On Wednesday, my phone rang. It was my Ma, who sometimes accidentally calls me on Messenger and always blames the cat. This was a regular phone call, though, and she never calls, so I thought it was odd. But it wasn’t her. It was the police, using her phone to call and tell me that she’d fallen on the stairs in her house.
And just like that she was gone from my life.
I guess a part of me wasn’t completely surprised. She was 83, lived alone mostly, stubbornly, in a house that was too big and had slippery stairs. I worried about her constantly. But when Officer Calvert said that she’d died, I heard the echo of a door slamming shut and locking tight. I was on the outside, suddenly feeling very small and alone and afraid.
Years ago, in the Pitti Palace gallery in Florence, I saw a Madonna and Child by Raphael. Like so many of that genre, it’s just a woman holding a baby. The only way we know they’re special people is the haloes and maybe Raphael felt compelled to paint those to hammer home the point, to make sure, sure, sure we know who they represent and that they’re not just his sister-in-law showing off her baby boy.
The painting reached out to me because of the way the baby’s fingers rest against the fabric of his mother’s dress. There is something so tactile, so sensual in that touch. The bond between the two is palpable. It’s as if he’s looking out into the world with curiosity but still holding tight to the best thing he’s ever known.
I don’t have a lot of memories from my early childhood but I do remember sitting on my mother’s lap, small enough that all of me fit comfortably without any limbs flopping onto the sofa. She would run her index finger along my face, starting at the middle of my forehead and drawing a line down the bridge of my nose, then along my cheeks under my eyes. My skin was still little-girl smooth, unlined, ungreased, untouched by all that lay ahead.
I felt not just loved but cherished, recognized as valuable and having a place in the world, worthy of that place, and above all, safe and protected.
All these years later, after all the things I’ve seen and done and the amazing (and not so amazing) people I’ve met, I always felt tethered to that gentle touch on my face. I’ve always felt the presence of my mother and the purity of her love.
Now, in its place, there is nothing but grief.