Tag Archives: motherless daughters

Mother’s Day 2017

Every English doctoral program I applied to rejected me. This is not because I’m incapable of succeeding in a PhD program. I had the necessary GPA, GRE scores, writing samples, and recommendations. I had multiple publications in my discipline, well beyond what most M.A. student achieve. I did not have the right connections. I did not have the right pedigree, and these barriers were reinforced to me throughout my program discernment process.

I remember visiting Fordham University in August 2009.  That summer, my husband spent two weeks driving across the country with me, so that I could meet with faculty and students at PhD programs that caught my interest. Carl has more class privilege than I do. He knew exactly how the system worked, and he did for me what many parents do for their children. He became the champion of my college visits.

Fordham University was our last stop. There, I met a female graduate whose first question was, “Where did you go to school?”

This might seem like an innocent question, but in academia few questions of this nature are truly innocent. Unlike her, I had no Ivy League schools on my CV. I suspected her question had more to do with scoping out my pedigree than genuine interest. I’ve had so many experiences like this one in academia that I’ve stopped being generous in how I read another person’s interest in my “background.” In my head, I say the metta prayer before I respond. (May you be happy. May you be well.)

Another professor at Fordham refused to meet with me altogether. Actually, no faculty at the institution agreed to meet with me. I’m not sure why I persisted on visiting this university when it was so obviously a poor fit.

My mother was the first person who taught me I deserved to pursue my ambitions, no matter how far out they seemed. Perhaps I went to satisfy her. Perhaps I went because I have never been one to give up on myself.

The Ivy League grad student eventually determined she liked me enough to invite me to lunch at McDonalds, but I declined. The highlight of my visit was my husband showing up with donuts, then driving us out of the Bronx.

The following winter I began receiving rejection letters. The trail followed me into spring. I cried each morning when I woke up and before I went to sleep. I cried in the shower. I cried in the back room of the Writing Center where I worked. I cried on the phone to my friend Caleb, as I burned my dinner.

By May, I was so disillusioned by academia that I didn’t attend my M.A. graduation. I never received my hood. A few months later, Carl and I moved to Maryland and I found an adjunct job at a community college.

This job restored my faith in higher education. This job reconnected me to myself and to my mother. This job saved me.

***

I don’t like to think about who I would be now if I’d been accepted by even one of those PhD programs. I don’t want to think of myself as a person who actually cares about where another person has gone to school. I don’t want to be a person who confuses so-called pedigree with talent. I don’t want to be a person who confuses class privilege with ability.

I know I would not have an exceptionally rewarding teaching career in higher education had I pursued a PhD. This is because the PhD would have prepared me for a career at institutions that do not operate out of the same foundational mission of community colleges.

Community colleges offer open access to higher education for everyone. They educate people like me, people like my mother, people who have disabilities, chronic illnesses, and real financial struggles. Community colleges eliminate barriers, whereas my experience with four-year institutions has been the opposite.

A former English professor I once knew liked to talk about gatekeeping in academia. In other words, he pressured faculty to weed out students they perceived as not belonging in college.

My mother would have been one of those students who was weeded out. Her juvenile diabetes impacted her cognitive development. She was hospitalized during formative times in her secondary education. She never attended a four-year institution, and she was conditioned to believe that she was not smart enough for one.

Let me be the first person to tell you that my mother was the smartest person I have ever known. She’s been dead for 15 years, and I am still living off her wisdom. Through me, my students are still living off her wisdom too. But I’ll get to that later.

My mother attended community college after separating from my father. She failed multiple courses. She was leaving a bad marriage. She had a chronic illness and two babies at home. She had zero support. Failure, unfortunately, was the inevitable conclusion of her semester.

I am afraid she equated her failure to a lack of intelligence, not a lack of resources. I am afraid she believed she deserved to fail.

It took her ten years to go back. At this point, she was disabled from juvenile diabetes and awaiting an organ transplant. But she completed her degree. At this point, my sister and I were watching. She knew she couldn’t fail.

We didn’t attend her graduation. I don’t know if it was because she was too sick or ashamed. She certainly did not brag about attending community college, even though this decision radically transformed her life and mine.

Hers is the only degree I will ever hang in my office.

***

My teaching semester ended on Thursday. I hate goodbyes. I cried every day last week. A few times, I caught myself tearing up on the way into class and I’d have to take a sip of water to keep from losing it altogether. These were happy tears. These were exhausted tears, sad tears.

This week is always the hardest one in my professional life. It’s the week where my mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day collide. It’s the week when I have zero energy left and am running on pure adrenaline. It’s the week when an academic year reaches its natural conclusion, and goodbyes cannot be avoided.

In my creative writing class, we had readings this week. I listened to each of my students read from short stories, poems or essays they’d spent an entire semester crafting. At the end of each class, I read from my work.

I always worry about sharing my writing with students. My work is deeply vulnerable. My work reveals me as flawed, imperfect. The woman I am on the page is the woman I am in life –– and she is different.

The woman I am on the page dreams about eating her mother’s ashes. She ignores the pleas of a hungry animal because she cannot bear to be needed by anyone. She runs away from her family, her mother’s home. She runs toward her own life.

