On Losing My Mother (part 1): With Sutures in My Shoulder
Sitting in church before the start of Mass on my mother’s first birthday since her passing last April 2013, I had to stop and think how long she’s been gone. Nearly ten months. And in all of those long, painful months, now heading toward one full year, I hadn’t once been aware on the actual “anniversary date” how long it had been. That is, that other awful numeral “10”—April 10,–the day we succumbed to pressure to remove my mother’s life support…April 10, the burial date of her own mother…just five days after my daughter’s birthday on April 5, and two days before my own birthday on April 12. Alas, April becomes the cruelest month, indeed.
Not one time. Not on the month, day, or ever. This seems odd to me, as in my grief group, people are diligently marking time,
“It’s been one month; it’s been two…”
How did I fail to notice? I don’t know; I just can’t do it. Or, don’t. Perhaps I can’t bear to. Why think about that one horrible day when we lost her, when what comes easily is all she gave to us over the more than eight decades? Every second is a kind of agony this first year, not just one day then not so much the next. Grief pervades our movement. I accept this.
For me, my mom is gone and she is gone, and suddenly the only consequence of time is how the past blends with the now, how something was and now will never be again. Mostly, I just ache, sleeping sometimes in her nightgowns, occasionally wearing shirts of hers I never would have worn before. I guess anything just to feel her still close. Today I am grateful to be emerging from the lingering shock I’ve stayed in since one Tuesday late last March when my father called at 7 a.m., imploring us to come quickly.
It’s awfully hard to lose your mom, no matter what your age or hers. It’s especially and most particularly difficult, I suppose, when one has had a good mother, with whom one is looking forward to many things. A mother so treasured that one would take early retirement, just to help in her care. And only a good mother, though she is ill, participates in the dreams her children have planned; in my case, added so much to the actual planning. Indeed, we had one of our best visits ever the very night she became intubated. Joy on Friday, horror on Saturday. It can go that quickly.
There isn’t a thing or even things one can do to prepare oneself fully for such a loss. I know, because I’d been preparing for years, and was given both the incentives (through multiple life-threatening setbacks, both hers and even my own), and the luxury of time (through the six-year remission from lung cancer that my mother accomplished). She was winning that battle, and in the end did win it against lung cancer…but didn’t win it against mortality. Her compromised left lung (and more to the point, compromised stamina) couldn’t fight the ultimate pneumonia that a healthy lung could. After losing other loved ones too soon, I decidedly intended to cover all my bases. I visited often and called regularly. One day, I even spontaneously decided to retire from my longstanding teaching job the minute I became eligible, just to move closer to her, thinking I would return to work once I got settled near my hometown where I could more readily help my father with my mother’s growing needs.
But in the end I learned the ironic lesson that no matter how comprehensive I was, I really didn’t come close. The bitter truth is, we cannot know what we don’t know (even when we know a lot and anticipate a good deal), and we really can’t see life in its fullness until we see the very death we are evading. It sounds obsessive, until you meet the entrance to this cave of change. You think you know what love is, and you think you might even know how to forgive, and then you lose your mother…and all of a sudden the Holy Grail is whacking you upside the head. In comes marching the reality that you couldn’t apprehend unless and until she was gone. Hello, new truth of life. And then, of course, it is too late to say or do a thing, to show her you finally see, to settle any scores. Even if she’s somehow listening in the great beyond, you’re initially too stunned to speak. And what are you going to say anyway that isn’t preceded by a pre-mature and grotesquely guttural, hauntingly primal and extended, “Mooooommmmmy!” It can be maddening the way losing your mother snaps you back to an infancy you thought was long lost. Before I knew consciously that she would pass, I can remember sensing it subconsciously–shuffling around the house in circles; sinking blindly, tearfully into the bathtub, uttering continually, “My mommmy…my mommy…my mommy!”
The good news is that death delivers plenty to learn from, and in this way, the deceased keeps teaching us in ways similar to when they were here, yet so much more profoundly. Somehow, we finally understand that which we never got. We see the beloved in new light, in the fullness that was their truer being. Not so much as a parent, but as a person. Such tender feelings arise. Seeing a photograph of my mother at age 12 suddenly unveils to me the innocence that informed her great, pure spirit. It’s as if we get out of our own way, and our perception comes more keenly into focus.
This must be how the admission, “You were right, after all,” originated. And what you didn’t value about them becomes precious. What seemed senseless makes sense. I held stacks set aside in piles to give away of what I saw as my mother’s most recent silly gifts. After she passed, I ran to those piles to retrieve what I now use and never will part with. The metal earring stand that once seemed gaudy now looks charming, functional, and endearing atop the jewelry armoire I gratefully inherited. It may still be gaudy, but it is a piece of my mom, something that ignited something in her spirit, and in this way, it now warms mine.
(to be continued in part 2——)
© Debra A. Valentino, all rights reserved.