On the day of my mother's memorial service, I placed a photograph of her at the Quaker Meeting House where we held the service, and then later back at my house, where family and friends gathered for comfort and remembrance. The next day, I looked at the photograph and noticed the imprint of lips on the frame's glass, right over my mother's lips. A kiss.
"Look," I said to my boyfriend, "someone kissed my mother's picture."
"It was you," he said, perhaps recognizing the lips, or just knowing how often I had been kissing my mother and how I continued to long to kiss her now that she was gone.
I was never big on kissing. Wipe your mouth. Dry your lips. These were the instructions given by me as a child to my mother and father, or anyone else who wanted to kiss me. And it always seemed like a lot of people wanted to kiss me. I tolerated the kisses, but barely. Hello. Good-bye. Good night. Thank you.
My first real kiss from a boy was the stuff of my nightmares. Forget "Dry your lips," I wish he had just kept his mouth closed. It was like falling into a well. Worse. When I picture it, I think of him as an open-mouthed hippopotamus, all tongue and teeth and wetness. That's a story for another time, but to any boy who ever kissed me, it was not you. It happened in South Carolina and I never saw him again after he told me that Southern girls were faster and more fun. I did eventually come to enjoy kissing boys, but it took a while.
When my own children were born, I understood the animalistic fervor to want to kiss them constantly. I called my mother from the hospital after my first child was born and, through hormone-enhanced sobs, told her, "Now I know how much you love me." I understood why hamsters ate their babies. While there is probably some scientific explanation as to why they really do it, I always think of those mommy and daddy hamsters as just getting carried away. My children were so delicious I just wanted to eat them up.
When my mother became sick and language was no longer our primary means to communicate, I began to use touch to communicate my love for her. I tickled her and stroked her and kissed her. When she could no longer speak, she would touch my hair, pull my face towards hers and we would kiss. In her last months of life, she got more kisses from me than I had given her in 50 years before.
On my mother's last day, I once again lay down next to her, but she was so fragile, I could not stay there long. I sat next to her on the bed and I kissed her face and her hands, her closed eyes and her cheeks. She was wearing a hospital gown and the gown gapped slightly, exposing a small triangle of her skin right above her heart and slightly below her shoulder. I placed my lips on this smooth skin, untouched by age or illness, and I kissed her there.
In the week that followed her passing, I became obsessed by that kiss. I kept thinking about that spot, above her heart and below her shoulder. I had not just kissed her. I had nestled my face into that spot and wanted to bite her. I wanted to swallow her up. It was primal and it shocked me. What was it about this spot? Why was it different from her hands, her lips, her cheeks, her closed eyes?
I paced around my room until my eyes fell on a life-sized baby doll that I had found in my mother's apartment months before and had once brought to the nursing home. I picked up the doll and held it the way a mother holds her child and its little plastic mouth settled right into that spot, above my heart and just below my shoulder. And then I knew. I had come full circle. The place where I had felt most safe and loved as an infant, in my mother's arms, with my nose and mouth pressed to her skin, just above her heart and below her shoulder, that place was calling me back to say good-bye. Good-bye, good night, my sweet, beautiful mother. And thank you for loving me so well.