket of an old pair of jeans and suddenly, a rock and a penny fell out and onto the floor.
Bewildered, Ashley and I stared at each other, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
We began to check her pockets.
At the bottom of the basket, we found a few packages hidden, still wrapped in its mailed bubble wrap. “Mom learned how to buy on Etsy,” I said as Ashley investigated the label and opened the bundle. Inside, we could hardly believe what we saw.
My mother must have purchased these gifts months earlier, but it was incredible that my sister and I were both working through her closet together, especially since I was originally slated to organize the armoire on my own. It was an ultimate gift, something so special and so profound that even we couldn’t believe our luck.
This example is just a small indicator of her presence as we aim at creating a ‘new normal’ for ourselves. I can say with conviction- I know- that my mother is still with me. And it gives me so much peace to recognize that she is no longer suffering, but can remain beside me each day through my personal highs and lows. In some sense, I feel closer to her than ever before. And the sentiment has caused me to really consider my own views on life and death: I don’t fear it as much as I once did.
| Life Is A Gift |
I must express, though, that this occurrence has really shaken me to my core, has knocked the wind out of me on more than one occasion while thinking about just how fleeting life is.
I will be in the shower, a place where I can let my guard down and allow my thoughts to roam, and I will suddenly become angry. Like fists through tile visualizations. Momentary hysterics.
My mother had so much more life to give. She had so much left to see and do.
I am a firm believer in the power of positive thinking, and while she was sick, I’d close my eyes and visualize her with my children whenever my mind slipped into a dark place. They’d be on the floor, she’d crinkle her nose in laughter at their shrieks, their giggles, while sitting on our old gray couch.
That projection into the future will never fully be realized.
And that makes me incredibly sad.
I had to write an obituary last week to put in the Hartford Courant and I could not believe that a single column, 14- line entry cost $199.00. I started with a typed-out excerpt and pasted it into the application- my total rang $603.00. “Don’t even think about it,” I heard my mom say. I sliced the content to a bare minimum, a simple announcement of her passing. My heart broke, finding it unfair that I had to condense such an incredible profile into a few sentences.
But her legacy will not be forgotten.
“Carlene J. Martin of Columbia, Connecticut passed away peacefully on Friday, April 5, 2019 at the age of 60 years. Born and raised in New Britain, Connecticut, Carlene’s true place of peace was along a quiet dirt drive, amid a house that stored her most treasured memories, a dream escape that she built with her husband of 38 years, Guy G. Martin. Together, they raised two beautiful children, Britney Faustine & Ashley Martin, and opened their doors to so many others who will now miss her kind heart, easy conversation, and insistent culinary hospitality. Carlene’s favorite moments were peaceful ones- Walking through her fragrant, well-manicured gardens. Opening up the windows to listen to the birds sing. Taking drives to the Connecticut shoreline for lunch at Bill’s Seafood or scouring Old Saybrook’s sandbars for seashell collectibles.
She loved uncovering charming Southern towns like Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia but could never leave behind her home for long. She missed her animals, her cats curled up in her lap or grandbaby dogs by her side while ‘putzing’ around the house, cleaning as a form of relaxation. Her preferred days were spent under the sun, filling window boxes, planting herbs, or cutting stems from her gigantic hydrangea bush. In her eyes, there was nothing better than a day in the yard or out and about, followed by an incredible meal in her kitchen- Either her husband’s Shrimp & Sherry pasta or her brother’s savory Chicken & Olives Italian dish.
Carlene had an eye for art and décor, spent early years antiquing with her husband up and down the East Coast. She was always on the hunt for a bargain and knew just what to buy to make a room feel like home.
Although she was an avid collector, her entire world revolved around the people she loved most. Children were her passion; She worked for years in her daughter’s school system and remained in that space after they were grown. She was a girl scout troop leader, pediatric dental assistant, American Lung Association event volunteer, cheerleading coach, and 2nd mother to all who knew her. She raised her daughters with such grace and loved them fiercely; Some say more than she loved herself. Their accomplishments were hers, her sacrifices, their opportunities. Not a day went by where she didn’t work to meet their every need.
