Have you ever wondered why the families in picture frames always look so happy all the time? My family used to be like that. Two happy, supportive parents, two girls, three boys, and a nice motley crew of animals running around. I had two younger brothers, Jack and Eli, who were always up for fun and mischief. My older brother and sister, Kate and Leo, were only a year older than me and together we were like the three musketeers. Sometimes I think Kate and I are more like twins than Kate and Leo are. We all grew up on a small dairy farm that Daddy started all by himself right before he and Mom got engaged. My favorite job was taking care of the chickens; laughing as they pecked at the ground, running as they chased me, and feeling like the most important person in the world when the baby chicks trusted me enough to crawl into my hands and snuggle in the sleeves of my sweatshirt.
My mom always homeschooled us. If I think hard enough, I can see all of us cuddled up on the couch reading book after book. My mom taught us all to write our letters, sitting patiently beside us at the kitchen table as Jack and Eli played at her feet. She taught us to read using classic little books, falling apart at the spine, worn with love. She made a game of us counting the change we dumped out of the bottom of her purse. When I think of those early school years with Mom, I think of reading-- us three older kids stumbling through lines of Frog and Toad while my mom’s smooth, expressive voice brought the classics to life right before our eyes. I think of the way my mom was always willing to get right in the middle of everything. She didn’t mind being up to her elbows in paint and glitter with mine and Kate’s latest art endeavor. She smiled and sprawled out on the floor to build an elaborate train set with Jack, Eli, and Leo. She toiled in the garden everyday, and worked outside with Dad during the busy times, doing anything to be done with a smile on her face.
Mom’s real name was Clara. She liked to wear red lipstick, always saying just because she was a farmer’s wife didn’t mean she couldn’t be a lady. She was a fantastic cook, and loved the challenge of making as many different things as possible out of our garden. Mom was always singing in her gorgeous, mellow voice. She sang all the time--classic nursery rhymes, songs we heard at church, songs she heard on the radio, songs she claimed to not have heard in twenty years. She liked to dance, too, picking one of the little ones up and twirling them around to make us laugh, or doing a little twist with her spoon while tasting whatever it was she was fixing for dinner.
Mom was a nurse, something else she’d always known she wanted to do. Before the twins were born, she would go to work everyday at the new hospital on the other side of town. By time I was born and there were three babies in the house, my mom stopped working at all and stayed home to love on us. She liked being a nurse, but she loved being our mom more than anything. Even though she wasn’t working she was very, very busy teaching all of us, caring for baby Jack, and then baby Eli. She helped my dad however she could and was one of our church's most enthusiastic volunteers.
When Eli was a baby my mom started working as a “phone nurse”, slipping into the office three evenings a week from the minute she finished eating dinner until long after we were in bed, answering the questions of panicked parents. Even on nights she was working, my mom would have each of us come into the office one by one at bedtime. On nights the phone calls just dribbled in, we hopped up beside her in her chair and she would sing and cuddle and pray with us before we went to bed. On busy nights, she still had us come in for a hug and a kiss. I always asked her to brush my hair, and she always would, even if she had the phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear as she gently worked the comb through my freshly-washed hair.
To us, August 30th, 2012, seemed just as normal as any other day. I remember trying out a new set of water colors with Kate. We laid side by side on our bellies on the hot wooden deck and painted puppies and flowers. I remember that day excitedly listening to Jack read “The Cat in the Hat” cover to cover without any help at all. To celebrate, we had ice cream cake in the middle of the afternoon, still leftover in the freezer from the twin’s 10th birthday a week before. I remember the smile on Mom’s face as she watched us play hide and seek between the rows of corn, the sun brightening her face, wind tossing her hair around her head, her ruby lips making her easily spotted even when I was peeking through the cornstalks.
I know a lot of things now I didn’t know until August 30th, 2012. I didn’t know that when you call the ambulance to come to your house, the police will come too. I didn’t know that the police officers will stand in your kitchen, asking your dad all kinds of questions, while you and your little brothers stand at the top of the stairs, shaking in your pajamas. I didn’t know how small Leo would look from my bedroom window, standing barefoot in the driveway, watching the ambulance speed off. I didn’t know that his dark hair would make him nearly invisible at night. I didn’t know that Kate would look equally tiny, as she runs off the porch, crying for him to come back inside.
I didn’t know that you can still hear the sirens for a long time after the flashing lights are gone from the gravel driveway, frightening the animals in its wake. I didn’t know that our closest neighbor and her teenage daughter could come to our house in four minutes. I didn’t know that Dad would ever walk out the door with untied shoes, and without a goodbye to any of us.
I didn’t know that the room they put dead people in is called the trauma room. I didn’t know that when you wrap a dead body in blankets, the chest might still feel warm, causing your almost-nine-year-old brain to dare to believe she might still be alive somehow. I didn’t know that the sterile, horrible smell of hospitals will never leave your memory. I didn’t know that my Dad ever, ever cried.
I had reluctantly turned 9 by time we found out the big unknown--what in the world had happened? How could someone so beautiful, so active, so healthy go from feeling a little off to dead in the blink of an eye? Our answer finally came at Christmastime. She had myocarditis--a rare, lethal heart condition triggered by the simplest of illnesses. Within hours, a virus had crept into her heart, caused it to swell, and then stopped it altogether.
I know more now than I knew when I was nine. I know now that the evening my mother died, she put all of us to bed, stacked the dinner dishes in the sink, and told my dad she wasn’t feeling well. She made herself a cup of hot tea and sat down on my father’s lap while he was reading a book. I know now that just she hours before she died, my parents sat close together on the couch, Mom sipping her tea and Dad reading an interesting part of his book aloud to her. She gave him a kiss, and told him she would just go to bed early and get some sleep--she’d feel better in the morning. I know now on that night, Dad finished reading, cleaned up the kitchen, and went upstairs to bed to find Mom rigid and unresponsive. He screamed. I remember the scream.
And I know now that it would take months for the eternalness to set in--that I would still call out “bye Mom” as I walked out the door, that I would still want to go find her at the end of a great book to talk about it, that I would still imagine her sitting between Jack and I at church each week, Eli sitting on her lap instead of on Dad’s. I know now that when someone dies, the three year old will ask where she is. Every day. Multiple times a day. And I know now that “Heaven” gets harder to say every single day.
I still know that it was super nice of Aunt Allie to come stay with us. But still, I know now that Aunt Allie doesn’t wear red lipstick like Mom, and her hair never smells like Mom’s favorite shampoo. I know that Aunt Allie can’t cook like Mom, not at all. I know her hugs don’t feel as tight, her prayers don’t feel as genuine, and her reading doesn’t feel as expressive.
Here’s a few more things I know: