A Mother’s Day Letter

Unsure of the date, I know only that it is Saturday, the Saturday before my first Mother’s Day without you.

How I miss you.

The world is busy with mothers and the mothered preparing for tomorrow’s festivities.  I find I cannot remember ours last year, our last one together.

It had to have been in that horrible place, the one we both hated, the one which you overcame with a grace I did not and will never have.  So much of that place I have forgotten.  I hope it never comes back to me.

Still, I wish I could remember more clearly our last Mother’s Day together.  You refused to go out.  You always refused to go out.  So, I brought you in something good to eat (a cherry cheesecake?) and a gift sack filled with the little trinkets, the little nothings that you loved.  Those memories are clear — your silver head bent low into a bag, your beautiful face rising up with a glow, clutching a Walgreen’s nothing as though it were a Tiffany treasure.

We had little more than two months left together.

Would you still be alive if I had kept you at home?  If I had let you stay there alone ten hours a day, you and your dogs, in your old chair with your television?  How many more times would you have fallen without telling me, calling the paramedics to come get you up before I got home?  How many more times would the smell of something burning have awoken you to remember you’d put something on the stove before the old house burned down around you three?

Would that have been better than that last year as it was, where it was?

I do not know.

There is so much I do not know.

I know only that I miss you.  With a magnitude, to a depth, I could not have imagined while you were still with me.

“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

You said that so often.  And always, I gave the same reply.

“Yes, I will.”

But, I did not know.

How could I?

Did you?

Most likely you did.

Not just because you knew everything — in your last years, you simply exhaled wisdom so that even your silences were schooling — but, not only that.  You knew because you had lost your own mother. Because you had lived most of my life without her — years and years and decades without her, and so you knew just how fathomless the pain would be, just how total, how all-encompassing, the solitude of being Motherless would be.

“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

Yes, I do.

The wind you loved blows hard across me out here.  I brave it only for the sunlight you despised, the sunlight without which this child of yours cannot survive.  Still, it is strong, your wind, and soon it will win over the sun and I will step back inside, grateful that its sound, at least, may follow me.

But now, just for now, let me sit in my sunshine, as your wind blows, carrying with it the memory of your crooked fingers scratching my back, the sweetness of your smile when I walked into the room, the mother-only tenderness of your voice calling me, “Momma’s old sweet baby”.

Thank you for giving me this life.  It is such a blessing, such a beauty, such a wonder.

But right now, I would give it all and all and over again, for just one moment’s glimpse of you.

 

Things

My mother loved clothes.  She kept them well.  She wore them well.  In the years after we all left home, in the years after my father’s death, she began allowing herself to buy more and more clothing.  Never anything too expensive or extravagant.  She didn’t need that.  She could turn Walmart into couture simply by putting it on.  She loved crisp, clean lines.  She loved blazers and starched button downs and pairs of what she called “good shoes”.  She loved silk scarves and the wide, shiny rings she called “bling” in her later years.

All she ever wanted to do was to die at home, sitting in her old chair, surrounded by the things she loved.  That was what I wanted so to be able to give her.  Instead, during the last two years of her life, my mother had to move four times, each time culling through her things, winnowing out the closets full of clothes she loved so much until the last of her belongings fit into three large bags and a couple of boxes brought from the shared room in the nursing home where she died.

Yesterday, almost five months to the day after her death, I went through those bags and boxes.  It seemed the proper way to end the last year of her life.

As a grief counselor, I have heard many stories about the sorting of things.  Some good, some not so much. I once saw two brothers come to physical blows over their father’s ancient, ragged, and urine-filled recliner.  Things are so much more than things when they are all that is left.

Often I’m asked about the “proper time” to keep things, the “proper time” to let things go.  Of course, there is no “proper time”.  Textbooks say that leaving a dead loved one’s room untouched past the first anniversary of her death may be a symptom of “complicated grief”.  They say the same thing about getting rid of belongings within the first month.  I don’t believe either of those things.  Not professionally, not personally.

