“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
There’s a stillness that descends on the hospital late at night, softening the harshness of bright lights and the sterility of hard floors. Sounds are muted and voices hushed. Sydney is the only patient in the sleep lab tonight located at the end of a long, empty corridor. It’s dark in her room but for a night light and the glowing dots of the medical devices hooked up to her. I shift uncomfortably in the reclining chair next to her bed and wonder how I’ll make it until morning when it occurs to me that my father-in-law spent more nights this way than I can count during the fourteen months of my mother-in-law’s battle with cancer. It also occurs to me that the last time I sat in the dark next to a hospital bed was with him, the night before she died.
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Sometimes I feel like a motherless child A long way from home
I’m going to lose my mother. It’s an inevitability I never used to think about. My grandmother, Katie lost her mother in 1920 when she was only seven years old. She was the second of five children and the oldest daughter. Separated by scarcely more than a year, the first three were born before her parents divorced. Her mother remarried and after a four-year gap, two more babies were born in quick succession. Katie’s stepfather moved the young family from the city to a rural farm in Wyoming when the littlest were two and one and her mother, Loretta, was eight months pregnant.
My Grammy wrote in her memoirs, “I remember snatches of my mother. It seemed she never sat down at the table because she was always waiting on we kids and Papa.” From my 21st century vantage point, I can only imagine how exhausting and laborious this 24-year-old mother’s life was, raising five small children on the prairie, without modern conveniences, while pregnant. Again. Before they were settled in the new homestead, Loretta’s sixth child was stillborn. Flooding prevented the doctor from reaching her, though we can’t know whether it would have made any difference. She became very ill in the days following but managed to send a letter to her mother, Tennie, saying the baby had died but she ‘supposed she’d be all right.’ Without the convenience of modern technology, that letter didn’t arrive until 2 weeks later, and on the same day as a different letter which carried the news that her daughter had died.
In Katie’s words, “. . . [they] took her to town in a spring wagon with a bed made in it. It was the last time I saw her alive. She said, ‘Goodbye kids. I’ll be back in a day or two.’ I had such an empty feeling. I went behind a tree and cried.”
I was 18 when I left home for the first time to attend college and I missed my mother, Patricia, deeply. A vocal music major, I sang with an elite a cappella choir. Every day at 1:00 pm we rehearsed, our voices painting tonal landscapes in which I lost myself. The eight-part harmonies of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” wrapped around me as the haunting melody, in a minor key, wept with visceral sorrow, expressing the universal loss; a child without its mother. I was reminded of my grandmother and how she was set adrift so young, alone in the world without an anchor to keep her safely harbored. I wondered, what happens to a girl when her mother dies before she’s become a woman herself. How does she know who to become? And who will show her who she already is? A mother shapes her daughter by simply being. Not nature verses nurture; the unfolding lies in both.
There is something profound in the biological connection between a mother and her daughter that transcends the quality of their relationship or the amount of time spent together. The genetic design that serves as a blueprint for the subsequent generation exists despite circumstance. Daughters can sculpt themselves, choosing how they manifest their best potential, but DNA maps their identity; the double helix provides the framework on which they build themselves. We emerge from those who come before us, carrying their pedigree within; there is no escaping our lineage.
At times, I’ll admit, this is the very thing I’ve rejected—the sameness. When face-to-face with the likeness, I balk and break away, accentuating my difference: I am my-SELF, not a copy of my mother and aunts and grandmother. And yet, at other times, I embrace my tribe with pride and solidarity; the familiarity claims me and I cannot deny my own belonging.
My life unfolded with similar patterns to my mother and grandmother. My grandmother was the eldest daughter. My mother was the eldest daughter. I am the eldest daughter. My grandmother had three daughters and one son, and her youngest, a daughter, was born when she was 40. My mother has three daughters and one son. Her youngest was a daughter, born when she was 40. I have three daughters and one son, and my youngest, a daughter, was born when I was 40. And we have more than numbers in common. We come from strong women; pioneer stock with do-it-yourself independence. We come from mental illness and trauma and divorce. We come from creativity, talent and passion, fiery tempers to match. We come from tender hearts and soft bodies and soothing hands.
I am my mother. I am not my mother. I want to be like my mother. I want to be nothing like my mother. All are true. And one truth remains superlative, no matter how old, we need our mothers; as babes and teenagers, as young mothers ourselves, as aging adults. To be nurtured and comforted, to be cherished and reassured; these are needs we do not grow out of. The simple presence of one’s mother on the planet provides the possibility of a light in the darkness. And regardless of conflict or resolution, intimacy or estrangement, issues past or present, in the end, forgiveness clears the space for only love to remain.
When Katie neared the end of her life she said to her daughter, “When I can’t live alone, will you come and get me?” And Patricia–my mother–did. Instrumental in the sacred metamorphosis, she gently ushering her mother out of the world, just as her mother did, bringing her into the world.
It’s nearing the end of my mother’s life and the loss has already begun; the grief is nudging me, whispering. A mother’s first instinct is to shield her child from pain, but she cannot shield them from the pain of her own death, try as she might. I’m going to lose my mother, and soon, yet I feel the stirrings of my ancestry lending me strength. I sense the circle of grandmothers bringing me peace. Tennie, mother of Loretta; Loretta, mother of Katie; Katie, mother of Patricia; Patricia, mother of Lisa; we are linked, one to the next, and an unspoken knowledge pulses between us: a mother cannot be lost. She is connected to her children forever. Wherever we go, we carry our mothers with us and we are never far from home.
My youngest shouts this over the top of Katy Perry’s “Roar” playing on the radio as I’m dodging traffic on Providence Road, trying to get to gymnastics. I shouldn’t be surprised that questions of this magnitude frequently come from the back seat of the minivan. Questions like, “Why can’t gay people get married?” or, “Are you a Christian, Mom?” or, “What does it mean, ‘I’ve got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it?’” We spend a large quantity of our time in transit; it makes sense that life lessons are dispensed there.
“Some of my friends are saying it’s just your parents who put the presents under the tree,” Haley yells.
I turn down the volume and glance in my rearview mirror. So, I sigh, it’s begun.
“Hmm, they are?” Buying some time, I ask, “What do you think?”
Haley noticed a few years back that not all Santas are created equal. It wasn’t the Halloween-grade red suits, or even the slip-on shoe covers in lieu of black leather boots. No, it was the beard. Perfectly groomed white facial hair with a slit for the mouth signaled fake. Luckily, she accepted the explanation that Santa needs helpers around the world, and while they aren’t the real Santa they are bona fide representatives sanctioned by the Master Elf himself.
When the subject of Santa sightings came up with her younger cousins — so many Santas, so little time — she bragged, “I’ve seen the real Santa,” as in, “you just think you have.”
“At Bass Pro, in Columbia,” she clarified.
Wide-eyed, her spellbound audience gasped, “But, how do you know it’s him?”
