My First Mother’s Day Without Valerie

Pink dogwood, one of Valerie’s favorite spring pleasures, blooming in our neighborhood on the first Mother’s Day since her death. (Photo is my own.)

Monday, May 9, 2022

Dear Valerie,

I tried to write to you yesterday, on Mother’s Day, but I just couldn’t seem to connect any dots between my thoughts and emotions and the empty pages. It was as if the flood of remembrance was blocking the flow of words.

So I’m trying again today. This will probably end up as a melting pot of memories, not necessarily in chronological order, but just as things come to me; I hope it’s not too confusing, but it’s how my mind seems to be working at the moment. I know you already know these stories, but I can’t help going over them in my mind now — memories of you going back even to before you were born. I nearly lost you halfway through my pregnancy, and was put on strict bed rest for the final four months. That particular period was not my favorite, to be honest, but it made the day of your birth all the better.

The 24th of February, 1983, was unseasonably warm and sunny for Dayton, Ohio, as was the 26th. But the 25th, the day you were born, was much colder. And when I was being wheeled from the labor room to the delivery room (yes, they still did that in those days), I was able to see out of some windows in that long hallway, and suddenly it was snowing — big, beautiful snowflakes that made that moment, that whole day, even more magical. Because of this, your father and I always called you Our Little Snowflake, and forever after, every snowflake I see will carry thoughts of you. I gave you sterling silver snowflake earrings for your last Christmas, and as I sit on your bed writing this, above me are the big snowflake-shaped holiday lights that I bought in December, at your request; they’ve been hanging over your bed since you died, and every night I turn them on when it starts getting dark.

The other most vivid memory I have of the day you were born was seeing your father holding you in the delivery room; there had been some complications that the doctors were attending to with me, so your father actually held you before I could. What was so unusual was that your eyes were wide open, you weren’t crying at all, and you were trying to lift your head and turn it from side to side, as if you wanted to be sure you were seeing every tiny detail of that room. The nurses commented on this; apparently they’d never seen a newborn able to lift its head. I’ll never forget how you looked in that moment, your eyes wide and alert and curious. I was to realize later how characteristic an expression that was for you throughout your life.

I saw something very like that look again when you came out of a four-day-long coma on February 29th, 2012 (yes, Leap Day). On the night of your twenty-ninth birthday, I had found you unconscious on the floor of your room, you were rushed to the hospital by ambulance, where I was told to prepare myself for the worst. After many long hours (I can still feel the horrible dragging length of that night), you were somehow still alive, but they decided to transfer you to another hospital where there were specialists; all they knew at that time was that something had caused a sudden, catastrophic liver failure. I was told you needed a liver transplant but that you were too sick to survive it. All I could do was wait.

When you finally, miraculously came out of your coma four days later, I saw your beautiful eyes wide open, just as I remembered from the day you were born. You smiled at me and said, “Hi, Mom”, I took your hand, and all seemed right with the world at that moment.

And almost exactly 10 years later, I was looking into your eyes when you took your last breath. Oh, Valerie, maybe at some point I will feel glad that I was there from your very first moment of life through your last, but it was truly horrific to have to watch you go through all that you did; my strongest maternal instinct has always been to do whatever I can to protect you, but this time, I was completely helpless. Could I have done anything that would have resulted in a different outcome? I will never know. I can only hope that you somehow knew and understood how much I wanted to save you, that I did not, ever, give up on you. But I will carry the consciousness of that failure for the rest of my life. (I know you would say it wasn’t my failure, and I know that in my head, but as your mother, the fact that you died means that I failed. I will try, for your sake, to avoid letting guilt get in the way of living.)

I recently found a book at the library called, “Beyond Tears: Living After Losing A Child”, which is helping a little; at least it’s confirming the normalcy of what I’m feeling and experiencing. There’s an entire section on the horror of coping with holidays following the death of a child, and already, I totally understand this. However, I tried to go into this Mother’s Day weekend with an open mind, and just wait and see how I felt, rather than expecting it to be awful, and I do think this made a difference. It has been difficult, but not as bad as your birthday, which came only a few weeks after you died. I haven’t been planning much of anything ahead of time lately, but I did think a few days in advance about some ways I could pay tribute to the memories of all the Mother’s Days we did have together (I think there were maybe only 7 or 8 when we were physically apart). I suspect a major difference between me and the mothers in the book is that I have no other children, with whom I would be motivated to continue spending the holidays.

