Eleven years ago I was walking up Columbus Avenue, pushing my eight-month-old son in his stroller. Just walking. Nowhere to go. Mechanically, I pushed north, pausing at each light, continuing at green. I’m not one for strolling without a destination, but I had to keep walking. Immune to the joys of fresh spring air and yellow, brilliant sunlight, I focused on the crackle of the stroller wheels over the concrete sidewalk.
Cancer took my mother away 4 days earlier.
I looked down to notice my son kicking his feet, not napping (as I had hoped he would). His light-blue-fleece-bootie-covered-feet scissoring at the edge of the stroller which was still a bit too big for him. As I continued walking, I had no thoughts. Just sensations. In April, the air was still crisp and the new budding leaves and flowers shivered in the breeze.
Abruptly, thoughts would break through my numbness: How could my mother be gone? Did it really happen? Of course it did. She had been dying for months of the disease that preyed on her insides. My loving, funny, generous, messed-up mom was dead and, with her, a chunk of my heart had shriveled and gone numb.
Seconds later, or so it seemed, I looked down again and noticed only one light blue fleece bootie bouncing up and down on my son’s left foot.
A bit OCD around the edges, I always panic at the thought of losing anything. My mother’s sister had just bought these soft precious snap-on slippers for my son during one of her many visits from Denver. My beloved aunt Jan, as generous and warm as her sister, was there to the end, by my mother’s side. Holding us all together. Losing the tiny blue bootie was more than I could bear. Adrenaline pumping, I spun the stroller around, intently marching south, scanning the sidewalk like the Terminator hunting for Sarah Connor.
I called my husband, who became equally distraught. He then joined me in my search. We walked up Columbus and back down. Both of us desperately searching for what was lost. Feeling we couldn’t bear to lose one thing more. Into the gaping void my mother had left behind I could picture the little bootie falling, endlessly tumbling in the dark. The reality was no doubt, nearly as bad, the bootie would be tossed in a garbage bin or lying crushed and filthy in a New York City gutter.
Finally, exhausted, we gave up. Resigned and heartbroken, not to mention mystified, we went home. Where on earth had the bootie gone?
The next morning I woke up and dressed. Put baby Felix in the stroller and headed back up Columbus. What can I say. I mentioned the OCD thing. I’m stubborn to a fault. Giving up isn’t in my DNA, even when my sanity would greatly benefit from being able to let go.
Again, my eyes combed the sidewalk in the early morning sunlight, left to right and back. As I approached 91st Street I felt a wave of warmth enfold me as my eyes scanned to the right. There, neatly buttoned to a red plastic Village Voice dispenser handle, pristine and sky blue, was my son’s bootie.
There are no words to describe exactly what I experienced. Best I can do is to say that I felt encircled by a column of light, warming me from the inside out. Tears pooled in my eyes as my mother’s love instantaneously filled my heart. Unsnapping the bootie from the plastic handle, I held it tightly in my hand. The warm glow lasted only a moment and then slipped away.
I can’t explain it, although I’m sure there are a dozen rational, scientific, logical explanations. They wouldn’t make what I felt any less powerful or real. My mother was with me. Letting me know that she loved me and that everything was going to be fine.
Mom had a wicked sense of humor. I could hear her saying, “Let’s not get carried away, now. Life is no unicorn parade.”
I love you Mom.
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