Back in May, at the funeral of a colleague’s mother, I began to cry and could not stop, already beginning to mourn the loss I knew was soon ahead. My then-boss, a wise and wonderful woman, held me in a tight hug afterwards, knowing, without my saying a word, what I was thinking. And then she said, quite kindly, “Don’t bury your mother before it’s time.”
She was right, and Mama J persevered for five more months, and we spent loving, happy, quality time together. But then it was time. Too soon for me and for all those who loved her so dearly, but the right time to have ended the suffering she was hiding from all but the most discerning. While her physical body will not be buried, she will return to the earth this spring in a place she held dear, the Gene Owens Nature Trail at the Scout camp in Missouri. Time to say goodbye.
Grief is new to me. When my grandmother died in 1981, she died at the hospital, and her body was whisked away to be cremated, and we never saw her again or had any kind of memorial to provide us a transition between “here” and “gone.” Both my grandfathers died when I was too young to remember. My stepdad much beloved but not my blood to mourn. I am unaccustomed and unprepared.
If this is grief, it is a strange and unpredictable creature. Some days I feel so “normal” that I worry something is wrong with me. Other times I carry such an anxiety in my chest that I wonder if people can physically see the tentacles of anguish that clench me tight. A friend, another recent motherless daughter, described it as a PTSD for which you do not know the triggers.
This is grief: The moment you told the hospice staff who called that you were a mere mile away, and there was a hesitation before they said they’d see you soon, and you knew, just knew. Your husband frantically driving that mile and holding your hand while you prayed together the whole way. The feeling when you first saw her closed door, then entered the room and saw her there, peaceful and still. How your legs buckled beneath you and your husband held you up through his own pain and became your strength as you sobbed out “Mama” over and over.
This is grief: Knowing that no one will call you by certain nicknames ever again. Mary Jane Finkelheim. Fink, for short. Gailer whaler, from a silly made-up childhood song, just for you. Sissy, mostly.
This is grief: Seeing one of the two Bradford pears at the exit to your apartment blooming unexpectedly in October and wanting to tell her how strange it is, or to drive her by and show her.
This is grief: Sitting in the dark at a concert in New Orleans with your sweet hubby, sneaking a peek at your phone to find out the score of the National League Championship game and bursting into bittersweet tears because her team — the Cubs she taught you to love from the time you were a child — is finally going to the World Series, and she is not here to know.
This is grief: Every public restroom a reminder of the struggle with the damn wheelchair for the past year, the stalls not big enough or wide enough, or angled right, her getting jostled, rolling over your own foot, or getting stuck between the wheelchair and the door, both of you laughing at yet another bathroom predicament and lamenting the businesses that adhere only to the letter of the law.
This is grief: Inconsolable, when you realize that you have inadvertently erased all of the voice mail messages you’ve saved over the past year, anticipating a time when you could no longer hear her voice, the only remaining message the one from that final Saturday: “I think I need help.”
This is grief: The apartment you and your hubby lovingly, painstakingly, helped her to make a new home, stripped bare of everything that made it that way. The realization that someone’s treasures may no longer have meaning, with no one to explain them or hold them dear. Whose was that little brightly colored kerchief or that pearl-handled pocketknife?
This is grief: The Christmas ornaments you helped her pick up that day in July, that day you didn’t have time to open them with her, laid out in a corner of her living room, neatly labeled, in mailing boxes, with Sharpie and tape at hand, ready to go. As if she knew you would need her help in sending them, that she would not be there. Laid out like an open wound of guilt and a healing balm of love.
I could offer my heart and friendship and words of kindness in the past to those whose loved ones had gone before them, and I did, most sincerely. But I did not — and you will not — understand. Not until you are there, in the dark, sleepless again, feeling once more the crushing blow that nearly knocked you off your feet.
A dear friend told me a few days after Mama J’s death: Things will be good again, maybe not for days or months, but they will. Happier images and memories will replace the ones in your head. Feel what you feel. Take your time.
Wendell Berry writes, “Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” For now, I become accustomed to grief. And I know that with time, with grief, out of grief, comes love, from all of you — my friends and family — and from Mama J, shining out to stitch together the pieces of my heart.
To follow the Adventures With Mama J from the beginning, start here: And Mama J makes 3