10 years later

Ten years ago today, I got the call. The call I’d been dreading. The call from my dad to tell me that my mom was dead. I was in my car, in line to drop my #1 son at school. He was still in the car, but I answered the phone because it was my dad calling. Trying to respond to him while cloaking my words in a way as to not upset my 6-year-old was hard. Living the last 10 years without my mom has been even harder.

I’ve written much about my sweet mama and how much I miss her. I’m not sure that there are new ways to say, I’m sad. I miss her. I feel lost sometimes. I worry that I don’t do enough to keep her memory alive. I can’t believe she’s gone. I don’t want to live the rest of my life without her. I’m afraid I don’t mother my kids as well as she mothered me. I’m totally pissed that she’s gone. I was robbed. She was robbed. It still hurts, a lot. It’s better, but it still hurts.

I miss her. So much.

I’ve been torn today, between wallowing in the sadness and doing the kinds of things she respected. Between feeling sorry for myself and being productive. Between having a shitty day and “walking on the sunny side of the street” (the latter was how she bid me farewell every day when I left for school when I was little). How can I walk on the sunny side of the street when the sunshine is gone?

And yet I will try. I will. Because that’s what she would want. img_1199


Trapping the jumping beans

“Sometimes I have to let go and mother myself, kiss the hurts away. Tell myself that sometimes bad things just happen. But writing about it helps a lot, it scrapes it out of the dark corner, holds it up to the light and somehow heals the wound. It borders on miraculous.”

I have no idea who wrote these words. If any of y’all know, will you tell me? This quote spoke to me, though, at some point, because I wrote it down, and today as I cleared off my desk I found it. Scrawled on a scrap of paper and placed in my “I’ll get to this later” pile, the quote has lingered, waiting for me to get to it. How very patient.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t write it (although I wish I had). Perhaps it spoke to me because of the idea of having to mother myself. Being a motherless daughter, I don’t often think about mothering myself, and yet I do. Making myself go to bed when instead I want to stay up all night reading my current favorite book. Being diligent about pulling that load of shirts out of the dryer and hanging them up instead of letting them sit indefinitely in a wrinkled heap. Wiping up the spills on the stove top now, not later, before they’ve hardened into an indeterminate glob of laminated goo.

In the early days of navigating life without my sweet mama, I actively avoided any mothering that might come my way. That hole in my heart was too new, too raw to allow anyone else to even attempt to approximate any of the things my mom did. Seven years later, I still eschew any overt mothering. Somewhere along the way, though, I must have started mothering myself a bit. I certainly don’t hold out any hope that the hurts can really be kissed away, although I do tell myself often that bad things just happen. Telling myself that doesn’t help my innate desire to question, to wonder about the reason, or to pick things apart in a futile effort to figure them out. Sometimes it just is.

Writing about the things, whether the bad things or the confounding things, does help. Perhaps that’s the line that most spoke to me in the above quote. Perhaps that’s the reason I jotted the quote on a scrap of paper and put it in the pile on my desk. I’m a big believer in writing as healing, which I why I sit in front of my computer, keyboard clacking away as the words fill the screen. For me, just getting the words out of my head and the thoughts onto the screen is therapeutic.

Writing about the good stuff and the funny stuff is important, but writing about the bad stuff is even more so. Like the mothering I inevitably do for myself, writing about the bad stuff helps make it better. Somehow it purges the toxic stuff from my soul and helps filter the insomnia-inducing worries that blanket me after the lights go out and the house is quiet. No matter how much distance I try to put between myself and the cancer “experience,” those worries return. Sometimes it’s the fleeting thoughts before a routine oncology visit, and sometimes it’s a more concrete feeling. Sometimes it’s a visceral assault, like the smell of the hospital that fills my senses when I’m just visiting. Sometimes it’s a random trigger that takes me back to the heat of the battle. Regardless of the form or the impetus, the worries remain. Hence the need to write. Hence the need to read the stories of others who have walked this path. Ray Bradbury explained it perfectly:

“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, and music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.”

Knowing that I can drown out the insomnia-inducing worries with the “morning voices” is sublime. It borders on miraculous.

 


I want my mommy!

October 13. The day my mom died. It’s here again, and 7 years later, it still sucks.