“Well,” her eyes darted up to the left, “he’s pretty old, kinda fat and his beard is dusty and oldish. He’s the real one.”
This year, however, we’re skating on thin ice. At 10, her analytical ability and attention to detail are developing at an alarming pace. And she’s getting curious.
“I think that if there is really no Santa Claus and if parents buy the presents and put them under the tree themselves, that would mean that you and Dad are doing it, too, and all of these years you’re doing it, then you are LYING to the kids. Would you lie to me, Mom!?”
Curious and savvy. Case-in-point: The current question — brutal in its honesty — is almost impossible to answer.
Sydney still believes, though at 14 she’s surrounded by peers who’ve long since traded the childish story for a “nobody believes that” attitude, cue eye-roll. But because of Down syndrome, like many developmental phases, she will get there when her little sister does, and Haley isn’t in a hurry to grow up. Maybe it’s her role as baby of the family, but she’s made a conscious decision to stay arrested: She refused to potty-train until 3, and no amount of pleading would coerce her to ditch the diapers. She hung on to her pacifier until 4, hauled her booster chair out of the trash at 7 and to this day lapses into baby talk.
But, as anxious as I’ve been for her to progress, I’m not ready for this childhood rite of passage. Her innocence is adorable; Christmas seen through her eyes becomes new again for us as her parents. The year she was in second grade, she hung a tiny stocking next to her regular one with a note that read: “Merry Christmas, Santa Claus! I love you! This is mine too, Haley Kent! Shign if yove been here!” (sic) At the bottom she penciled two boxes to choose from: “Been here” and “not been here.”
Perpetuating the magic for my girls takes me back to my own childhood, revisiting my father’s firsthand account of seeing Santa. My brother and sister and I would beg to hear the tale: In the wee hours of Christmas morning, when everyone else was sleeping, he heard sleigh bells and looked up just in time to spy Santa’s sleigh flying away. The fantastical vision of my dad as a freckle-faced farm kid, leaning out an attic window into the cold night air, gazing into a starry sky and seeing something so rare, made me shiver with delight and more than a little envy.
He solidified our confidence by staging a Christmas morning I’ll never forget. Rushing into the living room before dawn, utter amazement stopped us in our tracks. There, on the shag carpeting before us, large foot prints walked directly out of the fireplace and to each present laid out on display; for me, it was a Crissy doll, with long red hair that grew from the top of her head when her belly button was pushed — exactly what I’d asked for.
And my dad isn’t the only father (or grandfather) committed to creating wonderful memories for their kids. In the Kent family, Santa has made several appearances. Announced by approaching jingle bells, he’d enter with a “Ho, ho, ho, Meeeeerrrrrry Christmas!” and a bag of presents on his back. The kids were fascinated by this special, home visit.
One year Santa made a substantial impression on our youngest. Spending time with each, he welcomed the children to sit on his lap, even the teenagers. Shy, she hung back, but in a big booming voice he said, “Haley, come sit,” slapping his thigh. “Ho, ho, ho. Have you been a good girl this year?”
Ducking her head she answered, yes, she’d been good. She hugged his furry neck and thanked him politely. Then, present in hand, she hopped down and hurried to her daddy, whispering ecstatically, “He remembered my name!”
It never gets old. The excitement never wears thin. And the kids never make the connection that PaPa is nowhere to be found during Santa’s visit.
“PaPa, where did you go? Santa was just here!”
“He was?! Well, Jim-ah-nee! I go downstairs to get a beer and I miss everything.”
My husband, too, loves to see his daughters enthralled with the wonder of the season and is not above artful manipulation. One Christmas morning, he called urgently, “Girls, come see this!” In footie pajamas they padded across the floor. Peering through the cold glass of the patio door they saw, lying on the deck, under a dusting of snowfall from sometime during the night, a pile of reindeer droppings, a tell-tale sign that Santa — and his reindeer — had indeed been there. And yet another example of what a father will do for his children.
“Is Santa real?” my children want to know. As they face this inevitable epiphany, my hope is they won’t outgrow their belief in the mystical, but will see the spirit of Santa in the ones they love, and everyone around them, if they look closely. And most importantly, it can always be found within them. It isn’t in the goods. It’s not about the stuff: the loot they stockpile, the stack of toys guaranteed to be broken by New Year’s.
In fact, the risk of greediness arising from a Christmas morning piled high in crumpled wrapping paper threatens more disillusionment than questioning Santa’s existence. What I want my girls to get is that the celebration of Christmas — Santa Claus and his jet-setting reindeer delivering presents on one night of global magic, or the miraculous birth of a baby long ago under a star followed by wise men from far away bringing precious gifts, or both — is not about the gifts themselves, but the connection between the giver and the receiver. It’s about the exchange of love and the phenomenon of belonging to each other.
The most magical Christmas memory I have is of the night before, when I was in second grade. I’d woken up and tiptoed down the hall. Afraid I’d be in big trouble if discovered, I peeked stealthily around the corner into the living room. It wasn’t Santa that I saw, but my parents, sitting on the couch together in the dark, the twinkling lights of the tree casting a glow, soft music playing on the stereo turntable. Unseen, I watched, mesmerized. The very air was enchanted. I can still remember the voices of the Ray Conniff Singers:
“And when you’re giving your presents, don’t forget as you give them away, that the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love every day.”
Their heads turned at the same time, but instead of shooing me back to bed, they motioned me over, making room between them and handing me a mug of hot chocolate; my mom on one side, my dad on the other. Time stopped. Pure love surrounded me. I believed.
“So, I guess you have to decide, Haley Bug.” I offer this to my daughter by way of an answer.
“Well, my friends say, ‘You don’t still believe in Santa, do you?’ and I just go with the flow and say no so they won’t make fun of me, even though I really do believe.”
Saddened that she needs to protect herself from peer pressure, I’m nonetheless touched that her child-like outlook prevails, at least for one more year.
“But, I have a plan. This year? When we go to Bass Pro? I’m going to whisper in Santa’s ear, ‘Are you the real Santa?’ What do you think he’ll say, Mom?”
I smile, “I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe he’ll say, ‘Do you think I’m the real Santa?’”
“Hmm. I think he is. Besides, another reason I know? Last year you two were exhausted and I know there’s no way you could do all that in one night.”
Before moving to Columbia, Missouri, spring break meant a week off school to hang around the house and catch up on projects. I soon learned this is not the case in the Midwest. In CoMo, it’s ‘hasta la vista, baby,’ and everybody gets outta dodge. Headed to prime vacation destinations like Florida and Mexico (the country, not the city in Missourah, population 11,543), people lay out the big bucks. And they take their kids with them.
For eight years I didn’t get it. An Arizona girl transplanted to Texas, I never felt the need to migrate to warmer climates; I already lived there. But, by adopting the Show-Me state as my new home, I’ve been reacquainted with the seasons, and after this particular year – the year of the interminable winter in which the world descended into an icy kind of hell, a frozen apocalypse with subzero temperatures, biting winds, ice storms and snow day upon snow day upon snow day – I got it.
