Select Page

I’m waving back to you, Mom. You, Diane. I see you in the window, down the driveway in the house you and Dad shared before you passed. You’re waving, just there. A familiar wave, excited, your palm overextended on your tiny wrist. A mother’s can’t-wait wave. Come here, the wave says, and let me hug you. Hello! Your pale, pale face. Your enormous, blue, long-lidded Scottish eyes. That red-blond hair. There you are, waving away. I’m waving too. My wave like yours, only daughter-to-mother. Here I am. I’m here. Waving and waving back.

Oh, Ma. The way you spoke about mundane things. Small talk. Birds and flowers. Skunks. Your cat. That damn cat, do you know what he did? you’d say. You’d remind me about daylight savings, the Northern Lights, the first day of Spring. Or, What kinds of birds do you have in your neck of the woods? I’ve got too many blue jays here. They eat all my seed. Mom, I feel you with me when I garden and commiserate with the tulips and daffodils and irises and peonies. I know you in the hummingbirds and the bluebirds and robins and dragonflies. And bees. And all the plants you left behind. Your purple orchid, now in my kitchen. Your lily pad begonia and your majestic antediluvian jade, both inclining toward the sun in my office. The rioting pink blooms of your Christmas cactus, the one you took cuttings from for everyone, now in slumber for the Spring and Summer. And how you loved the seasons, too! Your beloved New England. Born in New Hampshire; Maine became home. Spring was your season. Birth and renewal, you’d say. Easter was your favorite holiday. I don’t think it was chance that you died in Ordinary Time. Outside of the holy seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent or Easter. Your soul was watching. And oh how you loved the season of me as a child the best.

You didn’t talk about big things, Mom, or so I thought. This was your only way—or maybe your best way—to be with me. I know now. It wasn’t small talk. Big talk was happening underneath the small talk. It was just unspoken. You wanted our moments together to be light and beautiful and hopeful. See, you were really holding my hand.

I had forgotten how you allowed the sunshine of your self to imbue my earliest childhood. Your love flooded into my heart. Chunky beams of love. It was all so simple and warm and redolent. Until I was around four feet tall. Where did all of that heavenly warmth go, Mumma. I didn’t believe it even really existed. I thought it was a dream.

No, Mother. I wasn’t bad. I know you thought I was. You held that thought all the way through adulthood, didn’t you. We could not come together as we had in the season of my childhood. You are my heart twin. I believe you wanted to love me. I believe when I left as a teenager it hurt you so much you hated me for it. But you never hated me more than you loved me. You loved me dangerously, you jealous goddess. Your mixed-up wrath, your bumbling hellos, your message always: I want more for you. You are better than this, you know. Until.

You got Alzheimer’s. And your love bounded and came and you made of me again, and your love was warm and pure and perfect. A lightstorm of love. I was your child again. How you dissolved it all. How? It doesn’t matter. You did. And it was the greatest gift of my life.

Mother. Your own story, apart, all your own. I wanted more for you, too, you know. Did you fly far enough. Big enough? I wish you’d had just one vacation to yourself. You even worked as a travel agent! Maybe you didn’t want your own vacation. I wish you’d had one. And a condo in the city, maybe. Wild nights that were only yours, just for you. That giddy freedom I got to know. Did you know it? You resented me for mine. I wish I could have taken you with me. Oh, my mother. Did you love your life? Were you happy? Were you disappointed? All of those secrets, sharp in your heart. I’ve read the letters you wrote me. The ones you wanted me to find. I see now. You were lonely. Angry. Sad. You kept it all to yourself. You did have that. You had your privacy. Your secrets. And you loved yourself. You know you deserved more. Much more.

What was it like for you, all those nights alone with your husband gone chasing the rainbow of his career. You said you liked it, loved it even. I think you were clowning, Mom. Maybe you were clowned. But I think you didn’t want anyone to know how lonely you were. I’m ashamed I didn’t know. Why couldn’t we hold hands. You know I tried to lift you. Anytime we were together I doted on you. Brought you flowers. It was agony to be with you, you in so much pain, so angry, flashing it on me because you knew I would hold it.

I didn’t understand, Mom. I didn’t know you loved me.

What you didn’t say was, Why don’t you love me. What I didn’t say was, Why don’t you love me.

I didn’t want you to be in hospice. I know you hated it. That chair. The impossible stasis. Not your home. Take me home, you kept saying. I wish I had taken you home. To my house. Taken care of your UTI. Taken you to the hospital and let them check to see if you’d had a stroke. Given you a feather pillow and sweet fresh sheets. Drawn a bath. Massaged you with lavender lotion. I wish I did. I wish I could have. I know I couldn’t have. I can still wish.

I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye to you in hospice. Not a formal goodbye. The last day I saw you, you were sundowning and scared and you said: It’s too late. I said it wasn’t. Of course it isn’t too late. And you cried until you fell asleep. Goodbye, I whispered, from the doorway. I had a premonition that I brushed away: I would never get the chance to say goodbye again.

