life lessons, love, mindfulness

Barely Breathing

It was her signature.  Such a simple, innocuous thing.  Her name, in her inimitable penmanship – which I always thought was wonderful for its illegibility and graceful European quality.

The government of Austria had requested documentation pertaining to her death.  I made copies from the material sent to me from the lawyer who navigated my sister and I through the maze of trusts and estates.  Walking upstairs to retrieve the documents from the printer tray, what was I thinking?  Probably how not to trip on twelve paws racing between and around one’s legs.

I had to look at the copies to make sure they were complete.  Death certificate, medical reasons which belied the possibility that she had just begun to feel lost in her days without my dad and it depleted her too quickly.  More legal documents; a last will and testament.  And her name, in her hand.

Suddenly, there wasn’t enough air in the house, in the world for me to breathe.  Andy looked at me and all I could do was show him the papers in my hand before my gasping turned into a sob that came from a place in me – a waiting room for sobs I think.  Deep, primal.  Nine years already?  And still.  Her name, in her hand.  I lost my footing; I wasn’t ready.  I will never be ready.

My friend doesn’t believe that there is something after this life.  I believe it, but don’t really know what it is I’m believing.  In an interview on NPR, Mary Roach rhetorically asks, who is better off?  The believer or the non-believer?  We agreed, that one with faith – in all that one can’t see – is arguably better off.  But there was little doubt that sometimes pain can take your breath away regardless of your position.

“It’s so curious:  one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer…and everything collapses.” — Colette

I drove to the post office with one hand on the envelope, rubbing the spot where I thought her signature might be.  The postmaster commented about the address “Headin’ to Vienna, Austria, right?  And here we are in Vienna, Virginia – funny, huh?”  I think I smiled.  I wanted to tell him that he was holding my mom’s name.  In her hand.  And that it was briefly in mine.



73 thoughts on “Barely Breathing”

  1. a signature is a small physical mark of a person, that can render such a huge impact on someone who knows it so well, and loves the person who left it behind. beautifully written and so touching, mimi. i’m sorry for your loss, time moves on, yet the heart stands still and love is eternal.

  2. Wow Mimi. Never, ever know what is going to make me stop in my tracks and gasp. Almost 6 months after my dad’s death and I’m still reeling. Thank you for your powerful piece.

    1. I don’t know if we ever stop reeling, Lisa. I think there are just longer pauses between the gasps. Thank you and I send my deepest sympathies and understanding for the pain of your loss.

  3. I just finished reading Stitches by Anne Lamott and she believes that we never really stop grieving the loss of those we love and that society makes us stop presenting our grief to the public; she believes that the steps of grief are not real and that we do not ever really get over the loss. I think she is right–I still mourn the loss of my parents and they passed away in 91 and 92. I feel your loss because I still feel mine deeply. And I understand the importance of the signature–I kept my dad’s little notebooks he kept at work and I have a chili recipe of my mom’s on my fridge. The grief is not overbearing but it is still there–mixed with memories of two people I loved a lot.

    1. Annie Lamott – how I love her! And I think she’s so right – there’s no real timetable, nor schedule. And perhaps some losses are not meant to ‘get over’ – the love was too great, the need too profound, etc. It’s not always triggered by an anniversary or momentous event – it can be something small and subtle as well…I think it’s great that you have your dad’s notebooks..

  4. Oh, Mimi, this took my breath away. “Suddenly, there wasn’t enough air in the house, in the world for me to breathe.” It beautifully states what is so difficult to put into words, that experience of utter ‘I don’t know if I can go on’ that we feel in moments of intense grief. My parents died in 2009 and 2010, and as you know I’ve written a memoir about the experience, but it does appear that we never fully recover from the loss – we just morph and figure out a way to continue. A song, saying or signature can throw us off track though with surprising ease. Some people hit that deep! Magnificent post.

    1. Thanks Wendy – I know the depth with which you explore these very same feelings in your memoir. That this resonates with you, is something I understand completely.

