Life altering changes, unexpected losses, the painful aftermath and the process, nothing anyone can truly prepare for, ever.
It was my freshman year in high school when my bio dad called mom to let her know his Gramma passed, one of the handful of times he made contact. It seemed odd to me as I’d nearly given up on this man. I don’t recall if I felt happy to hear from him indirectly or sad over the loss of my Great Gramma. Little Gramma, as they all so affectionately referred to her as, was the sweetest tiny lady I’d ever met. Although I had very few moments or memories with her, the ones I do were quaint, brief and loving. This would be the first funeral service of my life. I was nervous, didn’t know what to expect, but we went. This is the extent of my knowledge of that experience. Life was in session before and it continued on long after.
The next sting that struck across my heart was my senior year when a close classmate was killed in a head on collision on her way to school. The somber silence that washed over the school that day was deafening as the news traveled quickly amongst our small student body. This was the first time I truly noticed people’s behavior surrounding death. Granted, we were all teens with different levels of empathy, compassion and even feelings, but to observe the bizarreness from those who were seemingly drawn to grieve over a lovely young girl whom some, just the day before, were less than polite to. How does a person muster up that sort of falsity and keep it going? Me on the other hand, felt that loss deeply. She and I had a short history as friends, 8th grade through most of that year, but a friend she definitely was. She taught me things about boys I couldn’t have heard from anyone else. She seemed genuinely sincere and experienced too. Our last encounter was indeed the day before in ceramics class. Elton John’s, “that’s why they call it the blues” came on the teacher’s radio and she boldly sang out as no one was listening. I’d admired this girl. She had confidence. She had courage. She had life in her and yet, she was gone now and I wept for her, her parents and myself. Her absence was noticed for quite some time. To this day I grin upwards when I hear “our” song.
Four years later, I would get that dreaded phone call while I was at work. The one that came from the step monster on the other end telling me my mom was killed in a terrible car accident. The one where all I could do was stand there, listening to his words and not hearing what he was saying as I began to slump to the ground, holding the corded phone as the tears began to flood my eyes. This can’t be happening, she just called me yesterday to tell me she loved me and that she was leaving for the long drive down south. It was true though and all I could repeatedly ask him was, “was mom drinking… was she?” It took 2 mind numbing weeks between the autopsy, the coroner’s report, the police investigation and transferring “her”, my mom, who was no longer my mom, from the south to the north where she would be “laid to rest”. Nothing was real. My older brother and I stood in disbelief at her closed casket for what felt like an eternity until someone had us sit down. The next thing I knew we were watching them lower this beautiful, shiny pearl box into the ground. What the fuck was happening? My life was turned upside down in an instant and no one was comforting anyone. Everyone divided after that week and went about their own lives, separately mourning and grieving and not talking about any of it. Was this normal? Are we supposed to keep our sadness a secret? Feel, but don’t share? I went along life like a zombie for a year. I couldn’t understand anything.
A year and half after mom’s death I would be getting married. I went through the motions up until the month before the wedding day when my Grampa passed away. I won’t have mom or Grampa at my wedding now? Fuck this. Grampa had been sick, but he was a trooper. He said if they tell him he needed anymore surgeries, he was going to say no. They did and he did. While I visited Grampa on what would be his last birthday, we had this beautiful exchange between us. Somehow he knew that he was saying goodbye to his little missy girl. I didn’t know it at the time, but I definitely paused before I left his side like I hadn’t before. I drank in his kindness that poured from his eyes. His love I felt bursting from his heart for me. My Grampa, my first protector and crush, my rock, my only true love of a man that loved me for me. He was gone.
