Last night, Neve got out of the bath, and I realized that she hadn’t gotten all the shampoo out of her hair.
It was bedtime, and the kids had already driven me and Joe a bit crazy – they’d both been acting like Kelly Ripa on meth, all afternoon – so we needed a quick fix.
“Let’s go to the kitchen and do that thing where you lie down on the counter, and I rinse your hair out in the sink,” I said.
Neve happily agreed. She loves doing this. She thinks it’s fun. And she likes hearing about how my own mom washed my hair like this when I was little.
In my childhood home, my neck and lower head would rest on a folded up towel at the kitchen sink’s edge. My mom would cup one hand over my hairline, to shield my eyes, and work the sink’s nozzle with the other. Then, after massaging shampoo onto my scalp and rinsing it out, she’d squeeze as much water from my hair as she could and hold it bunched in her fist as I sat up on the counter. The dry-me-off-like-a-dog phase came next, where Mom opened up the towel onto my head, gripped it, and then vigorously rubbed my scalp, so that my whole body vibrated. I often uttered a low tone that would start to sound like a motor, and this would make me giggle.
As I rinsed Neve’s hair with our nozzle, she said, “Did you wash my hair in this sink when I was a baby?”
I said, “Sweetie, I gave you your first baths in this sink. Your whole body fit in here, and I’d soap you up and sing to you.”
“Was I this small?” she asked, holding her hands about 8 inches apart.
“You were bigger than that, but small enough to fit. OK, kiddo, the shampoo’s all rinsed out.”
I squeezed the water out of her hair and helped her sit up. “Now do the doggie thing,” Neve said, beaming.
After every bath now, Neve comes to me with a towel and asks me to dry her hair like my mom dried mine. I do. And she giggles helplessly.
This hit my heart last night more than usual, because today’s the 8th anniversary of my mom’s death. On this date, Joe and I rushed (then 8 months old) Lily to the airport and flew to North Carolina, only to learn, while standing near a bunch of car rental counters, that Mom had died while we were in the air. My dad and my older sister had been with her, thankfully, and we’d known that we might not make it in time.
So our race to say goodbye became a mournful drive to the hospital, to kiss my mom’s physical body one last time, to touch her hair, to tell her “thank you,” and then to support my grieving father in any way we could.
Baby Lily sat in her stroller, outside the hospital room where my mom lay. Joe and I took turns staying with her. Bringing a new life into a room of death instinctively felt incongruous and wrong to me.
This morning, while helping the girls get dressed for school, I noted the 8th anniversary of their grandma’s death. Lily hugged me and asked, “Was I there?”
“Yes, sweetie, but you were a baby,” I said. “She saw you a few times, and she was absolutely crazy about you.”
“Was I there?” Neve asked.
“No, this was a few years before you were born,” I told her. “But my mom would have loved you so, so much.”
“Because she loved babies, like you do?” Lily asked. (This always makes me laugh, since children of all ages were of zero interest to me before I had my own.)
“Well, she loved babies, yes, but she loved kids generally, and she also had a particular soft spot for little stinkers like Nevie,” I said, poking Neve, who grinned mischievously, as if on cue.
What I didn’t say out loud, but thought, was this: I wish my mom could see the girls you are now, and see the young women you’ll become.
I wish she got to see how close you are to each other, and hear what it sounds like when you’re laughing together, and how you complement each other in so many ways. I wish she could have seen Lily’s art, and heard her read book after book after book to her 2 year old cousin last week. I wish she’d gotten to enjoy Neve’s lap snuggles, and see her whack a ball with a bat, and hear how excited she is about being in “big girl school.”
But more than all that, I wish these girls had gotten a chance to know my mom. I wish they could have baked with her, and asked her embarrassing questions about what I was like as a kid, and felt her love and warmth for them. And I wish I could have gotten to know my mom better, too, just as I was starting to get a small inkling for what it was like to have lived in her shoes.
Wishes are just wishes, though, and loss leaves a hole that may never be completely filled by other things. Absence, in this way, becomes a strange and constant companion for those who grieve a loved one.
But sometimes, what provides temporary relief comes from an unexpected places.
My mother’s first memorial service happened in the North Carolina town that she and my father adopted as their new hometown, following my father’s retirement. To travel to my mother’s final resting place, and a second funeral, we all packed into vans and headed north to Indiana. In January. I have vivid memories of feeding baby Lily in a fast food restaurant’s parking lot and seeing my breath.
Anyway, we stayed at a Holiday Inn, and after we got Lily to sleep in her crib, Joe and I turned on the TV with the volume low. We started watching “House.” And we got hooked.
As it happened, this was one of those situations where a cable channel shows episodes of one TV series all night, every night. So when a second episode of “House” started at the tail end of the first, Joe and I looked at each other like we’d just won the lottery.
After the third episode, Joe called it a night and went to sleep.
I remained seated at the foot of our bed in the dark, watching one more episode.
Because for some reason, the formulaic medical drama comforted me.
Maybe even because it was formulaic.
For when you’re mowed down by grief, and you’re in shock, notions of a larger order and logic, and hidden answers that must simply be unearthed (provided we’re willing to work hard to find them), have an intensely powerful, personal appeal.
Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie (and inspired by Sherlock Holmes), is a misanthropic doc who gets the cases other physicians can’t seem to figure out, because the medical facts don’t seem to add up. House and his beleaguered team of residents eliminate possible answers through trial and error, and by the end of each hour-long episode, House has figured out what’s happening in the patient’s body and why.
When the scenario is finally explained, you feel a sense of wonder and satisfaction, along with maybe having learned something new about the human body. By show’s end, you can’t help but start to believe that even the most baffling bits of information can be puzzled together in some way to yield answers. It starts to feel like it must be possible.
This was the reason for my temporary “House” addiction.
When my mom died, I wanted to be convinced that everything made sense in some way. I wanted to think that if I isolated the right combination of facts, and saw things from a different perspective, I’d arrive at an answer about why my mom wouldn’t get to see Lily become a little girl, or even meet two additional grandchildren.
Rationally, I knew there was no answer. But “House” invited me believe, in an impossible moment, that maybe there was, and that was enough to prop me up and push me forward.
This sounds profoundly stupid, I know – that a TV medical drama (not exactly the highest art form) could provide something meaningful to us when we’re in crisis. But all I can tell you is this: I’ve felt a warmth and a gratitude toward this series ever since; and I’m reminded that my mom watched and read mysteries, too.
I have to think – as a woman who suffered from Polio as a young teen, and then fought through four bouts with cancer – that my mom was likely a person who longed for a world driven by a larger design, too.