Here’s how I spent my weekend. On Saturday, which happened to be the opening day of our favorite local Farmer’s Market, I decided to go, just as we had done together over so many years. And as you always loved to do, I went early to the French bakery adjacent to the Market, and sat on the terrace with my coffee and chouquettes, watching the vendors setting up their stalls and displays to be ready for the 8:30 a.m. opening. It was quite chilly, with dark, low-hanging clouds and occasional showers, more like late October than early May, so for once, I had the terrace almost to myself. This was just as well, since it was quite bittersweet to be there without you. You would have ordered a hot cocoa and a pain au chocolat, knowing that, having arrived early, they would still be warm from the oven, the chocolate (not too much of it) oozing gently between the buttery layers. And we would have sat together on that terrace, happily planning what we would buy from the market, always a source of pleasant discussion and menu planning. You always wanted to get some fresh fish, so this time, I got a packet of Dover Sole, you know, the ones that look so small but when you open them up, suddenly there are about six or seven fillets. By this time, it was raining a little more steadily, so I took a quick tour around the rest of the market, and that was enough for me.

When I got home, I made some fresh coffee and sat for a long time in your chair, the cushy one next to the glass door looking out onto our deck. This is how I spend a lot of my time these days; I love looking at the surprisingly extensive container garden, which you took such good care to tend. And the bird-feeding station, which we only set up last July, is still a source of enjoyment, although it also reminds me how you and I talked about looking forward to seeing the new bird activity in the spring for the first time. (This spring in general has been very difficult for me, mostly because you loved spring in the Pacific Northwest so much; it’s very different from spring in Ohio.)

Oh, that reminds me — I’ve been seeing a lot of the Mystery Bird in the past few weeks, and on this day, I actually saw three of them on the deck at the same time, which has never happened before, or at least not while I was looking; I’ve only seen them one at a time. You would have been so excited. They are beautiful, aren’t they, with their pale silver-grey and blue and darker grey color blocks? (I know we did eventually identify this bird as a Western Scrub Jay, but I still call it the Mystery Bird. And I’m sure you remember last year, when the first Steller’s Jay we saw had a hilariously unkempt look about its head and crest feathers, so it became known as “Scruffy”, and I still think of every Steller’s Jay by that name.)

Another unexpected birdwatching moment happened on this same day: on three separate occasions, a bird I’ve never seen before landed on the bird feeder, but only stayed a few seconds each time, not long enough for me to try to get a photo. By its third landing, I had noted details of its size, colors, beak shape, etc., and have tentatively identified it as a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, a new visitor, and I knew you would want to know about it.

Later, I cooked the Dover Sole for dinner, poaching it in white wine, and I made a sauce with the poaching liquid (merci, Julia Child), garnishing it all with chives from the garden. It was delicious, and I’ve now christened this dish “Dover Solo”.

Continuing with my agenda (I use this term very loosely nowadays) of doing things you liked to do, I ended my Saturday by watching the latest “Chateau Diaries” video, just uploaded that day. It was called, “My PERFECT French Day”, and followed Stephanie, Philip, et al, to a village street market for culinary treats, followed by lunch with friends at a tiny family-run restaurant, then a trip to a local arboretum, where they walked through the beautiful gardens before picking up some garden additions at the arboretum’s plant sale. (They’ve been working hard on the new gardens this spring.) Certainly sounds perfect to me, and I know you would agree.