They say time heals all wounds, but I say “heals” is a bit of a stretch. It’s more like time puts a too-small and not-so-sticky band-aid over the gaping wound where your heart used to be. They also say that you never get over such a loss, you just get through it. Whoever “they” are, they got it right that time.

I still miss her every single day, in one way or another. Her big, genuine laugh. The way she fretted incessantly. Her habit of always taking my kids’ side, even when they were naughty and unruly. The daily phone call, even when she had nothing much to report. Her ability to worm her way into anyone’s heart. Watching her in the kitchen, and marveling at how she knew how to get everything just right.

The list goes on.

I’ve written a lot in this little blog about how much I miss my sweet mama. I’ve read a lot about losing one’s mother. I’d like to think it helps, that it’s somehow therapeutic to get it out, to empty my heart and head onto the screen. When I come across a particularly interesting or helpful tidbit on the subject of mothers and/or loss, I jot them down. I usually forget to include the attribution, as I did here:

Motherhood isn’t a test but a religion, a covenant entered into, a promise to be kept.

No idea who wrote that or where I came across it, but I like it, and my sweet mama definitely embodies those ideals.

This one was in O Magazine, and again, I neglected to give credit where credit is due. To the author of these wise words, I apologize, but please know that your words moved me enough to pull out my iPhone, tap on the Notes icon, and copy the passage for quiet reflection at a later date:

You never get over what you lost. You always carry it with you, stitched to you like Peter Pan’s shadow. And you never wanted to get over it, because who wanted to forget a time that had been so important? No, the truth was, you wanted to remember it always.

I guess I’d say that it’s impossible to forget something (someone) so important. I do carry her with me, and I will never get over the loss of her. If I’m half as important to my two kids, a fraction as beloved, I will consider my life a great success.

I read a book review a while back about Caroline Kennedy’s book Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F Kennedy. (Whew, long title.) In the review, Caroline talked about how at age 53, accomplished and well-educated, she still referred to Jackie O as “mummy.” We never get over losing our mothers.

She went on to talk about the qualities she most admired in her mom, which she wanted to highlight in the book: the sense of strength, her passion for reading, and her will to move forward despite the pain that had come her way.

I can relate to that. My mom was amazingly strong, but in a quiet and gentle way. She loved to read and was a middle school English teacher in her life before becoming a full-time mother. And she had seen her share of pain: losing her own mother at age 13, raising her younger sister, losing that sister to pancreatic cancer, then enduring her own protracted and awful cancer battle.

I can relate to everything Caroline Kennedy says. My mom wasn’t as glamorous as Jackie, and I didn’t grow up in Camelot. I do have a brother named John, though; however my mama wouldn’t let anyone call him John-John or Johnny. Our neighbor across the street tried to call him Johnny, but my determined mama nipped that in the bud. She named him John after my dad’s uncle who immigrated from Greece. His name was John and she insisted that he be called John.

When Caroline Kennedy listened to the 8 hours of interviews between Mrs Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, which Caroline used to make up the book, she had a strong reaction. She says, “I read them right after mum died and had the sense she was speaking to me again. I could hear her saying what I was reading (smiles).”

What a precious gift. To hear my sweet mama again would be such a treasure. I have to work hard to remember what her voice sounded like. The more time that passes, the harder it gets. The more years that roll by without her, the less I feel like I know her. She seems to be fading from me.

I still call upon her a lot, especially in the kitchen. Just the other day, I was helping my favorite girl in the kitchen. She’s doing an ongoing bake sale to raise money for her class trip to Washington, D.C. and was baking my mom’s pumpkin bread. The house smelled sweet and spicy, the cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg redolent of fall (even though it was 90 degrees outside). Watching my girl take on a task (raising money for her trip), executing her plan, and carrying on my mom’s fine tradition of expressing her love through food made me proud. And sad. Because I knew how much my mom would love to see my girl doing her thing. She would fret over my girl, telling her to scoop the flour lightly, without packing it down. She’d say, fold the dry ingredients gently into the pumpkin mixture so the bread will come out light and fluffy instead of dense. She’d tell my girl to clean up as she went along, so that there won’t be a giant mess at the end. And she’d scold my girl for wanting to taste the batter; my mom grew up on a farm with chickens and was always leery of eating raw eggs.

