Loss is everywhere right now, as the country reels from the horror at yesterday’s Boston Marathon, but the loss I’m going to talk to you about today is much, much closer to home.
There are moments, as someone’s Mom, that you can’t change regardless of how much you wish you could.
The fall on the concrete, scrapes to the face and nose and a mouthful of sand.
Slipping on ice and little teeth slamming down on a tender lip; blood….. so much blood. And a scar for life.
A door accidentally shut on curious fingers.
Oh my poor heart as a competent nurse holds down my trusting baby…. my baby! and jams sharp needles in to both his chubby thighs. Watching that face crumple and the shrieks that rip in two your poor Mama’s heart.
The betrayal of a friend, the first of so many that will inevitably come. Or the good friend that moves away, and suddenly, there is loss.
The taunting of classmates, horrible teasing, the story of having a chair pulled out from underneath and hitting his head, or a mean kid pushing his face in to a pile of mashed potatoes at lunch while everyone laughs. The way he bravely tried to hold back tears as your heart sinks to your feet.
A biological parent that makes such terrible and dangerous choices that you can only withdraw and walk away. Far, far, far away. Setting boundaries you wish you never had to lay down, to say to a broken heart “I can’t let Daddy come back any longer.”
A grandpa who won’t drive to your new home, saying ‘It’s too far.’ as an excuse not to come around any longer.
Your heart breaks because it has to, because you can’t protect from all those moments, those times of self-growth and change and the hatred in the world for anything that is out of the ordinary, or extraordinary, as it would be. Your heart breaks when your flesh and blood begin to learn of how the world can wrench you in two and tear at your soul. You can’t protect or insulate them from life, the pain, the betrayals and poor choices. You can’t stop the hurt that others inflict. You can’t change the inevitable march to adulthood, with the sorrows and sadness and aches in the heart and you can’t even begin to comprehend how much you hurt when they hurt, how much you wish for that magic to wave away the unfairness.
They break. You break. They recover and you still break. Each year, each new moment is one slippage of time which could break a heart that may never forget, criss-crossed with scars. You step back, you grit your teeth and send them forward
Because it’s what a parent does.
For as many times as I’ve mentioned my Mom on these pages, the way that I channel her memory in my baking and how a simple bite of something she used to make can bring a flood of memory into my heart, I realize that I’ve never really talked much about her beyond her astral presence in my life. My friends, those close to me anyway, may know the snippets of her that I share with them over time, time that includes others who painfully join the Motherless Club, and I thought that for Mothers Day, it might help ease the reoccurring ache in me to just tell you a little bit about this woman.
I’m not going to give you her history. That’s not important. But I can tell you what she did for me in the 30 years of life that I lived with her guiding me. Because this person who gave me life, gave me so much more than just a form that breathes, with a heart that beats inside my chest.
She gave me my laugh, and I wish those of you who have never even met me in person could just once experience this crazy hooting thing that bursts from my mouth when I’m amused. Which is often. Because she gave me my sense of humor too, and I use it a lot, especially when I can let go and laugh myself silly. I love laughing and really, I think we all need to do it a lot more. Get me laughing and the tears pour from my eyes, I double over with teeth bared as I about break the sound barrier. Get me and my brother Mike in a room together, tell a few funny stories and we’ve got people almost covering their ears because we are so darn loud. But this laugh, this crazy howl is a living legacy to my Mom, a testimony that she never held back when the world seemed ridiculous, and she gave us the same ability to throw our heads back and let loose when the feeling was right.
She also gave me my voice. Mom was not one to shrink away from the truth. I remember a story she told of a woman who worked with her that could never tell anyone ‘No’. Mom told this co-worker “If you can’t say ‘No’ to them, then send them to me and I’ll tell them ‘No’. And believe me, having the ability to say ‘No’ is a gift, people. I know plenty of folks who can’t do it. But the other gift is simply being able and willing to lay it down when it’s needed, meaning that when someone asks me for an honest opinion, I always raise an eyebrow to them and say “Are you sure you want that? Because you’re going to get the truth.” And I’m relieved to meet people who honestly want the truth. The world likes to lie to our faces, sugar-coating every detail and making the perfect glossy picture that looks like nirvana, but the truth is nothing like that. The truth is hard. It’s sharp at the edges and sometimes it hurts, but it’s also completely necessary. And along with the ability to be honest and real, I learned from my Mom that you simply don’t sit down and let the world walk all over you. Keep your chin up, say what you want and more importantly, mean what you say.
