One of the hardest things about my mother’s death was the cruel and awful reality of her last few days here on Earth. Cancer is not an enemy that strikes with a quick, clean blow. It is slow and sneaky, harsh and evil.
Seeing it fill my mother’s last days with constant fear and suffering was the hardest thing that anyone in my immediate family has ever endured. When it was over, those of us left behind were battle-scarred, broken and weary in ways we would not have been able to comprehend just months ago. If you have been there, you know.
After watching a loved one fade away in a fog of pain, you need to know they are at peace before you can begin healing yourself. You look for signs. And so we did.
My mother was an animal person. Dogs were her most loved familiars, but all creatures were dear to her heart. She liked keeping it real, and felt that animals are much more genuine than humans. She even got on my case for squashing spiders that had the audacity to hang out in my bathtub and stare at me while I was trying to pee.
So it made sense that if the departed can send signs to the living, Mom’s messages would come from the animal kingdom. Shortly after her death, my sister asked her for a sign. Later that day, one of the regulars at our pub showed up with a tiny water turtle he had found on a job site. “Sebastian” now lives in an aquarium in Momma’s bedroom. The only thing Mom loved almost as much as dogs was frogs. While tending Mom’s flowers, my niece was visited by a tiny frog who stopped and let her snap a picture before hopping away.
Mom was a very spiritual woman. She said things like “I believe in Jesus AND tree fairies.” She gave each of us a guardian angel. She’d ask them to protect us when she felt we were in need. She told me that mine was a cardinal.
My boyfriend Lee and I bought her a Scottish Broom and planted it in her yard on Mother’s Day a few years ago. The other day, we were over the house and Lee cleared the dead growth around it away as I sat on the porch chatting with my sister and my father. As he was lugging the dead branches away, a bright red cardinal landed on a wire just above the Scottish Broom. It chirped and watched me for a while, and I could hear Mom saying “about damn time you people doctored up my plant” in his singing.
But perhaps the best sign of all came this past weekend. Last summer, my niece brought home a sweet little pup from her vacation in West Virginia. Although Mom loved dogs, the last thing she wanted was another one. They already had three. But her and my sister lost that battle, and Charlie came home with Jordyn. She quickly wrapped the entire family around her little paw, especially my father. Mom was diagnosed with cancer just a few months after Charlie joined the family. Dad has told me many times that he thinks she was sent to him. Through the grueling months to come, she would be one of the few things that could still make him laugh.
Last Friday night, my niece went to the beach with a friend for the weekend. My sister stayed overnight with a friend. Dad was home with just the dogs for the first time in a long while. Saturday morning, he got up and did what he always does – took his cup of coffee out to the porch.
Charlie is one of those dogs who wants to be where you are, especially if “you” are my Dad. Although she’d already been out that morning, she wanted to join him. Like she often does, she jumped at the glass door to get his attention. But unlike any other time, she managed to hit the lock and bar Dad from coming back inside.
Any other morning, this would be no big deal. My sister and niece would be home to let him in. If they were still sleeping, he’d have gotten an earful, but that would be the worst of it.
As it happened, Lee had stopped by to borrow Dad’s riding mower. Dad told him to go in and make himself a cup of coffee. When he tried, they realized what Charlie had done. No coffee for Lee. Even worse, Dad hadn’t yet had his morning constitutional. Needing to have our coffee in order to make that happen sort of runs in my family. Dad had to call my sister, wake her up and ask her to come home with her key to let him in.
When she got there, Dad muttered something about “that damn Charlie.”
My sister said “That wasn’t Charlie. It was Mom.”
I think she was probably right. My Mom wouldn’t just send us frogs and turtles and cardinals. She’d send those sweet, gentle signs that everything is OK for her now, sure. But that’s not all she’d do. My Mom is the kind of lady who has to mess with us a little bit. I know she’d get a huge kick out of locking Dad out of the house before ‘morning dump’ time. She’d get an even bigger kick out of getting his favorite pup to help her do it.
What better way to help us heal than to let us know she’s still herself, making us laugh at our own expense? Some may say I’m just one of those people who sees signs where she wants to see them, and I’m okay with that. After all, I’m the daughter of the woman who gave me a bird for a guardian angel and told me that tree fairies are real.
Love you Mom. Like a dog.