My hand skimmed the smooth top of the computer desk as my eyes flicked across framed photos on top of the hutch. I sighed in full understanding of the back- and heartbreaking work before our family.
Only two days earlier my feet were buried in sand along the Atlantic shoreline, more than 1,300 miles away. I stood quietly as the tide came in, allowing the chilly water to climb mid-thigh before conceding defeat and backing away.
Watching the waves, battered by the wind, jagged bits of shell and rock biting my bare feet, I was convinced nothing else could make me feel so small and insignificant. I was wrong.
The call came while I was in the hotel elevator, my arms loaded with beach mementos and takeout food. By the time I’d reached my room and realized the call was from my husband in Iowa, a text message had also arrived.
A neighbor noticed my mother-in-law’s newspaper was still on the stoop, and notified our family. An aunt and my husband, the youngest of three sons, found our mom a short time later, collapsed and unresponsive.
A few hours later another text arrived informing me of the death of the woman who chose to embrace me as the daughter she never had.
For those who have not experienced it, there is an immediate blurring and fuzziness that follows such news. Things move forward, tasks get completed, but it’s difficult to say exactly how.
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I drove more than 700 miles the following day, but retain few details. After four unsatisfying hours in a hotel bed, I drove another 600-some miles to my own equally unsatisfying pillow.
It was day three, hours after other family began to congregate, when I contemplated emptying Mom’s computer desk; one of many necessary and loathsome tasks on our collective to-do list.
Following the pause to review the photos — Mom relaxing on a vacation, cuddling her cat and sparkling on her wedding day — I reached into the top left shelf and pulled out a stack of papers. On top was a newspaper from 1998, folded to one of my early columns.
What I can tell you about working as a columnist is not all work is created equal. Some columns — like this one — I think about for days, often with hope something else will rise to the surface before I have to begin typing. Others come in a flash, an immediate reaction that seemly writes itself. Still others are slow burners recorded on scraps of paper over weeks or months. The worst, at least in my opinion, are columns written because a deadline is looming and something, anything must go on the page.
My mother-in-law saved a deadline column. I croaked out a bitter laugh, finally allowed tears to fall and began to read.
It was a holiday column, written in connection with Mother’s Day. I talk about my birth mom, who died while I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, before discussing my new mom through marriage.
It’s a heartfelt assessment of where I was at the time and how blessed I felt to have such a generous and kind mother-in-law, but not the most stellar example of my writing ability. And yet, of all the things I’ve written, it was what Mom kept.
Just like always, she looked past the burned edges of the meal I served and savored the juicy bits within.
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Vayla Waddington always encouraged and supported me. That’s not an exaggeration, or an after death glossing of fact. Whatever I did or attempted, she was in my corner. So it simply stands to reason that she would know I’d need some additional encouragement while standing, small and insignificant, in defiance of the waves of grief headed for shore.
Thanks, Mom. Message received.
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