Five Years Later: Of Death & Risotto

April 21, 2023

Today is the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death, the eve of Earth Day. I hope she was in her beloved woods in her dreams. I hope she is walking with my father now, through some celestial forest. I hope there is trillium. 

I love this photo. I think it was her first time at Mt. Rainier National Park.

Five years prior to her passing, I attended an alumni gathering of the writing retreat that had changed my life the year before. It was 2013, my mother was ninety-seven, and I had been walking with her through the adventure of very old age for a year—the year I had committed to staying. The year was up and I was still with her. It didn’t seem like she was going anywhere, either; neither to a next life nor to assisted living. 


The idea of writing a memoir about our journey together was bouncing around in my head, but I knew little about the story yet. Following the retreatants morning gathering in Marsh House that December week on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, we were tasked with spending the day on our own with our projects. We were given no prompts as we had been the year before, and I didn’t know what to write. (Mostly, I was just happy to be freed from the tether with my mother for a week on an island.) Christina, the retreat leader, suggested I write the end of the story. “Make it up?” I asked, my eyes going wide in incredulity. “Yes,” she said.

I opened my eyes and started writing. The truth told slant. 

Under the skylights in the loft of my cabin for one—Spirit House—I sat with my laptop. I leaned into the pillows, closed my eyes, and let my mind drift. I was walking with my mother in the woods. She was telling me to look for trillium. I was making risotto in the kitchen. She was napping on the other side of the wall, sleeping longer than usual, while I stirred Arborio rice, adding hot broth a half cup at a time, imagining her being gone forever. 

Spirit House

What emerged was a piece of fiction that the women of that retreat still remember when I’ve chanced to be in conversation with them again over the past ten years. A piece of fiction that, five years after the writing, turned out to be not that far from truth. 

I’ve never shared it beyond that group of women, but this seems like the right time, a decade later, five years after her departure. It was the imagined beginnings of the real story that is the epilogue in my memoir. 

If you are a caregiver, how do you imagine the end of that both holy and fraught relationship? How do you imagine your own end? Write it down. Share it with someone, or hold it close. 

My parents in their beloved Appalachian mountains, the setting of their courtship.

Spring is a time of beginnings and rebirth, but also of moving beyond. The trillium, so brilliantly white today, will soon enough turn pink and then purple, the seed pod emerging. If it’s lucky, it will survive animal foraging and release its seeds in mid-summer before returning to the earth. Birth, death, renewal . . . it’s the circle of the natural world.

Now I meet my mother in the woods, and see her in the over-wintering hummingbird, and rejoice with her in the first trillium bloom. And I carry her in my beating heart always.

In her Seminary Hill woods.

You can read the fictional end of life on my website here. At the bottom of the page is a link to the eulogy I delivered at Mama’s memorial service, the weekend of her 102nd birthday. My sisters and each wrote one focusing on the trait(s) of hers we most thought we embodied. Mine were courage and love of the natural world. There’s also a link to the risotto recipe!

Hug those you love, if you can. And love the earth. Happy Earth Day.

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