This is a post about my friend Mary, who died of bile duct cancer one year ago today. She was 47.
I’m struggling to believe that an entire year has passed since her death. In some ways, I still think it’s not real. I guess that’s what they call wishful thinking, or the mind’s reluctance to accept the hard cold finality of loss. Some little fantasy-world part of me expects to come home and hear a long chatty message from her on the answering machine. And then, there are other days where the bitter awareness of our loss comes out of nowhere, and it is like I’m being bodyslammed by grief.
I miss her terribly.
Matthew was one of Mary’s many godchildren (to them, she went by “God Mary”). He mentions her often, especially lately. Just a week or two ago, he talked about the last camping trip we went on with Mary, two summers ago. “Remember when we went camping with GodMary and she made that sandwich thing, you know, with graham crackers and marshmallow?”
“You mean smores?” I asked.
“Yeah, smores. Well, remember how I tried mine and didn’t like it? GodMary said that was okay and she threw the rest of it in the campfire.”
I didn’t remember this at all, though I’m sure it happened just as Matthew described. And it made me reflect on the unique nature of memories, those little pieces of another person that we collect during our interactions with them. Memories — along with the photos, and the things that belonged to the person, and the gifts they gave us — are all that are left, really, when someone dies. Matthew was five when Mary died, and I have always wanted to be sure that he had enough memories of her to make her feel real to him. It seems that he does.
That is one of his Mary stories now, that moment where she threw the unwanted smore into the fire and let him know it was okay if he didn’t like it. That clearly meant something to him. And I am glad he has it.
In fact, when I think of Mary, I can’t help but think of stories. Mary had so many stories, usually randomly hilarious ones. If you knew Mary, you might have heard the tale about the dingo dog; the one about Aidan at the pub, whose eyes were swimming in his head; the anecdote about getting a pair of super-expensive shoes at a massive discount, literally under the nose of another shopper. If you didn’t know these, you probably knew others. She told these stories over and over, and hearing them was always so fun, because she relished the telling of them. It was like hearing a favorite joke: you knew what the punchline would be, but somehow it never got old.
I’d love to hear these stories again, out of Mary’s lips. I’d love to hug her again. I’d love to invite her over and have her call about a half-hour after she was supposed to be there, saying that she’d be a little late (Mary always tried to fit more into a day than was humanly possible). I’d love to go camping with her again, the kids on the trip clustered around her as she toasted marshmallows or played cards with them at a picnic table.
I can’t do that, any of it. I think that one of the hardest things about losing a loved one is realizing that you won’t be making anymore memories with them. You have created your last ones.
And so those memories become infinitely precious. I would say that we tuck them away and preserve them, but that’s not really how it works. We keep bringing them out and turning them over in our minds, handling them easily instead of gingerly, because we know they’ll only become stronger with use. They are the stories we tell over and over again, relishing them every single time, even the times when it hurts.
I miss you and I love you, Mary. Thank you for the memories.