Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ever-present Absence

Yesterday afternoon, I spent a few minutes lying in the hammock while Adam jumped on the trampoline. It soothed me to look up into the crystal-clear blue skies through the colorful leaves hanging precariously on the trees above me. I was practicing the art of emptying my mind so that I could hear God’s message to me more clearly. I’m not sure it worked, but it did lead to an interesting conversation with Adam.

“How would you feel if I died, Adam? I mean, other than sad, how would you feel?”

He thought for a bit, then said, “Well, how did you die?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just say…cancer.”

“I’d probably be mad, but then I’d eventually be okay. Why?”

What I was trying to figure out was that if this “missing a mother” thing that I still feel every single day is universal, in general, or if it depends on the age and stage a person is when a mother dies. In other words, all other factors being as equal as possible, does the heart-hole or life-hole that is left when one’s mother dies vary in size, shape, closure (?) time depending on how old a person is when her mother dies? Or is it consistent despite the contributing factors of age and stage in life? Why do I think about things like this? I don’t know, really. But I do know that even now, some 415 days or so past Mom’s death, not a single day goes by that I don’t think about her. Not a single day goes by that I don’t miss her. Most days, I miss her in that bittersweet way that leaves me smiling and warm inside. Some days, I miss her in the heart-wrenching, damn you cancer kind of way that leaves me feeling too vulnerable and too raw.

It’s not that I didn’t expect to outlive Mom. Of course I knew that I would very likely outlive her. But I did not expect to be totally blindsided by her death either. Yes, we had four months to prepare for her death. We were able to walk slowly toward her death, knowing that it was looming. But we were all totally blindsided by her diagnosis. We were all totally blindsided by the reality that she would not live to the ripe old age of 90, as her mother did, or even to the age of 88 as her less healthy sister did. I think we all fully expected to have Mom by our sides when Dad died, and I guess I always thought that somehow, that would make her ultimate death easier. But it was not to be.

This morning, I reached into the coat closet and pulled out a jacket that was Mom's. As I stuck my hands in the pockets and pulled out a glove and a wadded up tissue from each one, I felt that lump rise up in my throat. "Damn--it's one of those days again," I thought. On my way to work, I called Calli and we talked a bit about Thanksgiving and Christmas plans. Towards the end of the conversation, as we both realized that our holiday plans just don’t seem to matter that much to Dad, we both entered a space of missing the presence of Mom’s opinions and excitement about having us all together. Truthfully, they probably don’t matter too much to him because they mattered so much to Mom that he learned to just ride the waves of her twirling and her excitement. Honestly, no one will ever be as excited as she was to have us all in one place—because the hum of family resonance that is almost always present at any family gathering since the beginning of time often overshadows any excitement that any of us might feel for very long. Don’t get me wrong--we all love each other. And we get along better than many families that I know. But we’re all opinionated. We’re all strong-willed. And we all have our own way of doing things. So it can get a bit dicey at times.

But I digress. Calli & I entered that space of the mutual ever-present absence of Mom and we both teared up.

“I love you , Sister.” I said.

“Love you too. Bye.”

As I settled myself in the church space for the morning, I wandered past the two-year-old room. It was just past drop-off time, and the hustle and bustle of activity was beginning to wane as the children settled into their school morning. But there was one little boy who was still quietly sobbing.

“Would you like to play with the truck, Noah?” his teacher asked.

“No, I want my mama,” he cried quietly.

“Would you like to read a book?” she asked.

“No, I want my mama,” he cried quietly.

“We’re going to feather paint today. Do you want to feather paint with us?”

“No, I want my mama,” he cried quietly.

I stood at the door and watched, his tear-filled eyes meeting mine every few seconds until he finally inserted his right thumb in his mouth and started twirling a bit of hair with his left hand. I was taken back to the days when I would drop two-year-old Adam off at Little Folks of Fourth in Greenville. After a few tear-filled drop-off days, his own little soothing routine was to remind both of us that “mommies all call back,” Adam-speak for “Mommies always come back.”

And I always did.

Odds are pretty good that Noah is now happily playing with his friends, and that his mom will come back time and time again, too.

What is it about this thing called mother-love? When we are tiny and vulnerable, it is a mom’s presence that anchors us and helps us feel secure, so when she's not physically present, we are sad. We feel vulnerable and alone. And as we grow, it’s as if we want to resist with everything we have being dependent on that one person who wouldn’t dream of abandoning us. The ever-present presence of a mother can often feel stifling, even controlling or oppressive at times. One of my Emory students even laughed and said, “Well, you can’t have ‘smother’ without ‘mother’!” But when it’s only there in your memory, never again to be felt in the warmth of a hug, the taste of a favorite meal, or the excitement of a request to “tell me all about your (fill in the blank…day, trip, dinner, etc.)!” knowing that she really and truly does want to know all about it, it is the most pervasive, ever-present absence that I have ever felt. And why did I not realize how much I would miss it?

This is life today. If only I could suck my thumb and twirl my hair while I remind myself that mommies always come back, perhaps I would feel better. But alas...