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.