By revealing my own imperfection or vulnerability, I hope I give others permission to do the same. When I read about my mother, I bring her into my classroom in a way that’s visible. Her presence, while profound in my teaching, is often invisible to my students, the people who benefit most from the way she mothered me. In my classrooms, there are no weeds. Only flowers. My mother taught me how to see them.

***

This morning, my sixteenth Mother’s Day without my mother, I’ve awakened to streams of social media posts that I initially feared.

There are lists that begin with questions like, “How long has it been since you last called your mother?” (More than 15 years … can’t remember the sound of her voice.)

There are the mother-daughter pics. There are the mother-baby pics. There are young mother pics. There are old mother pics. I’ve yet to see a dying mother pic.

The dying mother, the dead mother, the absent mother are not celebrated on this day. Nor are the childless women, the motherless women.

Yesterday, a fellow motherless daughter announced that she’d take a break from social media today. I wish I could, but I am by nature an observer. Even as I am in pain, I am also curious about the source of that pain. I am curious about who I am as a result of this pain.

Just as I know I’d be a different person if I’d gotten into one of those doctoral programs, I know I’d be a different person if my mother hadn’t been sick, hadn’t died. I suspect I’d be a shallow person, the kind of person who might care about pedigree. I think I’d be a person the woman I am now would not like. I might be a person who is afraid of vulnerability, who sees it as a weakness.

I am glad I am a different person. I will never be glad my mother died.

This blog, which today is exactly one-year-old (happy birthday!) began on Mother’s Day 2016. It began as a place for me to document pain, to document what it means for a young woman to live without a mother, what it meant to live with a sick and disabled mother, and the thousand ways in which my dead mother has never truly left my life.

The thing about grief is that our dead stick around. They are with us even when we cannot see them, even when we wish them away. My mother is not an angel or a ghost. But she inhabits me like breath, like blood. This blog began as a way to free her and keep her close.

Thank you for reading.

Mom & Me

You Should Frame This

Guest Post by Holly Aldrich

When she started hospice, my mother chose to go home rather than getting her care in the hospital. It sounded nicer, she said. Cozy. She was an optimist, even as her besieged body sunk her to the rude depths of these options. I was 27 and terrified and my mother had brain cancer. I was ready to throw myself at any shred of familiarity hiding in the bleak clinical narrative of her discharge paperwork. I convinced myself that we would be okay if we just went home. I tried to silence the insistent bleakness of words like malignant and terminal and palliative, because that is what she taught me to do.

I still had a lot to learn about the expert gaslighting of death, how it can use benign words and glossy pamphlets and fake smiles to lull you along. How tumors can grow slowly at first, and so can coups. But as mother and daughter, we soon found ourselves unsettled and bewildered, subjects of a strange new establishment. Home was no longer home.

Here is what I mean: Close your eyes and picture your bed. You know its shape and its place in your room, its small tactile histories. Feel your limbs weighting the mattress. Notice the particular scents of skin and sweat and sleep. Imagine the way your linens look when you wake in the morning, their customary jumble. See the way the light slants through your window. Now put on your most comfortable outfit. The touch of the fabric on your body, the way it knows you, how it outlines your place in the world, is perfect. Answer your everyday hunger and fill your mouth with your favorite food. The flavors dance. Delight in the textures, the pageant of spices and seasonings. Be there, in that sensory nest of bed and clothes and food.

Now rip the nest apart, piece by modest piece, and replace it with a clinical model pumped out by Big Med. When my mother came home, there was a huge sledge of a hospital bed with metal guardrails and a touchy remote for adjustments, stacks of adult diapers, a hoard of orange medicine bottles, and gowns with ties in the back. An oxygen tank hulked in the corner. For meals, there were big gray trays and children’s sippy cups. Staff began bustling through on their rounds, taking temperatures and scribbling notes about pain levels and possible UTIs.

I clung to the hope that none of it was real, like it was some peculiar game of Hospital. We would try out the accessories for a few days, buzz the bed up and down just for kicks, play nurse with the pills, and then my mother would become my mother again. She would ease up from the bed, pull on her customary jeans and tee shirt, and walk into the kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee and get back to normal. Her hair would grow back, her steroid-puffed limbs would smooth out, and the ugly tumors would slink from her skull and disappear. She would be 55, and healthy, and unremarkably alive. Everything would be fine.

That same day, I caught her gazing at me with the monk-like forbearance that was becoming so customary with her. Her eyes protruded from the steroids, but they weren’t manic. They were still calm and brown and warm. “It’s weird to think that I’ll never wear real clothes again,” she observed softly. And that was when I knew, with a sudden lurch in my stomach. None of this was a game. She was going to spend the rest of her life lying in a hospital bed, swaddled in diapers.

Until she died.

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Until she died, and I was left here. Without her. Without my tether to goodness and compassion and love, but somehow still here, floating in the world like a tiny piece of thread.

As much as I squirmed against this reality, I had no way of changing it. I was helpless to prevent the tumors from growing. But I knew from some fierce internal place of fundamental justice that I could not let her spend the rest of her life in the generic gowns from the hospital. No way in hell. The greenish one was the color of a swamp, and the other was coverall blue. Their pattern was essentially the textile equivalent of institutional linoleum floor tile, soured with the antiseptic smell of the hospital. They reminded me of a hostage huddling away from life. And that kind of apathy was simply not her.