Oh, another thing I almost forgot: I actually sent a letter to Stephanie at Chateau de Lalande! This was about ten days ago, so they may have received it in France by now. I sent a card with a short hand-written note, and enclosed a longer typed letter. I wanted them to know about you, your dedication to the issues of cultural heritage preservation, and how that related to your loving Stephanie’s “Chateau Diaries” channel; you had such appreciation for Stephanie’s commitment to restoring her chateau, as well as the way of life she had established there for herself. I also let her know that, since you had died, I had to close your Patreon account, but not before adding your Lalande pledge to my own monthly gift. I hope you don’t mind me doing this, sending the letter, I mean; I just wanted Stephanie to know how much she and her work meant to you, as well as to me. I will let you know if I ever get a response. I’m not really expecting one, but I did suggest in my letter that maybe I could come as a volunteer at some point, so qui sait?

When I went to bed on Saturday night, to be honest, I wasn’t especially looking forward to waking up on Mother’s Day. I don’t mean I wanted to die; it’s more like I couldn’t really imagine it being a happy day, which is not the best prospect when going to sleep. But I got through the night and woke up very early, which seems to be the norm at this point. I stayed in bed for a little while, thinking about you, and also thinking about my own mom, who died last August, as you know — I lost my mother and you less than six months apart, so this is my first Mother’s Day without either of you. But I was mostly thinking about me, I suppose. Am I even a mother now? I was your mother, but since you’re no longer here, no longer alive, what does that make me? Is there even a word for someone who has lost their only child? Is it the opposite of being an orphan? Wait, I think I’m sort of an orphan too, now that both my parents are gone, but what is a mother without her child? I would never have anticipated this loss of identity, certainly not to this degree — it sounds so banal, I know, but I truly don’t know who I am now. I never realized that so much of my sense of self was attached to being your mother. It’s almost as if I no longer exist. I’m alive, but I, myself, the self I remember, is gone. I will never be the person I was, that much is clear.

Since I was up extra early on Sunday, I decided to go for a walk; I wanted to try going up the street to see that long stretch of flowering trees you loved so much in the springtime. This was the first time I’ve been up that way, and it looked like I’ve missed most of the flowers, but it was still beautiful, including that embankment where, a couple of years ago, we happened on a herd of goats apparently “hired” to clean up a lot of underbrush on this steep slope. Remember that? I think you got some photos of this — it was such a funny thing to stumble on, and we often talked about it with great enjoyment afterward.

After I got back, I unfolded the bed tray I had gotten for you when you were so sick in January; unfortunately, you barely had a chance to use it, since you could not really sit up, nor could you even eat by that point. I made some coffee, which I poured into your favorite mug (the heat-changing Markham Caerus one), put some chouquettes from the boulangerie on a small plate, and added the vase of lilies I keep filled for you on the mantel. (Why, oh why, didn’t I make more of a point of having fresh flowers around when you were alive? You loved them so much.) It did look like a Mother’s Day breakfast-in-bed tray, like something you would have done for me, although I’m sure you would have made it much prettier. I didn’t really have the heart for anything fancier this time.

The rather minimalist breakfast in bed I prepared for myself on Mother’s Day. A small sampling of Valerie’s books are in the background (just as she left them), and her cat Vanessa van Gogh (she was born missing an ear) is in the foreground inspecting my handiwork. The mug was a gift last year from my sister to Valerie; Markham Caerus was Valerie’s work on finding solutions for art crime and archaeological looting. The mug, which features a detail of a stolen painting, turns completely black when cold; when a hot drink is poured in, the art “reappears”. Valerie loved this so much. (Photo is my own.)

Speaking of fancy, I actually put on a dress, Valerie, just because I know you would appreciate it; I loved how you always wanted to make a point of putting on something beautiful, especially during the pandemic lockdown, when you instituted “Cinema Saturday”. You thoroughly enjoyed picking out an outfit that was appropriate to that week’s film choice. I’m also wearing a necklace that was sent to me by the organization to whom you donated your eyes for research and education; the pendant is a cream-colored ceramic heart with a heart-shaped hole in the center. Very appropriate — there is a huge, irreparable hole in my own heart. Valerie-shaped.

Valerie had wanted to donate her body to medical research at OHSU in Portland, Oregon, a medical institution that meant a great deal to her; this is where her life was saved when her liver failed in 2012. Unfortunately, she was so thin when she died that her BMI did not meet the minimum required. But I was able to donate her eyes, and I received this pendant from the organization who received the donation, along with a lovely letter of thanks. I believe Valerie would be proud to have made this contribution. (Photo is my own.)

