Remembering What We’ve Lost, Holding on to What We Still Have

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Loss has always played a significant role in my life — especially the fear of it. As a child, my mom used to scream at me whenever I lost something.

“Maaaaaallllarrrry!” she would say, her brow furrowed, her head titled.

Uh. Oh.

I grew to fear what would happen if I told her I had lost a mitten or an earring or my lunch money. The worst was when I lost my retainers. For almost a week, I wore just my top retainer and smiled with my mouth closed so Mom wouldn’t notice. I had accidentally thrown the bottom one away in the school cafeteria, where all kids’ retainers go to die.

Mom made me spend nearly five hours tearing apart my room in hopes that I’d find it. “You’re not going to bed,” Mom quipped, “until you find your retainer.” I never found it. So she and my dad bought me a new one, even despite the fuss my mom made about how much it would cost.

The fear of loss that Mom instilled in me might explain why I get so mad at myself when I lose things, which happens often. Lost keys. Lost paperwork. Lost Debit cards. But those losses are nothing compared to the loss of my Mom, who died of breast cancer when I was 11. For years after she died, I was afraid to tell my dad when I lost something, thinking he’d yell at me like Mom did. Inside I always felt ashamed, as though I had let Mom down by letting loss win.

I’m still trying to recover what I lost when Mom passed away. I have a heightened sense of attachment to letters, photos, text and voice messages that help connect me to the people I care about — reminders that even though the person I loved and trusted most in the world has died, I’m not alone.

It’s no surprise, then, that I have a drawer full of cards people have given me, or that I have 2,666 old e-mails in work inbox. The screen on my digital camera, meanwhile, often reads: “Memory card is full.” Similarly, my phone sends me frequent error messages saying I won’t receive new text messages until I delete all the old ones that are taking up space. But I don’t want to delete the moments, the memories.

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Me and Mom in July 1990 at a hotel swimming pool in New Hampshire's Loon Mountain.

For years after my mom died, I felt as though I had lost all control, so I searched for ways to hold onto whatever memory of her I could, even memories that didn’t make sense for a little girl to hold on to.

I asked my dad, for instance, to keep Mom’s clothes in the closet so I could wear them — oversized as they were — to school. I kept mom’s wigs in a Ziploc freezer bag in one of my dresser drawers. I’d try them on, then tear them off when memories of Mom’s chemo treatments got in the way. I held onto Mom’s shoes, her nail polish, her eyelash curler.

I was living in a fantasy world, and my dad was afraid to let reality take that fantasy away. The first Christmas after Mom died, he wrote “Love Mom and Dad” on all of my gifts. He talked about her a lot, often in the present tense. He saved what was hers until three years later, when we moved to a new house across town. The memories of all that had happened in the house I grew up in were too hurtful to be reminded of every day. “Mal,” Dad told me, “we need to let go.”

I’ve since let go of a lot of what was Mom’s. I let go not because I wanted to but because in holding on to so much from the past, I couldn’t bear the weight of it all. I held on to her jewelry, her journals and her bike. I still wear her unassuming, tiny wedding ring sometimes. I keep shoe boxes containing photos of me and her. And that rusty eyelash curler? It’s in my makeup bag.

I like to think Mom responds via signs. When I’m thinking about her or am in need of a hug, I’ll sometimes hear Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You” — the song she dedicated to me before she died — on the radio. On other occasions, I’ll look at the clock and see Mom’s “special time” — 7:24 — symbolic of her July 24 birthday. The last two times I’ve gone on dates, I’ve looked at the clock when getting out of the car and been reassured to see that it was 7:24 p.m.

As hard as I try to search for these signs, I’m often too late. I’ll hear the disc jockey say he just played “I Will Remember You,” or I’ll look at the clock and it’ll be 7:25 p.m. And as hard as I try to hold onto what is dear to me, or what I need, I still lose a lot.

Last month, I lost my retainers. I had put the retainers in a napkin when eating breakfast with my friends, whom I was visiting as part of a bachelorette party. I didn’t realize until the next night that I’d lost them, and even then I was afraid to admit it.