My mother was an observer, a modern Hestia of the hearth minding the connection between home aesthetics and feelings. Color, texture, and form held meditative significance for her, especially in fabrics and furnishings.  When she was growing up in Chicago her father owned an antiques shop. Some of her fondest memories, she told me, were of accompanying him on trips to track down new items for resale. Weekend treasure hunts, she called them.

She sewed most of her own clothes in high school, and in later years she made my Halloween costume dreams come true with the same rickety seventies Singer. I was Tinkerbelle, Ariel, a medieval princess, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  My junior high years were stereotypically anguished, but she got onboard. She gamely stitched getups for a bloody bride, a mad butcher, and a dead Victorian maidservant. As labor-intensive as they were for the busy mother of two kids with disabilities, those costumes were also evidence of impressive skill, a sharp eye for detail, and genuine maternal love. They proved her belief that all of my feelings and fancies should be honored.

Our 1920s Tudor bungalow was my mother’s sphere, and she always honored its harmonious soul. One of her only personal indulgences was a pricy subscription to American Bungalow magazine. Issues came in the mail four times a year, and she spent hours wandering the rooms on their pages. I can still picture her in the comfy armchair in our living room. Sometimes she got excited and called me over, pointing out the turn of a stately wooden bureau or the pattern of a tablecloth. These things mattered to her. They spoke to some sense of balance in her own soul.

Making her face death in tasteless hospital garments seemed like a needlessly cruel cosmic joke. It was beyond the fraying edges of my tolerance.

I also suspect that, layered beneath my understanding of my mother’s sensibilities, a lot of my attitude toward the hospital gowns had to do with shoes.

See, on the first day of hospice, I was wearing blue and white running shoes with rubberized treads and soft mesh construction. They were the latest in the long line of similar shoes. I have a disability called cerebral palsy, and I wear orthotic braces for support and range of motion. Knee-high plastic supports with Velcro straps and metal buckles, they amp my shoe size from 6 to 10, and any shoes I wear have to accommodate their width and the inch of foam lifts boosting my shorter left leg. I have become adept at honing in on comfort and durability. I track down the grandma shoes sitting plush and quiet in the back of the store, while pointy stiletto heels and chic flats preen on the display shelves. I am a master of practicality.

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And yet my shoe history is far from tragic. I can recall a long succession of well-loved footwear. I was the proud owner of baby pink high-tops with black trim, soft brown loafers with moccasin trim, classic saddle shoes, purple suede oxfords with a fun-to-rub embossed logo, and bright red leather pioneer-style boots. The boots were my personal favorite, and I felt invincible and sassy when I wore them.

All of those shoes were special to me not just because they were cute, but because they were an indication of my mother’s dedication to me, and what she knew I deserved. Finding those shoes was a monumental effort. Every new pair of orthotics was slightly, maddeningly, different than the last, and there was no easy way to find shoes to fit them.

So we pumped ourselves up for a trip to the shoe store, determined to find a good pair no matter how long it might take. We spent hours hunkering down in the aisles, wrestling with tongues and laces, taking wobbly test trips, squishing in lifts and taking them out, and remaining alert to any pressure or pinching.

Our trips were an anthropological study in the range of reactions to my braces, a constant and visible accessory in the outfitting of my life with a disability. Some salespeople were cheerily overzealous. Manufacturing caring expressions, they offered to help with adjusting my braces or wedging on a stubborn pair of shoes. They came from back rooms bearing measuring devices, shoe horns, and their own orthotic-friendly suggestions. Some pretended we didn’t exist, avoiding eye contact from the moment we walked through the door.

Other people wondered about my braces, too. Children stared and asked questions while their mothers vice-gripped their arms and answered with measured words. We either got strained smiles because it was “just so great” that we were there, or evil eyes for basically conducting grisly foot surgery next to the Keds.

Even staff sometimes asked us to move to a more secluded corner. This was for our own convenience, allegedly, but it was also a way to keep us hidden away. My mother always maintained that we were just fine where we were. When salespeople tentatively suggested that we might have better luck in stores carrying “special” shoes, she fired back that we wanted these shoes. I was entitled to the same shoes as everybody else, thank you very much.

She was talking about shoes, but she was also telling me something. You are important, she was saying, so take the time to find the things that feel like you. Remember, my daughter, that you are entitled to beauty and comfort every day. You deserve the same things as everybody else. Be persistent. Never be ashamed of who you are or the life that you live. If people have a problem with your disability, with your body, with you, then it is their problem, not yours. You do not have to hold their filth.

There is nothing wrong with you.

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My perspective on these messages evolved over the years, but they shifted sharply into focus against the bland backdrop of those hospital gowns. That evening, after my mother had fallen asleep, I started Googling. After rejecting overpriced patterned options and depressingly tasteful neutral tones, I stumbled upon a cheery Etsy shop owned by a geriatric nursing assistant.

I smiled when I saw the cute fabrics and perky colors of the gowns, already thinking fondly of the owner making them for her clients. Whoever she was, she was using her time and energy to stitch together swathes of brightness against banality. She was a seamstress warrior fighting the encroachments of bedpans, medicine spoons, and Miralax. I silently thanked her for her courageous compassion and added two gowns to my cart – one in purple paisley and one in jewel-toned floral.

When the gowns arrived in the mail, the tingle of happy anticipation that came with simply touching the lumpy white package was almost startling, a fairy tale magic stone glinting up from the grit of our days. I watched my mother’s face as I tore it open and pulled out the gowns.

