by Chandra Hoffman
My mother-in-law died in the early hours of August first, while the East Coast birds sang their dawn chorus. It was her favorite time of day, and as we drank tea and watched the sunrise, my family took a teaspoon of comfort in that, that her spirit might be soaring and dipping with the swallows, calling out with the wrens and the finches.
Cheryl and I had planned to write a children’s opera based on this birdsong phenomenon; she brought her flute whenever she visited, because she had to practice for her concert schedule, but also so we might get serious about this opera project. She would do the music, but,
“You’re the writer,” she told me.
She always rose with the sun. When she was at our house, it was to make recordings of the birds and chicory coffee and memories with her grandchildren. When we took our annual winter vacation to the Cayman Islands, she was the first up, reading an entire novel on the screen porch, waiting for me to lumber out of bed and join her on her next morning ritual, a walk of the entire Seven Mile Beach, collecting sea glass. At her home in Buffalo, she spent her winter-dark morning hours in the bathtub on the phone, talking shoes and thrift and art with her sister, an even earlier bird on the West Coast.
My mother-in-law and I were well-matched from the moment her son introduced us—high energy, creatively hungry, lovers of vegetables and words and walking. At that point, she had already endured breast cancer for two years, diagnosed at an untimely thirty-seven. Her cancer was a third person in our relationship; someone hunkered down in the backseat behind us, lurking predatorily. We were good at addressing it when it reared up, but even better at ignoring it.
It was a happy day for us all when five years after meeting, her son and I married, when I started affectionately calling her Cherry, when she gave me a heart-shaped antique silver necklace because I was “the daughter of her heart.”
When we were together, we took occasional breaks from Scrabble and walking marathons. If we weren’t cruising thrift or shoe stores, we were crunching rice crackers and carrot sticks, composing children’s stories and contest winning poetry, scribbling them on index cards we kept tucked in her dictionary. If she was in Buffalo, where she was the director of UB’s flute program or preparing for concert performances from Southern France to Carnegie Hall, we spoke on the phone daily. She talked with my husband on his hour-long commute to work, to me as I washed dishes and folded laundry, and then the capper, several hours doing knock-knock jokes and stories with our young sons in the evening.
When she visited, she welcomed my children’s early morning companionship– tidepooling on the beach washed in sunrise, stories in the kitchen, breakfast picnics on the porch with the birds serenading, while my husband and I slept in and counted our blessings.
If it truly takes a village to raise a child, she was our village’s sage. The majority of our beach walk and phone conversations became about ‘our boys’, her son and grandsons, analyzing their behaviors and theories. She sent me beautiful journals, ads for writing contests and articles on motherhood. I have one from her on the concept of ‘thumos’—male energy in young boys that I have worn thin, copied for all my friends with sons.
Once, faced with a crossroads in our lives, the house we rented going on the market, deep holes in our resumés that reflected our early wanderlust, I asked Cherry’s advice.
“You’re a writer,” she told me again, and I laughed. Our son was a full time job, born with challenges that required several hours of expensive specialists a week, my constant devotion.
“No, no,” I told her, “I need to do something that makes money.”
She insisted I send out the stories we’d been playing with, things I’d dashed off and sent to her for her keen editing, her economic and whimsical way with words.
“Where would I find time?”
“Get up in the early morning, put on the kettle, put in a load of laundry, and write.”
Instead, I started an event planning company, despite her constant affirmation that I was a writer, despite the fact that her very existence proved a woman could be both a successful mother and artist.
Her cancer moved, breast to lymph to lung to brain. At her encouragement, I applied to a school in California for my masters in creative writing. The same day I was accepted, I learned I was pregnant, this time with a daughter.
“How can I do this?” I sobbed to her, meaning get my masters across the country with three kids under the age of five; meaning, be a mother to a little girl?
“Early mornings,” she told me. “Get up before they do.”
I resisted. She had told me for years that she had no sympathy for her college students who came in whining that they didn’t get enough sleep.
“Get over yourself!’ This was one of her favorite sayings, delivered with emphatic affection. “I haven’t slept through the night since I had Jonathan at nineteen!”
“What about the other, being a mother to a little girl?” I whispered, because my relationship with my own mother was often turbulent.
“Think of our relationship as a model,” she told me frankly. “Love her like I love you.”
I finished graduate school, my novel manuscript as my thesis. I had a daughter I named Piper, which means ‘flute player’, because though we all denied it, we were losing our Cherry. In June, she went in for a treatment that injected chemotherapy directly into her tumor-riddled brain and suffered a massive seizure, the beginning of the end.
I finished my novel that summer as she died slowly, still resisting rising in the early mornings. I watched my sons struggle to comprehend their loss, too early an introduction to death. I ached for my husband as he lost the woman who was as much his best friend as she was mine.
In the hospital, Cherry had promised me she would haunt us, afterwards, and she did. That summer, we were constantly visited by dragonflies, alighting on the shoulder of my son while he canoed on the pond, sitting on my knee at the beach and buzzing about us as we planted three cherry trees in her memorial garden. On the morning after my novel sold, I stepped outside at dawn to see not one but dozens of dragonflies swirling overhead.
How did I finish that first novel and start my second?
I set my alarm for 5 am. It’s not pretty. In the winter, it is worse. My house is cold and dark and my bed is warm and full of people I adore. But I tug on the knee-high baby blue fluff momma furry boots Cherry bought us both on her last Christmas and I put on the kettle, put in a load of laundry and I get started.
Spring and summer, it’s better. I sleep with the windows open so I can hear the birds, often waking ahead of the alarm to turn it off, slipping out of the bed that by morning is a tangle of children’s limbs and loveys and cats and snoring. I sit down with my tea, and my computer, serenaded by the hum of the washer and the beautiful chorus of the birds that my mother-in-law loved.
And I write, because she taught me, you can be a mother and an artist, but you have to get over yourself, and you have to rise with the dawn chorus.