My son flops both his arms over the last seat, watching me load up the groceries into the trunk of our minivan. He is a busy child. He can be tough and stubborn with an alarming ability to use his intelligence to be painfully insightful. His blue eyes follow me and then his unexpected question stuns me, “Do you still miss your mom?”
How did he know? How could he tell? Impetuous tears fill my eyes and I pause before I can answer him.
I assume I’ll always will be missing her at some level. To be honest, I don’t think of her much in my everyday life. But there are days, like today, I let myself uncover — even go in search of — my hurt.
In the spring of my senior year of high school, I applied for a modest local scholarship. In the interview, I was asked to describe myself in one word. The only time in my life I felt like I gave the perfect answer while on the spot, I answered, “Complex.”
The last Thursday in May, my school would hold an awards ceremony where seniors who received scholarships, big and small, would be recognized for their achievements.
My mom was already in hospice and at that point hadn’t spoken for days. We all knew time was short, but I wanted to go to the ceremony. My name would be read since I won that scholarship. Would anything really change in the hour I would be gone? Plus, the school was right down the road.
So I went. In a day without cell phones, I didn’t anticipate anyone coming for me. I settled into my fold-down theater seat near the end of the row. And then… as if we planned it… one of my aunts appeared in the aisle, crouched low and motioned for me to follow, which I did without hesitation. I didn’t speak until we were outside the building. I can’t remember my exact words…“Is it …?” [Now?] [Happening?]
The two miles took forever. The hallways to her room were never longer. The hospice center was beautiful and calm. If you had to die, this was a good place for it.
She passed away while I was gone. My brother, sister, and dad were with her. I don’t think anyone else was in the room, but I don’t really know… Like I said, I wasn’t there.
Even as I write, I can’t help but cry.
I didn’t spend long in her room. Her body present, but she was gone. I didn’t want to touch her. I would keep my last memory of her skin as warm and loving.
I went outside and walked down the path leading away from the building to the big rocks by the pond… a good place to be alone. I’m sure I cried, but (again) I don’t remember.
My brother and sister were already outside, flying a kite in the grassy field on the nearby hill. We didn’t see each other until hours later. Was it our ages that kept us apart? Our personalities? Or was an imperceptible line drawn as they watched her take her last breath and I did not?
(As a trauma nurse, I do wonder if I chose my line of work as some sort of penance. Could I assuage the guilt for my absence of the only death I should have been at by being at innumerable deaths of strangers?)
Unaware of when, my best friend came. She brought food and sat with me on those rocks. Who knows what we said (she probably remembers) — I just know she was there and I ate what she offered.
Eventually, I was alone again and I laid back in the warm sun. I knew there was no choice but to brave the first painful cracks as my heart broke apart.
I share this to keep record… before I forget too much. This is what happened to me. This is my perspective. I’m positive each member of my immediate and extended family has their own unique and deeply touching narrative of what happened to them that day.
Death is hard to talk about. But maybe it’s time. Could it be time to start talking about whatever hardship you have faced with the people you love?
I share this to help others understand that death is a shock, even when it’s expected… My mother may have been dying, but she wasn’t actually dead until the very moment her heart stopped beating. The perception of death is limited. Death can only be truly conceived after the fact.
I share this to remind and encourage the friends of those grieving (or going through a rough time)… Just BE there. If food is your thing, then bring it. If words are your thing, share them. More than anything else, just offer something of yourself.
You don’t know what to do? Do anything. I promise you — It doesn’t actually even matter. There is no right thing. Write a card, send flowers, share a memory. Offer your presence. Do nothing together or allow them the choice to be alone. But please do not give yourself excuses to do nothing because you feel what you have to offer isn’t “the right thing.”
And I share this to remind those grieving – there is no right way or time frame for your grief… Flying a kite, eating food with your best friend, or attending events already on your calendar may seem odd to some. But there is no winning at grief. There is no manual, calendar, prescription, or algorithm.
Successful grieving is only marked by the willingness to carry on the memory of the one who died while carrying on with your own life.
There is so much I don’t know about my mom, so much I’ve already forgotten. What I do have, I want to remember. I want to pass on. I want my children to know. Yes, it still is painful at times. Yes, the memories are in a tender place that I usually protect.
When I was able to talk, I answered my son, “Yes, I still miss my mom.” And yes, I always will.