When my father was here this weekend, he left behind a ticking time bomb: my mother's answering machine. It has been two years and 275 days since she died, which means that it's been two years and 276 days since I heard her actual voice. I don't have a lot of other recordings with her speaking voice in them--maybe a few crappy digital videos, and some cancer-related television appearances preserved on ancient VHS tapes. Did she make a cameo in our wedding video? I can't remember. I asked for the answering machine.
I can plug in the answering machine and hit Greeting. Her voice says "Hi, you've reached the _____s," our old phone number follows, then "please leave a message." It's short and sweet. I wish it were longer. Or that you could tell from what she is saying the way she used to sound when she laughed. After she died, but before we sold the house, I used to call this machine occasionally from 2,000 miles away to hear this very message. It was reassuring evidence that my mother had existed. After listening to it again, I'm not sure that is still the case. It's definitely her, but she's not telling me the things I need to hear. She can't say "everything will be all right" and confirm that she loved me. I have to take that on faith. Unfortunately, faith is not something I am blessed with.
When my mother was dying in the room downstairs, I used to dream that I was walking along the sharp edge of a knife with bare feet, suspended over a black hole of nothingness. I knew my options were either to slip off the edge of the knife, or make it to the end and leap willingly into oblivion, streams of blood trailing behind. In retrospect, I think I slipped before getting to the end. I participated in mom's fiction that she wasn't going to die; I feigned ignorance and spent time just waiting for the inevitable that I could have spent finding out what kind of person she really was. And now, when I try to explain to my child that he has another grandparent, I'll have to rely on photographs, answering machines, and my own dim recollections to reconstruct her for him--and for me. She was the family memory keeper, and she is gone. No matter how many times I press Greeting, the message will always be the same.
I am writing this to remember during the times when I don't have such sharp slivers of memory. I hope it will help remind me that waiting for the inevitable need not be the only course of action.