Something happens when we sort through the last tangible vestiges of the dead.  Something sad and painful and comforting and beautiful.  It is more than the memories called up by their things; it is deeper, more visceral than that.  It is something that rises and falls in its own rhythm, a rhythm not bound by time passing on a clock or a calendar.  For some, it happens with furious speed, within weeks or even days after the death.  For others, it is a slow hum of years, a largo of waiting and touching, picking up and replacing, diving in then avoiding for weeks or months or years at a time.

For me, it was yesterday.  The last afternoon of the last year of my mother’s life.  I spent it with her.  With her things.  With the clothes that no longer smelled like her no matter how I longed for them to.  With the pieces of bling and silk scarves and fuzzy socks and yellowing books of prayer she had not already dispersed to those she loved.  I touched and held and petted and stroked.  I cried.  I talked to her.  I thanked her.  I held her.  And she held me in each of those last shining bits that reflected so much of who she was.  Of who she will always be.  A strong and beautiful woman.  Gracious.  Classy.  With a wicked sharp tongue and a wit to match.  My mother.  Momma.  Mommy.

I miss you so much.  I love you so much.  Happy New Year.

 

 

 

Not Quite Sleeping Until Next Year

So often this time of year, clients say to me, “I just want to go to sleep and not wake up until it’s next year”.

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can empathize with this feeling as the holiday whirlwind approaches.  This is especially true if you are in the midst of “The Firsts” — First Thanksgiving, First Christmas, First Hanukkah, First Ramadan, First any Special Occasion without your loved one.

This year, in the wake of my mother’s death, I personally find the idea of hibernation incredibly appealing.  I can so easily see myself climbing into bed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and not climbing out until after Valentine’s Day. Because who wants to be awake through the bleakness of January anyway?

Blissful idea.

Even without the added strain of grief, the holidays can be one of the most chaotic and stressful times of the year.  The need, fed by retail businesses and the media, to buy the perfect gift, create the perfect day, and be the perfect person, is impossible to meet during the best of times.  Add in the sadness, anxiety, fear, and exhaustion of grief, and these unrealistic expectations take on monstrous proportions, with sometimes disastrous results.

I’ve offered many tips for holiday survival through the years, but when it came time to compile them for this post, I was overwhelmed.  What good are “Fifty Ways to Take Care of Yourself During the Holidays” when I can barely manage to dress myself in the morning?   (Remind me to tell you about the day a few weeks after my mother died, when I managed to put on a blouse, but failed to actually button it up until I was walking across the parking lot into my office…)  So, I began culling and cutting  the  Fifty Ways and wound up with the following four.  Four is a number I can manage.  At least most days.  I hope you can, too.

#1 — Be Your Own Caregiver.   Many of us who are grieving have been caregivers.  And caregivers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves.  Try imagining what you would do for or say to your dead loved one if he were alive and in your place.  Chances are you would tell them that the holidays are not about how much you buy, cook, or do, but about the quality of time you spend with those you love.

S L O W  D O W N.  My mother often said to me (especially during the holidays), “Stop goin’ at it like you’re killin’ snakes!” Which meant, “Slow down!  Just stop, sit down, spend time with me.”  Slow down physically, emotionally, financially.  Set limits and budgets not just for money, but for the more important things like time, energy, and emotion.

Learn to say “No”.  Without apologies, without excuses, just, “No”, simply because No is what’s best for you.  In grief, there are days when it takes all we have just to get out of bed.  When those days come, reward yourself for simply getting up.  Have a quiet cup of tea, take a hot bath, go for a leisurely walk, play  — really PLAY — with a child or a pet.  And if there’s a day when it is simply impossible to get out of bed, then don’t.  Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make a meal, a party, or a shopping trip.  Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make ANY meals, parties, or shopping trips.  Be gentle with yourself.  Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with your loved one were he in your place.

#2 — Allow Yourself to Feel What You Feel.  Be in the moment, whatever that moment is.  I just spent an amazing weekend with my best friend of 37 years.  During the 48 hours we were together, we were totally and completely present.  We had no agenda, no script, no idea of what we were going to “do” beyond just Being Together and yet somehow we did more, saw more, said more, and felt more than we could possibly have done with even the best constructed plan.  It was incredibly healing.  A true holiday.

