By Way Of Introduction

October 25, 2010

In June of 2008 my husband and I dropped everything to come home and care for my ailing mother. Despite the best efforts of (most) of her doctors, she died from complications related to breast cancer less than five months later. Four months after her death we found out we were pregnant with twins. Since then I’ve been trying to make sense of these events and find some kind of meaning in losing a mother and becoming a mother in less than a year.  You might wonder why in the world I would want to write about this kind of thing and share it with others. I’ll try and explain.

When the boys were tiny babies I watched an interview with one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott. She said that when creating her autobiographical works of creative non fiction she tends to write  about the realizations and topics she wishes she could have read when she was going through her trials: honest portrayals of pain, anger, joy, and ambiguity in life’s horribly unfair events. In those early days after my mother’s death, I searched for writings by people in similar situations, grilled my relatives and friends about their own losses, all the while deeply searching for some kind of insight into how I would deal with the pain and how I would ever be okay again. Stories help me understand things. But I found grief stories hard to come by.

Similarly,when I was pregnant and reading baby books or speaking with other young moms I almost always felt out of place. Mixed with my excitement at meeting my twins was a deep, physically painful ache over becoming a mother without having one.  Grief is so, so much more than sadness. It’s a physical ache; it’s a sense of deep confusion; it’s a feeling of being completely lost in the world. In many ways, sadness is the easy part of grief.  I rarely had the guts to say it out loud at the time, but sometimes I didn’t want to become a mother. I just wanted to have a mother. Other days the thought of my children growing side by side inside of me was the only thing that gave me any hope for the future. It was exhausting swinging back and forth between those two extremes.

In the foggy newness of those first days as I mother I will never forget holding my tiny newborn babies—so phyiscally helpless but so spiritually alive— and thinking how similar it felt to  holding my dying mother.  I was slowly learning just how hard it can to separate the lines between life and death. I was so thankful my children were healthy and I was amazed at their beauty. Yet my heart ached to hear my mother congratulate me, gush at her grandsons’ eyes and hair, offer to get me a glass of water, or tell me the story of my own birth.

From the bedroom where I sat and nursed my boys–that never ending act of sitting that  is part of life with newborn baby—I could look out the window to the the house where I had grown up and where my mother had died.  My husband and I had moved to the house across the street from my parents when my mom became ill so that I could easily take care of her. It was so wonderful being able to be across the street, so close that I was always available to take her to her chemo treatments and cook her food in the same kitchen where she once cooked for me . But it all happened so fast. One minute I was making her cancer-fighting smoothies and  watering her plants. The next minute she was dead, and I had no idea what to do with myself.  My hands felt empty. I hated looking out the window to that house. I had been her caregiver for months, and all of a sudden everything stopped. And then my father was diagnosed with cancer.

And then along came George and Elijah. I’d look out the window across the street and wonder how in the world I was going to get through this.

My children are a year old now, and my mother has been dead for  two years.  My father is in remission. Things are better. Still hard, but better. I am no less amazed at the birth of my children now then I was the day they were born. They’re amazing. They smile, laugh, explore. And they make me feel alive again.  I feel the same about my mother’s death. It’s no less amazing to me now then it was two years ago.  I don’t double over in pain all the time like I used to (although it still does happen, taking me off guard) , but her death—and her life—-is with me throughout the day. Sometimes I feel her near, and I am encouraged. Sometimes I can only recognize that she’s gone and only feel empty. As I learn how to be a mother I am also learning how to live without one.

Anne Lamott’s comments have stuck with me since my early days as a mom. As I began to regain some emotional strength I began to wonder if sharing my experience with others could help those who have to face similar circumstances. Grief and birth are complex events, and I think we’d do well to recognize their ambiguity. Part of what makes grief so hard is the sense of isolation that comes with it. Yet at the same time grief is the ultimate equalizer. No one can escape it. After Mom died I began to realize that everyone around me was,  had, or would experience grief, and I began to feel a new kind of tenderness even for strangers. Every time I visit mom’s grave I notice new graves close by. The mound of upturned dirt, the colorful flowers, the headstones that read “Mother,” Husband,” “Precious Child.” Even in a small town every day someone’s world falls apart. This is just one reason we ought to be more gentle with one another.

Not everyone likes to talk about grief or loss. But for those who do, talking about it is often the only way to get through it.

Plus, I have a writing addiction.