“I’m so cold! I haven’t been warm in months,” I said to my friend Jane in Phoenix, who at that moment was sitting on her patio shaded by palm trees, enjoying a perfect 75 degrees. “I can’t wait to feel the sun on my face again.”
I pictured myself lying on soft sand, nearly lifeless, basking in the golden rays like a reptile sunning on a rock.
“You’re going to be gone how long?” she asked.
“Nine days. Granted, it’s four long days of driving, but five full days of camping right across from the beach. South Padre, baby. Kicking back at the KOA!”
In my mind’s eye I can see us in our little home away from home: a green sturdy mat to cover the ground outside the trailer, an awning to create a cozy space lined with Little Japanese lanterns that cast a soft glow, music resonating from outdoor speakers. The girls riding their bikes. Steven at the grill, searing steaks, enjoying a beer. Me, reclined in a comfy camping chair, feet up, wine glass in hand.
“All I’m going to do is relax.” I said, “And, Steven’s taking his kayak so he can fish. It’ll be so good for him.”
A nature lover, my husband is most at peace on a lake, river or ocean, casting his reel. It’s his meditation, his sacred communion.
“And it’ll be good for you.” Jane said. “You guys both need this after everything you’ve been through.”
Stress is a buzzword that’s become cliché in our fast-paced culture, but ‘this’ year has been even more intense for us than normal. A lot of travel, the girls’ medical and educational issues, my job, Steven’s job, our new grandbaby’s heart surgery . . . well, nothing has been routine for awhile.
And then there’s Mom’s death.
“It’s been six months already,” I said, disbelief in my voice.
Our grief cycles as we learn to live without her; it’s been hard, but more and more the sadness is imbued with vitality and getting away to enjoy each other is a significant part of that healing process.
“So, we’re going,” I exclaimed. “All the way to the coast!”
Jane celebrated with me over the phone, “I’m happy for you guys. You really deserve this.”
Steven brought the RV out of hibernation, cleaning and repairing and stocking, and making sure his 4WD truck was tow-worthy. Ever the über-boyscout, my mate impresses me with his thoroughness, making lists and spending hours following through with his plans which this time included detailed preparations for salt water fishing. He loaded his kayak atop the roof of the Super Duty. Protruding over the hood, the end rested on a carrier attached at the grill, forming a visor that framed our view as we headed south on a 1,200 mile trek in search of fun in the sun.
Everyone in their places, we drove; over 22 hours, but we made it, full of anticipation and ready for anything. Anything, except what we got.
After all that, the weather did not hold up its end of the bargain. In fact, the elements conspired to create the antithesis of perfect weather. Warm temperatures were nowhere to be found; we wore jeans instead of shorts and jackets rather than short sleeves. At night every blanket was put to use until we broke down and turned on the heat. All day, the sun hid, obliterated by cloud-cover, casting a gloomy pall. Thunderstorms shook the trailer and gales of wind blew day and night, snatching the door out of our hands and slamming it against the side of the RV, whipping up everything in its path, even extinguishing the flame on the BBQ grill. We retracted the awning and stayed inside.
We were not happy campers.
On the morning of the fourth day, I lay in bed listening to the sound of a downpour – rain dancing with tap shoes on the roof of the trailer – and had a conversation with the petulant teenager who lives inside me.
‘Let it go, Lisa. You’re ruining your own vacation.’
‘But, this isn’t the vacation I ordered. This is not the vacation I NEEDED!’
‘The girls are handling it better than you.’
They were such troopers. Sydney’s ability to go with the flow has always amazed me. And even Haley wasn’t complaining, finding other things to do. But hanging out inside our RV wasn’t what we planned.
‘This weather sucks. This totally sucks.’
‘You’re still spending time together as a family.’
‘Three miles shy of Mexico, for the love of Mike! We came all this way to get out of the cold.’
‘Lisa, shhhhhh. Let it go.’
Cue music: the infamous melody from Frozen rang through my brain, “Let it go! Let it go!” a counter to my stubborn argument. Tenacity and perseverance have gotten me a long way, but this time, a white-knuckled grip on my expectations was not serving me well.
Later that day we passed the time browsing a few touristy gift shops with their shelves of souvenir shot glasses and cheap jewelry, bins of shells and painted starfish and rows of campy T-shirts and hats.
Haley hollered at me a few aisles over, “Mom, look!”
Rounding the corner, she held up a shirt, excited to show me the writing on the front.
“Read it!” she insisted, grinning ear to ear like a little Cheshire cat.
So I read.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Yep. That’s what it said.
Haley beamed at me as if she’d discovered the meaning of life (and maybe she had). “I’ve never seen this on a shirt before. Isn’t that cool?” she asked.
Pretty cool,” I said.
Um, hello? A personal message from the universe, you think? Let. It. Go.
I looked at the past few days through this lens. I didn’t lounge lazily in the hammock like I wanted, but I did cuddle up with my girls to watch movies. I didn’t play catch with Sydney using those little Velcro mitts, but we did play Candy Land and Go Fish, much to her delight. Steven and Haley didn’t take their father-daughter fishing excursion (in fact, Dad’s kayak never even touched the water), but, on a nature walk they did find a fantastic creature called a sea hare. And as a family, we ate delicious seafood at a very cute restaurant on the pier, (while wearing pirate hats), and visited Allison at the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, an old sea turtle with only one fin, who wears a prosthesis and stars in a documentary.
Then, on the last day, the clouds evaporated and the glorious sun shone bright, warming the air as the winds calmed. The spring break paradise we’d been longing for suddenly materialized. Gathering our gear post haste, we headed to the beach and I lay supine in the sun, eyes closed, drinking in the radiant heat, reptilian instincts satisfied. Haley surfed on her boogie board, Sydney dug in the sand and Steven combed the beach. Bittersweet. We finally got a taste of what we came for.
“Mom, I don’t want to leave,” Haley said. “The sun just came out.”
Sydney said, “But, I miss my friends.”
I understood the sentiments of both my girls. Incredibly grateful for one gorgeous day, I was, nonetheless, disappointed that we didn’t have more. But, I had finally let it go and was ready to go home.
I’m recovering now, adjusting to the discrepancy between what was hoped for and what was. As I contemplate my resistance to (okay, my utter rejection of) accepting the things I could not change, I had to wonder why was I so terribly disheartened? Life happens; C’est la vie and all that, right? But, there was too much riding on the trip; it absolutely had be renewing and rejuvenating. Desperate for rest, we knew it would be a long time before we could commit this kind of time, money and effort to another lengthy sabbatical.
