Around 4:30 on the first afternoon of any June in our last years together, she would say, “This time _______ years ago,” and I would stop whatever I was doing to sit and listen to the story of my birth.
It was never a long story. Not full of how much pain she had withstood or how hard it had been to bring me into the world. In fact, the only real complaint she ever made was, “It was so HOT!”
“I had been to the store and it was SO hot. I had just put down the last bag and was thinking how hot it already was and it just barely June when the first pains hit. I called your daddy and told him it was time, then I put up the groceries. It was so HOT!”
I once asked her if I’d given her a lot of trouble, if it had been a hard labour.
“Not really. None of you were really all that hard. Your daddy got home, we went to the hospital. I was in labor through the night, then there you were.”
I was born at 8:03 the next morning, June 2nd. It was a Friday.
Today is my second birthday without her.
I don’t remember the first.
There is much I have forgotten — about all my life — but that first loss-filled year after her death is particularly full of holes and vagaries. And while I am not an advocate of recovering lost memories, (I believe The Universe has swallowed certain things for our own protection), I do rather wish I could remember some of The First Year more clearly than I do, if only to learn more from its pain.
The pain itself I remember vividly. Though to call it a “memory” is a mistake, for it lives with me still. Still and always.
And on my birthday most of all.
I woke in the middle of the night one night last week in sheer terror at the sudden realization that when my last cell phone died not long after she, it took with it her voice mails that I had saved. The only recordings of her voice that I had. This happened months ago, yet I was only just now realizing the loss. I got up, went to the computer, searched every file, every cloud, thinking that surely, surely, I wouldn’t have been so careless as to have saved them only on that phone.
But I was that careless. That thoughtless. That lost.
I climbed back into bed and cried for a long time, amazed — again — at the immediacy and overwhelming power of grief. A power that only gives the illusion of abating over time. A power that in many ways actually never stops growing.
This birthday finds me 1600 miles or more away from my mother’s physical remains.
The last thing I did before driving away from my home town one last time was stop at the cemetery. I stood a long while looking down at the three headstones of my family, agonizing over the fact that I’d forgotten to bring anything with which to clean the Texas Panhandle dust and dirt from the crevices.
Something else forgotten.
Finally, hearing my mother say, “It doesn’t matter, baby,” I sat down on the spiky winter grass and remembered the now decades long process of filling these three plots, of setting these three stones.
I remembered making the arrangements for my father’s Veteran’s marker. The multiple telephone calls and forms, the trip from frighteningly foreign to familiar each time I had to say aloud, “my father just died”, each time I ticked the box for “Deceased”.
I had been so young.
I remembered bringing my mother to the cemetery office to choose my sister’s. The surreality of sitting with her as she designed, piece by piece, her daughter’s headstone. So grateful for the knowledge and kindness of the owner who helped us. Grateful for it again eight years later as he led me alone through the same process for my mother.
It was even harder than I had imagined it would be.
We had discussed her headstone as we had discussed her funeral, many times. My mother didn’t care for flowers, her favourite colour was black, she preferred simple, classic lines to any sort of flourish, so, I knew the cross was perfect the moment I saw it.
She had been a devout Catholic from the time she converted in order to marry my father, and yet, in the last years of her life she seemed to withdraw from Catholicism, especially in the years following my sister’s death. In the end, she did not want a priest, no funeral mass, nothing but a rosary and a graveside service that was presided over by the hospice chaplain she had come to “love like the son I never had”. So, I felt this cross, with its straight line strength and grace so reflective of her, was a better choice than a Catholic crucifix.
“Beloved wife and mother” was out — she had made that clear. It bothered her that “that’s on everyone’s. just put my name and the dates on mine”. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t manage to leave it at just that. It just wasn’t enough.
More than once in those last years she had said to me, “No one can ever know what all we’ve been through together. We’re the only ones who can ever really know that.”
I realized that I wanted her headstone to reflect that, to reflect us, if only a little. I wanted one last and final time to say, “It’s me, Mommy. I’m here.”
My mother loved almost all things British. I don’t think many people knew that about her. She loved British history, British television — documentaries about the Royals, PBS historical dramas and to my great and happy surprise, she loved to watch Shakespeare performances with me. So, when I went looking for a way to leave a special mark on her headstone, I went, of course, to Shakespeare.
“And all my mother came into mine eyes.
And gave me up to tears.”
It’s a quote from Henry V, Act IV, Scene vi. It isn’t a quote about mothers nor about the loss of a mother. It is spoken from a battlefield by Exeter to King Henry, describing the deaths of the Dukes of York and Suffolk. Exeter refers, ashamedly, of his inability to hold back tears upon witnessing these deaths.
But, to me, it says everything about the loss of my mother. For me, they are the perfect words to mark my forever goodbye to her. So often, she comes into my eyes. And when she does, I am always given up to tears.
Sitting here writing this, so far away from where I lived with her, from where she gave birth to me, from where her physical form lies marked with those words, I realize that I am, in these almost two years following her death, being re-born.
The labour is intense. Long. Complicated. Painful.
And still not complete.
But she is with me, as she was the first time. Working with me and for me, labouring to give me New Life.
That realization comforts me, in a way, on a level, I could not have expected and cannot quite put into words.
I know only that she is here. Still and always. Just like the pain of her loss, in the pain of her loss, carrying me forward into the season in which I was first born, into the heat and light that I love and she hated.
She is here and she is saying, “Momma’s got you, baby. Everything’s gonna be alright.”