I learned this from my mother. And she learned it from her mother (someone else you’ll hear a lot about in this blog). I have boxes full of their documentation of daily life. After Mom died I began reading her writings, rationing them out so that new writings were available on particularly lonely days. I learned from her journals that she first felt me move in her stomach on April 17th, 1977:  “it feels like the flutter of a butterfly,” she wrote. I learned she planted marigolds while pregnant and that she and my grandmother enjoyed making their own clothes.  In my grandmother’s journals (my mother’s mother) and the small pocket notebooks she kept in her purse, I can read her grocery list from 1983 or what the numbers were for “dialing for dollars” (remember that show?) on any given day. No wonder I became a folklorist. Daily life was fascinating to those who raised me. Nothing was too unimportant to document, and I guess it rubbed off on me too.

Anyway, I always knew they were avid list makers and journal keepers. But it wasn’t until  after my mom died that I realized just how much we all turned to the page to make sense of the world. I’ve gone through multiple journals since Mom was diagnosed with cancer. When I get upset, stressed, worried, or confused I write. Writing things down, I realize now, is a large part of what makes me my mother’s daughter.

And there is one other reason I feel like writing. I was raised by mostly older people. My paternal grandmother lived with us; my maternal grandparents were my daily baby sittters.  All of these people are dead now.  Of those who raised me, only my father is still living. As I begin to raise our children I can’t go and talk to my relatives who raised me. I can’t ask questions; I can’t say thank you; I can’t tell them about George and Elijah’s day to day antics. But I can talk to them by writing; I can help them continue to live on by telling you about them. I can help George and Elijah feel like they are a part of their life by making sure they are remembered and that their influence on our lives is acknowledged. I want people to know who they were, maybe who they are.

Sometimes after my mom died people would wonder if they should mention her to me, perhaps afraid bringing her up might hurt me or be too much to bear. I would alwayys tell people, “No, NOT talking about her is much harder.”   After all, she is always on my mind. Writing it down or saying it out loud does not make it hurt more. In fact, it may make it hurt less because it’s no longer hidden. When I know someone else is thinking of her it cuts through the isolation and brings a kind of peace. I’ve always found great comfort in stories of her life and even the stories of her death. I’m an only child, so if the stories are to survive into the next generation it’s up to me to carry them there. My mom lived a special and simple life, and talking about this heals me. I think hearing about who she was might be of encouragement to others as well.

I am so blessed that her passing was peaceful and that I was there with my father and my husband, all of us, holding her. There is only one other event that comes anywhere near the kind of intensity I felt on the day of her death. And that’s the day my sons were born.

Death is a lot like birth. It’s hard to see where one person ends and another begins. It feels timeless, illuminates the web between us and our ancestors. It makes us wonder about God.

So I am going to use this space to talk about my mom and who she was. I’ll talk about my kids and who they are and who they are becoming.  I’ll talk about my grandparents who helped to raise me, and the many great aunts and uncles I adored so much. And I’ll do a lot of exploring of ‘that hazy area between losing and becoming.  Like I say, part of the reason I decided to write this blog is because maybe somehow it can be of some kind of help to someone, whoever or whatever you are grieving or birthing. I’m a big believer in the power of storytelling; it’s why I am a folklorist. I typically listen to others’ stories. But this is a place for me to share my own.

Mostly I hope there is something here for anyone— parents or otherwise— who have ever found themselves endlessly swinging back and forth on the  pendulum between grief and joy, trying to make sense of all those emotions and realizations that come to us in our daily lives as we go about tending the bittersweets.

I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at tendingthebittersweets@yahoo.com

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9 Responses to “By Way Of Introduction”

  1. Katie said

    This is beautiful.

  2. Lacy said

    Meredith – I was terrified when I had Remy because my mom was in Arkansas and I was in Houston. I just wanted her to hold my hand. I can’t imagine life without her and how much I call and need her everyday. I really can’t imagine not being able to share my joy of joys, My Remy, with her. You are very bold and brave to do it everyday. I admire your strength and your frank way of talking about it.

  3. Jo Johns said

    Awesome! Meredith, you have a very unique gift of sharing your life by your writing talent. Thanks for allowing me be in the “loop”. From other posts, I feel as I know the delightful George and Elijah and
    you accurately portray your Mom, Mary Sue. Keep it up Girl!

  4. Beautiful Meredith. I’ll be checking your blog everyday.

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