"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.