Hide and Seek

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My mom, me and my sister

The other night, my son and I were snuggling in bed when he pointed to a photo hanging on the wall and asked “Mom, is that your mama?”

The photo–or photos, rather–hang in a collage frame my aunt and uncle gave me as a wedding gift. It was my favorite wedding gift, the only one that made me cry–a collection of images of my mother as a baby, teenager, on her wedding day, with us as kids, alongside similar images of me. A couple of the shots I’d never seen, making them the equivalent of long-lost treasure.

My son is only three, so questions about my mother make me a bit nervous because I’m not quite ready to explain the concept of death to him. I told him, “yes, that’s my mama,” and he replied, “I wish I could see her.” “I wish you could, too, baby,” I replied, trying my best to hold back tears.

Belonging to this terrible club I never wanted to join–children who’ve lost parents–is a game of hide and seek. Once you get past those first few years of grief–the all-consuming kind that can take your breath away–you find ways to live with the pain. To file it away in the back of your mind. To find a good hiding place where it can’t find you. Only, every now and then–usually without warning–it pops back up, and you grieve all over again.

My heart ached as I talked to my son about the grandmother he’ll never know. I hurt for how much I know she’d love and treasure him. I grieve the utter delight he would’ve brought her.

Holidays like Mother’s Day tend to dredge up these feelings for those of us missing our parents. We plaster on smiles and pretend everything’s fine, when deep inside, we’re hurting. Grief has found us again.

And while this holiday has gotten decidedly happier for me in recent years, it’s still bittersweet. As I revel in my own role of mother, I ache for the one not here.

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To Be Young and Sick

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A couple weeks ago, I met with a dear friend for coffee and catching up. After running through the latest updates on work, school and family, we got down to the nitty-gritty. What’s really going on. How we feel.

After years of respiratory issues, she was recently diagnosed with a chronic lung condition. While such a diagnosis surely brought some sense of relief and validation, not to mention treatment that has her feeling more healthy than she has in a while, it also has left her with plenty of anxiety and sadness.

I can relate. And as she shared her experiences and feelings, I nodded my head in commiseration. Sure, our conditions were different, but we both shared a common (yet uncommon) experience–dealing with serious illness at a young age.

When I was diagnosed and in treatment, I had so many tell me how lucky I was to be so young and strong. Surely my youth would see me through this. And in a way, yeah, that’s right. My young, strong body certainly equipped me to handle chemotherapy and surgery and all the other trauma of treatment better than an old, frail person.

But didn’t that young, strong body also fail me? Didn’t it betray me? Didn’t it allow me to be very sick and face my own mortality far too soon?

My friend and I shared our grief over losing trust in our bodies. It’s something a lot of people experience, but it wasn’t supposed to happen to us. Not now, at least, when we’re both still in what’s supposed to be the prime of our lives.

We also talked about the utter loneliness of being seriously ill at a young age. My friend related her experiences at the pulmonary clinic, surrounded by patients decades her senior. I knew exactly what she meant having experienced the same thing at the cancer center. While your peer group is doing totally normal things like having babies, traveling, advancing in their careers, you’re in a cycle of doctor’s appointments, trips to the pharmacy and hospital stays.

People your age can be sympathetic and kind, but they truly can’t understand how it feels to be thrust into this world of constant medical attention.

Then there’s the fear and anxiety. Being diagnosed with a serious illness at a young age casts a shadow over your life. Sure, you may be treated and be just fine. You may have clear scans and NED (no evidence of disease). But there’s always that fear lurking in the shadows that it’s going to come back. Or get worse. That the treatments that worked will fail. That the medication no longer does its job.

And when something like this happens to you at a young age, that fear seems almost amplified simply because you’ve got so much life ahead of you. There’s so much time for something to go wrong. You’ve seen the boogeyman, and you just know he’s waiting for you, but you don’t know which corner he lurks behind.

There’s never a good time to face serious illness. But to be young and sick seems especially cruel. Even if you recover (which some do not, an almost unfathomable truth), so much detritus still remains, so much is left to be dealt with. Figuring out the illness is but a first step on a long journey.

Eighteen

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The strangest thing happened today.

It’s Easter, so we rose relatively early this morning to see if the bunny visited our house last night (he did). We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. We played outside in the balmy spring sun with my son’s new Easter goodies.

It wasn’t until late in the morning when I checked Facebook on my phone that it hit me–today is April 1.

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This photo showed up in my feed via the “On This Day” feature. Of course, I shared this two years ago today. It’s April 1, the day my mom died.

