This is the conclusion to the Death Toll Series wherein I recount the story of my mother’s sudden death, burial and the mourning process.
Journal Entry: March 20, 2007
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” Countless times have I heard these words over the days since my mother died…your loss.
My loss. *sigh*
I sigh a lot these days. I’m not sure why, except that breathing out completely like that happens spontaneously.
Tension, anxiety, grief…
It is a wind that blows from this empty place within. Until three days ago, I was like a sailboat cutting furiously through a tumultuous sea of duty and responsibility. Which casket? What flower? Find the wedding suit, deliver the right lipstick, and cry a river with the family and 200 friends as they pay their respects. Drag through 60 years of photos to pick the perfect 16 for the slide show presentation that will somehow capture a life into pixels and light.
I spoke the eulogy that burned in my brain until it was delivered. Like a woman possessed I worked to make it “right.”
Right. There was so much to make right. Guilt.
Then they lowered her into the ground…my mothers body, harvested, preserved with chemicals, primped for her rapturous rise, and separated eternally from Mother Earth by an air-tight casket, and sealed inside a concrete vault. Such as it is, with a “proper Christian burial.” The old cypress tree, limbed-up for the occasion, now shades that sacred patch of ground as my emissary.
When the duty was complete, I wanted so badly to stay there among her things and take comfort at her house, but eventually I felt the pressure to leave. Life was marching on out there in the world. There was work to be done and alphabets to learn, a house to be kept…
The winds carried me home, but when I arrived I found that the albatross was dead.
The seas, dead.
The wind, dead.
My Mama, dead.
Now the canvas of my sails sag pitiful and useless. The rigging slack, I feel adrift and aimless. I cannot pull myself together.
Can I be a mother to my own children while I am trapped in my role of orphaned daughter? Right now I am just a little girl who lost her mommy. My husband demands normalcy of me already; The funeral is over, get on with it, he says. I am alone and working without a net. I’d like nothing better than to curl up in fetal position under the shawl Mom crocheted for my birthday a mere fortnight ago, and drift in the oblivion of dreams.
How often have I asked some grieving soul to “let me know if there is anything I could do.” I said it because I genuinely wanted to help, but didn’t know what was needed. So many have offered, but what do you say? What do I need? Everything. Nothing. Leave me alone.
No, gather near and let me regale you with her stories. I’m awash in the rip-tides of emotion and need someone to throw the life-preserver.
…or better yet, let me drown. I’m in no right mind to decide. I need a mother to take care of me.
The biggest help of all is acknowledgment that this SUCKS. It is a horrible thing to bury your mom, even if you had a difficult relationship–especially because we had a difficult relationship. It is a big, fat, hairy deal to plant in the ground the body of the woman who issued you into this world, and then just leave it there all alone…life is *not* normal.
Expect nothing of me. Routine feels…inappropriate. My kids play on, not caring one way or another that my connection to the only consistent home I’ve known for my entire life is slipping through my fingers. Though I am at such a low point, I am a stronger mother these last few weeks–savoring the sweetness of my children and enjoying the renewal of this spring. Ostara approaches.
Peace in the Interim
Journal Entry: April 25, 2007
My sleep was dreamless today. That is rare since my mother died, where she visits me. My dreams have been disturbing; I let out what I would not dare to express when awake. I finally stand up for myself, and I let rage pour out from me in hot, white waves. I know now that the heart-wood of my marriage is rotten, and I cannot ignore it anymore. Yet, I feel paralyzed within my identity as wife, bound by my love for who he was.
Since she died, I’ve thought long and hard about what I want from this life. Realizing that it is such a temporary layover, I’d like to make the most of it. I want to be self-aware and fully engaged in nature, community and time. My mom’s passing away from his life gave me the opportunity to really examine what she taught me…not just what she said, but how she lived and the decisions she made.