For one wild moment, the magic stone worked. The cancer was a beanstalk we could scale and the fear of her death was a giant we could slay. That moment was gold. Her eyes lit up, and her mouth made a small O. The fabric was beautiful. She loved the color. She would feel so much better wearing them. The next day, when her assistant, Dolly, came to change her into her freshly-washed new gown, she started up all over again.

When she was finally clothed in her purple paisley, she was radiant. She kept touching the edges with her cancer-clumsy fingers and a little smile hitched the corner of her lips. And even though her face was swollen and shiny and her hair was nothing more than baby bird fuzz, she was somehow much more like herself again.

In that color, I saw her on our front porch nestling purple mums into a pot of dirt. I saw her on Christmas Eve, the rainbow lights of our tree twinkling off her favorite amethyst pendant. I saw her settling a plum-colored chenille pillow against the back of the sofa, then stepping back to admire her tidy living room. I saw her. She was still there. I could tell that she felt it, too.

The gowns did not change everything, of course. They did not stop the uncontrollable seizures or loss of motor control or pain. They did not keep her from weeping on bad days. They did not vanquish the ugly words and exhaustion and resentment of a family rapidly losing its center. Some days I was not a giant killer. I was nothing more than a daughter-shaped pile of ash and shit and memories, the Little Match Girl with her desperate flares against the dark.

But those flares mattered, so I kept up my orders from Etsy. She watched as I scrolled through the listings and then she made the final pick.

Every few weeks, a new gown or two came in the mail. Those days were not perfect, but they had at least a frisson of magic. The gowns assured a smile, a moment of appraisal, and a sense that life could still be exciting. Sometimes, in the middle of reading to her or feeding her a snack or asking how she was feeling, I caught her gazing at her gown with that same little smile. When her nurses came, she asked for their advice about what to wear next, and she loved telling the story of how her daughter had ordered the gowns especially for her. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she asked. “Holly got those for me.”

New gowns sometimes garnered embarrassingly sentimental praise, especially as her illness and medication turned her into someone softer, more emotionally porous. One particular gown was white with a pattern of flowers, butterflies, hearts, and birds. When she saw it, tears came to her eyes, and she couldn’t stop touching it. “This is like a work of art, Holly,” she breathed. “You should frame this so that you can keep it nice.” When I tried to convince her that I didn’t need to frame it because she was going to wear it, she couldn’t stop saying how lucky she was. I told her I was the lucky one, but I don’t think she believed me. It was a touching and bittersweet moment, but it was quickly sucked into the ocean of her illness. Later, after she was gone, it would resurface.

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If the beginning of hospice is a no-nonsense medical takeover, the end is a beloved house falling to ruin. It goes like this: One day you wake up and the air is filled with the stench of spoiled milk and bad meat because the refrigerator went bust overnight. Moldy water makes the floor slick. You should care, you should get up and clean, but all your energy has sapped away. And besides, you aren’t even hungry.

The next day you discover that the toilet clogged up and sewage flooded everywhere. It’s brown and stinking in the bathroom, but also in the living room. There is something wormy and acid green wiggling on the couch. Plump gray bugs crawl out of your favorite armchair, the place where you always used to read, but you could never concentrate on a book now.

Maybe you are a little bit hungry? There are still some things in the kitchen cabinets. A can of tomato soup with a Best Before date from 1998. A re-jarred quantity of dark green dried herbs with the word “Sage” on the cap in black Sharpie. The handwriting is yours, from before your letters got shaky and misshapen. An open box of multigrain crackers with the corner chewed off. In the shadows you see strange, obese rats with elephant skin. No, not really hungry at all.

And then the power goes out altogether. You are left in the dark, and everything smells rotten, and you can’t see or move. What if something happens? How will you charge your phone? Where is your phone, anyway, and could you even manage the technical map of buttons and screens? You don’t even know who you would call, or why, so it doesn’t matter. You just want to sleep.

And then someone touches you, so gently. Someone pulls soft fabric over your body. Someone takes your hand, and someone begins to read. From very far away, you hear a story about a girl and a pig and a spider.

You don’t really understand the words, but you are sure that the story is about love.

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Her last gown arrived just a few days before she died. She was starting to lose her appetite altogether and she spent more and more time sleeping. Talking was an effort. But she often rallied for Dolly and her nurses, as if she wanted to put all of her remaining energy toward being a good patient.

As usual, Dolly clucked over the new addition to her wardrobe. It was ocean blue, with an opulent array of Hawaiian hibiscus and vines. “I love it,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m going on vacation.”

Aloha.

Maybe it was an innocent comment, but I suddenly remembered reading about how people nearing the end of life sometimes talk about going away on a trip, or needing to get ready to leave. A chill flickered up my spine even as I smiled and gripped her hand. “You’re right,” I said. “It does. You look gorgeous.” She smiled her trembly smile, the one that looked like a sideways J on the unparalyzed side of her face. “You know, Holly,” she said, “These gowns have made all the difference.” All I could do was protest dumbly and blink back the brine of tears.

She was the one who had made a difference for me. That old cliché. But of course she was.