Those memories of searching through napkins in the cafeteria with the middle school lunch ladies came flooding back to me when I realized my mistake. I still expected to hear Mom yell. Instead, my friends joked with me about my efforts to keep my teeth straight.

Maaaaaallllarrrry!

“You seriously still wear your retainers at night? C’mon!”

Just a month before the bachelorette party, my friends and I had all been in Costa Rica, where I lost my Debit card. They’re used to me losing things. They know loss and I don’t get along very well.

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Apparently, I've always liked shoes ...

This point was reinforced the other day when I went shoe shopping for my Halloween costume. While driving along the interstate, a bright yellow sign advertising $3.99 shoes drew my attention. I made a U-turn and went inside what I’ll call Cheap Shoe Heaven. Could it be? Sandals for $3.99? Heels for $7.99? Super cute wedges for $13.99?!

I came in looking for baby blue sandals for my costume, but ended up trying on about 15 pairs of shoes. My frugal, shoe-loving self couldn’t help it. I bought three pairs. When I got to the register, though, I realized I didn’t have my car keys. Crap.

Maaaaaallllarrrry!

I knew I must have put them down somewhere. I have a bad habit of keeping my keys in my hand instead of putting them in my purse.

“Don’t worry,” the cashier said, flipping her wrist and talking with a New England accent. “People sometimes lose their keys here, but they usually find them within a few minutes.”

I hate when I’m the exception to the rule.

It shouldn’t be that hard to find my keys, right?

Two hours later, I was still at a loss. I’d looked through every size 7, 7 1/2 , 8 and 8 1/2 pair of shoes I had tried on. I got down on my knees and looked on the ground while praying to St. Anthony. I recruited the clerks to be on my search team, but they found nothing.

As I rummaged through boxes, some curious customers wondered what I’d lost. “What are you looking for?” …”Did you find them yet?” Others thought I worked there. “Can you help me?” … “So do you have this shoe in size 9?”

One accidentally dropped a yellow heel on my head while I was looking. Ouch. Meanwhile, “Whip It” and “Sexual Healing” played in the background. Guys tried on sparkly heels in the aisles. It was a perfect “Sex and the City” meets “Seinfeld” scenario. Where the hell am I? I thought, laughing. Definitely not Cheap Shoe Heaven.

Realizing my keys were probably nestled in the heel of one of the thousands of shoes in the store, I stopped searching. I called AAA, and the man I talked to contacted a locksmith to come help me. I didn’t call my dad, but I know he would have understood. I thought of my Mom and winced.

After the locksmith made my key, I got in my car to head home. When I turned on the ignition, the clock stared back at me: 7:24 p.m.

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... and big bows.

Life works in funny ways. There comes a time when we begin to realize that for as much as we try to make life work, it breaks. Things fall apart. So, we learn to mend them back together as best we can and hope the stitches don’t come undone.

I bet Mom wished she could have done more mending. She got so mad when I was younger because she wanted to teach me right from wrong and didn’t know how. She let loose her “Portuguese temper,” as my grandma used to call it, when I didn’t learn the first time, when I continued to lose another mitten, or earrings or lunch money. She tried hard to make me the “perfect” child and to be the perfect parent — a plan that inevitably exposed the ugly side of perfection’s pied and blemished beauty.

All of this might help explain why I’m a perfectionist and why I fear failure and loss. Looking back, though, I realize that for as big of a deal as my mom made about me losing things, she almost always replaced what was missing, even when she was sick and could hardly muster the energy to drive to the store. I would hug her out of gratitude and close my eyes, not wanting to let go.

I wish Mom could replace loss with love, with great big bear hugs that only moms can give. I wish I could just throw up my hands in frustration, ask “Why couldn’t you be here right now?” and have her answer me. But sometimes the best we can do is just hold on to all that we’re lucky enough to have, to the things that can’t be lost in shoe boxes or in middle school cafeteria trash cans. All those memories and signs we hold dear are, like it or not, always ours for the keeping.

I’ve written a lot of essays about my mom in recent years. Here’s a sampling of them:

Spotting Signs from Loved Ones Who Have Died

Honoring Mom, and My Surrogate Moms

Personal Narrative about Mom

Mallary and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

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