Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Birthday Wishes

"I think beginnings must have their own endings hidden inside them."
~~Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair

My mother was 42 when she died of breast cancer in 1994. The minister who spoke at her funeral was a man who never met my mother--a man, to my understanding, who had only recently moved to the area. My parents were never churchgoers and I can't remember now how it was decided that this man would preside over the services--was he recommended by the funeral home? Chosen because my mother had attended that church as a girl? Or because Nan had attended that church sporadically in recent years? Whatever the case, this man doubtless had good intentions and he struggled mightily to personalize his words.

I was in a daze at the funeral--stunned senseless by my mother's rapid decline, which occurred shortly after the birth of Daughter-Only. I was on a sleep-deprived, hormone-driven, postpartum roller coaster while trying to also manage the needs of the boys--ages 6, 4, and 3 at the time. In the weeks between Daughter-Only's birth and my mother's death, there had been countless hours spent in the nightmare realm of the ICU. Overwhelming in any case, but made all the more so by the onslaught of my mother's enormous side of the family--siblings and nieces and nephews, so many that the administration moved the few other patients from that floor to another floor and gave over the empty rooms for showers and sleep to my mother's extended family.

When it came to members of that family (many of whom had shown little positive interest in my mother while she was healthy), it was impossible for me to distinguish between genuine grief and perverse voyeurism, so I assumed they were all guilty of the latter and directed my considerable pain and anger in their direction, at least in my own head and heart. Outwardly, I ignored most of them completely unless spoken to directly and even then, I kept it short and mumbly, noncommittal, to discourage further contact.

At the funeral, I was surrounded by these family members, my head buzzing with not just weeks of unsaid things, but years, decades worth. It is perhaps forgivable then, that all I remember of the stranger minister's words was his remark that it was fortunate, maybe even predestined, that my mother and father had found one another at the ages of 15 and 17. My mother's unplanned pregnancy and subsequent marriage at such an absurdly tender age had turned out to be a blessing in disguise, hadn't it? She had had time to see her children safely into adulthood (Baby Brother, her youngest, was 20)--she had had twenty-six years with her husband.

He meant well--this bland-looking, soft-spoken total stranger standing near the casket, but just for a second, I wanted to scratch his sympathetic eyes out. He meant well, but I heard it all wrong.

I heard him trying to minimize our loss. I heard him diminish my mother's life--dismiss her desires outside of marriage and motherhood, deem her life complete because her youngest child had graduated high school and joined the military. That was surely not what the minister meant, but that was what I heard.

My mother died the day after my 26th birthday. What I understood that day in the funeral home, just in time to avoid scratching anyone's eyes out, was that of course this man had no way of knowing who or what my mother was besides a wife and mother. What I understand now, at 43, was the extent to which my mother was probably still trying to figure out who and what she was besides a wife and mother.

She devoted the entirety of her adulthood--and much of what should've been her adolescence--to being the best wife and mother she could be. Though she worked outside the home, she did so in a series of low-paying jobs, mostly in retail and mostly to supplement my father's military pay. While I'm sure there was a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing she was contributing financially to the family, I doubt that there was much in the way of personal fulfillment to be found in those jobs.

The only time she had for herself--with herself--was the bits and pieces at the edges of everyone else's needs. She was 42 and maybe still trying to figure out what--or even who--she wanted to be when she grew up.

My mother would've been 60 today. I think often about how much I wish I had had the chance to know her better. And I think, too, about how much I wish she had had the chance to know herself better as well.

That minister, whose name I never knew and whose face I only vaguely remember, was right about one thing--the fact that my mother started a family so early meant that we were blessed with more time with her than we might otherwise have had.

Still, it was not enough.

19 comments:

  1. Your mother sounds like an amazing selfless woman who loved her family. I'm really thankful that families are forever :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. So much to reflect back upon and such a tumultuous period of time. It does require that I pause, and ponder the fact that my own 89 year old mom recently relocated off of the mountain, where my brother and I have been sharing elder-care responsibilities since my dad passed in 1996. She is in Willits, about an hour away. In fact, JT and I are paying her a visit on Friday, JT coming from the south, and I from the north. Thanks for sharing a poignant vignette with us; it just points out the fact that we should appreciate what we have, before it slips away.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Enjoy your visit, Mark. It is wonderful that you all still have one another.

      Delete
  3. Powerful post, MM - 42 is amazingly young to die. What is the lesson for those of us remaining? Perhaps, as Mark said, appreciating what we have?
    That must have been a period of tremendous growth for you. To have small children (including a newborn) - your link to the future - and to lose your most immediate link to the past - all in the same breath - how confusing and unsettling.
    Thanks for taking the time to write about this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I look back on that time, a lot of it is something of a hazy jumble. Definitely a time of tremendous change and growth for our whole family. I mentioned my issue with being unable to "process" emotional stuff in a post a while back. I have a feeling there is an enormous amount of unprocessed stuff lying around back in those days.

      Delete
  4. It is sad that your mom's life was too short. The minister was so wrong about asking her children to feel grateful that she lived "long enough". You didn't have enough time with her to get to know her, the way you should have.
    Your children have a treasure with your blogs. Save them, print them, give them the gift of knowing you.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't know that it's ever 'enough'. I'm preparing a similar post for later this month, about my father who died at the age of 62, and I still feel as though that was far too soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One of the thoughts that was left in my head after I hit "publish" (and which is now part of the "Part 2"), is that it is never enough. Really, how can it be? We can intellectually understand that death is a part of life and that endings are built into beginnings, etc, etc, but I don't know that the heart ever really comes to terms with it.

      Delete
  6. Youngest SIster2/15/12, 3:21 PM

    Thanks for this. I was thinking about all of the details around the hospital and her funeral a lot this week. I'll always regret that we never got to be adults together. . . to meet on equal ground.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All of it comes and goes in my head and heart. I'm not sure if it was because this would've been a BIG birthday or if it's just because I'm still struggling with a funky (sort of stagnated) feeling about my own life, but it all seemed huge to me at the moment.

      Delete
  7. I can't imagine how you feel about losing your mom when both of you were so young. People do say things to the grieving that hurt, even with good intentions. Losing my dad in his eighties, some comments were, well, he had a good, long life. He did, but that doesn't mean we were through with him yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly, Melanie. I never doubted that the minister had good intentions, but...

      When people are in that raw state just after losing someone (regardless of the age or circumstances), it's practically impossible to say the "right" thing, I think. This is probably going to get me off on a mental tangent--I think we have this idea that grief (especially fresh grief) is something that can be "fixed" or "minimized" with the right words, when really, it can only be suffered through. And I think the most helpful thing is to acknowledge the griever's pain rather than to try to make them feel "better."

      Delete
  8. I had an intense awareness of the year I became older than my dad. I knew he was young when he died, but to my 4 year old self, he was a grown up man, Dad, husband, Superman. But, when I was that same age, I realized how young he really was. There is never enough time, but I'm going to savor every moment as it comes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have been struggling with this awareness for most of the past year--when I turned 43, I was acutely aware that I was now older than my mother would ever be. And the whole year I was 42, I felt a deeper sense of connection to who my mother was than I really have at any time since her death. It's kind of weird to me, because I didn't really expect it to happen the way that it did.

      Delete
  9. This post touches my heart in so many ways. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "The only time she had for herself- with herself- was the bits and pieces at the edges of everyone else's needs." You've summed up the truth of motherhood in that sentence.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Our mothers share a birthday.

    Thank you for sharing a bit of her with us.

    ReplyDelete