I was a little girl with many fears. I place blame on these anxieties from watching images of the 1987 Challenger spaceship blowing up in the bright blue sky, metal fragments falling down towards earth like deflated fireworks.
After witnessing this iconic image, death was no longer an unused word located far off in the distance like it is for so many children. Death was now an actual action that could happen to a teacher selected for a prestigious spaceship mission or it could even happen to my own 2nd grade teacher.
Death was now possible for all the people I knew and loved. My biggest childhood fear was my family dying. At night, I imagined a bad guy standing outside the front of our house, lighting matches and letting them drop to the edge of our house. My dad termed me as his “worrywart” daughter. From an early age, I knew that I tended to agree with his definition.
The topic of death is uncomfortable.
My husband, Mike, and I moved earlier this summer. I went to Target half a dozen times to buy rugs and curtains because I tend to be overconfident when I eyeball measurements for window treatments. I don’t truly know how to read measuring tapes except for the bigger dashes. Why didn’t I pay attention more on ruler day in math class? Why am I too afraid to ask someone to explain it to me?
On one of these multiple trips to Target, I pushed my cart towards bathroom section. I spotted the Father’s Day display out of the corner of my eye. I mindlessly thumbed through greeting cards. After I read through a couple of messages, it hit me. Mike’s dad is dead. Papa Cole isn’t here anymore.
My husband and his brother lost their father on December 18th last year. We all knew it was coming, but nothing prepares you for craving to hear someone’s laugh again or wanting to share a story in their presence. These moments seem to strike when you’re driving home, wrapped up in memories and you realize your tears have turned into sobs.
I gazed at the poetic handwriting on the cards and I felt my throat tighten. My eyes started filling with tears. The fact remained, I wouldn’t need to buy a card for my husband’s dad this year or ever again.
Grief can strike us without warning.
I spent the rest of my shopping experience thinking about my mom. Annual, uninvited reminders from Hallmark must be tough on her. Over the past 11 years, my mom has lost everyone in her immediate family. Her mom died from pulmonary fibrosis in March of 2004, her only brother died from complications with MS in December of 2007, and her dad passed away from cancer in November of 2011.
I’ve given my husband unconditional love and support through his grieving process. Sometimes he needs space to open up about memories and other times he’s at peace with it and I need to back off.
I never gave my mom that kind of gentle support when she grieved for her family. Instead I judged her grief the way I judged her for most of my life.
I was in high school when her mom, my Mamaw, was diagnosed. Her mom was sick for 9 years before she passed away. As the years dragged on and the sickness continued to worsen, my fears about my grandmother dying subsided and my sensitivity became clouded with resentment. I was uncomfortable with her vulnerability. I built up a wall around my mom’s prolonged grief. Would she just stop it already?
Overtime, I grew complacent about her family members. Our family had been stationed at various air force bases for the entirety of my young life. I felt close to my grandparents but I barely knew my Uncle. The distance had shielded me from the realities of their health. I opted out of updates because they never got better and I didn’t know what to say. I felt helpless when I saw my mom upset from the sadness and exhaustion brought on by caretaking.
For years, decades in fact, I stayed caught up in a mean streak with my mom.
I judged her life choices, I compared my body to hers and I felt jealously for marrying young while I was single for over a decade. I was envious of her little frame while I had to experience the pain of being giant compared to my girlfriends. I was angry with her for being a stay-at-home mom while I had to work at a grueling pace in a career I didn’t love in order to stay ahead.
When I wasn’t criticizing her with hints of nastiness and underlying combative tones, I was reacting to her existence with a huge chip on my shoulder. I couldn’t see past my own unhappiness to recognize that I was lashing out at all the parts of her that make her human.
My mom has seen plenty parts that make me human too. She’s witnessed my bouts of sadness, my unbridled wrath and the times where I’ve lost my sparkle. I’m usually at my heaviest weight when I’ve fallen. She’s the one that gives me the pep talk on the right day that I’m vulnerable enough to tell her I’m unhappy. We get real again. I’m comforted by her cheerleading.
During those honest conversations, she sometimes said, “A mother can only be as happy as her most unhappy child.” If a mother tries to maintain a close relationship with her most unhappy child, like my mom did with me, these mothers will be their daughter’s whipping boys.
