You have to understand: my mother wasn’t the sort of person you could imagine ever turning eighty years old. She was blond and beautiful and so sure she’d always be young–and she was so disappointed as each sign of aging came to her: the arthritis, the wrinkles, the thinning hair, the watery eyes. I mean, no one likes that stuff, but she seemed shocked that such things could dare to happen to her. Shocked!

“How can I get so old?” I remember her asking me one time when she was probably 50. “How can I ever not be pretty?”

It’s a little sad to think of, I suppose–someone who was so taken with looks that the thought of them disappearing made her feel as though nothing at all would be left of her. Wasn’t this the same woman who had told me when I was 10 years old that it was important to develop a personality because cuteness just wouldn’t see you through?

When she went to hospice four years ago at the age of 76, the nurse told me she was the first nursing home patient they’d ever had who insisted on wearing a toe ring.

And we laughed, my mother and I, because, as she put it: Cancer takes so much from you. You don’t have to give up your TOE RING to it, too, do you?

I’ve been through several deaths with people, but none quite like hers. When my father was dying, he simply got more and more quiet and introspective, stared out the window for longer intervals, whispered his requests for songs he wanted to hear on the CD player, and occasionally he’d rouse himself to try to make pleasant conversation about the cardinal outside at the bird feeder, or just who I thought might win the World Series.

My grandmother told me three days before she died that she’d be coming to my house in the spring–a fact I knew was untrue since she was in a hospice, hooked up to feeding tubes, with a terminal diagnosis. When I tried to talk about actual endings, she shushed me. “I’m going to be fine,” she said.

But my mother talked about it.

She’d call me in the middle of the night and say, “Where do you think I’ll be when I die?” and “How can I just not exist? What do you suppose that’s going to feel like?”

My uncle, her brother, was planning his wedding for the summer, and she and I would sit outside in the late May warmth, watching the azaleas bobbing in the breeze, and she’d say, “It’s the weirdest thing, talking to him about the wedding. I won’t still be alive then.”

“Maybe you will,” I said.

“No,” she said, and she wasn’t even particularly sad when she said it. “I won’t.” She was the one who had heard the cancer diagnosis, the prognosis, and then marched over to the phone, called hospice, signed the papers, and even joked with the startled, soft-voiced man who was being so delicate and careful. She was facing death head on, unflinching.

But now she looked out at some children playing across the street. “I just can’t picture how it’s all going to happen.”

I was worn out with grief and regret and arrangements, and I didn’t know quite how to be with her. I sat next to her for hours on end and let her talk. It was all I could think of to do for her. It’s sad now, thinking of her imagining not existing–sitting there so alive, so full of opinions and thoughts and regrets and remarks.

“I like this toe ring a lot,” she said. She and her toe ring. They were going to part ways.

She and I were going to part ways, too.

“I’ll contact you if I can,” she said one day out of the blue. But it wasn’t out of the blue, not really. It was just that we’d been at that moment discussing the banana pudding in front of her, pudding that she was pushing away from her. She had stopped eating by then. She was preparing to go, and she was sure it was coming soon.

When they called me at 6 a.m. a few days later and said she had died, I wasn’t surprised, of course. She and I had talked about this moment so much. I went to the hospice and sat with her in the room for a long time, or the part of her she’d left behind that really no longer seemed much like her. I couldn’t figure out if she would want me to see her like that or not. Maybe she would want me to turn away.

I knew she wanted me to take the toe ring, and so I did.

She would have been eighty today. She always said she hated growing old, but maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. She could have gone to my uncle’s wedding that summer. She could have seen her first great-granddaughter born, could have met the two great-grandsons who were newborn infants when she died, infants she never got to see.

I don’t know where she is, but sometimes I still feel her around. I know sometimes what she’d say in situations, or at least I’m pretty sure I know. I can summon up the sound of her laughter. Is that just a memory or is it the same as her contacting me?

I’m not sure. She would have been eighty today. Would that have been so bad?