The life lesson comes in not only leaning into the acceptance piece, but embracing the courage piece; the courage to change the things I can. Moving forward, I can create time and space in my busy life for recreation before the need becomes critical. I can infuse my daily routine with all the good things life has to offer, seizing opportunities for joy whenever they present themselves – who said I have to wait? Using my hard-won wisdom, I can sort out the difference. I can have . . . Serenity Now!
One love, one blood, one life. You got to do what you should. One life with each other, Sisters and Brothers. One life, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.
She doesn’t even know them. Not personally, anyway. Connected by three degrees of separation, she’s a friend of a neighbor of the family, this mom, dad and two sons, leading ordinary lives until a few weeks ago when their world was up-ended when the youngest brother received a shocking diagnosis: Stage 4 Medulloblastoma. She doesn’t know them, but no matter. She, too, is a mother, and that’s enough. Today she’ll shave her head for an 8-year-old boy she’s never met.
Movie-star gorgeous, sitting tall and poised, her hands shake in her lap. She is prepared to be rendered hair-less. Bald. A statement of undeniable solidarity. Long, silky tresses gathered into ponytails sprout from her head, Medusa-like. Her gift is a double offering as the endowment of the hair itself will go to Locks of Love to make wigs for children who have lost theirs. Children like Aiden.
The lights on stage are bright. She squints, looking out over the darkened room. The typical late night crowd of the live music venue has been replaced this Saturday morning with people of all ages. The place is packed. With barely enough room to move, little ones are carried and bigger children are pulled by the hand through clumps of people as their parents edge past to congregate up front. Food vendors and silent auction items line the walls. The community has shown up. They intend and expect to give their support. What they don’t expect is how much they will receive in exchange.
Suspense hangs in the air as the clock ticks down to show time. In the spotlight, three more women–mothers, all of them–sit on folding chairs, draped in plastic capes snapped at the back of their necks. One lives next-door to the family, grown close as neighbors will, by the proximity of their shared lives over the span of years. A drink in the driveway after work, a rant of parenting frustrations, a new gardening idea, a remodeling project. A sick child. Dark brown wavy hair hangs past her shoulders and bangs frame her pretty face. Brushing a tear from the corner of her eye, she blinks her long eye lashes; extensions that, along with big earrings, will soon accessorize her new look.
The next woman’s hair, thick and black, has been divided into segments, also going to Locks of Love. She smiles broadly, exuberance radiating from her face. Aiden and her young son are best friends and the families neighbors. The boys went to school, camped and rode scooters together until recently. Until the news.
It started with headaches that worsened. Doctor appointments revealed nothing conclusive, but Aiden’s parents persisted. Asking questions, insisting on more investigation, tests and more tests were performed and finally, a 2 ½ inch tumor resting on his brain stem was discovered along with other masses in his brain and tumors on his spine. Not what anyone wants to hear, the family had their answer: a rare and aggressive form of cancer. And with it a surreal new reality filled with surgery, hospitalizations, drugs, finding the best treatment options available, and relocating far from home to get it.
Mom and Dad are Skyping with Aiden today from his hospital room. Technical difficulties threaten to thwart success and the disappointment is palpable when the connection drops. After a few more tries, suddenly, there is Aiden, larger than life, yet with a vulnerability that makes him appear small no matter how much of the wall is covered by his projected image. Cheers go up from the throng when this little boy comes into view. His parents lean into the camera and smile their gratitude. The shavees blow kisses and shout their hellos. And with the family’s presence, preparations are finally complete. It can begin.
Excitement buzzes through the audience as people whisper their amazement to one another.
“They’re so brave.”
“I could never do it.”
“Can you imagine what they’re going through?”
Referring to the other mothers, these things can also be said of Aiden and his parents. In the air, something magical emerges, an alchemy of love beyond description, and it is the last woman on stage who has made it happen. Neither a neighbor or a stranger, this mother is an acquaintance, a friend of a neighbor, who socialized with the family casually at barbecues and birthday parties. For years she knew that one day she’d make this choice, for many reasons and many people, not the least of whom is her own mother who died with no hair on her head after enduring not one, but two bouts with two different types of cancer. And the cruelest truth is this: the second cancer was caused by the curing of the first. This woman is colorful from her sassy chin-length brunette mane streaked with red and purple, to her shining eyes and dimples etched deeply into her round cheeks. She radiates joie de vivre even when her voice quivers with emotion during her welcome speech.
Initially, she envisioned a dare; a fun, gutsy campaign culminating in a bold public display that would garner cash, cold and hard, for the family in need. “How much would you pay,” she queried, “to see me shave my head?” When the other three added their momentum, issuing their challenge, a movement was born.
“What are you willing to give to this family if we are willing to cut off all our hair?”
Who wouldn’t admire them enough to donate money, based on their chutzpah alone? No doubt, funds will be raised, but more than money, the rallying of a community around one family garners energy. Efforts expanded as more and more people volunteered, good people who wanted to do something meaningful. Besides these four, at the end of the day, dozens of others, women and men, mothers and fathers and uncles, even Aiden’s classmates—both girls and boys—will have stepped up and joined the ranks of the hairless to say, “We’re with you.”
On stage, they reach out, hand to hand, forming a linked chain, shaking and laughing and blinking back tears. There’s no turning back. The time is now. And as this realization takes hold, the noisy, celebratory atmosphere is charged with a profound undercurrent of intensity and an overtone of the sacred. Enrapt, people find themselves strangely moved to tears. For some, a strong and unexpected reaction. These mothers are brave; it is no small thing what they do. It takes guts, but also inspires awe and reverence. Do they know how brave they are? Possibly, but they would tell you that their courage pales in comparison to the bravery being asked of one small child.
He could be any of theirs, this darling boy with liquid brown eyes and a smile to melt a mother’s heart, who likes snow and ice cream and Dr. Pepper, this typical second-grader who loves his family and his dogs and his pet hamster. A vibrant, happy kid who wants nothing more than to play with his friends–and the chance to grow up. This boy, he is all of theirs.
With a hairdresser for each, the shearing commences simultaneously. Razors are set to scalps. Quick, deft strokes reveal rows of bared skin. Whoops rise up from the house as sheaths of hair fall to the floor and ponytails are severed like dismembered limbs. The impact is powerful. Tears run, unheeded now, down faces, falling to the floor with the locks of hair. This has become far more than a benefit. It is a sacrament. The degrees of separation between neighbors and friends and acquaintances, even strangers, merge and blend until no division exists and all are encompassed by a tangible sense of belonging.
Newly shorn, the women huddle, arm-in-arm. Exhilarated by the fulfillment of their conquest, they laugh through their tears. In disbelief they can’t resist reaching out to rub each other’s heads, now lightened, the weight of all their hair, gone. And the translucent image of Aiden and his parents is cast across the stage, over all of them, and reflected back to those watching. Lighter than air, love lifts the heaviest of burdens and illuminates the soul. Stripped down, love bares the beautiful, naked truth: no one is ever alone.