I made her suffer through all of my frustrations and pain. If I’m not going to be happy, she certainly isn’t either. I didn’t do any of this on purpose. I was so removed from that dark side of myself that I never saw our heated arguments as my fault. There was always a reason to blame her for my harsh words.
I could never figure out why I chose to give her a hard time instead of being easy on her. Our relationship is known in the family as being dynamic. I’m the baby, the last daughter to be married and the oldest woman to be married in our family’s history. My mom and dad have been “my people” far longer than most 36 year-old women. I was attached to giving her a hard time since I wasn’t sharing my life with anyone and I was living in guilt, fear and shame from my body shame and food secrets.
In moments of disappointment, I remember her telling me, “You’re kinder to your friends than you are to me.” Most times I couldn’t argue her point. I made her feel terrible for not following through with things whereas I let my friends of the hook without much afterthought. What is my problem? Why am I like this with her?
I refused to support her grief. At the time, I saw her grief as a weakness because I was good at hating all of my own weaknesses. She’s being a baby. She’s being a wuss.
Every time she showed a little too much sadness and I wasn’t up for it, I let her know. Instead of continuing to listen with a loving ear, I’d change the subject or pacify her to make it stop. I felt ashamed when she brought up their death dates and birthdates. Am I supposed to remember all these dates? Is she mad at me for forgetting? I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I felt ashamed for not keeping up with these moments. I felt like she was disappointed in me for not keeping track. Here we go again. After her father, Pappaw transitioned, whenever my mom teared up from her memories, I felt that childish part of me screaming in my head for her to stop. Please don’t cry about this… again. I hated myself for even thinking it. I hadn’t yet started my eating disorder recovery and my relationship with my mom was still surrounded by unspoken feelings and unhealed hurts.
Two years after Pappaw’s passing, I started meeting weekly with a therapist to talk about my eating disorder. I began looking at my relationships with a macro perspective. I learned to pay attention to what set me off instead of acting on it. I caught myself being triggered by my mom’s sadness and I realized how ashamed I was by my behavior. What is wrong with me? Why can’t she cry? Why am I not letting her grieve?
Once I started healing my heart, the relationship with my mom began to shift. The more I began to love myself, the more I was able to take ownership of my meanness. The admission of my imperfections as a daughter allowed her to own up to her imperfections as a mother. Telling her how I felt was no longer scary. I knew we could talk through anything.
I told her I was sorry for putting conditions on her grief.
The healing power of mourning was lost on me because I didn’t know how to hold space for that kind of vulnerability. I hadn’t known how to love my mom unconditionally, the way a mother loves her children because I didn’t love myself unconditionally. We’ve been opening up and sharing our feelings with each other more than we ever have before.
This is the beginning of our new, authentic relationship.
Part of being close with people means practicing the full spectrum of all our emotions, not just the pleasant ones. We will love and disagree with each other for the rest of our lives, the difference is that my mom and I will continue to practice hearing each other out, even the parts that hurt. No more flight or fight, but an actual conversation that allows room for real feelings.
Last month, I went to a Celebration of Life event to support my sweet friend, Sarah. Her mother, Kate recently transitioned. She had undergone brain surgery and passed away from complications.
As I walked the two long blocks towards Swallow Hill, I saw massive amounts of guests flood into the venue for the service. Kate had been an outstanding leader, school principal and educator. The venue was packed to the brim by the time I sat down a few rows back from the stage.
I saw my friend at the bottom of the stage and my heart filled up with the magnitude of her loss. I watched her, an only child, greet dozens of friends and family members. It was a day where everyone wants to hug you for a long time and as much as you crave the touch, you can’t bear the commitment.
I watched her expressions change from acknowledgment, to gratitude, to sadness, to grief. Repeat.
My heart melted. You are so brave friend, you are so strong.
I thought about the relationship I’ve shared with my mother and the relationship Sarah celebrated in front of a thousand or more supporters. We laughed, we listened and we cried each time someone stepped onstage to share an anecdote about the richness of Kate’s life experiences.
I thought about the love my friend had for her mom. I was thankful to know that when I go or when my mom goes, I will know our hearts were aligned too.