The Center Cannot Hold

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….

—From “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats

My mother passed away over two years ago. Actually, it was three birthdays, three Mother’s Days, and three Easters ago. Soon, it will be three Christmases. It’s funny how one tends to record time that way after losing someone really important: what happened before she died, and what happened after. Before? Had my son, got divorced, left a job, finished my MFA. After? Started new job, moved to new home, son entered pre-adolescence.

This can be a little disconcerting at times—because my mother doesn’t know about any of what came after. She always knew most everything about me—what I didn’t tell her, she’d intuit.

Today would have been her 70th birthday. It’s hard to imagine my mother at 70. If she had lived this long, people would have still thought she was in her late 50s—anyone who guessed was always at least 10 years off, and she’d laugh at how she had fooled them with her few wrinkles, bright smile, and dark and curly hair. My mother had the social skills of a debutante, the style of a Parisian designer, the grace of a ballerina.

She was the matriarch, the epicenter of our family. She coordinated family gatherings, organized birthdays, cooked everything, and tailored our clothes. She was the person we called when we wanted to share something exciting—a grandchild getting an A, a new raise or a promotion, or even just a good movie we had seen.

Yesterday, as I watched my son protect third base at a little league game, I wondered what my mother would be thinking if she were there. She’d surely have noticed how focused he was at his job, how tall he was getting, and how cute he was wiggling his butt at home plate and eyeing the pitcher with a look that said, “you just try me.”

He got my mother’s gumption, for sure.

It is almost unthinkable that she died at 67. But she put up a good fight—battled Stage IV uterine cancer—which has a remarkably small survival rate—and won. But then bladder cancer fought back.

My mother never let on that she was sick—she wouldn’t discuss doctor’s visits, medication, side effects, how crappy she felt. She was too dignified for that. She thought it was a personal matter. She’d just say, “I don’t want to talk about those things,” and put on her stoic face, continuing to volunteer on the board at two non-profits, going to work day after day at the gift shop where she was an assistant manager, taking care of her seven grandchildren, and never missing cooking dinner for my father.

She never saw where my son and I live now—but her life fills our living room. Her Howard Miller clock is on the wall, which chimes on the quarter-hour. I used to ask her how she could stand listening to all that chiming, and she said, “I like to know what time it is without having to look.” I find myself leaving the chiming on, even though it can be irritating in the middle of the night or when we are on the phone and we have to wait through 10 bongs before it quiets.

Her school slate is on my desk—the tiny wood-framed board where wrote and erased hundreds of mathematics problems and letters as a young girl in California where nuns still carried rulers. My shelves are lined with her Oz books, which are filled with drawings that she had colored with crayons, bright-colored Dorothys and Tik-Toks and Tin Woodmans.

I have her marble-topped dresser, sand dollars she and her mother collected on Stinson Beach, crystal berry bowls and her father’s silver, and a basket full of embroidered crosses from her great-aunts. But it’s still not enough. I could have her whole darn house inside my two-bedroom apartment and I still would feel something missing.

Anyone who has truly lost someone knows what I mean. Anxiety sometimes arrives at night when I feel like I have forgotten to do something—after some time sitting with uneasiness I remember it’s just that I have forgotten to call her. Or that I can’t call her. I used to call her every night, just to check in, to see how she was feeling. Was she nauseous that day? Tired? Did she take a nap? Would she be up for going to see the kids get their karate belts Thursday night?

It’s odd how one can forget, even years later, that someone is no longer there. The brain works in mysterious ways. It’s almost as if some synapses temporarily cease firing and for a moment, I forget how things are now.

In those moments, I lose my footing. My center slips and I feel like a little kid all alone (even though I am almost 40). There’s something about losing a parent that grows you up. Suddenly, you are the adult because the person who used to take care of you is no longer there, or no longer can. You are now the elder—because there’s no one else to make the special recipe macaroni salad or your mother’s barbecue sauce, no one else remembers who exactly Uncle Vincent is, and by the way, the grandchildren are all growing up and you are the only one who remembers their birthdays (or maybe you don’t).

I am losing my grounding less frequently these days—at first it was daily, then weekly, then monthly—now it’s just every now and then. It can last a few minutes, an hour, even a few days. I may cry—I may not. I may just walk around with a grey feeling, not able to articulate why. Or know how to get out of it.

But eventually, the moment passes and I find that gracious center again. I find the center in remembering my mother and all that held her together. She said to my friend once, “Kellie is my rock.” The funny thing is, now that life continues without her, I feel as if she was mine. I am anything but a rock. When I am untethered, I feel like grains of sand on a soft beach. I am simply sand being moved by an unforgiving wind, an unfamiliar wind that leaves curious patterns etched in the dunes.