Aaaaaaand just like that, Christmas is over. The preparation, the anticipation, the actualization; come and gone for another year. My beautiful live tree adorned in sparkling red and gold is dead, morphed into an endearing Dr. Suess caricature; its pliant needles turned brittle and sharp, its majestic branches drooping sadly, ornaments lowered to the floor in resignation.
But, I’m in no hurry to take it down, even if it is a 10’ fire hazard. I want to sit with it a few more days, turn on the lights and gaze at all the pretty decorations in my house; pretty things that hold pretty memories. The presents have been opened. The food has been devoured. The kids have gone home. But the lights can wait to be wound around plastic spools, the garland to be coiled into plastic tubs and the tree to be hauled out to decompose. I’m not quite ready to let go.
All our children were here this year – the ‘little girls’ who still live under our roof, and the ‘big kids,’ who grew up and left years ago. Melissa and Jeremy were 9 and 7 when I married Steven and we celebrated our first Christmas as a new family. They were 14 and 12 when Sydney was born, her diagnosis of Down syndrome an unexpected turn of events, and 18 and 16 when Haley came along, her very presence an unexpected turn of events. As older sibs, they were a huge help, stepping up to the responsibilities of dealing with their younger sisters’ special needs.
And just like that they’re 28 and 26, bringing their significant others home, growing our family and adding more people to love. Melissa lives, with her partner, Jey, here in Columbia, For now. She didn’t always, and one day she will spread her wings to fly far and wide. But that day has not yet come. Jeremy recently landed in Oklahoma City with his wife, Carly; albeit temporarily. The 450-mile stretch that separates us now is a much smaller distance than the 1300-mile span it used to be. I’m hanging on to every day that they’re close by.
Because of it, we don’t often get Christmases together. It’s been four years since the last so I wanted to make this a big one and the preparations started early.
“Are you sure you want to spend that much on a tree?” my husband asked, checking the price tag on a gorgeous Balsam Fir. He craned his neck to look up, “I’m not sure it’ll even fit.”
“Honey, the kids are coming home,” I reminded him. “I want it to be special.”
Of course he gets it; he shares my inclination to go all out. It’s the same drive that lead him to the roof for 12 hours in 30 degrees, hanging brand-new LED lights, clip by clip as he inched along the gutters and peaks, only once sliding to the edge and nearly plummeting to the ground (thank God for the satellite dish). Tons of work, more than a little frustration, but the result was magical and breathtaking.
The tree went up in the corner of the living room; a few inches lopped off the top left just enough room for a delicate illuminated star. Fragrant evergreen scent, full of promise, permeated the house, We trimmed the tree while listening to Pandora’s “Traditional Holiday” station and took turns identifying the crooners; Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin. We shopped; at the mall and at our computers. We wrapped and wrapped and wrapped. We got out the good dishes. We baked and we cleaned. We stayed up late and got up early, exhaustion crowding excitement, knowing it would be worth the effort.
And then they were here. Melissa and Jey came from their little house downtown, and Jeremy and Carly drove seven hours on the interstate, stopping regularly because my daughter-in-law is 33 weeks pregnant. Their first, a boy, will arrive shortly before their third anniversary. And just like that, my boy will become a father. 7 lbs. 1 oz. at birth, he now towers over me and swallows me in bear hugs. I can picture him holding his tiny infant son in those arms, just as I held him.
Our time together didn’t disappoint; it was full and rewarding. We told stories. We played games. We ate and then ate some more. We watched ‘Home Alone,’ 1 and 2, the kids reciting the classic line in unison – “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.” And ‘Christmas Vacation’ with Chevy Chase, the hilarious spoof of stereotypical holiday foibles; both funny and touching as we recognize ourselves in Clark Griswold, a hard-working family man determined to create the perfect holiday for his clan. We love him for his indomitable spirit in the face of mounting obstacles and catastrophic property damage, and for his vulnerability that reveals itself in the midst of calamity. Locked in the freezing attic, he bundles up in a woman’s fur coat then stumbles across a box of old film reels. Before we know it, he’s projecting black and white movies onto a sheet, frustration and mayhem forgotten. The juxtaposition of a grown man lost in childhood memories, wearing his mother’s turban while a sentimental tear slips down his cheek captures the complexities precisely.
We also watched our own home movies.
“Mom, look. I found some old videos,” Jeremy yelled from the guest room, emerging with a crate of VHS cassettes, my handwriting on the labels: ‘Melissa and Jeremy 1988.’
“Let’s watch ‘em!” He said with his typical enthusiasm.
We dimmed the lights and gathered around the big screen. I loaded the tape into a borrowed VCR. It disappeared, sucked inside with a click. The play button lit up, images sprang to life on the screen and just like that, it was 25 years earlier.
A three-year-old girl in pink sponge rollers eats tortilla chips out of the bag on a couch with her best friend. She wears panties and nothing else, watching King Kong from 1976 with Jessica Lange. She says to her baby brother blocking the TV, “Germ-y, get out-uh-our way!” leaning around him, intent on the images in front of her.
She sits on the floor of a horse stall in her grandpa’s barn. A new litter of puppies was born in the hay and a squirming puppy licks her face as she holds it. Giggling she says, “He likes me!”
A toddler in diapers sports a blond mullet, the back long and curly. He wears top-siders with no socks. In the sunshine he climbs into his Little Tikes car and walks his feet ala Fred Flinstone to make it go. Hands on the wheel, he steers his yellow and red cozy coupe down the sidewalk and off the curb, lodging it against a parked car. He cries in a bitty voice, “Mama, I stuck!”
He holds his hands out to catch a ball and it hits him in the face, bouncing off. Exploding with laughter, he runs to chase it then heaves it back with all his might. Not quite in control, he jumps up and down then trips over his own feet, yelling, “My turn! My turn!”
A young woman in mom jeans, the waistband hiked up under her armpits, bends to speak in a loving voice to her babies. She wears her hair like Dorothy Hamill with a perm. She has clear eyes and a soft face; she is self-conscious and uncomfortable in her own skin.
Time bent. I couldn’t get my bearings as I glanced from the wide screen TV to the kids watching themselves, and to their partners watching their loved ones as children. They’re all laughing and taking delight in the obvious evidence of personalities, even early on.
Melissa was thoughtful and a little shy; content. Her easy-going nature radiated visibly and she smiled easily and often. She was innocent and sweet and unassuming. Her motto was, life is great—I’m happy to be here. She was pure, authentic.
Jeremy couldn’t sit still or stay quiet; his exuberance was uncontainable. He lived large and loud, grabbing on to every moment and demanding attention. Whatever he felt, he expressed. His motto was life is great—what’s next? He was eager, energetic.
Then just like that, my daughter is putting herself through college, returning to school with purpose, pursuing an advanced degree in psychology. She’s an honor student with scholarships and awards, a leader, a camp counselor, a nanny, possessing rare qualities for working with children and teenagers. Babies love her, children flock to her and adolescents confide in her. She’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world. She is pure and authentic.