Somehow, I couldn’t do it. I thought it was because I was afraid to say goodbye. I thought it was because—maybe you would die if I gave you my forgiveness. I felt you were waiting for it, hanging on for it. Maybe even prayed for it. When we prayed with you, you did something so beautiful. You made praying hands that were uncoordinated in your sickness. It was as though you were trying to catch butterflies in a dream. Oh, Mom. I wanted to stay with you. Sit vigil in that room with you. But I had to run a conference and nobody else could do it. I would come back afterward. Just a week, Mom. You died five days later. Without me. Without my goodbye. You turned in on yourself, I was told. As though your body had turned inside out. And then you were gone.

There’s always someone else to blame. So I blame the night nurse. That night nurse who didn’t keep her promise. She promised to tell me when you started to go. She said she could tell when death took hold. She said she would call me and warn me when the time came. I believed her. She never called. You deserved better, Mom. You deserved my apology.

You know what I was going to do. I was going to hold you and recount the story of your life from Keene as a little girl with your grandfather Austin and your grandmother Bertha, your lifelong deities and your compass. Austin, an Episcopalian minister. The cross meant so much to you, you said, and when you passed an altar, you got weak in the knees, you said. Your father, in the army, taking photographs. An army man and an artist and a jazz musician. Your mother, the great beauty, the teaser. And you, with no middle name. A girl. Your brother, coming in eight years after you. The time you pushed his stroller down the hill to kill him because you couldn’t stand any of it. You said you were a princess, a queen. Nobody understood. Those stories of yours, Mom. I didn’t understand. I listened. I was your listener. Another reason why you hated me. My listening and not understanding. I tried to make it up to you.

I was going to recount your early years with your first husband. Your divorce. Your wiggling baby, whose diaper you changed in a window near a screen and how he fell out the window and bounced on the screen a floor below on the grass. And how grateful you were for your life and his, after all, in that moment. The nineteen sixties. And Mom, how beautiful you were. Not small town beautiful. Siren beautiful. Lauren Bacall. Sophia Loren. You were working at Howard Johnsons. For fuck’s sake. Where you met my young father. You sewed in together and talked about music and art. More children. Christmases. Heartbreaks. Your father’s death, and so young. Your uncle’s Alzheimer’s. Your mother’s stroke. Her death. All of the flowers and wreaths you set on graves each year. The guitar you learned to play, the singing you studied. Your hotheadedness. The tirades, the politics. The settling down and down and down and your anger going up and up and up. The way you banged those fucking pans in the morning, here comes breakfast. You stomped. How you ran out of patience every day. You rang the bell, and the bell meant home. My darling mother. Your voice, your smell. Your myriad expressions. Your made-up words. Your tail-twisting. The way you walked on your heels. Please, your laugh. Mom, you were the parent who brought the reality, the tradition, the grounding, even though you lied. Your lies. Legion! I don’t care. The least of which: let’s have your beef bourguignon. I wanted to hold you and say these things and sing the reverie of you. I wanted to tell you the peepers and the loons would miss you. I would miss you. We all miss you, you know.

It wasn’t my story to tell, though, was it. You told your own story instead. And it was good and it was perfect. And you let me be with you. Because I knew when you died and I called the hospice in the middle of the night and they confirmed it.

Oh, mother. I think of you at final rest and I can’t bear it. I wanted to give you more at your death. Resplendence. Flowers for miles. A reverential Gregorian mass for thirty days, to bleed our sorrow and to honor you. To pray with you and for you even as I don’t really know how to pray, and let you rise, if there is such a thing. To believe with you. What if your soul was crying out? What if your soul cried: Prostrate in supplication I implore thee, with a heart contrite as though crushed to ashes. Oh, I would be there with you, if I could. Put in a good word. Bring you to right up to the pearly gates myself. You know this. You know. Here I am. In the midst of life, we are in death.

It took me a year, until this very day, the first Mother’s Day after your death, to realize that I couldn’t forgive you. That is why I didn’t say goodbye and hold you and rock you like you rocked me as a child. You deserved my forgiveness. I failed you.

I told you I loved you and that my love was eternal. I always told you that. You didn’t believe me, did you, because I didn’t give you a grandchild. I was afraid of you, Ma. I can’t say that is why I didn’t have a child. It’s more than that. More than I can ever explain to you. I wanted a child, you know. I could barely take care of the child of me. I had to change my own origin story to survive. You weren’t easy. But you were brilliant. A sun.

Well. This is isn’t fair, is it. You can’t say anything back. It’s just not fair for me to go on like this. What a perfect bullshit, huh, Mom, that I’m saying these things now, and you’re gone. Maybe you’re here. I think you are. Maybe I’m dreaming with you. Oh let me catch your prayer butterflies. I hope you know. Mom, I wanted to give you all of everything.

Can we live in the light now. Can I wave to you in the Spring light of May. Do you feel me waving. Will you visit me as flowerlight. As birdsong and waterfall. As foxdance, grassblade, turtle. Will you visit me in the wildness of cats? Will you visit me as the moon. As the fireflies of the night? I’m here, I’m waving back. I understand. See, you taught me to forgive. You forgave me, after all. I believe you, Mumma. I believe you. I believe you.


Shanna McNair is founding director of The Writer’s Hotel, The New Guard literary review and High Frequency Press. She writes prose, poetry and scripts and is an award-winning journalist. More at

Main Image: Diane and Shanna McNair in Chile, 1978