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He called to me to get my attention – “Mom” – but I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. I wasn’t his biological mom, but I wanted him to be attached to me in that way.
“What?” I asked. He shook his lowered head. “What did you say?”
He refused to repeat himself. I then realized he seemed embarrassed. He had spoken accidentally, and to my disappointment, he’d wished he hadn’t called me Mom at all.
Even in my youth of 25 years, even in my inexperience with grief, I assessed that he likely felt as if he’d been disloyal to his real mom. She had died months earlier, when he was 10.
Children’s Grief Awareness Day is on Nov. 15 this year. It falls on the calendar as the joyful togetherness of the holiday season approaches and punctuates the sense of the loss of loved ones.
To mark Children’s Grief Awareness Day, I’ll be at Master Jewelers in Olive Branch, Miss., to sign books. I’m one of 61 contributors to Grief Dialogues: The Book, the brainchild of author and playwright Elizabeth Coplan. Elizabeth and I found each other via Twitter while she was looking for contributions. She’s flying in and will do a reading at the Thursday afternoon event, and I will read from my entry, Standing in the Gap.
What do you hold onto that makes you feel close to your deceased loved one? Is it a shirt with their smell? A love letter? Or maybe it’s not an object but a shared cause or creed you foster.
Connection. We all seek it but in different ways. For a long time, I thought I was hugely different in my grief. I kept my parents’ home and their things for eight years. I went through every stitch, every piece of paper, every photograph, every junk drawer, and I felt them beside me. With me.
I thought I was a bit weird. And then I noticed in the most popular posts and tweets a common thread – a search for, or a celebration of, connection. Connection gave comfort. It was an affirmation that love never died, or that perhaps the loved one was still around in some mystical way. By achieving connection, we seem to conquer death, if only for a moment.
How do we bridge that gulf, that space that death created?
We bridge it in dreams. We bridge it by putting up photographs of our parents, our grandparents, our husbands, our children. We bridge it by keeping their room just as it was. Or by engaging in a cause that was near to their hearts. We may run a race in their honor. We may go to their favorite places, or plant their favorite flower, or visit their favorite friend.
I will never see Halloween the same. I loved it as a child, but once you come face to face with real death, images of ghosts, ghouls and skeletons aren’t playthings anymore.
I’m not trying to rain on the Halloween parade. Really. And I’m not such a stiff that I don’t participate. A few years ago, I was a lady vampire. Another year, I was a gypsy. And another year, a black cat. But when I see really ghastly images, I cringe.
I know I’m not the only one. You aren’t the only one. For us, real death changed Halloween from a playful parade of goblins and delightful, frightful surprises into painful reminders that death took our loved one. That bodies we hugged decay. That beloved spirits fly away.
A neighbor’s kids love to color skulls. One of their Halloween decorations is a skeleton. As I walk through the seasonal aisle at Walgreens, it’s those boney images that bug me the most. I was never a big fan, but now they remind me of death. Of real death. Despite the fact that as a crime reporter I visited murder scenes, death didn’t seem real to me until I saw my daddy’s body, lying in the hallway floor, covered in a white sheet. I dropped to my knees and put my hand on his chest. He was still warm. And then three years later, called by the aide, I rushed home.
My mother prepared me for the onslaughts of lustful and malevolent men. I was a girl, encased in loving cocoon, listening to how they had hit her. Tried to rape her. Tried to kill her.
She left her first abusive husband only to be abused by the second. He then poisoned her with arsenic. Later, a landlord’s son cut a window screen. He tried to rape her. Mom tricked him and escaped. Through the years, many men claimed superiority over her simply because they had different sex organs. As incidents of men brandishing power mounted, her courage grew.
And she became the mother I knew. She refused to be subdued.
Her stories didn’t teach me fear. They taught me bravery. Boldness. Nerve. But as a girl, I didn’t think any of the violence she’d gone through would apply to me. I was unaware that Mom was giving me valuable tools that would protect me. That might even save my life.
I think about Mom’s cautionary tales – her gift to me – as women flood the public stage with #MeToo stories of sexual assault and harassment. I think about her stories as a nation stands divided between a Supreme Court nominee’s good name and a woman’s life-changing tale of trauma. All the narratives ping pong in my head against the backdrop of October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
On the emotional, physical and sexual fronts, many women share an uncomfortable if not painful experience. I don’t have a #MeToo story like the ones that are circulating. But yes, I’ve been the subject of unwanted advances and tiptoed around the edges of dangerous encounters.
Daddy died, and I thought the universe owed me a break. My mother was terminally ill. And I had a chronic illness. I deserved a pass on all other trouble – or so I believed.
And thus, understandably, I blew my top six months later when the guy I adored walked all over me and out the door. I yelled at God for the first time since my daddy’s death.
I experienced an unbelievably chaotic, bizarre week, which reminded me of that period a dozen years ago. I would put this past week into the top five crazy weeks of my life.
What happened? And what can we do when the cosmos seems to be against us?
Check out this list with the tune Livin’ La Vida Loca (Living the Crazy Life) in your head:
I walked from the night into the veterinarian’s office with blood smeared on my arms, caked on my T-shirt and dried into the crevices of my toenails.
I’d nursed a lot of animals before, but I’d never seen so much blood. At the sight of my baby’s wet, dripping, red paws, I had initially thought the worst.
“Oh, my God!” I yelled to my husband on the porch. “He’s been attacked!”
I helped my 10-year-old friend clean and organize her room. As she lobbied to keep a shoe that was about to fall apart, I saw shades of myself in her. And a characteristic of my mother.
Her name, which I’m withholding, means moonlight. So I’ll call her Moonlight. An artist, Moonlight saw value in things that might be useful someday.
That shoe? Its unique straps could be saved. I don’t know what for, but I looked at them through her eyes. Maybe, I thought, they’d get a second life in a piece of art.
My mother used to stow things away for someday. I must admit, I inherited the trait to a degree. The practice makes cleaning out a loved one’s stuff after their death, well, interesting. I still don’t know why Mom put a handful of her long, straight, gray hair in a grocery bag.
I found the bag of hair tucked in a drawer of the coffee table. I kept the hair.
I bet you inherited books. Maybe a Bible. Or a series of recipe books. Or maybe like me, you inherited enough books to fill a small library, too many to ever read during your busy life.
What are you to do with them all? I suggest you examine them closely before deciding to haul them to a donation center or library because inside their pages lay buried, priceless treasure.
And just like treasure, we must “dig” to collect it.