So, if you’re tired, rest.  If you can’t face the shopping mall, don’t go.  If you want to talk, find someone who will truly listen.  If you need time alone, take it.  If you’re happy, laugh.  If you feel guilty about being happy, acknowledge the guilt, then let it go.  If you feel like crying, cry.  You won’t “bring everyone down”.  In fact, your ability to express your own grief may well give others (especially children) the permission to do the same.

#3 — Re-think Your Holiday Traditions.  Take each tradition and ask these question about it:
Where did it come from?
What does it mean?
What is its purpose in our family?
Why do we continue to do it?
What is its True Cost — in money, time, people, energy?
Is this a tradition we really want to keep?

If the True Cost of a must-keep tradition is prohibitive, look at keeping it in a different way, adapt it, or delegate part of its responsibility/costs to others.  Teach a younger family member the secret Christmas Cake recipe, then supervise while they do the work.  If you don’t want to give up a tradition entirely, then ask for — and allow — others to help you with it.  Consider eating out, or buying pre-made dinners or desserts.  If the idea of mall shopping while traditional carols blare all around you is more than you can bear, shop online at home while listening to your favorite non-traditional music.  Be sure to include your family in these traditions discussions.  You may find that a tradition you assumed was priceless really doesn’t mean that much to the family as a whole.  What’s more, you may find that together you create brand new traditions.

The first Thanksgiving after my sister died, when my mother and I learned we were going to be alone for the holiday, I asked her if she would be alright with only a turkey breast since it was just the two of us.
“You know, I hate turkey,” she answered.
“No,” I said.  “I don’t think I knew that…”
“Well, I do.”  She made an awful face.
“Um, well, Ok…” I said.  “We could do a small ham, maybe?”
She shook her head.  “I don’t want any of that kinda stuff.”
“You don’t want any dressing?”  I asked.  “You don’t want my sweet potatoes?”
“Noooo!”
“Well, ok, Momma.  What do you want then?”
“Enchilladas,” she said, not missing a beat.  “I want those enchilladas you make with all that cheese.”

I was incredulous.  The woman made herself sick on my sweet potatoes every Thanksgiving and Christmas.  But she insisted, and so a new tradition was born.  We had an Enchillada Thanksgiving Dinner each year for the rest of her life, whether we were alone or not.  This year, my first without her, I’m making them in her honour for my co-workers.

The best traditions mirror the families from which they come, families that evolve and change from year to year.   Death is one of the greatest changes your family will experience.  Don’t be afraid to allow your holiday traditions to reflect that change.

#4 — Include the Elephant.  Oftentimes, the death of a loved one sits in the room like the proverbial elephant that everyone sees but no one wants to acknowledge.  This is especially true during the holidays.

One of the many blessings of my friend’s weekend visit was that I never felt as though I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about my mother’s death.  I never felt I had to, nor that I was expected to, either.  I only knew that her death would be a welcome subject should I need it to be.  And sometimes I did.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  It was more that my mother’s memory arose of its own accord throughout our conversations.  A time or two, it was about her death, her actual death or funeral, but mostly it was about her life.  It was as though my mother knew she was welcome in our weekend and so she made herself known in funny stories, in music, in shared remembrances that flowed seamlessly in and out of those hours we spent together.

So, don’t worry that you “might make everyone feel bad” — most likely, they already do, just as you do, and recognition of your shared pain can be a great relief.  Set a place for your loved one at the holiday table, drink a toast to them, include their favourite food.  Encourage everyone to tell their best holiday story about the dead, play the music they loved most, write them a letter or a poem and share it.  Take the money you would have spent on their holiday gifts and make a memorial donation to their special charity.  Volunteer time to help others in their name.  The important thing is to acknowledge their absence.  In so doing, you acknowledge your on-going love for them — and theirs for you — and that is how you carry them forward with you into this and every future holiday season.