I needed my mama that day in the kitchen with my hard-working girl. After the pumpkin bread baked and we let the loaves rest in the pan for 10 minutes, we knew to turn them out onto a rack to cool. But the still-warm bread was so moist it was very soft on the bottom, and I didn’t want the rack to make marks, or even worse, for the bread to stick to the rack. If we turned the loaves upside down, to rest on their tops, would the racks still make marks? What to do? Mom’s recipe didn’t address this important question, and although I’d seen her make pumpkin bread countless times, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what she did with the cooling loaves. And I sure couldn’t just call her up and ask her.

My mom and my girl didn’t get to spend much time together, because cancer stole YaYa from my girl when she was just 3 years old. No fair.

My sweet mama and my favorite girl, at home the day after my girl was born

They didn’t have a lot of time together, but they made the most of it.

Read more about my sweet mama:

6 Years Later

The Spring of My Discontent

Motherless Daughters

Only Just a Dream

Blindsided

I Hate Mother’s Day

 

 

 


Torrents

Cancer steals so much. All the time. Every day. This I know for sure.

A couple of days ago I smacked my head upon this truth and watched helplessly as my dear friend experienced this for himself. His dad died from cancer a decade ago. Ten years, yet the grief was as raw as can be, the loss as crushing as it was a decade ago.

His dad was a handy guy who could fix anything. He made a good living — and supported four kids — with his hands. My friend learned from his dad and is handy too. Although his livelihood isn’t manual, he can fix anything, like his dad. He just doesn’t always believe it until it’s done.

My friend was fixing the spring on our gate (one of the many things he’s helped with around our house). The spring on the outside of the gate had lost some of its tension, and the screws holding it in place had wriggled loose after seven years of use. How many hundreds of times has that gate banged shut as my busy little family comes and goes? When we were building our pool, the gate and the fence came down, to be replaced by temporary, orange plastic fencing (seen behind the slabs of flagstone) that couldn’t contain my dogs. My then 7-year-old chased the escaped dogs across a very busy street, unaccompanied, but that’s a story for another day.
In the process of repairing the spring on the gate, my friend broke his screwdriver. The one that he inherited from his dad. No big deal, it’s part of a set and he has several others the same size. But he was upset–really upset–because along with the screwdriver, he felt like he lost a piece of his dad.

His rational brain knows that the screwdriver isn’t indicative of his dad’s presence or absence. His intellect knows that having the screwdriver doesn’t mean that he still has his dad, or that by not having the screwdriver he no longer has a hold on his dad’s memory. But his irrational side mourned the screwdriver. His emotional brain felt that he’d lost another part of his dad. As the wise poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect.  The wisest know nothing.”

I’m very familiar with the destroying of intellect in times of grief, and I know just how my friend feels. After my mom died, I hung on to all kinds of her stuff: cookbooks, costume jewelry, unfinished embroidery projects, even her ratty old college sweatshirt. My dad has the more personal items — her glasses, her wedding ring, her driver’s license. I desperately wanted a piece of her, any piece, to remain, so I clung to her things in hopes of finding pieces of her.

Guess what? It doesn’t work. The desperation, the clinging, the hoping against hope are all for naught. Once the person you loved with your whole heart is gone, snatched away too soon by illness, there is no holding on to them. I’ve learned this slowly and painfully in the almost seven years that my mom has been dead. Her stuff is just that — stuff. It’s not her. She’s gone and that’s the brutal finality of experiencing the death of a loved one.

I’ve written before about how grief sneaks up on us, and can buckle our knees out of nowhere, even after years have passed. I know that this is what happened to my friend the other day: he was going about his business, engaged in a simple task that took little effort and yet would yield great satisfaction when done. The sun was shining, the workday was done, and a cold beer accompanied him as he unscrewed the rusty, spent screws from my gate. But once the screwdriver broke, so did the dam that most days holds back the torrent of sadness that is life without his dad. How many times has he said he wished his dad were here to help him with a DIY project, or to admire his handiwork upon a project’s completion? Too many times to count. And in the midst of an ordinary task being done on an ordinary day, the torrent rushed through.

“It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.”  ~Colette


The spring of my discontent

As the spring equinox draws to a close, I can’t help but notice that today is the beginning of the season I dread. Springtime is hard, really hard, and today heralds the beginning of the period of time that hurts my heart. Three events in a short span, one right after another, that bring heartbreak.
An anniversary, a birthday, and Mother’s Day. Bam, bam, bam. Just when I get through one, the next one is right on its heels, waiting to slam into me like a brick wall. But instead of mortar and bricks, this wall is made up of sadness and loss.
Today, the first official day of spring, is my parents’ 47th wedding anniversary. 47 years. Just a few years shy of the big 5-0. I can imagine myself planning a gee-gantic golden celebration: friends, family, neighbors, cake, champagne, confetti. But one thing is missing: the bride.

