Articles by Mark Schiff: The Nineteen Boxes
My mother died July 9,1999. I remember coming home that Friday afternoon from picking up Shabbat flowers. I was parking my car when I saw my wife walking out of the house to greet me. I knew right away that something awful had happened because she never comes out of the house to say hello. I could see in her face something was wrong. “What’s the matter?” I asked. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Your mother is gone.”
With the release of those words, my life has never been the same. There are certain sentences that change your life forever. We all have them. Within seconds of the delivery of that sentence from my wife, I was struck numb. It was as if I had just had a dose of Novocain delivered into my brain. When I looked at my wife standing there I could see her in front of me, but even as we hugged I could only feel stillness all around. It was like the earth had stopped rotating. It was as if my 45-year-old brain, with all its knowledge and experience, had been emptied out and now I knew only one word: gone.
I proceeded to pick up the flowers, grabbed my laptop off the back seat and for the first time, walked into my house an orphan. When I walked out that morning to go to the office, I had a mother. When I walked back in that afternoon, I did not.
It is now ten months later, and the reality of it is very slowly sinking in. I still think every Sunday, “Hey, Mark. Call your mother.” However, if you ever heard any of my conversations with my mother, you’d think, why is he even bothering to call? My mother and I loved each other very much. It’s just that, at certain times in our lives, we didn’t act like it and rarely did we talk about our feelings. Is it a male thing? Maybe. A typical phone conversation with my mother went something like this: “Hello, mom, it’s me. Good. Everyone’s good. And how are you? Not good. What’s the matter? Everything. You’ll feel better soon. Oh, you won’t. OK, I’ll call you next week. Love ya, bye.
If you’ve lost someone close to you, you’ll agree that one of the hardest things about the death of a loved one is that you can’t hear the person’s voice anymore. On one level, I know that’s true. But on another level, I can say that sometimes I now hear my mother louder and clearer than ever.
You see, after she died, my wife and I went down to Ft. Lauderdale and spent three days packing up her one-bedroom apartment. Then I went to Mailbox Express and for a mere $800, I sent home 19 boxes.It took me seven months to reopen the 19 boxes. What I didn’t know was that inside those boxes, my mother was waiting to talk to me in a way I had always yearned for and was never able to hear from her. One of the first things I found was her ninth-grade autograph book. The book talked of her future, dreams and hopes. Her friends wished her luck with one day having a family and becoming an actress. Opening that book was our first real conversation since her death. I was hearing about her dreams as a child to become an actress and perform on Broadway. She sounded so happy and excited. I told her I was sorry it never happened for her, but I was sure she would have been great if it did. And I meant every word of it. Never before was I able to express such empathy to my mom.
Then I found her class picture from ninth grade and I heard her ask me to pick her out of the photo. I said sure and found her picture right away. I told her how beautiful she looked and how she really didn’t change all that much. She thanked me for the compliment.
The most exciting moment for me was when I found my baby book. My mom had saved a few dozen cards that people had sent her and my dad to congratulate them on my birth. She had meticulously placed them in a baby book with some of the greatest black-and-white baby photos ever developed. This book had a strand of my hair, dates and events. It was my mother at her best. What I was hearing now was coming from the deepest part of her soul. She now roared with happiness and love for the young family that was just beginning. I heard my mother’s heart overflowing with love. My mother was far from gone. She was here more than ever. I had never heard her sound so good and seem so happy.