Another Birthday

January 15, 2012

From left to right Rosemary’s mother, Rosemary, my mother, and her cousin, Steve.

My mom would have been sixty-seven today.  Since her death in 2008 I always write something on her birthday because I always find myself, more than usual, trying to conceptualize what today would be like if she were still alive.

One of the hardest parts of grief—and one I seldom hear people discuss—is how, after a certain point, you start to have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to have the person in your daily life again.  The world they knew before their death—the interactions between people, the relationships, the homes, even the people in the homes—have changed, sometimes drastically.  The world is a different place, partially because of their leaving and partially because of the simple fact that nothing ever stops moving. Every day a tiny change occurs. Put all those changes together and add up the years and the next thing you know we have a hard time imagining the selves we once were.

This constant motion of life is, in my opinion, is equal parts beautiful and absolutely terrifying. It comes with an ache that is hard to name.  How is it that we become so many different versions of ourselves?

If I could talk to my mom, what would I tell her about this life she left?  Maybe I’d tell her about how much her grandsons love to talk, how verbal they are and how much they yearn to describe the world around them. Or maybe I’d tell her about how much they love one another and how she doesn’t have to worry about them growing up a weirdo only child like me.  They have the unique experience of having no idea what it’s like to be alone.

Maybe I’d tell her how I’ve started writing again after years of swearing I was done with that. Or that I learned to knit or that we found a great home for her dog, Spanky, where he now lives the lap of luxury. I would for sure tell her how all her cousins and her friends came together and took me in, showing me that I had a family and letting me get to know each of them. I’ve been cared for by people I’d barely talked to before her death.  And I think that, more than anything, speaks volumes about the kind of woman my mother was. I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve had people tell me of the kind things my mother did for them, the countless ways she helped people I didn’t even know she knew.  I don’t know how things work in the afterlife, but I’d like to think my cousin Rosemary, who passed away recently, has already filled her in on how I joined her family and how many wonderful times we had around her kitchen table.

There’s some degree of peacefulness in knowing that if mom were here today she might not recognize much of my life, or my father’s life, or the homes we live in.  That might sound strange at first, but it’s peaceful because it means the stabbing pain of loss has somewhat subsided and because, at least on some level, we’ve done what she would have wanted us to do: keep going.  The stabbing pain has been replaced with a different kind of hurt, a kind of constant longing, a constant wondering about the whys of life.  The reality of grief is that it does not go away.  It just changes. Thankfully, with these changes come some measure of peace and we learn to laugh and truly find joy.  But the ache?  No, that never goes away.

One thing I’ve learned these last few years is that finding peace in loss has nothing whatsoever to do with escaping pain.  This realization that life goes on, well, that’s its own form of grief.  It’s like this: You believe you’ll never be able to function like a normal person again having watched your mother die before what you felt was her time.  But then you do.  Not because you’re strong, but because you don’t have much choice.  The sun goes down, it comes up, you still get hungry, there are bills to pay, you can’t find matching socks in the laundry pile, and emails, there are emails to send. In my case, there are babies to take care of, and to love, and somehow between feeling endlessly jerked back and forth between pure joy and crushing sadness, you realize you wake up one morning and you’re on the other side of the sharpest pain of loss.

Or at least this loss. There will be more, of course. And with each person we lose, we re-grieve all those others. Maybe these losses help us see more layers to life.  You start to realize that whatever exactly happens after we leave this world, there are a lot of people you know on that other side. This realization is sad, of course.  But regardless of what you believe about the afterlife (or lack thereof), I think there’s something potentially grounding about this. They’re adding up over there, all those folks you love and cared for you.  Maybe they’re waving, you know, like waves of grass or something?  I’ll skip the over-arching metaphors.  But there’s something hopeful about the thought of knowing the dead.

Me and my mother, 1986 Blue Springs, Arkansas

Initially you think they’ll be gone, unreachable, beyond comprehension.  But then, somehow, time goes by and on certain days they’re not. You start to find out that they’re around.  In places you never expected.

Now, people will tell you this when you’re first grieving, but it won’t mean much to you and you’ll largely ignore these comments.  When you’re first grieving, it’s not enough to know that your voice sounds like your mother’s or that your children have her eyes. Sure, it’s nice to hear. But you just want the real deal. You can’t tell your laugh that you love it and you can’t ask your baby’s eyes for advice about how to get children to sleep. But after some time goes by it will be magical to hear yourself laughing and hear your mother.  You’ll get actual chills when you see her eyes in your children’s. My friend Sam told me about this.  She was right.

