I can still hear her voice on the phone. It was March 1st, 2001, my Mom's birthday. "Beth? I just opened my present." The pleasure in her tone was apparent. I imagined her sitting at the kitchen table in her robe, coffee and crossword at her elbow.
"Do you like it?"
"Of course! Which one should I read first?"
We chatted about the books I'd sent: about a dozen mass market murder mysteries. There were some old favorites (ones I didn't think she'd read in years, like early Agatha Christie) and some new finds — a Jane Austen mystery by Stephanie Barron; Silver Pigs, Lindsey Davis's first ancient Rome mystery; High Five by Janet Evanovich, which was out in paperback by then; and others.
When we lived in my hometown, I'd see Mom twice a week, at least, for dinner, Scrabble, movies. Once I moved to Portland — 3,000 miles away — we talked on the phone at least once a week. She sounded fine that morning. I had no idea anything was wrong.
My partner is a film editor and writer, and a few days after Mom and I talked, we were in Austin, Texas, for the SXSW Film Festival. One of my sisters called: Mom was in the hospital. Mom said she was fine when I called her room that day; she was having just a bit of trouble with her one remaining kidney. She'd finished one of the books and liked it. And, no, I should not fly home to South Carolina.
All through the festival I worried about her. We talked about her health constantly — my memories of the film festival are infused with phone calls to the hospital, phone calls to my siblings, sitting in a Starbucks on Congress Avenue, trying to decide if we could afford for me to change my return ticket to fly to Greenville.
The night before we left Austin, I talked with her. She was in pain and I don't think we said more than five or ten words to each other. I told her I loved her and that I'd see her soon. She was dead 24 hours later.
The day of the funeral, at Mom's house — the house I grew up in — I saw some of the new mysteries sitting on the bookshelf in the living room. One of books was on the coffee table: Mom had been reading it before she went to the hospital. I wish I could remember which book it was.
My sisters had all been reading the books as well — nothing like a book to pass the time at the hospital. I still have some of the mysteries I sent her. I am not a sentimental person — I threw away my high school yearbooks — but I cannot part with those books.
I remember standing in front of the shelves. I saw many old friends: Daphne Du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers... The bookseller in me saw a modest collection of well-read mass markets — Mom was too thrifty to buy hardcovers. But I also saw an unbreakable bond with her. She'd given me a wonderful gift, a love of reading. And as my last birthday present to her, I'd tried to pay her back at least a little bit.
Books mentioned in this post