I was empty…
It was homecoming night at my same high school. My sons were all in grammar school, ages 14, 11 and 9 when I got the call the next morning at 7am from a close friend. She didn’t want me to find out any other way. I had this special friendship with another parent from our kid’s elementary school. We were both going through tough times in our marriages and found comfort in talking to one another. As she spoke the words, I listened in disbelief, “…she was killed in a terrible accident late last night, I’m so sorry honey”. My heart sank. I didn’t know what to do. He lost his daughter. His light in his darkness. His precious, oldest child. I paced, do I call him, just go to him? What? I’d known tragic and sudden death, but I’d never faced someone who lost their child before. Finally, I couldn’t take it, I had to find him. I had my youngest in the car with me and as I drove around wondering where to look, it occurred to me where I would be. Down the twisting country road we went where earlier that morning I was told of the horrific accident. I saw him there, sitting on the side of the road, just off the edge a bit, picking weeds and staring at the big oak tree, the one that ultimately took her life. I parked the car and asked my son if he’d be ok to sit in the car for a bit. Of course mom. I approached him slowly and without saying a word, I just sat beside him there, in the dirt and we quietly cried.
Sometimes there’s nothing to say…
Gramma was placed in a luxurious senior care home years later after Grampa passed. It seemed premature to me, given her seemingly healthy self and the independent woman she still was, but her other daughter thought it would be best. It was the holidays and each of her 3 grandchildren took turns visiting her with their own kids that day. We went in shifts so not to overwhelm her. Gramma was thrilled to see us, all of us. Much later the brothers and I would share our experiences as we all said our goodbyes. I can recall something similar in her vacant eyes as with Grampa. She laid there on her bed, eyes closed, asking God to take her home to be with Daddy. That’s what she always called Grampa, “Daddy”. She was in a daze, but when she opened her eyes for a moment to say goodbye to the 5 of us, she looked at him and said, you take good care of our girl, won’t you? He smiled and nodded in agreement. It would be 4 weeks later that I got the call about Gramma’s passing. I cried so much it hurt. The boys, how was I going to tell the boys?! They adored their Great Gramma. I gathered my strength, held onto them and listened as they cried and asked questions. We got through it, together. I learned.
He was a young man all my sons knew from school. It hit my oldest the hardest. They were in the high school band together and he was a huge fan of my sons punk rock band. This young man was so full of life and love and he spread it all around. He had a tragic accident that took him instantly. Another dark cloud loomed over their young lives. Devastating to all who knew him. We all attended his service together, saying our final goodbyes to another young person. It hurt. We were all in shock. What a loving young man and now he was gone too.
Tragedy would strike us again the day we got that call. This time it was my brother sobbing on the other end of the line, “He’s gone sis, he’s gone.” I was in my car with my middle son and immediately pulled over bursting into tears, his oldest son, my nephew, their cousin and my oldest son’s best friend in the world. Cousins are our first best friend, if you’re blessed to have them. They were 6 months apart and inseparable since they could walk. His life cut short at 20 years old. As we entered the room where he was laid to rest for us to “visit” with him, it was the most painful time of their lives, the cousins who were missing one now, the father who tried to protect him from himself is without his first born son, the mother who carried this child and loved him more than her own, his existence was over and none of us could let him go. This beautiful child, gone. Nothing made sense. The agony.
18 months later to the day, my youngest son was frantically texting me from school one morning. He finally called after his first class and I said, “honey, just leave and come home.” We lived across the street from school and I ran down the stairs to meet him on the street. When he saw me, he started running and crying out, “he’s dead, he’s dead” as tears steamed down his face. What? Who? Fuck!! “Mom, my best friend, he’s dead!” My heart broke as he cried and couldn’t speak, only sob. I stood there and held him as he melted. Shortly after, the gang began to rally around as they always did. They knew instinctively where to go, how to comfort and soothe one another. They huddled up and cried, they told the ones that weren’t there the devastating night before the truth of the events and how it was a stupid accident… they could barely contain themselves with their sadness, anger and shock. I hugged them all, told them I loved them and cried right there with them.
What the fuck? Enough already!!
She told me don’t judge people around death. No one can possibly know what’s in their heart, just tend to yours sweet child.
I always remember her words…
I’ve watched and noticed the varied ways of which this was true. Some close the valve to that part of their heart so they can’t feel as they once had because the pain is too great. Others vow to live for today and appreciate each moment, remembering to say I love you… until time fades those well intended promises and life resumes as it once was, back to status quo.