Mom's photo for her wedding announcement in the newspaper

My mom’s chance to celebrate her golden anniversary was stolen by the vicious beast we call cancer. Stupid cancer.
My parents set a great example for what a successful marriage is all about. Give and take, support, and sacrifice. Good years, lean times. For better, for worse. Most definitely in sickness and in health. While they had a lot of good years together, I sure wish they’d have had more.

Blindsided

So I’m minding my own business on a rainy Saturday morning. On a morning in which the thunderstorm woke up my favorite girl, and her hungry little piggy, at 5 a.m. While that’s not my ideal start to a Saturday, we made the best of it: a huge mug of coffee for me, some hot tea for her, a blanket for each and a snuggle by the blue-green glow of the TV. I didn’t really want to be up that early, and I certainly didn’t want to be watching “Hillbilly Handfishing,” but I’ll take the quality time with my girl.

The last thing I expected on this rainy day was to be blindsided by grief. It happened innocently enough, as it tends to after several years of loss. After the sun rose and the handfishing concluded, I was searching through the cupboards in the game room for a small paintbrush to touch up some paint. No paintbrush to be found, but my search did turn up something I didn’t expect to find: a hospice booklet left over from my mom’s cancer “journey.”

For those of you fortunate enough to be uninitiated in grief and loss, you may not understand. For those of you who have been initiated in this dreadful state, you know. You know exactly how grief comes out of nowhere to blindside you.

I remember reading this booklet, in the fall of 2005 when my mom’s cancer “journey” was coming to a really yucky end. The hospice people were wonderful, providing much more than just care for my dying mama. They had care packages for my two young kids and for my niece and nephew. The oldest of YaYa’s 4 grandbabies was 8 when she died, the youngest (who happens to be my favorite girl) was 3. The teddy bears and coloring books given to them by the hospice workers probably didn’t register in the same way the “Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience” booklet did with me.

Because the whole experience of my mom dying was rather surreal, I don’t recall feeling strange about being handed a booklet with such a title. I don’t recall wondering what The Dying Experience was all about, because we were living it. How ironic to be living The Dying Experience.

I do recall being grateful for the booklet’s upfront, go-at-your-pace approach to grief. This is the one thing I know for sure: no one can dictate another person’s grief, and no can anyone dictate another person’s death experience. As the booklet so aptly describes, “Each person approaches death in their own way, bringing to this last experience their own uniqueness. This is simply a guideline, a road map. Like any map, there are many roads arriving at the same destination, many ways to enter the same city.”

Hmmm, I certainly never likened death to a city, but it sure makes sense. Of course, I never thought I’d be facing thoughts like these, much less the death of my sweet, beloved mama. My own life as a mother had barely started, with a 3-year-old wild animal disguised as a very creative and outside-of-the-box little girl, and a headstrong 6-year-old boy who would astound me in the years to come with the memories he retained of his YaYa. How could my sweet mama be leaving me just as I was starting to learn to navigate this not-always-tranquil motherhood?

How could she be leaving me? “In her own time, in her own way,” as the booklet told me. Reading on, I learned another truth: “Death is as unique as the individual who is experiencing it.”

The booklet goes on to say that there is a shift that occurs within the dying person, which takes them from “a mental processing of death to a true comprehension and belief in their own mortality.”

Another thing I learned the hard way.

I’m certain that my sweet mama knew she was dying. Being told by the gurus at MD Anderson that the clinical-trial drug didn’t work to arrest the cancer that was eating her alive is rather concrete. Being told that the only thing left to do is call hospice is rather concrete as well. She knew. But in her quiet way, she didn’t talk about it. No bitching or moaning, no complaining, no ranting or shaking her fists at the heavens for being dealt such a rotten hand.

Instead, she hugged each doctor (she was really good at that, and I wish I’d inherited that trait; I’m not much of a hugger). She gathered herself and without shedding one tear or divulging her true feelings, she thanked the docs for trying so hard to save her. And she went home to plan her funeral.

