Spotting Signs from Loved Ones Who Have Died
by Mallary Tenore Tarpley
Every time I read Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters, I feel comforted in knowing that I’m not alone. In the book, Edelman talks about life as a motherless daughter and shares the stories of other daughters who have lost their moms. As helpful as it is to read these women’s stories, it’s also therapeutic to write my own story. Writing, in many ways, helps me keep my mom’s memory alive.
I sometimes wonder to what extent I should share personal stories with others. As a journalist, I’m used to telling other people’s stories, not my own. But we all have stories that need to be heard, read, and written. I’ve already shared some stories about my mom on this blog and plan to continue writing more for what I hope will someday become a memoir. Below, I wrote an essay about signs that I’ve been getting lately from my mom. I’m looking for feedback and hope you’ll share it. How can I make the essay better? What parts do you think I should explain more? What do you like/not like about it?
I believe in the power of signs. When I veer off-course, signs point me in the right direction. When I begin to doubt, they give me reassurance. When I start to forget, they help me remember. These signs come in a multiplicity of forms – through songs, numbers, and engravings on the road. They help me to see that hope exists in the strangest of places, that death doesn’t have to be the end.
If death doesn’t liberate us, it tangles us up in webs of destruction, chaining us to the past and blinding what little vision we have of the future. We get stuck in patterns of the past, desiring what we can no longer have and asking why this, why now? I don’t have the answers, and I doubt I ever will. But in searching for them, I have found signs. In wanting to believe that there is life beyond death, I’ve found that there are ways to keep the dead alive. Not in a creepy kind of way, but in a way that reminds us that what we’ve lost doesn’t have to be forgotten.
I lost Mom when I was 11. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 8. The cancer eventually took over her body, spreading to her bone marrow, her liver, and eventually her brain. The fighter that she was, Mom wanted to survive, and if she couldn’t, she at least wanted to be remembered. Before she died, she dedicated a song, Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You,” to me.
“I will remember you, will you remember me? Don’t let your life pass you by, weep not for the memories …”
It’s a silly question to ask. Of course I’ll remember you, Mom, I often say. Sometimes, though, my memory fails me. How wavy was her hair before chemotherapy stole it? What did her voice sound like? What did she look like when she stood tall, before she was confined to a wheelchair? For a woman with a soul as strong as Mom’s, I couldn’t understand how her body had become so fragile. Her presence in my life, though, is anything but weak. Mom’s song is 13 years old, but it’s still played regularly on the radio. More often than not, I hear it when I’m worried about something, feeling proud, or when I’m with my dad or grandmother. It’s as if Mom is saying, “Hey, I’m here, too!” My grandma doesn’t know contemporary music, but she knows Sarah’s voice. She calls me when she hears “I Will Remember You” to let me know that Mom’s thinking of us, that she hasn’t forgotten.
It’s not a coincidence that disc jockey Casey Kasem played Mom’s song as a long distance dedication nine years ago. Just as Mom would have, I decorated my letter to Kasem with stickers and yellow and pink fluorescent magic markers. I wrote “Read me!” all over the envelope in big bubbly letters. “Do something to stand out from the rest of the crowd,” Mom always said whenever I entered a contest.
Kasem must have caught on. He read my dedication on air and shared my story with listeners nationwide. At the end of the dedication he made the mistake of saying I was from Providence. Really, I was writing from Boston, but ironically a few years later I would be heading to Providence for college. After Kasem’s introduction, Dad and I sat in my room and listened to Mom’s song together. I kept repeating my mom’s name over and over in my head. To most listeners, Robin Tenore was just another woman. To me, she was a Mom whose memory had just been revived.
The next long distance dedication on the “Top 40 Countdown” that day was Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me.”
“You were my strength when I was weak. You were my voice when I couldn’t speak. You were my eyes when I couldn’t see. You saw the best there was in me.”
This was the song Mom had dedicated to my dad before she died. How ironic, I thought. How Mom-like to want to make sure that neither of us was left out.
Just as Mom’s songs are special, so too is her birthday. It’s a day to celebrate her birth and her 40 years of life. I’m reminded of her July 24 birthday whenever I see her “special time” on the clock: 7:24. Not long ago I was shopping for dresses for my friends’ weddings. Naturally, I began thinking about my Mom, wishing she could be there to help me shop and to help me pick out my own wedding dress someday. I don’t know what Mom would say about the dresses I picked out. The last time we went shopping together, I was wearing OshKosh B’Gosh overalls and Punky Brewster sneakers. Would she think my dress was cute? Too low-cut? Too expensive? After finding two grown-up dresses, I ended my day of shopping and got in my car. When I looked at the clock, time stared back at me. It was 7:24 p.m.