For the last 17 years, I’ve dreaded this day. This box on the calendar, with its power to transport me to the past, to the single worst day of my life (yes, even trumping the day of my diagnosis). This date that changed my life and my family forever.

But this morning, I spent hours blissfully unaware. I blame the fact that Easter fell on April 1 this year, providing a happy distraction. For a few moments, it felt like just another day, and not a reminder of what I’ve lost.

I think this would make my mother happy. I think she’d smile seeing me play with my son, enjoying every moment of his joy over his Easter basket, and my elation at being able to provide that joy.

I think she’d be thrilled to see me spending part of this day at my in-laws’ house, sitting in the sun with my mother-in-law, who loves me like one of her own. I think it would do her heart good to know that I have these incredible people–who’ve welcomed not only me, but my entire family into theirs–in my life.

Briefly forgetting what today is doesn’t say anything about my grief or how much I still miss my mother. What it does remind me is how incredibly blessed I am to have this family and this life that can produce enough joy to, even if momentarily, blot out the searing pain of her loss. I think that’s something that would make her very happy, indeed.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

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Christmas is one of those times of year that makes the absence of someone you love more pronounced than usual. The sharpness of the hole they’ve left in your heart–a recent mark or a cavern that’s grown by inches as each year without them passes–seems craggier, more dangerous this time of year. Tears come fast. Memories surprise you at unexpected moments, dredging up feelings you thought long buried.

Of course, the emotional masochist I am, I bring some of this on myself. I willingly repeat rituals that remind me that my mother is gone. Hanging her ornaments on my tree. Baking the gingersnaps she made each year. Listening to Judy Garland–her namesake–croon mournfully about missing someone at Christmas.

The crazy thing about these rituals is that while they remind me she’s gone, they make me feel closer to her, too. This year, as I hung the ornaments, my son joined in–mirroring the annual tradition my mother and I had of putting up the tree together. He also helped scoop flour and lick the beaters as I mixed the gingersnap dough–another thing she and I shared. I could almost feel her there with us.

That sense of her presence intensified on Christmas morning. My husband gifted me a bottle of perfume–Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew.

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Youth Dew is not a young woman’s scent. Even the bottle–cinched in the middle with a dainty gold bow–has a vintage air. Its heady, spicy aroma is not the type of thing you lightly spritz on a spring day. This is a grown woman’s smell. This is the scent she wears when she wants to feel fancy, luxurious, beautiful.

My mother loved Youth Dew. It was pretty expensive for a family on a budget, so when she got a bottle, she savored it. This wasn’t a daily scent–this was something reserved for special occasions. And while I can’t for the life of me remember anything she wore on a daily basis, I remember Youth Dew.

I carefully opened its signature blue box (almost Tiffany, but not quite) and gently removed the glass bottle of brown liquid topped in a gold cap that matched its delicate gold bow. I just held it in my hands for a moment, looking at it, feeling the weight of it, before finally uncapping and spritzing a bit on my wrist.

That first inhale was like one of those life passing before your eyes highlight reels in a movie. My mother at church. My mother on Christmas Day. My mother at my graduation. My mother smiling with a confidence she didn’t often feel. It smelled just like her, a scent I haven’t smelled in nearly 20 years.

But the longer I wore it, the scent began to change. Perfumes tend to do this–alter slightly with the body chemistry of the person wearing it. It still smelled like Youth Dew, but a little different. A little more me than her.

Like the Youth Dew, all these traditions I carry on to keep her alive are just a little different. For a long time, I did them solo, and now my son joins me, building our own traditions on the foundation of my mom’s. And while the same essence of love and ritual remains, the act is changed–a little more me than her.

In Dreams

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For the first couple years after my mom died, I had a recurring dream about her.

The dream would change slightly, but would always involve her still being alive, and having left us in some other way. She and my dad would divorce, or she would simply go away, only to return later. I would wake up from these dreams so angry. Why did she leave us? How could she abandon us when we needed her? And then once that half-asleep anger subsided, the wave of pain and grief would wash over me.

I suppose this was my subconscious’ way of sorting out her loss. Her death was so sudden, so completely jarring, that my psyche just didn’t know what to do with it.

I haven’t had one of those dreams in a long time–until today.

I took a sweet nap with my son this afternoon, a rarity these days since he’s hitting that age where naps aren’t guaranteed. In the midst of our slumber, she returned.

This time, I found out she’d faked her death to leave us. But she eventually came back and moved into an apartment in my hometown. She would occasionally text me, or send me a card in the mail, but we never saw each other.