She died a few days later, in the early morning hours of a Wednesday in late May. She was wearing her favorite lavender paisley gown. Her face in death was like a blurry photograph of a long-ago relative. She was a stranger until I looked closer, and then familiar features began to emerge. The slope of her nose. The curve of her eyelids. The shape of her lips. I kissed her and touched her face.

When her body was gone the nurse on duty said, “You did a great job, you know. You did the hardest job you will ever have to do.” I felt in my bones that she must be right. What could possibly be worse than watching the most loving and wonderful person in my life sicken and die?

The months after her death were barren, and I soon realized that their sterile drip was going to be worse than the months I had just survived. There was no more magic. It wasn’t that I was clinging to idealized nostalgia. I was just stuck. If there is a place where nothing shines, I was there. I woke up not knowing what to do without her presence in the world, and I longed for something – anything – to reconnect us. I wanted to make her toast with butter and jam and feed her Jell-O. I wanted to talk to her about what she was like in college. I wanted to bring her medicine. I wanted to read her Charlotte’s Web. I wanted to discuss her excrement, if it meant hearing her voice and seeing her chest rise and fall and touching her skin. I wanted to do anything to show her I cared. I just wanted her.

I could no longer order new gowns for her, but I kept the old ones. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. In purples and pinks and blues and greens, there she was, smiling at me. “Hello, my little pumpernickel,” I heard her say. “I love you.”

A family friend is a quilter, so now the gowns are stitched together and folded at the foot of my childhood bed. Deceased Mother Quilt has never been on my wish list, let me be clear. In some ways, I can’t help but think of it as a shroud. Those gowns clothed my mother’s body when it was aching and messy and ridden with the cells that would eventually take her away from me. Two of them clothed her body after death. But those gowns also clothed her in dignity. She taught me from childhood about maintaining grace and gratitude even when fear seems easier.

With plastic and metal on my legs and this soft quilt on my bed, I am living our shared history. I am the barest thread unfurling in the space between us. Most days I still falter.

But I am still here, tending that space, because that is what she taught me to do.

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Holly Aldrich is a disability services professional working in higher education. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her amazing cat, Gracie. She is an introvert, a listener, and a disability rights advocate. Her mom, Meg Aldrich, died of brain cancer in 2014. She will always be her mother’s daughter. You can contact her at hmaldrich@gmail.com.

“You Should Frame This” first appeared at Entropy. 

After You Died

We cremated you. Without a will, or any written instructions, this was a difficult decision to make. I wasn’t sure of your desires, but I believed my sister, who said she recalled your final wishes were to be fully released from your captor body. So I signed my name on a piece of paper the day after you died. Your funeral would be the next day, as per Jewish custom. Your cremation horrified me, but not because it bucked tradition. I could not bear the image of your body burned to a cinder, your ashes mine alone to scatter. Still, you would have laughed at the funeral director. Instead of mom, he called you mother. Very Norman Bates. Had you been there, we would have giggled until our stomachs ached.

The other night I told my husband I felt like I have lived two lives, the one before you died and the one after. We were both falling asleep, and I can’t remember what he said back to me but I think it was, “You have lived two lives.” He has only known me in my second life. He never knew me in my first life, as a person with a mother. He never knew you. But he has carried the weight of your absence with me for the past thirteen years I have known him. He has never once told me to get over it. He has never told me to be a person other than who I am. We met on your birthday, by the way. You’d been dead two years by then.

Around that time, I took in my first stray. He was a black tomcat, like the one you used to have before I was born. He appeared near my apartment in the Louisiana delta. At first, I didn’t want him. But my sister, who was visiting, forced me to adopt the cat. She put her hands on her hips the way she did when we were kids and played “Business Women.” (You should remember she was always the boss and I was always the employee.) She convinced me I could take care of something else again, that I could stand to be needed. So I adopted him that very afternoon. He opened the heaviest door I shuttered after you died, the one marked LOVE.

It felt wrong at first, to love beyond you. But the moment I started, I couldn’t stop. I have four rescues now. No child. For a long time, I was afraid to become a mother, afraid to lose a child the same way I lost you. I was well past 30 when I realized losing you taught me I could bear anything. Losing you taught me not to withhold love. Fingers crossed, I’ll give you a grandchild in the next year or two. Maybe twins :-).

By the way, you are already a grandmother. I know: You look like you could be my sister! But your other daughter already has two sons and a daughter. The eldest looks exactly like you. He makes all your most hilarious facial expressions. Like you, he loves music, loves to sing. He’s particularly fond of The Beach Boys & Billy Joel. His sister has a thing for Taylor Swift. You should hear her sing “Firework.” It’s really something. The youngest isn’t talking yet, but he has the chubbiest thighs we’ve ever seen. If you ever had the chance to squeeze them, you’d never let go.

When I awoke this morning, I remembered the morning you died. I was the same age as many of my students are now. No wrinkles then. No grey hair. At first, I mourned the big things, such as how you would not be at my college graduation –– on Mother’s Day that year. Ugh. But I felt your absence in the small things, how there was no one to tell me to be home by 10 p.m. or to complain that I’d used all the hot water AGAIN. I missed you most in the mornings, that time when we used to sip coffee and read the newspaper. I still miss you in the mornings. This is when I resurrect write about you.

Today is an anniversary, but not the kind that requires flowers or chocolate. Today you are fifteen years dead. My sister will likely light a candle for you, say Kaddish. She has been so good about honoring you on the terms of your faith. I will go to my Spin class, grade papers, prep lessons, steal an ordinary day from the impossible shadow of your absence.

