It was a beautiful day in early March 2003 and spring was in the air. We lived in Stroudsburg, PA and I was chatting with my mother who was relaxing at her new home in Carry le Rouet, France. She loved her home and extended another invitation for me to visit. I demurred, reminding her how we had not gotten along well the last time we’d visited together for an extended period. She chuckled and poo-poo’d my concerns, reassuring me that her house was so big we would not get in each other’s way. Her lunch was brought and as she began to eat, she complained how tired she was of eating “cow food” – raw greens.
My mother had been living with cancer since 1998 having undergone chemo for 6 years and was still going strong. I asked if she’d lost any weight and the conviction in her voice startled me as she said “OH YES!!”. When we hung up I went to my room and cried. Something within me knew she was dying and it was this feeling that inspired me to write her a song. Over the next week as I was driven to/from my job on Broadway as AIDA I worked on the song. I wanted her to know how often I thought of her yet how often life’s responsibilities got in the way of me reaching out. I finished writing it and recorded it 4 days before she left this world. It is entitled BREAKDOWN, and the first verse is as follows:
THERE’S NOT A DAY THAT GOES BY I DON’T THINK OF YOU…
Indeed. How was I to know my life, and all the relationships within it, was about to shift never to return to what was?
Saturday April 19, 2003 I decided to go into NYC early to get my nails done prior to the 2-show day. As I sat in the salon, Elton John came on the radio and I found myself choking back unbidden tears. For the rest of the performance day those tears would be the nemesis that remained so close, it was an inner struggle to channel them properly within the context of the show.
Easter Sunday April 20, 2003 as my car pulled up to Broadway’s Palace Theatre I received a call from France informing me Mommy had been given 24-48 hrs – she was on her way to another place. She was unresponsive but aware. I requested to speak to her and told her how MUCH I loved her, not to worry about me and that I would make sure all her efforts and sacrifices would not be in vain. To this day, I wish I had had the presence of mind to sing her the first verse of the lullaby she always sang to me:
GO TO SLEEP MY PRECIOUS ONE
DAY IS DONE AND NIGHT IS NEAR
WHEN YOU WAKE YOU’LL SEE THE SUN
WISH YOU FOR A STAR TO STEER
As I reflect I marvel that after that call I did not simply go home. Instead I performed the Sunday matinee and returned home as usual.
It was around 8pm and I was outside romping around with my dogs. It was a clear, calm evening and we played as we always did. Out of nowhere a huge wind began, the mature trees surrounding my property began to sway and leaves were tossed here and there. The dogs and I became still at the same time as we looked around and I whispered one word: “MOMMY?”
Monday April 21, 2003 as my husband, Rob and I lounged the phone rang. My mother was gone. Just like that, my life and everything in it shifted. Lisa Celeste Stroud also died on that day and Simone was officially born.
I often think of that time and my heart still aches.
I had booked a ticket to France for May 3rd and I was too late. For a long time I was angry with my mother for leaving before my fantasy of a fairy tale relationship was realized. There was no opportunity to make heads or tales of my own heart because of the whirlwind tossing me about and the constant influx of condolences from presidents, political figures, musical icons, friends and fans the world over. We flew to France to attend to all that needed doing. I remember walking around with the same legal pad in my hand (which I still have) for I knew I would not be able to retain anything AND the vultures had begun to circle; each trying to get me to before the next.
Rob and I went to the mortuary and sat with her body for I do not know how long. It was disconcerting to hug her and feel how cold she was. She’d always rubbed my head and all I wanted to do was take her hand and place it there one last time. I picked out a white dress, had her nails painted white, her wig coiffed and placed her lion tail in her hand as she was readied for her final journey into the fire. My cousin Crystal had flown in and each of us wrote Mommy a letter and placed it in the coffin. The pastor who presided over the funeral called her an APOSTLE. White roses, her favorite, adorned the coffin along with a banner, which read NINA, WE LOVE YOU. Even though I did not intend to speak I wound up singing PRECIOUS LORD and asking all in attendance to not let her efforts be in vain. I also shared Mom’s love for white roses and encouraged everyone to take one as they left, in remembrance of her.
My mother was cremated, as per her instructions. I did not attend but chose rather to go back to the chalet, which I’d inherited. On our trip back to the house people on foot and bikes raised their white roses to us as we passed. I smiled through my tears.
As you can see, the memories are quite vivid and always will be. I miss my mother deeply every day. It took me 5 years to stop grieving. Now, when I hear her music being played on an elevator, airplanes, Pandora, restaurants, malls, et al I no longer have to catch myself. Instead, I smile and sing along…choosing to believe she’s sending me a message she is always near.
I had no idea what I was going to share today. I do hope my story will inspire you to appreciate the familial relationships you have. Death is a transition. It is a guarantee. It will happen to us all. How we choose to prepare for it is up to us. Talk to each other. Forgive each other. Ask questions. Plan. Come together and Love one another. Once our loved ones cross over it is difficult enough; we do not need regrets and guilt to add to our burden.
Celebrate Nina today and every April 21st with a White Rose and know The Legacy does INDEED CONTINUE.
I LOVE YOU MOMMY!!