My Mom showed me perseverance in life. She lived through many tough times, and they took their toll on her, but she fought and clawed and pushed through them and I’m sure she spent many nights in the dark of her room in tears over the situations we faced, but she still rose each morning to do what needed to get done. I thought about that a lot in the 7 years I was a single parent, and had many of my own nights drenched in a cold sweat over what I was facing, but I never thought to back down and give up. Someone depended on me, and needed me and I couldn’t give in to that anxiety and fear. On so many nights I used to just pray for some good to come in my life, and in response I often heard her voice, crystal clear, telling me that everything was going to be all right. It might have been just a figment of memory, but at those times it felt like she was sitting right there in the dark with me, like she’d done so much when I was little, and the comfort it brought me took the edge off the pain. If she could be a single parent with five kids, I surely could manage with one.
In life, my Mom taught me many things, but in death, she’s taught me so much more. The simplest of those truths is the hardest to accept; you just never know how much time you’re going to have with anyone. Whether it’s your Mom, your Dad, your siblings or a friend, you could wake up today and it could be the last day you ever get to see their smile or feel the power of their embrace. You just don’t know when the end will come. The worst part about being motherless is listening to people complain about their parents, listening to other women grouse over the phone calls they get from their Moms, the way they think she’s trying to butt into their lives, the annoyance they have with what comes down to the simple fact that their Mom wants to stay in touch with them. It makes my heart hurt because I would give my right arm for my Mom to interfere in my life, to bug me with a phone call.
This photo was the last time I saw my Mom healthy and well. Griffin was two weeks old and she came to visit, thrilled to pieces over finally being a Grandma and getting to see her grandson. She was so excited about this new adventure in her life, so eager to be ‘that kind of Grandma’. She couldn’t stop holding him, snuggling him, tickling his little arms and legs and giving him her big wide smile. After the weekend visit was over, as her and her husband headed home to Warroad where they lived, she began to feel sick. Within weeks she was hospitalized and no one really knew what was wrong with her. She ended up at the Mayo Clinic, and passed away on August 25, 1994, barely four months later. I hardly even knew what was happening. One day she was there, in my house as excited as could be, then she was gone. Forever. I stood at her funeral, my baby in my arms and I could hardly believe that I had to raise my son without my Mom. Now, nearly 17 years later, I still can’t believe it. It was such a shocking exit that I reeled through life in deep grief for years. And as I watch friends of mine lose their mothers I wish that I could offer some kind of hope in such a sad situation, but the truth is harsh and brutal; you never get over it. You never recover. You move on, you live and you survive but a part of you dies in her, never to return.
If your Mom is still alive, please treasure her. Love her, accept her and be gracious to her. Talk to her as much as you can. Show her your appreciation. Remember everything she did for you, even if it wasn’t perfect. My Mom was not perfect, not by any means and many of my memories are painful, but she did the best she could, as everyone does. There shouldn’t be any room for bitterness, because you just never know how much time you have. Don’t waste it.
It’s Valentine’s Day again. And again, we aren’t really celebrating. We never do. It’s a Hallmark holiday, and love, any good love deserves celebration 365 days a year.
Instead, I’m going to tell you a story; a story about a man and a woman, who met each other with a little help from God, and a website called Match dot com. In this story, the man and woman lived a block away from each other, and she was raising a nice little boy all by herself. She liked his smile; he liked her red hair. And little by little, they fell in love and decided that they should marry and when they told their families, there were loud shouts of excitement. Everyone was happy.
And on a mild summer day in a tiny quaint town on a picturesque and majestic river, they held each others hand and said ‘I will’ when the pastor asked them about the divine love, and the journey ahead of them. Then the little boy joined them, they all held hands again, promising to be good to one another as a family, and to love each other, even in their imperfections. They never got to just be a couple. From the moment the rings went on, they were a family, all three of them. And afterwards, they held hands once again -it was a big day you know, for hand holding- while a prayer was said before the first meal they’d share as husband and wife. On that beautiful day, everyone ate a picnic lunch at colored tables, topped with glitter and balloons, while happy children in smart suits with ties and beautiful dresses ran around the room, and leaned in anticipation on the table that held a cake, because it was a celebration, after all, and celebrations meant cake. And the cake was good. Everyone was so happy.
