I Was Sick Last Week
It wasn’t the flu—more equal parts cough, bronchitis, and regular old cold. I never know how sick I am until I feel better. Invariably, I then say, Oh, that was bad. I recall naps and more time on the couch than being vertical, no appetite, or desire to do much of anything. When I’m ill, instead of behaving like the Energizer Bunny, I’m pure sloth.
Anyone who knows me knows that if I don’t bounce out of bed wanting my morning coffee, elliptical wake-up routine, and shower there must be something wrong.
I spent most of the day on my oversized chair napping and watching TV. I did some work. (It’s handy working from home. Work. Nap. Work. Nap.) But mostly I felt bad.
There was one additional clue that I felt seriously unwell: I wanted my mother.
Grieving Makes Us Feel–in Multiple Ways
Feeling like something I’d mowed over and leaf-blowed to the curb, I wandered into the bathroom. I looked at my pale face with freckles standing out like brown dots against snowy-white sick-skin. My crazy hair stuck straight up. I said out loud: I want my mom.
For a split second of a split second, I knew I would call her, eighty miles away and tell her that. Mom would laugh, responding as she had many times before. “Honey, what do you want me to do from this distance?”
As that brief moment flashed by, I knew Mom is at a greater distance from me. Yet she is closer in my heart than she had ever been.
Mothers and Daughters
My mother and I were polar opposites, destined for conflicts from the moment she birthed this redheaded child. I’m the only one so haired out of four and the only one in the entire Griffith clan. In the 1950s, this mattered. Two brunettes having a redhead was unusual, not conventional, and in that decade, new parents longed to meet expectations.
Mom had many good traits. She had a knack for laughing so hard that she would nearly stop breathing. We dubbed it Mary’s Silent Laugh Mode. She had the ability to make math look easy and the skill to create the flakiest pie crust ever.
Still, I never wanted to be her. Mom lived to obey the rules, cared about what the neighbors—mostly family—thought, and expected her daughters to marry and have kids.
That was Never Going to be Me
Several years ago, we spent ten days nursing Mom through the end stages of death. During that time, I was the kid she wanted around. This caused three siblings and Dad much laughter because throughout our lives, Mom and I tried each other’s patience—constantly. But there it was.
My sisters occupied the other bedrooms. Our brother was a half mile away sleeping in his own bed. Nesting on the couch, I’d start out in the living room. I’d hear Mom stir or Dad would murmur. Like Linus, I’d drag my blankets and pillows behind me to my parents’ room. I would curl into the corner of the room at the foot of Mom’s bed.
She and Dad were separated into twin beds for the first time in their married lives. Dad longed to reach out and hold her, but his ALS prohibited him from doing so. Sometimes, as Mom’s agitation grew, I’d crawl into the narrow bed and embrace her for him. Our eyes would meet across Mom in the dim light from the dining room.
My presence, so aggravating to Mom throughout her life, was a solace during her ending days. I clung to her in those dark nights in ways I couldn’t have done amid our usual, conflicting daily lives.
I did this willingly. Praying for guidance on what to do, how to help my mother, the answer I received was: Love Your Mother.
Grieving Through a Deep Breath
With my heart open and old pains surrendered, I loved my mother.
I wished the two of us could have taken ourselves to the most basic versions of ourselves earlier in our lives. How that could have changed the relationship between Mom and me. We could have shared more of our lives, letting our inner selves known, free from self-imposed constraints. The two of us might have shared vulnerability, growing stronger together.
Instead, it took Mom waning from the cancer to bring us to the point of total acceptance of each other.
That kind of openness, allowing your grieving heart to bleed throughout a lingering loss is draining. It brings every illness you ever had into your body, wrapping the aches and pains around muscles, bones, tendons. The grief binds so tightly it’s difficult to move. Only much later does the aching begin to seep out through your toes. You gain some reassurance that those torments and held-onto grievances were unimportant, useless, and best let go of.
Grieving Through the Loss
At the end, Mom shifted in and out of lucidity, clinging to me. Being strong for her was new to me. I lived in ways meant to ease her passing with hugs and whispered stories. Soft prayers were spoken, It’s okay to let go, Mom, Jesus is waiting for you.
Mom and I healed each other in sharing those touches and murmured conversations, mending the decades-huge chasms between us. We became well together, sharing our first true mother-daughter bond since I was a little kid. A sore throat and cough would arrive. Mom rubbed my neck and chest with Vicks. Fastening one of Dad’s white socks around my Adam’s apple with a big safety pin, she would tell me stories. (Peter Pan triumphing over Hook was a favorite). Mom made me laugh and feel better in my heart, before I was physically restored.
Grieving in the After
After Mom’s funeral and resettling of Dad in their house without his beloved wife, I returned to my tiny apartment. I prepared to resume life at work. I’m okay, I thought. Mom is in heaven and no longer hurts physically or mentally. I’m glad we had the time we had.
Of the random things I could have done, I retrieved my childhood record player. Opening the lid on the case of 45s, I ran through the records of my youth. Adolescent memories were conjured up. Laughing, dancing. The LPs came next. It wasn’t until Keeping the Faith by Billy Joel that the tears fell. Why were lyrics about listening to my 45s the ones to strike most harshly? There I was, body racking sobs spilling out. Heart wrecked on the floor followed by brain-zapping tiredness. The exhaustion that hits whatever it was keeping me vertical for oh such a long time. My body declared: Enough. Give into the pain, let it feel every part of you until there’s nothing left but sadness.
Grieving Decades After the Loss of Mom
I’m better now. No more cough drops, Vicks, or sniffles.
I still want my mom.
*Read, Eulogy for Mom