  5. Your mom’s afterlife surfaced in your heart, through her name, written in her hand, did it not, Mimi?

    I believe, and I believe there’s more than one way that the energy, the soul, the essence, the faith goes on when the body can no longer endure this earth.

    Thank you for sharing the Vienna to Vienna connection in your lovely way, my friend. And the glorious and obviously treasure photo of your two spirits so happily entangled as well.

  6. Oh my gosh, so beautiful. My mother passed away in 2000 and I miss her every day. Today was her birthday so your story was even more meaningful to me. I have a telephone answering machine tape of a brief conversation she had with my husband several years before she died. When I first discovered it a few years ago, hearing her voice brought me to tears, but I will keep it forever.

    1. I have a recorded message of my dad wishing me a Happy Birthday, and I have yet to listen to it. I circle it, and take it out every once in awhile. I’m sure it will strike a similar chord in me that your mom’s conversation with your husband has with you. Thank you for stopping by.

  7. Death is non-prejudiced and treats all the same – the believer and non-believer are treated equal and will face a similar situation in death.

  8. Great post😊😊😊 I’m In the cab heading back from the airport Africa just magical. Talk tomorrow? Xx

    Sent from my iPhone


  9. Yes, her signature… I think that I feel the loss of my mother most, too, when I find something in her hand. So distinct, so much a part of who she was and I understand. It’s been eight years, and I grieve much less than I did at first, but I still feel the pang she I see her handwriting… Beautiful post, Mimi.

  10. never know what you’re going to toss out there, Mimi! Though it’s always beautiful and always sure to make one think. Great photo and great storytelling.

    Hard to say about the afterlife. I know what I believe, but it would be presumptuous of me to say that it is everyone’s truth. My bet is that your mom is still around for you. My mother still mentions sensing her mom, even though it’s been years since she passed. That connection sill never sever.

    1. Count on me to keep everyone guessing Liz – even me!! 🙂 I believe – though I’m not sure that I can define what it is I believe. But are there spirits around? I think most definitely.

  11. It suddenly got very quiet in the house while I was reading this. Very quiet. And I too wasn’t able to find enough air in the house for me to breathe. I desperately want to believe. Find me air. Quickly.

    1. I didn’t mean to suck the air out of your house – tho’ that was exactly how I felt..SO glad to see your maple leaf back in my inbox..

      1. You are a very very special friend. IN all the good ways that that implies, so don’t go anywhere near cynical.

  12. Gees, this was beautiful but heavy. I’m still reeling. Your post reminds of why I follow you. I am awakened.

    “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?”

    ― Franz Kafka

    1. It was heavy…and I’m sorry. Not the best reading for first thing in the morning. Far better to be awakened by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. But I thank you with all my heart..

  13. Hi honey, a bit late to the party–somehow this post slipped past me yesterday. 😦 As so many others have said, it is gorgeous. I felt the exquisite pinprick of unexpected grief, full frontal and ever present, though often residing at a “low hum,” in every phrase. For me, it is my grandmother’s handwritten recipes. A rush of memories and a lump in the throat. Every. Single. Time. Your mom is with you always, sweetie. As am I…..

    1. I know you are always here with me sweetie, and for that no gratitude is sufficiently expressed. And as such, you’re never late to the party – you’re always right on time…There are just some things that we never get over or through – they just live within us…xox

  14. I believe that our loved ones are always around us and this case is no different. What are the chances of the postal worker speaking to you, let alone noticing the similarities in the address? In my heart that was no doubt your mom giving you a shout out.
    Your continued love came through in every word of this beautiful story.

  15. I feel it palpably, as if I were in the room; my mother’s handwriting has the nearly identical effect on me and I had to push that back as I read and made space for you in that room holding the paper. The quote you shared, by Collette, sums it up so amazingly articulately, that wild swing of grief we experience. I never can see it coming. You make sense to me my friend, so much sense. xoxo

    1. The intimacy of a signature I guess BonBon – the huge gaps of time that can occur between sightings. I don’t know…I knew it would make sense to you my dear friend – I knew..xox

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