The rest of the day, I really didn’t do very much at all, outside of my less-than-successful attempt to write to you. I am so tired, so very tired… most of the time, I just don’t feel physically capable of doing much more than whatever daily chores are absolutely necessary. Sometimes I manage a little yoga, and I do try to go out every couple of days to take a walk, but I find it really stressful — I still can’t bear to be around people, and I’m sure you remember how hard it is in this neighborhood to avoid others. (This is why I go out very early, including to do errands, take out trash, pick up mail, that kind of thing.) But it is a lovely neighborhood to walk in, especially in the spring, which of course also makes it painful for me, remembering how much you loved these walks this time of the year; every day we were looking for new flowers that might be blooming, new birds migrating through, and trees with those bright green new leaves coming out. (We really only see that particular green in the spring.)

The deck garden is now like a microcosmic version of the Northwest in spring, and it’s so nice to have that to enjoy without having to leave the apartment. Did I tell you that the Christmas rose that we bought at the Holiday Market last November is still blooming? I would never have guessed it would carry on this long. Oh, and all your cherished roses are doing really well, and both the miniature roses actually have buds on them now. Your “rescue rose”, the one you pulled from the trash last year, is also looking very healthy. (I pruned all the roses back quite a lot in early March, and was a bit worried that I’d overdone it until I saw the first new growth.) And I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but in March, I went out and bought one of the Rose Festival special roses to go with the one you bought last year. Yours is “Burst of Hope”, and the one I just got is called “Rosy Reunion” (painfully ironic); I’m looking forward to seeing them bloom together. Funny, I say I’m looking forward to it, but anything that can be looked forward to also has its flip side: any anticipated pleasure also means the sadness that I can no longer share these experiences with you.

Your cat just jumped up on the bed with me as I write, and I can already hear her purring. When you first arrived here with her on Christmas Eve, 2009, for what was supposed to be a short visit, she was so quiet, I could hardly hear her purr, and she definitely was not as generally vocal as she has become. I’m taking care of her, don’t worry; actually, if it wasn’t for having to get up and feed her in the morning, there are lots of days when I probably wouldn’t get out of bed at all. I’m very grateful for her sweet company. I’m quite sure she misses you.

So many memories over the almost 39 years I got to be your mother… you at age 5, walking all by yourself to the top of our cul-de-sac to catch your school bus to kindergarten, you at 18 months looking on with interest (but never crying) as a blood sample was taken from your tiny arm, you at 11 walking into ground school with me for the first time, you at 16 landing your first solo flight, you at 13 helping me clean horse stalls and haul hay into the loft after we moved to the farm, you at 18 flying off to school in Paris, you at 21 calling me when your heart was broken, you at 27, arriving with your cat on Christmas Eve, the beginning of your final twelve years that I hadn’t expected to be able to spend with you… I’m so grateful we had that precious additional time to know each other.

I want to remember everything, even though the memories are wonderful and agonizing at the same time…

I especially remember how you loved every holiday. The anticipation, the planning, baking, decorating, dressing up, playing holiday music, wrapping gifts — you made every holiday so special, and I’m so glad we had as many of them together as we did. Thank you for all those beautiful times, Valerie. Those memories are now all that remain of every holiday we shared.

Now the usual holidays are all part of our past, and I doubt I can ever face those dates in the future without tremendous pain. Instead, I want to celebrate your life on February 25, your birthday, every Leap Day (when you came out of your coma), and I may decide to add New Year’s Eve to this list, because on December 31, 2021, 2 days after your diagnosis, you made this gallant toast: “To 2022 — may we never fear anything ever again!” I promise to do my best to live up to that, even though, right now, I don’t know how it will be possible.

I miss you, Valerie. So, so much. Forever.

With all my love,

Your Mum

I miss you so much, my beautiful girl. (All photos and montage design are my own.)

2/17/23 Update: I‘ve just added a new video version of this letter to my YouTube channel, Dear Valerie (@dearvalerie2022). Here’s the link:

One response to “My First Mother’s Day Without Valerie”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: