Letters from the Pandemic 2: Losing my mother

A Letter from the Pandemic: Losing My Mother
by Cathy Patel

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Dear GLS Family,

Cathy Patel’s mother, Jane Miller, at home, 1976

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”

I miss my mother. In the early part of the year of the pandemic, she died, of a stroke, at age 89, on March 11, in Pennsylvania. She had a stroke the day before in the early morning, and never regained consciousness. She passed away in her carved four-poster marriage bed, a wedding gift from her in-laws in 1953. I imagine I was conceived in that very bed.

It’s the last place I was able to hold her; her body was still warm. I had flown east across much of Canada from YVR to Pearson. My connecting flight left Toronto heading south to Philadelphia as the sun rose. I later learned that that’s when my mother stopped breathing. My transcontinental journey was long, and I arrived two hours too late.

Jane Miller and Cathy Patel

But did I mention it already? My mother’s body was still warm. My family allowed me time to stay with Mom — just the two of us, before the two beefy stone-faced funeral men dressed in black suits arrived to take her away from her home of fifty years. Her lovely face was smooth and calm. She appeared younger and looked at peace. Or perhaps this was me imagining it was that way. It didn’t look as though she’d suffered, though I was told that her breathing was laboured towards the end. My father and brothers had stayed with her throughout her final night of life.

Rockhopper Penguin in the Antarctic, by Jane Miller

I miss her sweet nature. I miss her grace and poise and dignity — the way she held her head high with her golden hair turned silver white; and her blue eyes turned a smoky grey with flecks of ocean hues; the stylish manner with which she wore her silk scarf with a print of Monet’s blue purple flowers — the scarf I’d given her from my visit to Paris at the end of the last century. She was an artist herself while a mother of five. In earlier years, she had a brief respite from her domestic life when she lived in Giverny to paint in Monet’s garden. She delighted in all things French; my daughters knew her as grandmere.

My mother played the piano by ear; Debussy’s Clair de Lune was her favourite. Now, if I hear it on the radio, it dredges up a pain that is unlike any other; it reaches a pitch beyond sadness. I fear there may be a breaking point beyond which I can no longer breathe.

Through my mother’s eyes, I learned to perceive the beauty of the world that exists for those who can see. Her bookshelves were affixed to walls throughout the house, packed tightly with art books and literature and biographies of writers and artists. Did I tell you she was an artist herself? My mother painted landscapes in soft watercolours. She loved to do portraits most of all — black charcoal sketches and oil paintings on canvas.

Sketch of Cathy by Jane Miller

A sketch she did of me in pastels I’ve had framed. She captured me with a wistful dreamy gaze looking out of the sunroom windows to a landscape of Pennsylvania farmland; fields of amber grass framed by the dark tall forest on top of the hill with the outcropping of grey granite where a line of family golden retrievers had been buried over the years. I look so young — maybe in my early twenties. She captured a moment in time; a look; someone I was.

Did I tell you that my mother was an artist?

I miss her. The year of the pandemic is the year I lost my mother.

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Cathy Patel in Morocco

Cathy Patel is wrapping up her Master’s degree with the Graduate Liberal Studies programme at SFU. She is grateful for the friendship and support of her fellow students, and to Professor Sasha Colby for her encouragement and guidance.

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The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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