The trouble with people telling you how well you are handling your mother’s death, no matter how lovingly they mean it, is that you might start to believe it. “Yeah,” I’ve been telling myself, “Here I was scared that I would fall apart and I’m doing okay! I’m staying busy, I’m not crying, this is good. I’m doing great.” And this is all fine and good until you consider my trip to True Value Hardware.
See, I romanticize things. I can’t help it. Every big experience I try to anticipate gets worked into gauzy-fuzzed golden-toned images of what I want them to be. But my daydreams rarely anticipate the harshness of reality. When I got married I did not anticipate having to frankly bump up against my own spoiled tendencies. It was all honeymoon, kissing and flowers in my mind. So with a baby: stuffed animals, luxuriating with a cuddly angel in bed and reading stories all day long was where my mind went. It didn’t wander on to why being two is labeled “terrible.” And somehow I managed to mentally assign grief this same, softened image. Holding my obedient and cuddly son I would weep softly into his hair. Walking hand in hand with my husband on the beach, tears would fall just as the sun dipped below the horizon and we would embrace in a picture of love and support.
Well, or, if you’re me, reality will be that you will go into True Value Hardware to buy steer poop for your garden and while you are standing at the counter asking about loading the poop into your car a country song will come on. The country song will be about how the crooner loves someone a million different ways and it will be incredibly cheesy. You will pause and take a gulping breath mid-sentence and then, to your horror, you will begin to cry in front of the neck-tattooed cashier whose eyes get a little bigger as she snaps her gum at you while waiting for you to finish your sentence. You will rush out of the store, embarrassed and red, grab the bag of manure to stuff in your car and then swab at your face with your hands only to realize from the smell that you forgot to wash your hands first. Then you will sob all the way home and then fight for control so that when you walk into the house, you have a not-so-convincing cheery smile on your face for your family. Not once that whole time will you allow yourself to think the one thing at the heart of it all: You miss your mom. You miss her so hard it’s like a punch in your gut if you dwell on it at all.
Yeah. That was me a few days ago. And I would have kept it up, too, if I hadn’t gotten sick. Such deep denial is simply not an emotionally or physically sustainable thing.
As I chugged along I kept complaining that I had hay fever. Finally, desperate and miserable, I went to the doctor on Tuesday afternoon. While Eamonn climbed me and turned the lights in the office off and on while I tried to remain unflustered for the nurse practitioner she told me, “You are sick, Mary. Like…really, really sick. Let me look…oh yeah.” It turns out I had two ear infections, a sinus infection and strep throat. “You need rest.” she said. “Who can you call to help?” I choked back tears again and felt like I’d been choking on them for years, not just weeks. “Are you under a lot of stress right now?”
I blurted out, “Well, my mom just died. Like really recently. Like not quite three weeks ago.” and she sort of got this shocked look on her face and then I went into this whole “No I’m FINE! Really, I’m fine. I mean I’m not FINE…she’s dead, but I mean…but I’M fine…you know?” and then I just sat there blinking, too sick and miserable to say anything else.
And then I carried on again for a few more days but with small awarenesses pushing themselves to the surface. “You do not pray,” My mind whispered at me. “Eamonn is testing you, yes, but your fuse is too short with him,” it said. “You are being terribly ugly.” And I was. I was ugly in my mind if not on the surface, and I was being ugly on the surface quite a lot, too. I was cursing under my breath at every perceived slight by fellow drivers. I nearly took the pharmacist’s head off when my prescriptions were not ready. And Eamonn. Oh, poor Eamonn.
It finally came to a head yesterday. I was so short with him, so unwilling to budge with even the smallest thing. I had become rigid and angry and self pitying and self loathing and it was all coming up to the surface in front of my son while he, made totally uncertain by my change in mood, came unwound the way only a two-year-old can. When he wasn’t whining he was testing. If he wasn’t holding on to my leg and standing on my foot while crying to be held, he was throwing everything off the sofa onto the floor. When he wasn’t chasing the cat he was spitting out food and laughing his naughty laugh over it.
Finally, completely overwhelmed, I burst into tears. I went on a ridiculous tirade about his needing to learn to behave, that he needed to understand that I just COULD NOT TAKE ANYMORE. I picked him up and put him in his crib because I was too upset to know what else to do. I’d hollered at him all day between pleading and negotiating. Hollering was not going to do any good. It only made me feel uglier and made him more fractious. Standing, then, sobbing in my kitchen with Eamonn sobbing in the back of the house, I heaved and cried in front of my stove and only at that point did I finally pray.
“Oh God, Oh God! I miss my Mom! If only I could hug her one more time. I want to hear her voice again because I can’t remember how it sounds. And forgive me. Please forgive how ugly I’ve been. I hate the way I am treating my son. I hurt. Please help me. I hurt so much. I know she is with you — I know that’s true. But Lord, even though I believe sometimes it all feels so intangible, so far away and so hard to hold onto. Please, help me. Please forgive me for not praying, it just hurts so much. Please, help.”
It isn’t a pretty prayer, but it’s a fairly accurate account of what came out of my mouth. Out of my heart. And oh, it hurt. But the pain wasn’t the all-consuming hopeless pain I’d feared. It hurt, but it didn’t burst me into a million shattered pieces like I’d thought it might. And looking back, I had a few clear thoughts for the first time in a while.
I had stopped praying because I had stopped allowing myself to really think about Mom. I had stopped really thinking about Mom because, as family was leaving town, as activity and busyness and events had wrapped up, real life stood lurking in front of me utterly changed without her. Thinking about that was, I thought, too powerful a hurt. It was too powerful a hurt because somewhere along the line I’d begun to believe that I was handling things so well. With that thought, I had forgotten that I am carried totally, utterly, and completely by God’s grace.
My mom faced death with courage and peace because she did not face death alone. I, too, can only face her death with courage and peace if I face it acknowledging with all my heart that the same God who stood by her and carried her must be the one to whom I look to stand by and carry me.
I am not handling my mother’s death very well. On my own I get frightened and ugly. I yell at my two-year-old, get wrapped up completely in myself, stumble around and get nowhere at all.
But I am being carried so very well. And so with tears, thanks, pain, love, grief, and faith I am trying to remember to relinquish myself over to my Savior. I miss her so dearly and in Him, Mom and I will both be okay.