And just like that, my son is saving lives in his profession as a paramedic. He responds to people’s worst nightmares; accidents and overdoses and violence, guiding them through crises, ministering to body, but also to mind and spirit. His medical skills combined with his compassion make him a calm force and a steady presence. He’s a husband and provider and soon to be a parent. He’s smart, caring and making a difference in the world; he is eager and energetic.
This is how I know it to be: life flies past in a moment. And still, I take it for granted. Still, I assume there will be 25 more years until the realization hits; we don’t know what lies in the days ahead. Just like that things do change. And I am brought up short. I’m in awe of the gift of my family. My family, here, now, together.
We posed in front of the giant tree, me in the middle, surrounded by the ones I love the most: Jeremy with his arm around his wife, Carly holding her beautiful belly and within it, our grandson; Melissa seated in front of her girlfriend, Jey, whose hands were placed gently on her shoulders; the little girls at our feet in their Christmas pjs, and Steven, my partner, my love, standing ever-present behind me.
Just like that it’s 2014. I can’t stop or even slow down time, but I can hold on loosely—I’m not letting go. I can take it all in and savor it and relish it. And I guess I can go ahead and take the tree down.
Grief lives in our house. Among the furniture, between the windows and the walls, it sits, thick and unmoving. Grief rides heavy on my chest. I can’t get a good, deep breath these days. It weighs down my husband’s shoulders and molds his features. Grief seeps into our nights of restless sleep and dreams of forgetting, of waking, and then remembering.
We lie on our bed listening to the falling rain. Wet, fat drops pelt the windowpane and punctuate the silence. He curls up behind me, concave where I am round; our bodies fit together, pieces of a puzzle. In the stillness, the edges between us dissolve. I fade into him, absorbing his substance. A crack of thunder sounds. I inhale sharply to pull the air into my lungs. He draws a deep breath in through an open mouth, his chest heaving. With a sigh, it rushes out. Together we breathe our mourning. There is comfort in our solidarity and we close our eyes to accept the brief respite.
It occurs to me that my father-in-law will never hold his wife this way again.
If anyone could cure cancer with sheer will and devotion, it would be him. He will not leave her side. He sits, he stands, he paces. He drinks coffee and more coffee. He questions the doctors and the nurses and the therapists. He hopes against all odds. He isn’t ready.
He sleeps in a recliner pulled up next to the hospital bed. He covers her hand with his and they talk in the dead of night, recounting their fifty years of shared memories. He helps her try to hang on and when it becomes clear she cannot, she helps him try to let go.
Until a year ago, the only loved ones I’d lost were my grandparents who had lived full lives into their 80’s. I still miss them dearly and lament their passing, but tragic death, to those young and taken too soon, by illness or accident had not yet entered my experience. Within a span of a few months, loss hit hard, lodging painfully in my sternum. Three deaths. My friend from childhood, my brother’s son, my sister’s husband. And now, my husband’s mother.
I can’t bear it, but somehow I must stay present to witness. This is the gift I can give my family by marriage. I am wife, I am daughter-in-law, I am sister-in-law. But my own crisis is significant. I am losing a mother, too.
I was twenty-eight when I met her. Newly divorced and unable to travel to my own family far away, I faced my first Christmas without my young children. My closest girlfriend insisted on taking me home to the bosom of her Midwestern family. Depression had me in its clutches. Morose and self-absorbed, I tried to decline. I wanted to retreat from the world at large and immerse myself in desolation, but she wouldn’t have it and dragged me across the country to Missouri.
I had never been anywhere east of Colorado, and all I knew were the clichés I’d heard. Friendly, kind and generous, the stereotypes of folks from the heartland held true, but more than that, these people radiated joy that spread to all within reach. Misery didn’t stand a chance when infected with their sunny optimism. In a noisy house full of activity, my senses were barraged: the smell of delicious food, the comfort of homey Christmas decor and quaint antiques, the resonance of children’s voices playing and adults laughing and talking all at the same time. My future mother-in-law welcomed me to her home, without conditions, without judgment. She simply loved me for being myself, a self she barely knew, but loved because her daughter loved me. I’d landed in a Norman Rockwell painting and it felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket after coming in from the cold.
I was teased for my wild hair and tie-dyed shirt and Arizona ‘accent.’ I gave as good as I got, though, imitating my future father-in-law’s Missouri dialect. “Well, now, you gotta take and go on past the ray-road tracks, that-a-way you’ll run right into that rest-runt. I tell you what, have they got great Eye-talian food. Jim-in-ey!”
We gathered around the large table as plates of turkey and ham and stuffing and potatoes were passed. I listened to stories from the past, each memory more outrageous, each teller louder than the last, boistesrous laughter erupting between the words that flew back and forth. We played board games until midnight and imbibed in PaPa’s famous punch, a delicious concoction of fruit juice, soda and what I’m fairly certain was an entire bottle of Southern Comfort. And on Christmas morning, when presents were doled out, I was handed more than one with my name on the tag. Gifts bought for me. And not just any gifts. How this woman knew exactly what I would love I will never know. The startling gesture touched me deeply. Can you fall in love with someone instantly? How about a whole family? They had me at “Welcome to Missouruh.”
My connection to her continued through the darkest time of my life. I felt doubly blessed to have my own mother to soothe my heartache and another mother figure who healed me unknowingly, simply by being herself. More visits and conversations allowed me to observe her ways, her smiling consistency and unflinching positive outlook, her effervescent energy. I came to know her well, and as they say, to know her, is to love her.
Three years later, as much a surprise to me as to everyone else, I discovered the love of my life right there in this family. Her only son, the brother of my best friend, proposed to me and I became a legal in-law, but I was already hers. I grew in devotion to her like Ruth to Naomi. “Whither thou goest, I will go.” She loved my children, and not just the Kent babies that came later, but those she inherited, my big kids, scooping them up and adding them to her brood like they’d been there all along, too. We were family.
Over more than twenty years and across hundreds of miles, we shared happy, contented times, and the inevitable tough times brought us closer still. But, this? This is beyond tough. The worst has happened: Mom is the heart of this family and losing her is unthinkable.
When the call comes it is unexpected and triggers a panic we try, and fail, to suppress.
Steven’s sister, my best friend, Traci says, “You need to come. Now.”
With palpable urgency we throw things in suitcases, cancel appointments, and take the girls out of school, making the interminable drive to St. Louis at 80 mph. Reeling from shock, we don’t speak, but in our racing thoughts, we reach for anything to steady the lurching shift that’s thrown the world out of sync. Mom was okay just last week when they sent her home to recover from an arduous stem cell transplant. Even if she had a ways to go, she was definitely on the mend. But, now we know. The transplant didn’t work. Her body did not respond the way we’d hoped. For fourteen months the cancer attacked her viciously, resisting treatment after treatment, sometimes with near-fatal reactions. How unfair, how goddamned cruel, that now, after all she’s endured—transfusions, surgeries, hospitalizations, procedures that should have granted, if not a cure, at least more time, how devastating that she is left with this abrupt, horrifying end. She is only 69. As she said, “I was supposed to have more time.”
