This is a picture of my mother in the hospital, with her little dog Bear, a few days before she died.

Bear is looking at Peggy, my mother’s friend who had brought him to the hospital for a visit. Peggy lived across the hall from my mother and she now (bless her) raises Bear. He was restless and agitated in the bed, and a few minutes after this picture was taken, my mother said, “Okay, he knows I love him. He needs to leave now.”

I have been thinking about her a lot lately. I miss her so much, even though in the last year of her life, all I did was worry about her all the time. She was always feeling sick and tired, and she was constantly ticked off at her friend, Mike, whom she said was too clingy and also smelled bad. They took turns calling the ambulance on each other, like two children tattling on each other to the principal.

Yep, it was a precarious life there in the senior housing complex in Clearwater, Florida, and she was always getting into scrapes. When I went through her papers at the end, I saw that she was often getting fined because Bear “would urinate on the rugs in the public area and sometimes on the other residents.”

I remember she would call me up in outrage that somebody in the hallway hadn’t moved out of the way in time when it should have been clear to anyone that Bear was lifting his leg! “And now,” she’d sputter, “I have to pay the fine because SHE didn’t get out of the way when Bear was going to pee!”

“Why don’t you teach him not to pee on people?” I’d ask her, but she had no idea that was the kind of thing that dogs and humans could ever negotiate. Dogs do whatever they wish. Didn’t I know anything?

It’s odd how when someone dies far away, you almost can’t wrap your head around the fact that it’s really over. I still go to the phone, thinking I have to call her, I have to make sure she’s okay, and then I remember a split-second later that she’s gone. I feel sadness mixed with relief. Ohhh…she’s not in the hospital again. She hasn’t gotten evicted. Whew.

As though those things would be worse somehow than what IS true: that she’s dead.

I’m so glad I had those days with her in the last month, but of course they don’t feel like they were anywhere near enough of what they should have been. I guess the mind looks for meaning somehow, and there was no meaning. Looking back, it boils down to the fact that one ordinary Wednesday afternoon, she called me up crying and said she thought she had cancer all over her body and that her doctor was making her have a colonoscopy to find out for sure, and then two days later her surgeon called and said, yup, that’s pretty much what we found…and then I went to see her, and for a while it seemed like she might have some time left, but then the time ran out more quickly than anybody expected, and the last days were very hard, and then there was a moment at the very end when she looked up at me and talked to me in such a way that I could remember that once, a very long time ago, before a lot of the bad stuff started happening–the mental illnesses and the separations and the charging thousands of dollars on Home Shopping Network–I had been her beloved child, the one she loved so much and took such good care of.

And then, just when I remembered that, she closed her eyes and died.

I spent two days cleaning out her house and giving her possessions to her friends, and then I came back home. And when I came back home, there were these new babies to cuddle, and a book to finish, and a whole rich life going on right where it had been going before, and after a week or so, it was almost hard to remember those days in Florida when I was there with her, pushing her in her wheelchair and talking about what the end might be like, and whether she should have another cigarette before we went back inside, and wasn’t that a funny time when my uncle sang that song in a bar. All of those conversations–the mundane and the tragic–all mashed up together.

One night when I was there, I had to do a phone interview with a book group that was reading “A Piece of Normal,” and my cell phone would only work outside the hospital. My mother wanted to come with me outside, but I didn’t want her to. I was worried that she would be too cold or too bored, and she’d be stuck outside with me until I finished being interviewed, but no, no, she wanted to come. So I pushed her wheelchair, and we sat outside while I talked to the book group, and it was the first time I had ever had any book-related thing to do with my mother present. My books were sort of abstract to her. She read them, she said “how nice,” but she never heard me talk about them. I was interviewed for about 45 minutes, and she just sat there beside me, in her wheelchair. I was surprised to look over and see that she was smiling and listening–really listening–and when I hung up from talking to the group, she started to cry. She said, “I never knew what your life is really like…I didn’t understand how you felt about your books.”

So there are all these things, these little memories of her, that rise like bubbles to the surface of my mind, and then pop. My mother was the only person left whom I had known for my whole life, and some days now are heavy with the knowledge that there was so much we didn’t get to yet.

Tomorrow, though, I’m going to call Peggy and see if Bear has peed on anyone lately. I’d like to think he gave that up.