For me, my capacity to receive and pour out seems to have increased a little more with every experience, boosting my gratitude and granting more patience and tolerance for you, but especially for me. Before, I didn’t possess the ability to separate mom’s suffering from my own. I couldn’t see how much pain my nephew was in, only that he was lost. As for the other great ones, I’ll never know why your walk was shortened, but as I reflect now, I am able to slow down and remember with less pain and more joy what each of you brought to my life and how I may have enhanced yours. I appreciate each of you. I love you all. The biggest gift I am receiving through all these losses is the ability to discern my journey from yours. I am left here to be without your physical being, to mourn and grieve for your absence and the void I feel, but I keep your spirit alive every time I think of you. I catch my breath and smile when I feel your presence brush by.
God bless the broken hearted and empty spaces that no other can fill, but I will continue to celebrate each, irreplaceable you. Let us embrace this one life.
Through tragedy, gratitude is gained Through loss, fullness is obtained Through voids, love is changed
Married at 18, 2 kids by 19, divorced by 21, remarried by 26, 1 more kid by 29, fading into the darkness by 33 and by 41, she was dead. So what happened to this lady during those in between years? Her death, though shocking and painful, was not too mysterious, yet a heart wrenching loss to those 3 children. Could she have known the ramifications that leaving them would hover over them for the rest of their lives? Her first 2 born already suffered from abandonment from their father leaving when they were toddlers and now there was new fuel added to the fire. Her youngest child would never fully heal from the shock and all of them would be left with this poor excuse, version of a worthless father. Well, technically a step-monster to the older ones and short-changed, selective, convenient, when it worked for him, weak father to his one and only blood offspring.
As life would have it, the abuse happening to her would later manifest into PTSD. She was a newly 13 year old girl, trying to cope with life the best she could when her once devoted, doting, loving and proud mom that she had known was beginning to fade. Shortly after marrying this man and the birth of her baby brother, mom began drinking, heavily, and daily as anger was ranging inside her. She remembers every detail of what mattered to her as she was growing up, but then developed amnesia for the parts that created her traumatized soul. What the fuck was happening? She couldn’t stop her world from spiraling down and the more she tried the worse it became.
This broken framework of a family would move to a whole new town, several hours from the only place she had ever called home. She now had to live in a town so small they only had one stoplight. Her anger intensified, but it had been serving her. It’s what kept her safe and from falling apart inside. It fueled her so others would perceive her as confident. What they didn’t know was it kept them at a distance, far enough so they wouldn’t learn her secrets. No one else lived this way she couldn’t imagine. This dark place where her mom drank herself into oblivion every night so she wouldn’t have to feel, could hide from the truth of her torment and his cruel, viscous ways. Take her into the land where no one spoke of the dismissals and discarding she experienced so he could continue his sorted affairs, blaming her for his indiscretions. This once beautiful, vivacious, confident, fun loving woman, reduced to nothingness. Stripped of her self worth and told of her undervalued existence. This replacement father wasn’t just an asshole, he was a fucking asshole and I had wished for so long that he would die.
She started maturing into a young, pretty teen and by 15 she had her first boyfriend. Really he was the excuse that got her out of her crazy ass house on a Friday night. She had convinced herself she was in love with this boy, as much as 2 teenagers could be, but they bickered more than they got along. Could her hostility have been the cause for that? She wondered today. The asshole, as she so fondly referred to him as now, had started snooping around in her room when she wasn’t home. She found this out when her mom brought the contents of her diary up in a private conversation, asking about her losing her virginity. She was fuming, seeing red and wanted to kill him, but her mom was gracious and kind about it. Now and then that loving, adoring mom would surface, in a semi sober state. Terrified her only daughter might end up a teen mom too, but was satisfied to know the 2 of them were “safe”. Humiliated and pissed beyond measure, she broke up with the boy she “loved”, leaving him confused and hurt, but she didn’t care, much.
