08 May 2006

A memory

A year ago today my cousin passed away. She wasn't sick and died unexpectedly, in her sleep, one of hundreds of thousands who are killed by PE every year. She wasn't a celebrity. You, interweb, were not fortunate enough to know her. She WAS a wonderful mother. And a hell of a neat lady. When I’m counting regrets in my life, I thank whatever powers that be that I got to tell her that I thought she was a fantastic mom. I managed to tell her just what I thought the summer before she died. It is hard, sometimes, to tell someone how you really feel, when you want to say wonderful things to them. They get embarrassed, or waive off your praise because it isn't modest to accept kudos from someone, but I managed to find those right words, for once in my life, and told her how proud I was of her for being fantastic with her kids. Somehow, I think maybe there can be no higher praise, and maybe since I don’t have any kids myself I’m not qualified to say that one way or another. But anyway. It makes me both happy and sad to recall that day.

We were at the pool at my parent’s house (don’t I sound like the pampered princess…here’s a hint: I AM.) and it was a cold summer day. That happens sometimes. Cold summer days, that is. Anyway, she was pregnant with her 3rd child, and the other two were happily playing in the pool. Those of you who love the water will understand when I say that the water temperature was higher than the air temperature. So as long as you were in the water, you were, relatively speaking, warm. I had been playing with her younger daughter, and she was laughing at silly, childless me for trying to teach her 18 month old to swim. After a while, I left off trying to teach the baby to swim and sat at the edge of the pool with her. She complained good naturedly about being preggers, and speculated about how well she would handle having 3 children. I told her, I don’t know how you do it with 2, let alone 3. Your kids are so well behaved, so sweet and so goddamed cute and from the outside looking in, it looks so effortless. I think you’ll do fine with 3. You are a great mom. I’d be in the corner in the fetal position, rocking back and forth with my hands over my ears and humming a little tune to myself. She laughed. And then she said, “It’s easy.”


I may be clueless when it comes to kiddos, but I know that AIN’T true by a long shot. But she was looking at her daughter, and had such a smile on her face. I’m starting to understand what she meant by living vicariously through friend Jen and her love for her two babies. The moment they’re born, your whole world changes. Love you didn't even know you were capable of overwhelms your soul.

The thing that makes me most angry about her senseless death is that she isn’t getting the opportunity to see those kids grow into amazing people. Dwelling on it has me sobbing, gasping for breath. They were amazing, beautiful kids before she died, of course, but I want her to know about the women they will become. I want her to be there when they graduate from high school, graduate from college, choose their careers, and when they marry their soul mates. I want her to know who they choose to be their soul mates. And I want her to be able to be there when they give birth to their own little angels, should they choose to do so. Those who believe in an afterlife tell me that she can see them and that she does know.

I dunno about that. I struggle with my own religious beliefs every day. Especially since she passed away, I have trouble believing anything that the Catholic church of my childhood taught me. Please tell me what greater purpose her death served. Why a loving and benevolent higher power would choose to end her life when she was only 28 years old. 28! Why a loving and benevolent higher power would choose to allow her kids to grow up without their mother, and her husband to endure without his soul mate. A friend of a friend who is a bishop in the Baptist faith came to see me about a month after she died, and I was still so very angry. He told me that I had to imagine all that questioning about why she died as being in a room with no door, and that I had to make a door, leave the room, and close the door behind me. That at another time in my life, I could go back to that room, and try to answer some of those questions. Somewhat surprisingly, that was really helpful to me. At the time, I was making myself nuts by not being able to focus on anything other than WHY. He told me that if I didn’t stop asking why, I wasn't going to be able to survive the grief.

A year later, I’m not “over” her death by a long shot; I don’t think you ever stop grieving. When I think about her mom, all I can think about is her incredible pain. The huge, raw, gaping wound that she lives with every day. Every waking breath she takes, every day, she lives with the fact that her youngest child is gone. The extreme pain of having to pick out the clothes that your child will be buried in. And then her husband having to pick up the pieces and raise their kids on his own, his pain is something I can’t contemplate, even after a year, because it hurts me too much. I can’t even imagine how it feels for him. He is the strongest man that I know. The day of her funeral, he had many folks willing to keep the kids for a few days (or weeks), but when the rituals were all over, he picked them all up, and took them home by himself. When family members offered assistance, he said, "I've got to start doing it on my own." And every day since then, he’s done just that. His strength, his skill in surviving, is inspirational to me.

About six months after she died, a TV crew came to town and filmed the story. Now, potentially everyone with a TV in America has seen her story. The week the TV show was here was difficult and very inspiring at the same time. The support that the family received from our community was extraordinary. And yet, we’d all rather be anonymous with her in our lives than “known” with the publicity and her gone. Bittersweet. There’s no better word for that feeling.

People who live here and do not know my connection to her bring tears to my eyes when they speak so casually about the week the TV crew was here. How cool it was, how it was on the local news every day, how they liked or didn't like the show. I want to stop them and ask if they remember that all the hype happened because someone died. Someone real, with kids and a husband, a huge extended family and co-workers who all loved her. (Please don't leave me comments or send me e-mails asking which TV show, in the interests of protecting my extended family's privacy as well as my own, I will not answer.)

I re-learned a lesson the week that she died, something I had forgotten. A vital lesson that I now work hard every single day to remember. We’re on this earth for such a short time. Think about it. If the average lifespan of a healthy person is 80 years, that really isn’t that much time. In that short space of time, we do not have the TIME to hate, or to fight with our families or carry around a bunch of regret. Did you wake up this morning, swing your legs over the edge of your bed and put your feet on the floor to start your day? Well, you ought to count yourself as pretty damn lucky then, because you had a warm bed last night, you can walk, there's a roof over your head, and hey, you're still alive.

Moral of the story? Take a good, long, hard look at yourself, your life. Discard whatever isn’t working for you, even if that IS your familial relationships. Count your blessings if it isn't your family. My sister said very memorably when she gave the toast at a friend’s wedding that “Friends are the family that we make for ourselves.” I think she was quoting someone, and I'm not sure who, but it is a great line. Cherish those that you love. Tell them you love them. Give frequent hugs. Be one of those people that spreads joy. Kiss someone in the rain. (Thanks to Milady for the recent reminder about how that’s one of life’s great joys.) Oh, and eat the chocolate. Worrying about cholesterol and how much you weigh is a waste of energy. (She typed while eating a pop-tart.)

Soundtrack for the day: U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” album, but especially the song “Beautiful Day”. In memory of a beautiful mommy.

No comments: