The elevator door slid open to sterile hospital fluorescence. I’d waited on this floor already for five hours. I knew those lights. Funny how sterile can be a synonym for both “cleanliness” and “lifelessness.” Hospitals take pride in the former, avoid the latter. Funny that I can’t distinguish between the two. My brother stood on the other side of the door, waiting. “She didn’t make it.”
“You’re kidding,” I stammered, unwilling to grasp that he wasn’t. Only a half-hour ago the surgeon had said it went well. Thirty minutes before they assured me I could escape the tense waiting room and eat a relieved late lunch.
Keith looked annoyed. “I wouldn’t kid about something like that.” No. But it was death we were discussing here. No one knows what to say to death, least of all a 17-year-old kid who knows everything and nothing at all, who suddenly had all she really knew ripped away with four words. “She” was my mom. And she didn’t make it.
Mother’s Days were always red roses and crumbly breakfast in bed and surprises my mom probably didn’t love but was too loving to admit. Until, after that day, they weren’t.
After that, I grew up fast, worked my own way through college, fancied myself a mixture of Sinatra and Bogart’s bandit nemesis– “I did it my way and didn’t need no stinkin’ help.”
Emotionally, I performed a dance of simultaneous avoidance and wallowing. A complex feat of genius choreography or an oxymoronic mishmash, take your pick. I religiously evaded all card racks in May. I cried and talked and prayed when I felt like it, since no one ever explained to me a timetable for grief. Mission accomplished. Moving on.
I had no idea the tiles I set down wove a perfect mosaic of a common pattern. In her book Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman writes about patterns. Early loss of a mother creates patterns in her daughters, she tells us, which shape the ways we live and love beyond those first years. Patterns of yearning, fear, control, detachment – all hues in the picture of loss I wove blindly. Blindly until 27 years later, when the pattern became illuminated once again by a doctor’s glaring lights, and it was my turn to face the same surgery for the same disease. I decided, then, I didn’t like that pattern.
At fourteen, my mother lay in a tuberculosis sanitarium fighting for her life, while at home her mother died of kidney disease. Closely following came the deaths of her grandfather and then her brother in World War II. Her dad found a second wife–a woman who didn’t want stepchildren–and grew more distant. I don’t think Mom ever let herself become too attached to anyone after that. I know, now, she always lived with the assumption, more than the fear, that those she loved she would lose. I know, now, the attempts she made to control her children’s lives were attempts to make sure they never hurt as badly as she had. I know, now, that she never made plans for her “old age” because she never expected to be old. I know not because she ever got to tell me these things but because I almost did the same things.
Mother’s Day was great at my house yesterday. But it wasn’t always. There have been cycles of joy, love, loss, anger, and grief. I think that’s the case for all of us, or one day, it will be. While we must live those cycles, we don’t need to be controlled by them. We aren’t forced to conform to the patterns we learn early of distancing ourselves from the pain and people.
Joy comes in the morning—if we don’t run away from the things that bring joy, because those things can also bring hurt. Hurt is real, but fear doesn’t have to win. I hope the week ahead is joy-filled for you.
Have you had a painful response to Mother’s Day? I’d like to hear how you handle it.