And soon enough, the man and the woman decided they wanted a baby, so they crossed their fingers, prayed and tried, but there was no baby, month after month. They prayed more, and they hoped hard, and everyone they knew prayed with them. The little boy was happy and excited; he’d wanted a brother or sister ever since he could remember, like from the age of 4 and he was eager to be the best big brother he could possibly be. But there were problems, it seems. There were terrible pains in the woman’s belly; pains that scared her and made her fearful that maybe she couldn’t make a baby like God had designed her to do, and so she went to a doctor, and listened as he talked about tests, and listed names of things that sounded odd and scary. And the man held her hand to soothe her (see? more hand holding), and he held her shoulders tight against him and comforted her because all of it was so scary, and there were serious faces and lots of ‘Hmmm’ and ‘Huh’ when the doctor read her charts. On the night before a surgery that would give them all the answers, she wept from the uncertainty and cried to the man’What if you don’t want to stay married to me if I can’t have children?’ The man laughed because he thought that was so silly. But the woman was very serious. The nurses soothed her as she wept before the surgery again. She was very scared. What if she didn’t wake up? The kind doctor, his eyes crinkling as he smiled through the mask that covered his face, assured her that she would be fine, and soon she was deep in a sleep so black and solid and thick that it seemed like only two minutes passed before she opened her eyes again. There was so much pain, and her mouth was dry and she really, really wanted to see the man. So she waited, and took her pain medication, got up and moved around and did everything she was asked in hopes it would get her to see the man sooner. It took forever for the nurse to wheel her into a room where the man was waiting for her.
But nobody was happy. No one was smiling. There was no joy.
Right away her eyes asked him the question, and he knelt in front of her, grasping her hands tight in his like he always had while he carefully said ‘We can’t have any babies.’ and then when the woman fell into his embrace sobbing and apologizing, he held her close to him, stroking her back and said to her ”I still want to be married to you.” and even in the hardest moment of her life, through a pain she never felt like she deserved, she knew that the only thing that mattered was that one sentence, and the love that had been sealed with a kiss in front of a hundred people in that lovely river town, under a prayer on the wall of the church with a ring on her finger and a vow to hold fast forever. The happy had been stolen.
There would be no shouts of joy in their families for them, announcing that a new life was on the way. Instead, there were tears, a lot of embraces and sorrow, and life moved on for everyone but the woman and the man. They faced a challenge now in their married life that they never expected, and certainly not this soon, still in their newlywed phase. The woman had no idea that she could cry so much, that she could experience such a pain within her heart. She learned to move, stepping one foot in front of the other and exploring her new normal, but the pain within her clenched hard and left her in agony. She leaned on the man, and he leaned on her and the life that they’d started together sometimes slowed down a lot in those moments, shoulder to shoulder, fending off a world that had turned hard and raw. They tried to remember all the good in their lives; the beautiful home, the love between them, the young man who was growing in front of their eyes. But she learned how deeply she could miss someone she’d never even met. She learned to smile when someone announced they were expecting. She learned a lot of things, like how hard God cried along with her, how to lean on Him, her faith and her need to move forward despite the desire within to simply lay down and never stir from that spot.
But moving forward was agony, and it was slow and for so long it felt like the happiness would never return.
So finally, the most painful part of this season passed, but now almost 8 years later, it isn’t gone. It never will be; it still simmers below the surface of her heart. But the love, the one that started on that mild August day, in 2002, with hand holding, the shouting children and the cake and celebration, it’s strong and powerful and seems to get better with every year that passes. The woman feels the inevitable ups and downs of sharing a life, a home and everything with the man, but knows that the hardest peak they’ve ever had to climb came early, a journey that was so difficult and treacherous that they learned quickly how to lean on each other, how to guide each other through, how to survive against what very well might have been an insurmountable sorrow. The man still grasps her hands when she needs the support, his embrace is still warm and soothing. And on occasion when the inevitable pain of loss rises to the surface of her heart, she can turn to him and whisper ‘I miss our babies so much’ and he knows that all she wants is her shoulders drawn to him in silent understanding. The happiness has returned, but tarnished in too many spots that will never again feel shiny and new and full of promise.
And on Valentine’s Day, this kind of love is the only thing she needs. ‘Happily Ever After’ was suspect from the start and really, it only exists in stories of impossibly perfect people with straight white teeth, but what comes in real life is actually much better, far deeper, more powerful and with meaning that dashes the perfection of fairy tales to bits. She learned that happiness comes when the pain is hardest, even when you can’t see or feel it, when the only tether you have to life is a hand in the darkness. Happiness is never found in some box of chocolate, or a special dinner or a frilly card with a red heart, but in the blood and guts of life, of a real, honest, and hard life, the life that forms after the bomb drops and the smoke clears. Because this kind of love isn’t celebrated only once a year; it’s a feeling worthy of a daily toast, a celebration every night with a kiss before sleeping and the assured grip of warm comforting hands on the rough seas.