Returning to the table, I sip coffee and consider the day’s tasks. As I mindlessly raise my hands to my face to massage my morning face awake, it happens. I’m brought back in time by a smell – what is it? I inhale again. It’s an old, familiar smell; the scent of cucumbers and soil. I close my eyes and am transported decades into the past, standing in our old childhood playshed near the garden.
I can smell the musty floorboards and unfinished chipboard walls.
Each spring, we lifted the lid and were thankful. No mice...
Vague snippets of memory jam themselves together like a third-grade collage. One moment I’m sitting at the little table, being served plastic restaurant food by my youngest sister. She’s five, I’m fourteen. She smiles proudly as she hands me tiny cutlery. Then I see the firewood pile at the back and remember how its presence made me feel like a backwoods homesteader. Next, I’m sitting on the rustic plank step outside, gazing across the yard to the poplar bush, and imagining what it might be like to live alone in the woods.
With eyes still closed, inhaling again, I smell the scent of cucumbers and earth wafting in from the garden.
Mom would work quietly there while we played. When they’d first married, she’d disliked gardening. Over the years, it became an activity and place of solace. In this suspended reality, I stood in the playshed, wanting to go to the window that faced the garden. I wanted to peek out and see Mom in her denim shirt and ball cap, working hand and knee.
But I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t make myself go to the window.
I couldn’t risk the sight of her not being there, and disappearing the dream.
No, she was in the garden. I could smell it. We were both here in this moment, just like always.
Me over here, her over there.
Just like always.
Just like after school when I had homework and she had yard work. Like evenings when she had Tupperware parties or Creative Circle parties or ceramics to paint for the craft sale. There was always something or someone who needed her. If it wasn’t my immediate family, each with their own set of needs, it was extended family. If it wasn’t her day job, the garden, or friends, it was a complete stranger. Those hurt the worst.
I’d always ached for a deeper connection with my mom. Our personalities made that difficult. She liked fun, I liked serious. She liked doing, I liked thinking and talking. She liked the loud and moving, I liked stillness and quiet.
Still, I’d always wanted to know her and be known. There never seemed to be time for it though. Until, that is, cancer arrived. Then we had the car rides to appointments and hours in waiting rooms. Finally, we were getting to know each other.
I learned a lot about her – that her faith wasn’t just words. It was real. That she was compassionate. And funny. And fiercely determined and strong. I was in my mid-thirties, but at least I was getting to know her.
But, before too long, something came between us again.
In the last few years, the thing that consumed her time and attention was cancer. Her medications took away her ability to play Scrabble like we’d always done. Or read anything I wrote. Or have much of a conversation at all.
Finally, it took her away completely.
I open my eyes and return to the present with moist eyes.
It’s been six months since she died. Six months since that 3am family meeting in the hospital room, over her still body on the bed. Six months since I’ve heard her voice. And seen her smile. And wrapped my arms around her. Or felt her arms around me. It feels like just a few weeks ago. It feels like a lifetime ago.
The earthy cucumber scent fades, and I can’t smell my way back to the past anymore. I go back to the cucumbers and rub their bumpy skin and dirt powder to get it back, but the smell is different. The moment is gone and I can’t go back.
I’m over here, she’s over there.
Just like always.
But I can’t leave it there. I can’t leave the moment sad like that. So all-about-me like that.
What is the good here? What can I be thankful for? Come on, think!
And the exercise begins.
I’m grateful for experiencing the past this morning. The smells and memories were pleasant. My sister’s smiling face, the remembrance of Mom in the garden, and the taste of a simpler time. Thank you, Lord.
The years Mom and I could spend in waiting rooms and car rides were a redemption, really – a restoring of relationship that couldn’t have happened without that set-aside, one-on-one time. I was deeply blessed by the gift of time with Mom, and am so thankful for the glimpse I saw of her. Thank you, Lord, for letting me get to know her before she left.
Gosh, this is hard. Giving thanks in the pain is difficult. No wonder God calls it a sacrifice of thanks. Still, with tears streaming, I’ll choose it. I choose gratitude, Lord. You are good and work all things for good. So I will look on those things and praise you for them.
I’m grateful for the Scrabble games we shared. Whenever I click Scrabble tiles with friends, the memory of Mom’s hands and her smile deepens the joy of our game.
I’m grateful for the many hugs we got to share, and the way she squeezed me tightly all those times. For the way she smiled at me and said, “I love you” and I believed it.
Even though I feel charred and singed, there is opportunity for newness to grow from these ashes. Our family relationships are changing. I’m growing in compassion toward others. I’m learning endurance, which grows character. For your ability to breathe life into death and restore what is broken, I’m so grateful.
Thank you, Lord, for your goodness in the hard stuff.
And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.”
Romans 5: 3,4 (NLT)
“Therefore, by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is,
the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share,
for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”
Hebrews 13:15-16 (NKJV)