My mother died nearly 30 years ago. The anniversary of her death and the brief series of events frozen in time leading up to that moment haunts me every year. Her passing was a sudden and total surprise that confronted me one warm spring evening when I was 20 and away at college.
10 years ago I wrote an essay about that day and what I felt. I never shared it.
The huge age gap between my mother and me was always evident. She had me at 45. I always knew she was much older than the other moms – I’m sure that would bother her if she knew I felt that – but not so old that she would die before I was fully grown and on my own. Don’t ask me for a definition of grown. I had assumed she would be around for my wedding and the birth of my kids and pass on at a ripe old age when I myself was much older. My being grown up and her dying was so far off in the distance, it never once crossed my mind. So her sudden death was shocking, yet it really shouldn’t have been. Many of her siblings had already died young. I should have thought about the odds, the risk of it happening, but I suppose that’s the ignorance of youth…
Over time I subsequently came to learn it’s a major shock to the system for pretty much everyone when their mother dies, no matter the circumstances, no matter the age of the parent or child. There are few relationships as monumental as that, of parent and child. So my story isn’t all that special, really. It’s just part of my life story.
I don’t know, I guess I thought my circumstances were different. Mom was so much older than me, and my older siblings were of another generation altogether. I was the baby of the family by far, my parents’ 20th anniversary surprise: along for the ride for many years, but not a highly contributing or significant member of the family. My family of origin didn’t converse much, certainly not parent to child and I suppose due to our age differences, not really sibling to sibling either, at least that was my experience growing up. We never talked about feelings.
No, the communication dynamic in my family growing up was pragmatic and direct. You were scolded if you said or did something wrong, and that was mostly it. You quickly learned that keeping quiet was better than saying anything. Because of this I had some difficulty communicating and connecting with my feelings as a child, as a teen, and as an adult. I kept to myself and became a deep thinker.
To make matters worse, Mom and I had a difficult relationship when I was a teenager. Our generational differences felt extreme. My parents were very conservative, and actually so was I but they didn’t see me that way. I didn’t really fight with anyone in life but I fought with Mom daily for the better part of seven years. Only in the last six months of our lives together did the ice begin to melt. I say “together” figuratively because being away at college seemed to help mend our relationship.
Thanks to Aunt Nancy, I was given a diary as a young girl, so I kept a journal from about age 9 through my late twenties or so. It is so painful to read the early volumes now. Painful to read the stilted thoughts running through my head and the situations I was dealing with. Painful to know I didn’t have anyone to turn to to process any of it or that I should go find people or places to talk. My parents didn’t know they were fostering that kind of home or that it had real consequences on me. Don’t get me wrong: I know they did the best they could. It seems their beliefs were not unusual for their generation, education and soci-economic class. Nevertheless, this the family I was born into and it was a very tough time growing up.
Through the years and perhaps because my mother died, I slowly learned to connect with my emotions, process them, move beyond them. I did this all on my own, by reading my journals years later. Over years I learned words to describe my emotions. I learned to share them, say them out loud. And with this expression comes healing, a dialogue and perspective, something I crave to this day.
So I wrote this essay about my mother’s death 20 years after the fact, and for the longest time, I had a need to share it yet I never did.
At first I thought about posting it to this new online community called Facebook, since I had some friends on there at the time who were very good at connecting and commenting on my writing but two things held me back.
One, I feared that my sisters would freak out over me sharing intimate details about our family story. I don’t characterize anyone poorly in the essay, at least I don’t think I do, but what I wrote is most certainly intimate. My sisters are far more private individuals. Maybe they prefer to keep this memory to themselves or feel no need to share their feelings because they had a spouse to help them through it. Maybe they simply never felt the need as I do to sort through their feelings then or now. Maybe they strongly prefer to forget the events of the time. In the nearly 30 years since it happened, the subject of Mom’s death doesn’t come up, ever.
But me, at that time? I didn’t have a spouse or a boyfriend to talk to. I didn’t marry for another 14 years to come, even though I had a smattering of serious boyfriends up until then. Even my long-term roommate at the time was emotionally unavailable. And unless you want to scare people off, you just don’t randomly open up about this stuff with strangers. Therapy didn’t occur to me as an option because it wasn’t like I couldn’t function. I graduated school without missing a beat, held and thrived in a professional job. I functioned just fine, I just wanted to be known. I needed to grieve. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to keep something like that bottled up for 20 years? This event, this monumentally life-changing event for me? Well…I wanted someone to know what it was like.
And mind you this is just one small example of the events that have shaped me.
So I put words to paper in an attempt to explain what it was like. Being unmarried, I didn’t understand the point of my life without sharing what it was like to lose my mom. You’ve heard the saying: if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If a life-altering event happens to someone but there is no one to witness it, did it happen at all?
That makes me sad. It makes me feel just as alone today as it did then.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve told the story to my husband, but for whatever reason that didn’t give me closure. It’s not his fault. It’s not his problem, it’s mine. He actually cares a great deal about me and can relate to this story quite well as he himself lost his father when he was young. But in the verbal retelling of my story to him, I may have glossed over details that are nevertheless important to me. It’s not like he knows those details well enough that he’ll retell it to our kids one day. No, me telling him that story was temporal. It was shared for the moment and nothing more.
That isn’t enough. It’s still as if I desperately want somebody to go back in time to April 1988 and stand with me while it was happening and to be there for the grieving that followed. I never had that.
I can’t help but think of other people who never had that either. It’s an endless, gaping, invisible wound that some of us walk around with.
The second thing holding me back from sharing was my husband’s opinion that my story was far too intimate and valuable for Facebook; sharing it there would be TMI and cheapen the event. I had to agree with him: nothing about my mother’s passing is cheap or sensational.
Yet I’m struggling with this idea that what I wrote could be too personal. Yes, people can and do share yucky, too-much-information detail that can be ugly and vicious….but that isn’t my story at all. And it isn’t like I’m going to send my story to a magazine and get it published as that feels exploitive. Neither am I blogging for the sole purpose of sharing this one story. Facebook seemed like a logical forum several years ago because I knew that my close friends would comment and help me through it, and the possibility was that even an acquaintance might have just the right thing to say, some insight to share, and I would feel less alone.
That essay I penned nearly 10 years ago is lost somewhere in my house, and life has gotten in the way since then. The need to share feels slightly less acute than it once did.
Never mind what was written: the actual story is really what is at stake. Will my kids ever know what it was like for me, will it resonate with them? They’re way too young to understand it now. Maybe when they’re in their 30s they’ll be old enough to recognize me at that time as just another human on this planet dealing with life the same as they do…when they recognize me to know no more or less than they do…when they realize we truly are peers in the big scheme of things. Maybe they will want to know my story then.
What if that day never comes? What if I don’t live long enough to tell it to them then? What if they never ask?
My husband recognizes that I have a need to share on a deep level that he simply doesn’t have, that most people don’t have. But when you dig deep into someone’s life, you discover their humanity, what makes them tick. That’s the stuff that intrigues me. I can’t handle small talk. I’d rather talk about deep, mystical, life-changing events.
But my husband the musician also told me years ago that you don’t choose your art – it chooses you. Your art is the stuff you are compelled to create….and it may not be all sunshine and flowers and butterflies. It may not be the things people love, but you just might find a small intersection of people with whom your art reverberates.
So here I am, sharing without really sharing. That’s about as satisfying as you might imagine for someone like me. I have a right to share my story. It’s mine, after all, and no one else’s.
And I still really want to tell the story of what it was like when my Mom died. Whether I do, who knows?