When my mother died two years ago after a long illness, I was grateful to be home -- at my childhood home in Dallas, I should say; not my grown-up home in Los Angeles. I was grateful for having spent those last few weeks with her, of course, but also for not having to think about what to wear on that painful day. I had already been forced to make the dress decision six weeks earlier while preparing for the trip, even though at that time she was still very much alive. This transformed the usually auspicious task of packing a suitcase into something morbid and strange. To make myself feel better, I imagined the dress could invoke the good weather karma of packing an umbrella and raincoat and magically keep her from dying. It didn't. Still, I was glad to have gotten that decision out of the way back in Los Angeles, what with all the other details at hand, like writing my memorial speech and figuring out how to cope with life without her.
The dress I had chosen was one Mom and I had bought together six years ago to wear to my engagement party. As always, we had started our search at Neiman Marcus -- "The Gettin' Place," Mom used to call it. When we hadn't found a dress there, we went to a smaller boutique, where Mom spotted the black silk sheath with a cream-colored applique immediately. It was designed by Lela Rose, a Dallas native, which made it that much more attractive. When I came out of the dressing room, Mom proclaimed it "Very good-looking"-- her ultimate compliment. And with that, our search was over.
Looking put-together, stylish, and appropriately dressed was always a high priority for Mom, down to the lavender satin Natori pajamas she was wearing when she died. My dress choice would have mattered. It mattered to me that she would have approved.
Apparently, seeking your mother's approval is not something forever laid to rest when she is. And maybe not ever. I still catch myself wanting her endorsement of a party table I've set, the dessert spoon and fork crisscrossing above each plate just so. Or of an article I've written. Or my new haircut. Without her opinion anymore, at least I have the luxury of assuming only the best. "What do you think, Mom?" I ask her in my head. "Fabulous," she always says. "Very good-looking."
On that day, I put on the dress and met Lizzie and Regen, my older sisters, in Mom's dressing room to zip each other up and choose a piece of her jewelry to wear to the service. I brushed past the chest-height jewelry drawer where Mom always stood when getting ready for a party, picking from an array of clip earrings between Plexiglas dividers. We had emptied that drawer a few weeks earlier with her, going through its contents at her bedside while she could still sit up and recount stories about each piece. We had taken notes as she spoke ("Pinchbeck gold pins we found in China. Fake, but I love them"; "First thing your father ever bid on at auction. Boy was I lucky!") and now waded through shopping bags full of plastic Ziplocs with a jewel and a piece of paper in each.
My sisters had insisted we go through all of her belongings just days after the doctor had handed down her "one-to-three months" prognosis. The whole process first struck me as cruelly compulsive, like packing the black silk dress. "Do we really need to do this now?" I had asked them. But my sisters had more experience with death than I did. "They say 'today is the best it's ever going to be,' " Lizzie told me.
"They" were right: if we had waited even a week, Mom would have been too tired. Hell, we might have been too tired, too: as it turned out, cataloging a lifetime of collected things was a big project. And it was also vaguely -- dare I say? -- fun to have been able to hear Mom's thoughts about her life via a purse, a flower pot, or a pair of gloves.
Once we got to her more meaningful treasures, we also learned how she was feeling -- or, rather, how she wasn't. "I know I'm on heavy medication, because I should be sad right now," she said, looking down at the diamond engagement ring Dad had proposed with in 1960, after just seven dates. "But I just feel numb."
We took last looks at each other in the mirror wearing Mom's jewelry. I had chosen a Tahitian pearl necklace, Lizzie wore her coral, and Regen had picked an amethyst pin. It was like children playing "dress-up" in mommy's closet. Except with our mom gone, we suddenly felt less like children than ever. "Look at my three fabulous girls," she would have said. "Very good-looking."
Follow Sally Horchow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SallyHorchow