Soon after, the leering was becoming more intense and uncomfortable to the point that she loathed having to even go to the kitchen for a snack or even water for fear of him being in the living room where she would have to pass through. Usually no words were exchanged, only a slithering, slimy look that made her shiver with ice through her veins and blood in her eyes. Sickened by the very sight of him, she found opportunities to be gone more than she was home. One day she came home from school to find a woman in the kitchen, a stranger to her. Thinking nothing of her until mom came home and asked if she saw this person. A few months later, these parents would separate for what ended up being 1 1/2 years this time. Another discard, the fond, control game he played. By this point she had deemed them both crazy and she wanted no part of their insanity. She declared to them she had a job, a car, friends, school and a life, finally and would not be moving. She further informed them that she knew they would reconcile and the fuck if she would turn her life upside down for them ever again and she didn’t.
She had chosen the worse of the 2 evils to remain in this God forsaken town that had grown on her. Convincing herself this was temporary and short term. He works a swing shift so she would rarely have to experience the abuse and inappropriateness of his behaviors. She could handle this. She had toughened up more than ever. Her life depended upon it. Less than a year went by and they proved her right when they bought their next home on the other side of town, big enough for us all to have our own rooms. It was 2 months before her graduation and she’d had enough. She was done. Dramatic exit scene. Her first experience with her newly developed dissociative behavior. A screaming match with her mom, explosive words of I hate you! Followed up with shaming accusations of you’re weak, why can’t you just quit drinking?! A quick packing of her things and she was gone. There may have been more expletives, but she was tapped out, checked out, already gone. She left behind an older brother whom she loved and wondered why he stayed after graduating the year before and her baby brother whom she adored and worried so over, but she feared to stay even though she was terrified to leave, but what choice did she have? This would start her pattern for the rest of her life.
The next 5 years would deliver her into the early makings of her first real, adult relationship with the man she eventually would marry and have 3 sons with. She never went back to their home, not to live, but now and then to see her growing up little brother and even her mom. She avoided interactions with her first abuser as much as possible. She often wondered if her mom ever knew, had any inclinations or concern for her only daughter’s well being, but then how could she as she was drowning deeper and deeper in her alcoholism. That was a word she had learned and identified with, qualifying her mom as one. Anger was still very much alive within her, seething at the core of her being. It was just showing up as less of a frequent visitor. As those years rolled on, her mom sank further into depression and into her bottles, hiding them more and better, so she thought. She came around less and less trying to normalize her own life, whatever that meant. It mortified her to remember this once shining light of a lady who was reduced to her darkness of hell. She blamed him for all of it. Mom’s shame, her pain and our abuse and neglect.
It was nearly the weekend and her mom called, wanting to visit her now grown, young, adult children and their significant partners. We lived close by one another and just short of flipping a coin, she surrendered and said mom could stay with us for the weekend. We all got together for a family dinner, just the 4 of us and mom. By Monday morning everyone had work to get to including mom. She needed to “get going” she told her. Reluctantly, they said goodbye, unbeknownst to any of them it would be the final time they would see her sad, sweet face. It had been a surprisingly pleasant weekend. She chalked that up to his absence. We parted ways, as we all went off in our separate directions to live our own lives now.
A week went by and it was 5 am on a Saturday. She was at work when she got the call. His voice on the other end, so blunt and cold, your mother was in an accident, she didn’t make it. She sank to the ground, the corded phone still in her hand as the tears sprung to her eyes and ran down her cheeks. All she could repeatedly ask him was, “was she drinking?” His answer never came, but in her heart, she knew. She sat there, numb, not knowing what to do, needing to do something, but what? Last week she had a mom. A mom she had forgiven after all those years of despising what she considered her weakness. A mom who loved her with all she had, but had none to give herself. A mom who she accused of neglecting her for some man who abused her, them, all of us. A mom who deserved to live because she had so much to live for, but she never knew any of it. A mom that was loved even though she couldn’t love herself. She will forever wonder… Where had she gone?