After you died, I didn’t think I could go on. I didn’t want to go on. But here I am, missing you as much as I did on my first day without you. Only now, I can balance the unbearable loss of you on my head, walk beneath it without sinking.

Grief Observed: Lessons from Binge-Watching “Six Feet Under”

Carl and I started watching Six Feet Under this summer. This is my first time watching. When the pilot aired in 2001, I knew my mother’s death was inevitable, but neither of us could face that truth. We pretended she’d recover, that kidney failure in a type-one diabetic was just a temporary thing. I, along with much of the nation, had also watched the twin towers collapse on live television. Death hung over everything that year, but I thought Six Feet was weird and morbid. I wanted nothing to do with it.

Carl, who lived across the country from me, was starting seminary. He loved the show, all its rituals and questions about life and death and truth. He watched weekly with his friends. At the time, we didn’t know each other. But back in 2001, one of my good friends was a Six Feet fan, and I’d hear about the show’s weekly episodes from her. She loved Six Feet because her father worked as an undertaker in central Pennsylvania. Funerals were their family’s business, and it had been that way for generations. When my mother died in April 2002, this friend was studying abroad. But that didn’t stop her from reaching out.

The day she learned of my mother’s death, she sent me yellow roses and a card. In the subsequent weeks, she left me thoughtful voicemails. She responded to my e-mails without missing a beat. Never once did she attempt to comfort me with irritating platitudes or vague offers of prayer. She understood there was no reason why my mother had to suffer, or why I had to face the rest of my life without a mother to guide me.

What I needed was to get through each moment, each day. Through it all, this friend stood by me. We didn’t know the term holding space back then, but that is what she did for me. She held space for my grief, and she didn’t flee, like many others did. I don’t blame them. Grief is terrifying, especially to twenty-one year-olds, many of whom have never even lost a pet. My mother’s death, and my own grief, reminded others of what they stood to lose, and many could not bear to look.

One of the reasons why I think Carl and I are drawn to Six Feet now– we binge-watched half of season four yesterday –– is because death feels like our family business, too. We both lost parents young. As adolescents and young adults, we saw our parents lose control of their bodies and hope. We stood at their funerals. We received diplomas and awards without them watching. Any child we have will grow up never knowing two essential grandparents. We will mourn our parents again and again. There is no finish line for grief.

Had I watched Six Feet back in 2001, I’d know how grief “comes and goes,” as Nate says in season four. I’d know grief feels more like an ocean than a highway. I’d know how unexpressed grief leads to greater pain, and that numbing through sex or drugs or alcohol does not lessen our suffering, but only ushers in greater despair. I’d know death stops for no one, but it is also not contagious.

I hope I’d understand that, at 21, I could not bring my mother’s body back, no matter how long and deeply I mourned. But I could return to her essence through my work as a writer and teacher and friend. Now I feel my mother’s spirit –– not her ghost, but the core of who she was –– when I hold space for others. When I make room for another person’s grief, I make room for my mother. In this way, I honor her death and her life. Rather than confining her to a grave or a memory, I make her expansive, like my own heart, which is one half hers, still beating, still alive, in the world.

 

 

Teach Me To Sit Still

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
 

T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”

When I sat za-zen with three Buddhists in a Baptist church eleven years ago, I had no idea what would happen. I’d only known one Buddhist previously, a creative writing professor who supervised an independent study with me in college. I once heard another student discussing him. She’d bristled at the word Buddhist, whispering it the way people sometimes whisper atheist or cancer. Still, Buddhism allured me. That former professor was kind and generous and calm. When I sat in his office, I felt calm and worthy of another person’s attention. He offered me something I had not received since my mother’s death. Presence.

Still, my first sit didn’t happen for three more years, when I was 24, and mired in grief, and grasping for a life that was no more, the life when I had a mother. That night I sat, eyes half-closed, and focused on my breath. In. Out. Nose. Mouth. I noticed my heart tightening, my arms tingling, my elbow itching with ferocious force. But I held my posture for 25 minutes –– legs folded in front of me, palms pressed lightly on my thighs, neck straight. Then a bell chimed, and I stood and walked for five minutes in a circle with the only three Buddhists I knew between Jackson, Mississippi and Shreveport, Louisiana.

We walked slowly. S-l-o-w-e-r than I’ve ever walked, our feet hitting the floor in perfect slow-motion time with one another. And then the bell chimed once more, its vibrations rippling into tiny and tinier pings until we sat again. Another 25 minutes of breathing and feeling and noticing our bodies and breath. Car doors slammed. Dogs yelped. Tim McGraw songs played from rolled down windows. But I just inhaled, exhaled. I contemplated the itch on my elbow, which turned into something else. Not an itch at all, just nerves and skin and, finally, softness. When the final bell rang, I felt like five minutes had elapsed, not another 25. I pressed my hands to my heart and bowed. Had I really just sat in silence for nearly an hour? This person who sat still that night, this person who had breathed stillness into every inch of herself, was not a self I knew.