And there are lots of other not-so-literal ways you’ll find the dead hanging around, but I’d just butcher those beautiful images if I tried to put them into words.   It’ll be hard to explain to yourself what you’re seeing and even harder to describe to others. But other people who have lost loved ones will likely understand because they’ll have felt it too. And since we all lose those we love, that’s all of us.


15 Responses to “Another Birthday”

  1. paula said

    Thank you for sharing with us, Meredith. This definately hits home. It helps sometimes to see grief through someone elses eyes. Happy Birthday to your sweet Mother! xo

  2. Rachel Townsend said

    This is really, very beautiful. Happy Birthday Mary Sue.

  3. Christie Talley said

    Wow! Meredith you are a wonderful writre. You said it perfectly. The pain never goes away. I miss your beautiful mother so much and have many times wondered what life would be like today if she were still with us. My dad died in 1993 and I still grieve for him but do found comfort that he is over there waiting with people like Mary Sue and Rosemary. Thanks for sharing. You really are like your mother and I know that she is so proud of the wonderful, patient, loving, Christian mother that you’ve become.

  4. Jo Ann said

    I love that you did this, Meredith! Happy “birthday” to you..she would love to hug you, and I know you would love it, as well!
    Jo Ann

  5. Jo Johns said

    Well written, Meredith. Mary Sue left you with many precious memories. You are following in your Mom’s footsteps being an awesome Mom to your little guys.

  6. Meredith, your Mom was one of those friends that when ever you see her, no matter how long it’s been, it seems just like yesterday. I think of her walking up her whole face smiling, full of joy. Full of joy is exactly how she is, joy to be with her Lord, joy to be with all those around her, and so joyful to see the mother, wife, writer, friend you’ve become….somehow I feel she knows…Happy Birthday Mary Sue! Give G & E a hug from all of us.

  7. denise taylor said

    Another job (of writing) well done! Your momma would be so proud! She was always proud of you. Keep writing. I find it’s really excellent therapy. May I have your permission to “share” your thoughts with my friends on FB?

  8. Courtney said

    Wow, this is beautiful, and I’m crying just thinking about how much I love my mom. I can’t imagine not having her near. I’m so sorry you lost you own mother so early. Your words are helpful to me — knowing that I’ll have to face losing my mother some day. Have you read C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed?” I remember him saying that there was a time that he wasnt even able to conjure s mental picture of his wife after a certain amount of time after her passing. I can’t help but know that God allows things like that to happen — feelings to fade, things to change — in order to help us get through. Otherwise, we’d die of sorrow.

    Thank you for writing this. It has blessed me this evening. You are so talented, and obviously you have your ability to bring people together.

  9. Courtney said

    *your mom’s ability, rather.

  10. Kelley Honghiran said

    This is beautiful! You are such a gifted writer!

  11. Tim Evans said

    This piece says a lot about your relationship with your mother, and it also says a lot about the universality of grief. Really nice.

  12. Thank you all so very, very much for your kind words and for the stories you shared about my mother. I so sincerely appreciate it.

  13. Becca said

    I thought of Mary Sue all weekend (not that I don’t do that every day), but it was a special time. I think I miss her more as time goes by. You are right about the sharp pain, but the hole is still there in your heart, and your life. She continues to be the best person I have ever known. It seems, every day, that there is something I want to tell her, or ask her about. We were friends for so many years and shared so much history that I know she could help me figure out what I need to know. If she were here today, with me, it would be like she was never gone, but, I too, wonder sometimes what she would think about things.
    I’m so glad to have you and your family in my life.

  14. Thank you, Meredith. I loved reading this. Although I was lucky enough to have my mom until she was only 2 months shy of being 100, I could relate to many of the things you wrote. Keep writing. You have a gift.

  15. Amanda Tester said

    That’s beautiful Meredith. I am Becca Seay’s niece, she shared this with me. I lost my mother Jan 6th (last week) and I say, well said. I also knew your mom. When I was young and growing up I would see her at church when we would visit and she had a smile a mile wide and always lit up like a Christmas tree with everyone she talked to or visited with in person. I clearly remember that, even from when I was ten years old. Then later I went back and lived in Dardanelle to attend Tech and saw her at church through some of those years, still the same, always a joy she was! This is the poem I put on my own mother’s service notification. I think it says it best for our situations. God Bless you and your family.

    “Only One Mother”

    by George Cooper

    Hundreds of stars in the pretty sky,
    Hundreds of shells on the shore together,
    Hundreds of birds that go singing by,
    Hundreds of lambs in the sunny weather.

    Hundreds of dewdrops to greet the dawn,
    Hundreds of bees in the purple clover,
    Hundreds of butterflies on the lawn,
    But only one mother the wide world over.

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