As children that grew up just miles from the Pacific, we learned quickly to brace our bodies against the crash of an oncoming wave. Standing at the shoreline, where land meets water, we'd watch for the tell-tale swell, the ballooning, the slow rise as the sea began to inhale its own force. We learned to turn our backs, and bend our knees, seconds before the curling snarl of wave slammed into our bodies. Many times, we were brought to our knees, clawing our way back to the sun through the grit of sand and salt.
Once again, the wave crashed. The caller ID showed Mom's cell phone, and even before answering, I spoke to no one in particular, the message about to be delivered. She was gone.
Her heart finally gave in under the strain of a liver that had quit, of the sepsis that had taken over, and the water that filled her body.
My cousin, Martha, died today. She was 44.
I held my daughter a little longer this evening, a feral response, an overwhelming need to be certain I could feel the weight of her body against mine. The idea that a mama had to say goodbye to their child, even though that child was a grown woman, elicited an intense visceral reaction. I needed to smell my daughter's freshly bathed body, her damp hair against my cheek. It wasn't a choice.
It is the law of this universe that parents outlive their children, and when that law collapses, we are left in hollow mortal spaces, vulnerable, terrified, and questioning.
Martha was a woman who, stubborn as bull, ultimately made her own choices. Whether they were good or bad is irrelevant; they all converged into the life she lead. All she ever wanted to was to be beautiful, to love and be loved, but sometimes in that desperation, for what many of us, really, are all after, she drove some folks away. Some even with whom she shared the same bloodlines. For the last few years of her life, she was living in Florida, thousands of miles from family and the place from where she began. Perhaps it was a chance to escape the past, to start with a clean slate, to be her own woman on her own terms.
I don't know if she was every truly happy, and that's the saddest part. I hope she had moments of happiness where she was able to free herself from the internal dialogue that often drove her to great lengths to try to escape the body she lived in. Sometimes though, those that make the loudest noises, are the ones who hide the biggest kinds of sadness. Her heart was strong, quite possibly stronger than her mind ever was. The intangible heart, the one from which she loved, came from a genuine place of goodness. Her physical heart, the actual muscle, despite the litany of mounting medical issues, beat longer than anyone expected. Even after life-saving measures were removed on Sunday, her heart beat inside of her for five more days. I know that she believed in a heaven, and I hope for her that such a place of beauty and redemption exists. A place where she can be free of the earthly trappings that never quite lived up to her dreams.
I'm going to make a choice to remember my cousin, laughing and smiling. If I close my eyes, and listen closely, I can hear the sound of her voice. The lilt in her laughter. I found a picture in a box of many others; my mother is ripe with pregnancy, and I am nearly three years old. My grandmother and grandfather are still alive, and everyone is together.
Martha is the little girl in the back row.
While there are so many more pictures of my cousin, I like this one the best. I'd like to think that my cousin, smiling and looking up at our grandfather, Mipa, was happy then. The kind of happy I see in my daughter's smile when she's clapping and laughing after dancing to the tunes on the stereo. The simple happiness that exists before life brings down its gavel and strips us of our ignorance. That easy happy that's genuine and effortless.
The kind of happy we all deserve.