In the dream, I called my dad, asking him about her. He said they’d gone to dinner and they’d had a good time. He said she seemed happy, and he seemed OK with whatever the status of their relationship was. I tearfully asked him if she said anything about seeing me or my sister, or ventured to explain why she left. He said no to both counts. Then he changed the subject and started talking about something unimportant that I didn’t care about–this, a bit of reality since he has a tendency to do that when the conversation hits a subject he’s uncomfortable with.

Upset, I went to see my sister. I asked her if she’d seen mom, and she said no, sort of in an exasperated way, like, “Not this again, just let it go.” But I couldn’t let it go. I remember saying, “Why would she go to such lengths to leave us? Why doesn’t she want to see us? Why doesn’t she want to meet Alex?” She didn’t have an answer.

The last thing I remembered before waking up was trying to figure out why she’d gone to so much trouble. I recalled standing in the funeral home, looking at her lifeless body in the casket–the bruises on her forehead from the dashboard, still visible through the heavy pancake mortician’s makeup. The plastic wrapping I could see around her wrist inside the sleeve of her dress–likely some sort of preservation method since we had to wait a week to hold her funeral because my dad was so banged up from the accident. Was none of that real?

I awoke with that same dazed, angry feeling I haven’t felt in years. And then the familiar rush of sadness. Alex was snuggled close to me, and I held him a bit tighter and kissed the top of his head, breathing in the sweet scent of baby shampoo and wild boy. There’s no way she’d miss this.

Grief is a sneaky beast. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, when it feels like enough time has passed to ease the burden, it sneaks back up on you, often in unexpected ways.

I’ve missed my mother so acutely the past few years. Through my pregnancy, motherhood and my cancer journey, I’ve longed to talk to her. To lean on her. To hear her voice tell me she loves me. That it’s going to be OK.

There are some losses you never get over. Some that shake your faith and leave you wondering what the hell just happened. Time passes and you learn to manage it, to move on and keep living. But that grief is always there, waiting to haunt you even on the prettiest of days.

Seventeen Years

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My sister, mom and me at the Outer Banks sometime in the ’80s.

I hate April Fool’s Day.

I’ve never really been into pranks or trickery, and there’s something about this day that gives mischief more of a mean-spirited edge. And social media has made it even worse. Every year there are the fake engagement and pregnancy announcements, fake moving announcements, fake whatever announcements. It’s annoying and not really funny at all.

Of course, my hatred of this day is about more than just an intolerance of childish tomfoolery. My mom died in a car accident on April 1, 2000.

There’s something especially¬†cruel about getting the dreaded call from the hospital that there’s been an accident on April Fool’s Day. For a split second I thought, “is this some kind of horrible joke?”

This year, the anniversary fell on a Saturday, just like the day it actually happened. My sister Wendy texted me in the wee hours of Saturday morning, likely awake with her thoughts, to tell me that having the anniversary fall on a Saturday again makes it harder for her. I nodded as I read her words, feeling the exact same way.

Just as it was on that horrible day in 2000, April 1 this year was absolutely gorgeous. One of those warm, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky days that make you revel in spring. As I sat in my backyard looking up at that sea of light blue, I couldn’t help thinking back to that day so many years ago.

It’s kind of amazing that I can remember most of the details of that day as clearly as if they’d happened just last week. I remember the slight nip in the air, what I was wearing (a pastel striped t-shirt from Old Navy and jeans), what I was doing when the phone rang (lying on my dorm bed, waiting for my parents to arrive for a visit). I remember bargaining with God as I careened down I-40 to the hospital in Chapel Hill. I remember realizing my mom was gone when the hospital staff ushered me into a small, private waiting room outfitted with an overabundance of tissue boxes and Bibles. I remember being taken back to see my father, unconscious on a gurney, disrobed and covered with a sheet up to his chest–preparation for surgery. I remember the stunned voices as I called family and friends to tell them the awful news.

In the years since her death, I’ve tried to mark her anniversary in a positive way. Some years I’ve volunteered or participated in a charity walk, others I just try to do fun things to keep the mood light and my mind off the sadness.

This year, I spent the day with Rodney and Alex. We ate pancakes for breakfast, snuggled in bed watching cartoons, went to swim class, went to our neighborhood Easter egg hunt and played in the yard. Nothing particularly remarkable, but without a doubt a good day.

I think this is what my mom would want–her loved ones moving on, living their lives. She’d want to be remembered–and she was–but I don’t think she’d want me or my sister to dwell. I told Wendy this when I returned her text. I asked what she had planned–a trip to Virginia with her boyfriend to see an art exhibition–and told her my plans for the day. And then I told her I loved her.

I know somewhere out there in the ether, my mom was glad.