I will remember you. Will you remember me?
There are lots of things I’ll always remember. I’ll remember waking up early and going to yard sales with Mom every Saturday morning. I’ll remember Mom’s affinity for any and all things free, and her analogies to the Little Engine That Could when describing her battle against cancer.
When I’m tired or in need of inspiration, I think of the little blue engine chugging up the mountain and I begin to feel determined. Recently, when running a road race, my energy began to wane. My friend had run ahead of me, and I was feeling discouraged and frustrated that I couldn’t keep up. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. As I approached a hill, I put my head down so I wouldn’t have to face what seemed like a mountain before me. Looking down, I saw the name “Robin” carved into the pavement. Mom, Robin Jo Tenore, was with me. Feeing her presence, I charged forward. I know I can, I know I can, I know I can.
The signs – they seem so obvious now, but they weren’t always that way. Before I believed they could be there, I wallowed in denial. Why would I have needed signs, reminders that Mom is still with me, if I didn’t believe she had actually died? For years, I tried to tell myself she hadn’t passed away. I directed every ounce of energy I had to keeping her alive. I wrote to her in my journal, I talked out loud to her, I wore her clothes. I wanted to be the same little girl I was when she died, so I tried to stay the same weight, keep the same hairdo, and stop the clock from ticking. For months, I refused to look at the calendar. I thought the older I got, the further away I would be from my mom and the easier it would be for me to forget her. During this time I stopped going to church. Last time I was in a church, Mom was in a coffin on the altar. Why go back? In losing my Mom, I lost sight of faith and love. I lost me.
I will remember you. Will you remember me?
I’ve found myself throughout the 11 years Mom has been gone, in large part because I’ve learned to understand that death doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Death, if we let it, can remind us of the importance of moving forward in life. I moved forward a lot during my freshman year of college. The week after I arrived at Providence College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Providence, R.I., I stepped inside St. Dominic Chapel and knelt down to pray. It was the first time I’d been to a Catholic church in years. As I prayed, I started to have trouble breathing. My chest felt tight and my heart felt like it might burst.
Then the tears came. All those tears that never came at the funeral when my mom lay on the altar, all those tears that for years I had kept hidden inside. I prayed, cried and felt a sense of peace, which continued to grow as I deepened my faith throughout college. I questioned certain Catholic beliefs and met regularly with a priest on campus who answered my questions and gave me guidance as a Christian, a student and a young woman searching for signs of remembrance. I eventually realized that although signs help direct us, they don’t always tell us where we’re going. Sometimes, I’ve found, we just need to rely on Providence. Not the city, or the school, but the idea that God directs everything toward its rightful end.
I was reminded of Providence while in New Orleans with my dad a couple of months ago. En route to Texas, we attended Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America. We went on a whim, loudly tiptoeing into the service 15 minutes late. As I sat in the pews and prayed, I asked Mom for guidance. I asked her to be with me and to show me a sign that everything in Texas would be alright. Having just moved from Florida, I felt a sense of loss and wanted to know that the void inside me would somehow be filled. “Please, Mom, send me a sign now if you can,” I silently said. At that moment, my dad nudged me and pointed to a man who was walking down the aisle wearing a Providence College T-shirt. (A somewhat rare occurrence considering Providence College is a small school that mostly attracts students from the Northeast.) The man’s hands were folded in front of him, covering the word college, so all I could see was the word Providence. Mom, it seemed, was telling me to leave my worries in God’s hands, to remember that as much as we’d like to have complete control over life — and death — we can’t.
I will remember you. Will you remember me?
With so many signs, how could I ever forget? Longing for maternal love, I still weep for the memories. The tears don’t flow regularly or easily, but when they do, I let them fall. I look for signs to point me in the right direction, to remind me I’m not alone, that life doesn’t have to end with death. During a time in my life when I feel most compelled to write about my mom, I’m seeing more signs than ever: her song, her special time, her name, her answer to my prayers. It’s through writing, and being willing to receive these signs, that I’m learning to heal, and more than anything, remember.