The reality hits when we reach the hospital. She is going where none of us can follow. Nearly everyone has come and Mom is surrounded by the ones who love her most, all three of her kids, middle-aged now with kids and grandkids of their own, her brother and sister, six of her eight grandchildren, and friends who have traversed the decades. Disbelief rocks us as we grope for meaning in this brutal certainty.
Compelled by prescience, though exhausted, she will not rest until everyone has been seen, the wrenching goodbyes a sacred ritual.
Special permission is granted to our young daughters to visit and when they enter shyly, she touches and kisses them. With heroic effort, between wheezing breaths, she helps them understand what’s happening.
“Remember when MeMe said everyone has a time? It wasn’t time before but, well, it looks like it’s MeMe’s time now.” Her frail voice breaks and she pauses. “But it will be okay. Somehow it will be okay.”
They bend over her, careful to avoid the central line and oxygen cannula, for the last hug they will have. And after they’ve left, she weeps for the first and only time, utterly bereft, inconsolable.
Later, her girlfriend of more than forty years braces for their final farewell, putting a smile on her face before walking through the door.
“Hey, gal. Whatcha doin’?” she says in a casual tone.
“Well,” Mom says, weakly, barely audible. “Looks like I’m kicking it over.”
Bantering constantly, regardless of the situation, that is what they do. It’s how they say, “I don’t know what I would have done without you this year,” and “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you for the rest of my life.” They part not with ‘goodbye,’ but ‘see ya later.’ It’s not until Mom’s beloved friend is down the hall and around the corner that she finally lets go, collapsing into her husband’s waiting arms.
I’ve waited my turn, respectful of the pecking order. But I need to see her. I need her to know how I feel, but there are no words to convey everything she means to me. For Good from Wicked plays in my mind along with the memory of sitting next to her at a live production of the Broadway musical—my birthday present to her—as lyrical voices resonated in the acoustical glory of the Fox Theatre. If I dared, I would sing to her,
I’ve heard it said That people come into our lives for a reason Bringing something we must learn, and we are led To those who help us most to grow If we let them And we help them in return It well may be, that we will never meet again In this lifetime So let me say before we part, so much of me is made from what I learned from you You’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart Because I knew you . . . I’ve been changed for good
Instead, I sit quietly by her bed, willing my love into her awareness as she lies sleeping. Suddenly, she opens her eyes and sees me. All that’s between us shimmers in the air. “I love you, Lisa Kent,” she says intensely. The blessing washes over me. “I love you, Linda Kent.” Tears are in my voice. She knows. She knows.
Her goodbyes complete, the dying process begins in earnest. As pneumonia rages, her heart races and her breathing becomes torturous as her body fights for each inhalation. A sip of water to a parched mouth, soothing balm to cracked lips, a cloth to a fevered head, these only ease her suffering briefly.
“Rest now, Mom,” her oldest daughter, Lori says. “Just go to sleep. We’ll be right here.”
But in between fretful sleeping and waking, she struggles to tell us one more thing. Barely able to form the words, she manages to utter, “I want us to stay a family.”
She’s worried that without her we will drift apart, let conflict come between us. She is adamant, and rightly so that we respect her wishes.
“I want you to love each other and be happy.”
“We will, Mom,” we say in unison.
“Promise?” she pleads. She must know we will take care of each other before she can let go.
The nurses move around us now as we keep vigil. Confined to a hospital room, a waiting room and a hotel room, perspective shifts radically and the minutes and hours lose meaning. Has it been three days or a week? A surreal bending of space and time becomes our existence; there is no longer a world outside this place.
My husband won’t leave. By her bedside, he quietly holds her hand as she sleeps fitfully, though it’s excruciating for him to watch his mother suffer. She stirs and asks in a panic. “Where is Steven?” though her hand is still encircled in his, their long fingers cut from the same pattern.
“I’m right here, Mom.” He strokes her cheek with the back of his hand. Reassured, she relaxes back into the pillows.
As the hours drag on, each time she wakes, finding herself trapped in a body wrecked by disease, her anxiety mounts. “Unplug me,” she says, though she is not on life support. With courageous acceptance, Mom is ready to go, leaps and bounds ahead of us.
Soon, the sedatives and pain meds help calm her as the separation begins. She drifts somewhere between here and . . . not here. She’s stopped talking, retreating.
Dad sits on the edge of the bed and leans in close. “You are the love of my life,” he whispers. “You’ve fought so hard.” He brings her hand to his lips, bowing his head. Sobs wrack his body. “Wait for me, I’ll be there soon.”
I cannot bear it and turn away from the intensely private moment. My hand covers my mouth and my eyes search for my husband’s. We look to his two sisters and an unspoken message travels between; we surrender to the swelling tide of anguish.
The next morning, Traci pushes the bulky hospital bed and the attached monitors and machines away from the wall and angles it toward the window. The rising sun streams in. Peaceful music plays quietly. Tranquility eases the tension for a blessed moment.
With her last bit of strength, she lifts her heavy eyelids a fraction. With incredible will, she lifts a shaky hand off the bed a mere few inches before dropping it. Through the small slits, her eyes are cloudy and seem unfocused. Yet as we watch, we swear her gaze moves slowly from face to face, tracking, lingering on each one of us. An electrical connection pings back and forth. She is here. But she is going. Soon.
It happens in a whisper. Dad and Lori have left, telling her they’re just going to grab some lunch. Kissing her forehead, he says, “I’ll be right back. See you in a minute.”
Steven, Traci and I, continue our watch in silence, together, but apart. Sitting in a chair, I rest my head in my hand and start to sleep, to dream. For days now, her fight to breathe has become increasingly urgent. The loud, rhythmic sound churns, a biological instinct for self-preservation. It’s become the background noise, a soundtrack to dying. As I drift further, something pulls my awareness back, as if I’ve been tapped on the shoulder. The lack of the repetitive churning sound slowly enters my consciousness. Then, abruptly, I wake up. Watching, I see her take a quieter breath. Then nothing. Awareness descends synchronously on us all and we spring to the bedside.
We wait and there’s another breath, easier this time. A pause. A softer breath, almost a sigh. A longer pause. Then another breath . . . that becomes . . . her last.
Traci sobs and cradles her mother in her arms. Steven lays his cheek next to hers. I run for the nurse and hear my husband cry, “You were the best mother I could ever ask for. I love you so much.” Down the hall I hear Traci wail like a child.“You held me when I came into the world and I will hold you as you leave.”
The nurse confirms it is happening and removes the oxygen mask. His hand on her chest, my husband feels her heart stop. We all feel it when she lightly, elegantly lifts from her body and glides away.
