Archives for posts with tag: death

motherless day

This is Mother’s Day and I won’t get to see W for a few more days.  My own mom died in 2005 and my grandmothers when I was young so, having no plans for the day, I decided to treat myself to an asiago chicken sandwich and a new library book. Went through a drive-through, parked under a tree, rolled down the windows, ate my lunch in a leisurely fashion, and then started my book – a new one by a favorite author. I paged past the dedication and found the opening quote:

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”     -Elizabeth Stone

Just this morning my younger sister had posted this quote on her Facebook page and I had ‘like’d it; it exactly expresses my joys and fears about motherhood.

I had never, growing up, spent time thinking about having children. Never pictured myself as a grownup at all, and certainly not as one with kids around her. I had been given various baby dolls as a child but I don’t remember playing with them with enthusiasm, at least not after I got over the novelty of the tiny bottle which appeared to contain milk but which didn’t really drip into Rubber Baby’s mouth. My favorite doll games involved dressing Barbie in rags and taking her out in the yard to forage for nuts and seeds.  My Barbie had a pale blue convertible, but Ken was too inflexible to fit into it, so Barbie drove off and Ken stayed behind. There was no backseat for children.  

My dreams of adulthood didn’t extend past a desire to backpack around Europe.  I didn’t enjoy the company of children  and positively balked at the idea of babysitting, partly because it sounded like torture and partly because I had on some level a crushing sense of the responsibility of protecting another person, particularly one smaller and more vulnerable than I.

When I was 11 and my younger sister 8, one of our older sisters was killed by a drunk driver. Big sis was driving home for lunch in the middle of a workday, and then suddenly she was lying on a roadside, then being pronounced dead in a hospital. My 18-year old brother came and got little sis and me from school. Our parents had intended to wait until the schoolbus brought us home to tell us, but big bro thought we should know. When I saw him outside my classroom talking to my favorite teacher, my face must have showed alarm. A nice boy in my class said, “Why’s your brother out there?”  I remember replying, “I don’t know, but it means something big is wrong.”  Brother put me in the car and then went to get our littlest sis. When she too was in the car and he was pulling out of the school driveway, he said, “I don’t know how to tell you all this or how to make it any easier” [By now I was convinced that something terrible had happened to one or both of our parents.] “but B was killed in a car wreck today.” 

I don’t remember whether little sis or I said anything, but I do remember feeling as if something too big for my skull was inflating in my head. I couldn’t see or hear or think around it. We drove home and it was terrible there – too many people, too much hush. I didn’t know how to behave in such a situation  and everything I did was wrong [Aside: In such a situation, do not go to the living room to put on a Cher record, even if it’s the only thing you possess of which your newly-deceased big sis had seemed to approve.]. I crept upstairs to the oddly-shaped 2nd floor I shared with B and with little sis. I stared at the things on her dresser. I took a little peach-shaped spiral notepad B used as a to-do list. I lifted her sturdy hairbrush and took some strands of her long brown hair from it. I wrapped those in a page from the peach notebook. I went into the bathroom where B’s closet was and I looked at all her stylish clothes hanging there, and all her stylish shoes arranged on the floor beneath the hanging items. One shoe had a broken buckle and no match. I wondered if it was from the pair B had chosen for work that morning.  I wondered who had come upstairs with that shoe, to stand where I was standing, and had helplessly tossed that shoe in among the others.

My family seemed broken to me for years after that. My parents were devastated and the house silent, with us all drifting around like ghosts. Little sis and I have talked as adult moms about how a parent could possibly survive the loss of a child, much less know how to help the other children through it. At the time, no one talked to little sis and me; we had no idea what to say, how to grieve, or how to survive. The lessons I took away were 1) nothing and no one is ever safe, 2) there is no sense to the world and no predictability, and 3) depend on no one.  For years afterward I had dreams in which I tugged little sis by the hand, running at night through our neighborhood, being chased by the headlights of a car I couldn’t make out. In the dream I kept us cutting through yards, zigzagging around plants and trees, thinking that if only I could get us behind a big enough strong enough tree, it would protect us. The danger car would crash into it and we could stop running and be safe.

I’m not sure now where I was going with this, but for all my friends dealing with grief or loss on this day on which we exalt mothers, I wish you shelter and peace. And if your heart is walking around outside your body, I wish you both safety.



A week ago today, my young cousin died. I went “home” to be with family… my aunt and uncle and 3 generations of their offspring. The visitation was packed; there had to be thousands of people in the hours my cousins stood greeting those who came to pay their respects. Hour after hour they stood, hugging, shaking hands, smiling, making conversation, holding themselves like sturdy pottery – solid but, I knew, still breakable. That day and the next, at the funeral, I saw an amazing thing I can only describe as a ballet of love and support. Seamlessly my cousins and their spouses and children did everything that needed to be done and said everything that needed to be said, while looking out for each other and for their parents. When one person would be momentarily overcome with emotion, another would fill in and offer a sheltering arm until that cousin would recover and be ready to do the same for the next one needing help.

The funeral was held in the church of my childhood, a soaring space of light and marble and stained glass and music. The minister spoke directly to the young man who had died, asking him to share his new-found peace with his loved ones left behind. My cousins led the songs, read the readings, acted as pallbearers, and above all supported each other. They enfolded me into their midst as though I had not been away for years. Somehow in their pain they found time to welcome me. I listened to the hymns, singing the ones I knew, and one line stood out to me: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

There is more than one way to lose family. Until this week I felt I had lost much of mine. Death and distance, differences separating us like wide rough rivers, lack of patience and lack of time together… People who had once been everything to me had begun to seem like odd and unkind strangers.

When my little sis and I were young, family visits were the best things in life. Knowing that someone was coming to stay meant delightful anticipation and delicious foods, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee in the morning, the sounds of laughter and voices drifting upstairs, comforting and exciting at the same time. We never wanted to miss a minute of the fun, no matter who was visiting. Once I slept on the dining room floor, sick with bronchitis but unwilling to lose any time with the family. Another time, my sister and I rode our bikes to the end of the street to watch for our older sister’s family car which was bearing her and her husband and our nieces and nephews to us. When finally it came into sight, little sis and I raced our bikes back to our house at the dead end, unbearably eager to tell our parents, “They’re here! They’re here!” But little sis skidded out on the grass and fell, landing on the handlebar of her bike, so that big sis and family drove up just in time to see little sis vomit into the grass. Our brother-in-law tried not to alarm us but he was clearly concerned at the large amount of red liquid issuing from little sister’s mouth; he didn’t know she had just had a big glass of wildberry juice.

Big sis and her family and I are estranged. I don’t know what to do about that; I don’t know what I want to do about it, or if I want to do anything about it. Even before we were estranged, my branch of the family didn’t have that skill of our cousins – that ability to be both strong and vulnerable and to be okay with being both. We seemed to divide up those qualities among us as if we were each limited to one and had to choose. Some of us chose to be strong all the time, which was of course ridiculous and impossible, because we’re all really just pottery, breakable no matter how much we pretend to be stone. Others of us chose to be permanently vulnerable – always wanting comfort but not offering it to others. My siblings and I never perfected that ballet of strength and support… I don’t remember us ever even all trying.  But that dance is a beautiful thing and the people who can do it – my cousins included – are beautiful and amazing people, not because they are always strong but because they trust that they don’t always have to be. Sometimes they lose each other to death, but the rest of the time they hold on, determined to keep each other from falling and breaking.

❤ ❤ ❤