A Grief-Stricken Son Survives, Grows After Mother’s Death
Six hours after my mother died of lung cancer at age 57, I drove across town with my brother and sister to see her mother, who, at 91, had just lost the second of her six children.
As I walked through the front door of the house where my grandmother lived with her other daughter--now her only daughter--I could see into the dining room, where the two sat at a table stacked with dust-covered photo albums. I stood at a distance, watching my grandmother leaf through the crackling yellowed pages of each book.
“There,” my aunt said, her finger coming to rest on an old print. “There’s Mary Julia.” Grandmom leaned forward and squinted. “Let me see,” she said, pulling the album closer and examining the photo of a small child.
“Yes,” she said, after a pause. “That’s her.”
I thought I would shrivel up and blow away, there in the Philadelphia house my mother knew as home. I didn’t know what sadness was until that afternoon. Telling my Dad in the morning that the doctor had called and said Mom was gone was bad enough. This quiet scene of restrained grief was worse. This made it real.
In six hours, my mother had gone from someone to something. Mary Julia was no longer a person. She was a memory.
A few weeks later, back in my own Tennessee town, I sat having dinner at a restaurant with a friend. As we ate, I overheard a conversation in the booth behind us. A man was talking to his friends about a death in his family. “God,” the stranger said, “It’s been five years.”
Five years, I remember thinking after hearing him. Five years. . . . I’ll be 32. I’ll never, ever make it.
In the time since then, I’ve thought a lot about that man. I wanted to know how he made it, so that I could know how I could make it.
Not long after the funeral, I had seen “Bright Lights, Big City,” a movie about a man like me in his late 20s who, among other things, was coping with his mother’s recent cancer-related death.
In one scene, the guy, played by Michael J. Fox, phones his girlfriend late at night.
“Is something wrong?” she asks, half-asleep.
“I just wanted to let you know my mother died.”
“God. I didn’t know,” came the shocked response. “When?”
“A year ago.”
The exchange got a few chuckles for some reason. But not from me. I felt alone with the man on the screen. I knew how he felt. His mother, long buried, was still dying.
In the time since my mother’s death, I have, as a writer, felt similarly stymied by grief. I’ve made repeated efforts to write about it--to straighten it out, I suppose--because that’s what writers do. They make sense of things. But I dismissed every draft. There’d been no getting hold of these feelings.
In the time since my mother’s death, I have, as a man, felt shame. I’ve been afraid to cry, ashamed to miss my Mom. Men still don’t cry, it seems. Especially about their mothers. They feel in relation to their fathers. Look at Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” and Ted Danson in “Dad.” Or Michael Steadman in “thirtysomething.” They each poignantly faced the mortality of their fathers.
Their tears were allowed, but crying over a mother isn’t manly; it’s awkward. Maybe that explains the laughs in “Bright Lights, Big City.” I have gone to bed more than once angry at Kevin Costner after seeing his film, knowing he had permission to feel his loss and cry over it. (Count logic as one of the things grief consumes.)
Since my mother’s death, I have felt sadness. The recurring thought comes: My mother will never see the rest of the lives she gave her seven children. She’ll never know what becomes of me. On her last cogent day in the hospital--before the morphine, before the coma--she asked, “Do you think you’re going to stay in Tennessee?” I didn’t know how to answer. My mother wanted to know then and there how I thought I’d spend the rest of my life. Because she wouldn’t be around.
Since that time, I have felt guilt, too. Each day further from her question, each day further from her death, I have moved further away from her. I’ve left her behind. I don’t think about my mother all the time any more. Her death doesn’t begin and end my day’s thoughts. And I feel bad about that. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve abandoned her.
I have felt frustration and despair. I’ve wanted to talk about my loss, but its power and meaning have been lessened by words. All that comes of the experience is a story. And it’s a story that, if someone told to me, I’d listen and pay attention to--but would not feel. I haven’t wanted my pain to meet that fate. It means too much to me. So I keep it to myself.
Besides, for every detail about the death, for every description of the pain she felt and the horror we watched (“I’m not afraid of death, Jim; I’m afraid of dying”); for every mention of our soothing her dried and cracked lips with ice and ointment and of watching her body swell; for every reference to the eyes that never closed throughout a five-day coma--eyes that remained aimed at the hospital room door telling us to take her home to die; for every mention of her responding to us from inside that coma by releasing a tear down her face; for every mention of the bald head that saw dark roots returning; for every mention of sitting alone by her bed that final night and counting the seconds between her labored breaths and praying for just one more--for all of that, someone just as wounded has a tale to share that’s just as sad. And you feel your own story has been diminished.
I have felt confusion since my mother died, as well. On one particularly hard day, I was so panicked by the loss of my mother that I picked a fight at the office with a friend, my best friend. Moments later, I found myself locked in his office, apologizing to him. Crying to him. “I think I understand that she’s dead,” I said. “But I don’t understand how she is gone.”
That was the first year, the worst year. When every day is the first day apart.
But, in the time since my mother’s death, I have also felt thankful. She was supposed to have died nearly two years before she did, so we had extra time.
I have felt peace, as well. Peace that comes with perspective. Early on, I told someone that when she died, it seemed as though the ground shook, the Earth opened and only that which was important and sturdy was left standing. My mother stared at ceiling after ceiling during her final months, re-examining her life. I’m not certain she liked everything she saw. I have kept that image close to heart--knowing I want to like what I see when it’s my turn. “You’re going to be dead a long time,” she told us when we were young. “Make use of this time.” I started late, but I have.
Since that time, I have felt lucky. I got through something horrible in that hospital those final days. And I got through what came after. I did so chiefly with two pieces of advice. “There’s no right way or wrong way to grieve,” one friend told me. “There’s only your way.” Said another, who saw me struggling to restrain my anger and grief, “Don’t be afraid that you’re acting like a jerk. In the first place, you’re not. And in the second place, if you are, you have a right to be.”
The words and the friends helped more than they know. And the advice still applies today. I’ve come to accept grief as a black cloud that always hovers overhead, unloading its fury on its own timetable. Now I just ride out the storm.
Most of all--best of all--since the time of my mother’s death, I have felt alive.
In the note to the seven of us that we found after the funeral, she wrote, “If it’s possible to look at you from the next world, know that I will do so with love and prayers. . . . Be good to yourselves and kind to each other as the years go by.”
As the years go by. They have. In that time, my grandmother died at 94, 10 weeks after burying a third child. My sister married and gave birth to my mother’s first grandchild, another sister became engaged, my father moved from the family house and I sold my own house, quit my Tennessee job and started over in Los Angeles. It’s a nice new life that has its roots in her death.
Five years, I remember thinking. I’ll never, ever make it.
I recently turned 32. My mother’s dead more than five years. The anniversary has come and gone this year, and everyone else’s thoughts were on the events of 1992. Mine were on something else. Someone else.
I guess I have made it. I’ve lost and I’ve gained. The nightmares have ended. But I do miss my mother.
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