The self I knew always surrounded herself with sound. She delighted in the noises of the world and the noises of her thoughts. She had so many noisy thoughts. Why did her mother die? How would she go on? When would she feel better? At night, in her apartment, she listened to records and struggled to sleep. When the sun came up, she listened to NPR, letting the voices of Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne soothe her jagged insomniac nerves. These noises reminded her that she also lived in a world full of people, connected her to something larger and broader. On the occasions that she did fall asleep, she dreamed of her mother, but awakened screaming, just as she remembered her mother was dead. This was the me I knew. This was the me I had been for the past three years. I never imagined I could be different. I never tried to be different.

But when I returned to my apartment after my first za-zen sit, a tiny revolution began. That night, I did not turn on my record player. I pulled on my nightgown and crashed into my bed. My black tomcat curled into my hip, and I slept hard beneath my quilt. In the morning, I did not turn on NPR while I dressed. I did not crave any sound. I felt lighter, more still. One thought distilled as I drove to work, and that was this: I felt like I had just returned from a one-week vacation to the beach. Grief contracted me, shrank my world, made me fearful and small. But meditation opened me to something else, something different, an experience where joy and hope ran beside pain.

I meditate now on my own and with others. I’ve explored different styles of Buddhist meditation practice, and ultimately gravitated into vipassana, or insight meditation. In the past ten years, I’ve read Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’ve also read Julian of Norwich and St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila. I’ve attended a day-long vipassana retreat and two multi-day retreats in Benedictine communities, but I never attended a weeklong retreat in a Buddhist community until this summer.

A few days ago, I returned from a seven-day Buddhist Geeks meditation retreat, an experience whose magnitude I’m still unpacking, along with a lot of dirty laundry and new dharma books I want to read. I went on retreat because my husband encouraged me, just as he encouraged me to get serious about meditation years ago, when I was still awakening to the sound of my own screams, and waking him up, too. (As they say in the South where we met, Bless his heart.) Truthfully, I would not have attended a retreat of this length without another person encouraging me to do so. I think this is because change and leaving my comfort zone are still excruciating for me. Really, they are the hardest things in my life. I resist them because they plunge me back to uncertainty, back to my first night without my mother, back to the end of my life as I once knew it.

I meditate now because I want to change how I relate to fear. Meditation sometimes escalates my anxiety and insomnia because I am relating deeply to emotions I have buried. Meditation has not made me zen in the way this word is commonly understood. I am still nervous and loud and seem like I drink a boatload of espresso when, in fact, I drink no coffee at all.

I still missed my mother when I came home. I stood in my dining room and watched morning light spill onto my record player, and I wanted to call her and tell her that the daughter who spent an entire adolescence on the telephone had just spent 80 percent of the past seven days in silence. I imagined how we both would have laughed until tears came out of our eyes. And tears did come out of my eyes then, but I welcomed my sorrow, this shadow side of love. I scooped my orange tomcat into my arms and kissed his soft head, then made myself a cup of tea.

I gave myself the gift another person had given me years and years ago, when I thought I could not live without my mother, when I did not want to live without her. I gave myself presence, pure and simple and elusive and profound. I returned to myself, my deepest unknowable evolving self. I sat still, caring and not caring, wanting and not wanting. Just there, in the still morning, with the sun coming up, where I once sat, many selves ago, beside my mother, who sipped her own tea and whispered how grateful she was that I was her daughter, how much she loved me, how lucky we were to be right there together, to be alive at the same time.

 

 

 

Paul Simon & the Mother-Child Reunion

At 12, I listened to The Concert in Central Park with my mother, cassette wheels spinning in rhythm to snow falling outside. We sang all winter: “Mrs. Robinson,” “America,” “Homeward Bound,” and “The Boxer’s” lie-la-lie chorus. She could never carry a tune, but sang because she loved Simon & Garfunkel, and I loved them because she did. I didn’t know The Concert in Central Park happened the year I was born or that Simon & Garfunkel were no longer a duo. I didn’t understand most of the playlist, but I loved the songs’ mama-pajama beat and their mystery.

Years later, before she died, my mother and I fought about music. I was 20 and home for a weekend and listening to a mix CD one of my roommates made. Who Stopped the Rain came on and my mother said, “That’s my music. I can’t believe you’re listening to my music.” She was remarking on how strange and beautiful it can be when children adopt the best interests of their parents, but I didn’t want to be likened to her. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be my own person, not a copy of my mother, not her life repeated, and I didn’t understand how she was really complimenting me.

I was angry in a way I’d never been before or since. I knew she was dying —I’d made her death real by writing it down in my journal. By giving what was happening to us a name, I sanctified her death with power. No one ever needed to say the word death because I already knew she might not see me graduate college. I already knew she would definitely not see me marry. I already knew she would never know a grandchild. She was still alive, wouldn’t be dead for another year, but I was grieving the mother who was going to die. My grief came out in anger. It came out in fights with her about inane things like her music and my music. It came out in me lying: The cigarettes weren’t mine. The beer bottle caps in the back of my car belonged to someone else. It came out in the only socially acceptable culturally conditioned way I knew, as one woman turning against another.

The summer before, we’d had Dylan tickets, but she was too sick to go. So I went without her, already resenting the many more places I’d have to go without her, a life full of her absence and my presence. I was enraged because she was leaving me, and enraged because I wanted her to leave, which was a thousand times worse than her leaving. To this day, I wish I’d just smiled and sung along with her to CCR, the way we used to when I was a tween, the way we sang to Simon & Garfunkel.