She most certainly stood up for her right to be loved for exactly who she was, no apologies. She waited too long, I’m afraid, sticking it out in a negligent marriage for the sake of our security. She squandered her prime years being told in a thousand subtle ways that she was sub-par, embarrassing and foolish; that her love was optional. My sister and I contributed to that message, and it pains us to remember it.
We were self-absorbed teenagers and we abandoned her the first chance we got, glad to be rid of her annoyances, and never to return. We’d grown up in a family where her eccentricities were systematically belittled by all of us in any attempt to tone her down, and enforce our own free-will against her religious fires. That was the family coping mechanism, I guess, but it wasn’t right.
To be fair, she was extremely difficult to live with because her christian convictions were so entrenched–this battle was her raison d’etre–to convert everyone within her reach–persistently, without quarter of any kind. She never rested in her attempts to indoctrinate us. This was how she loved us, by trying to “save” us from her fictional damnation.
That kind of “love” is abusive. This is spiritual violence. People of good conscience who are denied sovereignty will eventually revolt.
Lesson: If you can’t play nicely with others, no one will want to play with you.
Eventually, she chose to seek relationships with people who agreed with her, and she found her “tribe” without us. Fifteen years after my family went separate directions, she died and I saw how her new husband deeply mourned her. He’d truly loved all her oddities and quirks. He was proud of her, appreciated every loving little thing she did for him and everyone else she knew.
He shared her faith, politics, interests, supported her endeavors and humbly accepted the gifts of her love. It was inspiring to watch. Had mom lived on, I have no doubt that he would have worked the rest of his life to make her happy. He appreciated that she was sharing her life with him; he earned that gift in return.
That’s all I want in this life as well: acceptance, appreciation, to be needed and loved. Despite all my most petulant efforts, I have followed in her foot-steps. Now, I am the one squandering my prime years being told in a thousand not-so-subtle ways, that because of my witchery, my oddities and quirks, that I am sub-par, embarrassing and foolish–that my companionship is an option, disposable. And my daughter is watching.
Like Mom, I want to be in the company of people who understand the world as I do, to love someone who will protect and defend me, someone who would earn my place at their side and then mourn me when I die. I offer the same in return. That is how I want my kids to grow up seeing me: strong and self-respecting, cherished and honored.
My Mom’s heart broke when our family split. She gave up her husband of 25 years, her house, church and friends in South Carolina, custody of her children, financial security, and retreated to live with her parents in Kentucky again. At 45 years old, she started over from scratch, so she could be loved and appreciated.
Can I be as brave as my mother? What must I leave behind in order to live honestly and be myself, true to my convictions? Can I surrender the same sacrifice to those transformative fires? I did dedicate to the element of fire this turning.
So much has happened to unfold this story over the last almost-ten years. As I re-post it throughout the Death Toll series, I am struck by how naive I was back then. This is why I encourage my students to journal about their process so that they can revisit it later and get that needed perspective so necessary to understanding how much they’ve grown.
Eventually, I did divorce, and leave my home and stay-at-home-mom gig behind. My mother’s life-insurance money helped to give me that freedom. Without the excuse of worrying over “what my mother would do if she found out,” I felt encouraged to change careers, and open my witchy shop, come out of the broom closet, and begin teaching the Craft. That would culminate in the founding of a coven, and my ordination into the priestess-hood–I found my own raison d’etre. Sometimes that crash into “rock bottom” is just the impact you need to bounce your trajectory towards happiness and fulfillment.
Thank you, Mom, for helping me regain my self-respect, and seek out the Tribe and partner who could love me, witchy-ness and all. Thank you for the many lessons you taught me through your strengths, teaching me about shining brightly and proudly, of helping people, and on how to be a devoted mother.
Thank you also for the lessons you taught me through your weaknesses, those alienating and abusive things I should NOT do if I’m to be an honorable witness of my inner truth. Through the grit of our relationship, I am more finely honed. I’ve found the benefits gained through our struggle.
Peace in the interim,