And now, not a day will go by without us missing her, just as fiercely. There will be more memories made in her home, and the chips, the dips, the sweets, the treats, everything but the kitchen sink will blanket the table in her honor. We will smile warmly when our eyes pass over one of her treasured paintings, her trinkets, her gardens. But most of all, we will love each other, in that wonderful, wholesome way that she loved us. We will laugh, we will hug, we will weep, we will forgive, we will continue to make memories in and beyond of the walls of her dream escape, out in the world. We will carry on in the best way possible because her presence in our lives taught us that life is fleeting, but something precious. Something worth fighting for until the very end.”
| Love Is Forever |
My father’s voice was the last one that my mom recognized.
They had said goodbye countless times, I watched my father weep in the hallway of the hospital in a way that still tears my heart in two, upon recollection. He sat in the room alone with her and held her hand, kissed her forehead, stroked her back. Told her that he loved her time and time again. I heard her whispers in response.
Its one of the sweetest things that I will ever know: My parents will forever be the epitome and prime example of “till death do us part.”
My mother and father had their fair share of ups and downs- They were two very different people who certainly didn’t always see eye to eye. Especially in the final months in my mother’s life, I witnessed a strain as my father tried to step in and provide ample assistance while my mother rejected him, and not always politely.
Cancer, and dying in general, does things to people that cannot always be explained. The realization that independence is wavering is scary to some. People become hostile and withdrawn.
My mother sat with many emotions in the last few months of her life. She decided to pursue chemo as a last resort when we learned that holistic, natural healing was no longer working. She decided to stop chemo when she was told that despite the harsh treatments, the cancer was not diminishing. I cannot even begin to imagine the thoughts that clouded her mind, the agony that lay in her heart each day and night while grappling with her reality.
She hid full truths from some, she kept others at a safe distance.
But with my father… she let him in.
Despite all that life had thrown their way, despite all of their triumphs and tribulations, they walked down her last road together, hand in hand.
I still remember the image of him grabbing her frail fingers as the nurse stood behind him, adjusting and increasing her medication.
“I’m here, hun.” He said.
She looked up at him. She nodded.
And then she fell asleep.
| The Clock Continues To Turn |
The rain has started to come down again so I take a few photos of our front yard before making my way back inside the house. My husband and father sit at the kitchen island, stuffing potatoes, while my sister takes a glass pan of brownies out of the oven. Dogs are scurrying about.
The scene is almost typical. It almost feels right.
And then I realize that I will be the one cleaning up, doing the dishes. Getting a cake for my cousin’s birthday today. I was the one who made Easter baskets for the family this morning, woke up early to sing “Here comes Peter Cottontail” just loud enough for the house to hear me while I placed each bundle of treats outside bedroom doors.
Five people would be able to fit in the car now for family functions like my Uncle’s Easter lunch. The front seat would be up for grabs. Dad might not even drive.
The permanence of my mother’s passing hits me hard… and I know that it will, time and time again.
But I also know that the family will still meet, and laughs will still be exchanged, and a meal will be shared. We will play cards and argue over cheaters and eat too much dessert and will go our separate ways at the end of the day.
And time will pass and holidays will be observed and birthdays will be celebrated and we will all grow older, opting in and playing each hand of cards that we are dealt along the way. Sometimes we will fold and sometimes we will win and sometimes…
Well place our bets on the pennies in our pockets.
Either way, with the lessons we’ve learned from our mother, our wife, our friend, our closest kin, the matriarch of our family… I trust that we’ll all do just fine.
So to my loving mother, my best friend, my confidant, my conscience… one of the best passerby’s that my journey ever will know… I still feel you with each step that I take, with each song that plays, soft and slow… I feel you with each kiss of the wind. Your memory is etched on my heart and it is my solemn vow that your spirit will live on.
Each time my pen touches paper.
With every discovery of a penny.
When bare feet touch fresh grass.
When senses breathe in salty ocean air.
Each time my car slows down on your old country back road…
I’ll be seeing you.