For real. She wanted to plan it all–from the psalms read to the hymns sung to the outfit she would wear–so that those of us left behind wouldn’t be stuck trying to figure it all out. At a time when she could have stuck her head in the sand and said to hell with it all, she buckled down and spent her remaining strength on making things easier for her family. That’s the kind of person she was, and it’s a damn shame that she is with us no more. A bright and precious light went out when she died.

I thought I was prepared. I’d had months to wrap my head around it, after all. Watching her go from a vivacious, outgoing Nosey Rosey who never met a stranger to a wisp of herself should have prepared me. Seeing the life slowly fade from her immensely bright soul should have eased the transition from her being the center of our lives to her being gone. Being witness to the slow yet certain creep of cancer’s all-encompassing grasp of all things Barb should have steeled me to the reality I was facing.

And yet, none of those things happened. As Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience so succinctly explains, “Focus changes from this world to the next, as the dying person loses his/her grounding to Earth.” She lost her ground to Earth, and we lost the glue, the sweetness, the center of our family. There is no preparing for that. There is no transition, no steeling. Although I knew it was happening and had accepted the fact that my beloved mother was dying, I was not prepared.

Just as I was not prepared for the onslaught of grief that hit me today as I came across the hospice booklet. In the middle of a perfectly normal day, while searching through a cupboard for a paintbrush, I was instantly transported back to the awful, wrenching reality of her death. I had no idea the booklet was in that cupboard. More importantly, I had no idea that the magnitude of grief, the bottomless pit of despair, could come back so quickly. In an instant, the swirling eddy of loss surrounded me, as heavy today as it was 6 years ago. As Kate Winslet said as she dedicated her Emmy win for the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce” last fall, “It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you do in your life. You never stop needing your mum.”

The last page of  Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience contains a Henry Van Dyke poem unfamiliar to me. I don’t remember reading it when I received the booklet; my guess is that I didn’t make it that far. But now I have, and I’m glad I did.

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!”

“Gone where?”

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: “Here she comes!”

And that is dying.

 

 


Motherless daughters

After my mom died, a friend gave me a book called Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman. It was several years — literally — before I was ready to read it. Not because I didn’t have time and not because my stack of books to read was long, but because the grief was still too raw. Too raw to read a book that is meant to help ease that grief. That’s pretty bad.

It’s true that time heals, though, and after a few years I was ready to delve into Edelman’s wisdom. While parts of the book were hard to read because they brought back a flood of memories and transported me back to the time of losing my mom, other parts reminded me that many other women were walking the same road, missing their moms every single day.

The single best thing I learned from losing my sweet mama is that no one can dictate another person’s grief. People grieve as differently as they live, and no one has the right to say “This is how it should be done.” There are no “shoulds” in the process of grieving, and if anyone suggests otherwise, walk the other way. You have my permission to be flat-out rude if need be.

I’m tickled and honored to again be a guest blogger on one of my all-time favorite blogs, Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer. I’ve never met Marie, the bloggess, in person, but don’t have to be in her presence to know that I like her, that she’s good people, as they say in my neck of the woods. Marie’s blog was one of the first BC blogs I found after being diagnosed and joining the pink ribbon club, and through her I’ve “met” many other BC bloggers whose words and experiences enrich my life on a regular basis.

I wrote this post for Marie a while back, at the behest of another BC blogger friend, Lauren, who had the amazing idea of having BC bloggers “stand in the gap” for Marie while she dealt with her beloved mother’s failing health. Blog posts came from far and wide, and while Marie no doubt felt loved and relieved, those of us in the gap felt honored and happy to help. It wasn’t until I embarked on this cancer “journey” that I truly understood how it feels to help someone in need. Sure, I’ve minded my friends’ kids while they ran errands, and I’ve delivered home-cooked meals to friends who’d had surgery or brought home new babies. But being on the receiving end of so much love, so many great meals, and such endless kindness was a whole ‘nother ball game.

Now that I’m on the other side of the cancer experience (knock wood), I’m even more motivated to lend a hand to those in need. Being featured on Marie’s wonderful blog is a thrill, but knowing I’ve lightened her load a bit is even better. And, after being home with sick kids for days on end with no end in sight, it made my day.

Cheers to Marie and Lauren and the other Nancy and every other woman out there navigating the world without her mom.

If you’re hankering for more, click here for my first guest post on JBBC, or here for my second one.