An ephemeral gap in the storm appears suddenly, allowing brilliant light to bleed through the wooden blinds and warm my face for a moment before dark clouds converge, a pall returning. I roll over to face my husband. Eyes closed, he is motionless, yet within, I can feel his disquiet. I sense the vibrations of pain coursing through his body. His mother has died. And where did she go? I can’t find her and it frightens me. She is gone, slipping the surly bonds of earth despite our desperate longing for her to stay. I know she no longer suffers. I believe she’s with the angels now, yet the cavernous void in her absence can’t be quantified.
I cup his cheek and smooth his brow. He opens his eyes to look at me and I see . . . her eyes. He has his mother’s eyes. I see her in his cheekbones. And in his smile. He has her generous nature and tender heart, too. And brilliant mind. And love of cooking. I’m acutely aware how he came from her.
My spirit soars with this epiphany. My babies, they came from their father, who came from her. Like Russian stacking dolls, they too, are part of her, shaped by her influence, molded in her image. She lives on within them; everything she was and everywhere she was from.
From small towns and familiar neighbors and grandma next door. From gas at 21 cents a gallon and no indoor bathroom and a washing machine hooked up on the back porch. She was from the chill on a fall morning in Kansas as leaves blew along cracked sidewalks, and from laundry hung on the line to dry in the spring sunshine. From playing board games inside on snowy days and riding bikes outside until dark.
She was from an absent father and an unstable mother. From a younger brother and sister to look after and from growing up too quickly. From babysitting at ten and working at Tasty Freeze at thirteen for $.75 an hour. From a dance club out of town in an old warehouse and cherry vodka and Jan and Dean and Ricky Nelson.
From an office job at Pittsburg State and a handsome fraternity boy from the university. From young love they said would never last. From a little white house and domesticated bliss and round babies that bounced on her knee. She was from washing dishes and washing out diapers. From friends who became family and raised each other’s kids, who made their own fun on a Saturday night when money was tight.
From the Kool-aid house where everyone wanted to hang out with the mom they wished was theirs. She was from “I’m gonna come down there and spank some butts!” and “Get outta that, dinner’s almost ready,” and “Be home by midnight and don’t drink and drive.” She was from “You can be whatever you want to be,” and “I’m so proud of you.” She was from motherhood first and everything else second.
She was from crockpots and homemade macaroni and cheese and chocolate cake and Christmas braid. From birthdays and Easters and Valentine’s Days cards with cash inside. From shopping year-round and finding the perfect gift for the perfect person. She was from boundless generosity.
She was from cross-stitched samplers and Precious Moments figurines and Longaberger baskets. From Christmas trees in the living room and in the family room and in the kitchen and in the bedroom, decorated with ornaments that aged with her children, each marked with the date and holding the memory of that time. She was from Santas: on the hutch, the shelf, the table and the stairs. Old World Santas, Black Santas, country Santas and ceramic Santas. She was from Santa himself (played by PaPa) coming in through the back door on Christmas Eve with presents for the little ones. She was from trash bags of torn and crumpled wrapping paper and delicious aromas and bellies too stuffed to move.
She was from a house bursting with laughter and life and noise, from her dream of a large family come true. From shouts of “MeMe!” followed by torpedo hugs around the waist. From special weekends and movies in the living room and Barbies and arts and crafts and baking cookies. She was from beautiful hands and gentle touches and soft hugs. From open arms for everyone who crossed her threshold. She was from acceptance and judging no one.
She was from hard work and dedication. From eye-glasses and fittings and appointments and patients and co-workers who loved her, from knowing everyone in town. She was from rising before the sun and falling asleep in front of the TV.
She was from retirement and Grandparent’s Day at elementary school and dance recitals and choir concerts and softball games. She was from best friends and vacations in the Smoky Mountains and Tybee Island and Santa Fe. From two couples, best friends, traveling the country and shopping at the Lake. From coffee on Saturday mornings and growing old together.
She was from signature perfume and Pandora charms and Land’s End sweaters and scarves from L.L. Bean. From new recipes and new bedspreads and new rugs. From gardens and bird-feeders. She was from Mid-West Living and O Magazine. From bookshelves and bookshelves of books. From Kindles and laptops. She was from photos on Facebook and photos hung on every wall.
She was from spending her entire adult life as wife to her husband, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. From forgiveness and steady calm in stormy seas. She was from dignity and grace and long-suffering.
She was from pink ball caps skewed to the side to cover her balding head and Relay for Life and incredible courage in the fight for her life. From comforting others even at the end of her own journey. She was from “Everything’s going to be all right,” and “I love you so much,” and “I’m ready to go.” She was from pure love.*
Memories and impressions of my mother-in-law flood my senses. The sting of death remains, but losing her is impossible: she’s here. My breath rushes in and I’m filled with the Essence of Her Presence. I exhale . . . then begin to weep. My husband’s arms lock around me quick and tight. Even in his own grief, he understands the depth of mine. He will hold me as long as it takes.
Grief lives in our house, but so does joy. The world without her will never be the same, but the sun will come up and the days will go by. The children will keep growing and a new life will join the family when our grandson is born in a few months as we more to come as we remain a family. We will laugh and celebrate and dream. And when remembrance overwhelms us, we will cry and rail and grieve again. There is no escape. We are powerless to circumvent mourning. I can’t bear it, but somehow I will, by leaning into the grief and feeling it in my bones, by going about living our robust lives and by knowing that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Mom wants us to be happy. She told us that in her dying wishes. She loved the song, You’ll Be in My Heart, by Phil Collins from the movie, Tarzan, which serendipitously came out the year our daughter, Sydney, was born with Down syndrome. The lyrics speak of the protective and nurturing nature of a maternal figure. I think she wants us to know she’s still here, loving us, mothering us. And I believe if we listen, if we just look over our shoulders, we will always find her.
You’ll be in my heart Always, I’ll be with you Just look over your shoulder Just look over your shoulder Just look over your shoulder I’ll be there always”
Turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young girl going out of my door.
Turn Around by Malvina Reynolds and Alan Greene
Autumn is my favorite time of year and there’s nowhere the season is more provincial than in the Midwest. A tangible chill in the morning air softens the heat of summer and signals a coming change. Seemingly overnight, leaves begin to turn. Variegated branches hint of color that will soon become rich orange, yellow and red, flaming briefly before falling to the ground and creating nature’s perfect playground for jumping children. The farmer’s market yields a spread of eggplant, pumpkin, corn, squash and apples; not only a visual feast, but a culinary mother lode for comfort foods that fill the house with the tantalizing aromas of savory soups, roasted vegetables, freshly baked bread, and apple pie. Thrushes, sparrows and other song birds nest mid-migration, on their way to warmer climates. The days shorten and the pull of the Earth’s orbit around the sun is felt. My own focus gravitates homeward; summer is over. It’s time to go back to school.
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and their two youngest children, one of whom has Down syndrome.