Last week, I saw Paul Simon at Wolf Trap. I danced the whole time with my husband, a man my mother never knew, a man who loves Paul Simon and Dylan, and is my husband nonetheless. The concert overflowed with energy and summer abandon. People danced all over the lawn. We danced from the first song, The Boy in the Bubble, to the last one, The Sound of Silence. We danced in the rain, our umbrellas bobbing to the beat. We danced as the sky blazed red and purple and lightning sizzled beyond the trees.

No question, I thought about my mother. How could I not? I love Paul Simon because his songs entwine life with death, joy with loss, and make plain how each amplifies the other. I know I live with more vigor and vivaciousness because my mother died, because I know how starkly short a life can be. The Wolf Trap performance was the last leg of Paul Simon’s 2016 Tour, a tour that could be his last. I think he gave it everything he had. There was a moment when I looked at the stage, directly into his line of vision, and felt as if his exuberance flowed into the crowd and our exuberance flowed back onto the stage, uplifted him, just as he uplifted us.

I knew I’d have seen this concert with my mother, had she lived. I know that last clause holds all my life’s desires in three words. Had she lived. My mother is dead —her ashes, scattered in the Chesapeake Bay, swam away from me long ago. She was not at my wedding. She does not know her grandchildren. But she is also alive in the same way Paul Simon’s music will be alive long after his last concert.

Her exuberance lives in the music I love, the music we sang and fought about. Her love for me lives in the choices I make each day to be honest and to steer clear of destruction. I do not believe in clear categories of afterlife, but I do believe I am the full sum of my mother’s life. I am everything that eclipses her death. My life, the life I live without her, unfolds in rhythm to all she showed me, and her hope runs beside me, as constant as a heartbeat, as steady as breath.

Watching Hillary Without My Mother

My mother introduced me to Hillary Clinton one afternoon as she watched the news and I read The Hobbit and the Clintons flashed onto our television’s small screen.

“She uses her last name,” my mother said, pointing to the new first family. “Rodham.” Each syllable spread out on her tongue for emphasis: Rod-ham

This was a big deal, and I glanced away from my book, to the television screen, to the woman with big eyes and blonde hair and a gigantic grin. My mother’s gaze never moved from Hillary.

My mother used her own name too, LaSov, after her divorce. Until Hillary Rodham Clinton, I knew no other woman who’d made this seemingly bold move. In all honesty, I knew few women like my mother. She worked when my friends’ mothers stayed home. She wore pantsuits. She never owned a single apron. By first grade, I knew the words sexist and feminist. My mother taught them to me. She used the former to describe a male teacher who insisted girls wear skirts to school concerts.

When Hillary talked about having more important work than baking cookies, my mother applauded. (Our cookies came from a bakery or Pillsbury dough roll.) Still, I barely understood the controversies swirling around this new first lady in 1992, as she shirked gendered assumptions without apology, the same way my mother was teaching me to do. To us, Hillary stood for equality and promise, one dream of second wave feminism coming true. She stood for an America where women could be wives and mothers and leaders, the way men had melded career ambition and family for generations. Hillary blew right past the binaries, all the false dichotomies.

To my mother, Hillary also stood for an America where more could be possible for me, her daughter growing up at a time blessedly different from the pre-Civil Rights era when she came of age. Unlike my mother, who believed she had to be married by twenty-two, and choose between two careers –– teaching or nursing –– I could be anything. Do anything. Marry or not marry.  Just look at Hillary Rodham Clinton, my mother said.

She made sure I listened to Hillary’s speeches and read articles about her trips to China and Africa. We discussed them at the dinner table and between school and basketball practice. The year Hillary became first lady was the same year I declared myself a feminist, like my mother, and plastered my bedroom door with National Organization for Women stickers.

I voted for the first time at age 18 in New York State. No question: I voted for Hillary, then called my mother to tell her the news. We were both ecstatic.

Had my mother lived, I’d have driven 50 miles to her house this week to watch Hillary’s victory speech. We would have ordered Chinese takeout and watched Hillary command that Brooklyn stage again and again. We would have laughed together as the glass ceiling shattered into eighteen million pieces, so much light and possibility now dawning on our country.

I know my mother would have paused the speech somewhere around minute fourteen and said, Do you see? She remembers to thank her mother. We would have listened, breathless, to Hillary’s description of her “biggest rock,” her mother, born the same day Congress voted on the nineteenth amendment. Goosebumps would have risen up on both our arms, as Hillary smiled and the crowd cheered.

But my mother is dead. And I’ve had to learn to mark milestones without her. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I’d give anything to have her back, to be able to drive to her house this week and watch Hillary together.

In the end, I watched Hillary’s speech with one of my dogs curled against my lap and a cat perched beside my arm. I fought tears when I heard her call her mother her “greatest influence,” and listened to her tie her vast achievements to her mother’s struggles. My tears let loose when Chelsea took the stage to be the first person to hug her mother.

Rarely do I see mothers or daughters or mothers and daughters front and center in national politics. This moment feels rare and precious, historic and without comparison. Rarely do I hear world leaders applauding their mother’s influences or discussing their mothers at all. But this is a truth I cling to and a truth that saves me, the truth Hillary voiced at the heart of her speech, the truth that a mother’s legacy can survive death to live on in her child, the truth that a mother’s influence changes the world.