I’ve been shaken like a Diet Coke lately, for reasons that are shaking everyone else on top of everything else in my own life. Yesterday was my mother and Dana’s birthday. My mother is, well, my mother. My ex is someone I loved for about 15 years (Dana would remember down to the date and time…. I am not that good). Though we have no future, you can’t be friends with someone for that long and not have them cross your mind occasionally. So, yesterday brought up almost every feeling of grief I’ve ever had in my life.
I have one happy memory that kept me going, and that was the year the three of us went to the Governor Hotel for dinner to celebrate. I had called in advance to make a reservation, and when we got there, our menus read “Happy Birthday Dana & Carolyn.” It was wonderful, and no one sang to us in a paper hat……………………
The most painful and cathartic part was when I found a show on Apple Plus called “Dear …” Every episode is a different actor/famous person. I watched “Dear Oprah” and cried a little. Then, I watched “Dear Big Bird.” I should have known that would be a landmine. I remember so clearly when Mr. Hooper died, and public television deciding to deal with it age-appropriately on the air. I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t breathe as a mom explained to “Big Bird” that she used that clip to explain her father’s death to her little girl. Believe me when I say I would have cried regardless- when I’m alone, I’ll cry over anything, even commercials. But this was different. This was near panic-attack territory. Most of the time, it’s just a few tears rolling down my cheeks, like remembering my mother and I watching Oprah every day at four from the time I was nine years old. Even when we were (rarely) at the gym, we didn’t miss it. We walked on treadmills and watched the show, anyway.
My friends and family kept in touch all day, because I’d sent them a heads up on the 10th. I just asked them to look out for me and check in if they hadn’t in a while. So basically, I got alerts on social media almost as often as if it were my own birthday…. some from people who had also lost parents, which helps enormously. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again that losing a parent rewires you down to the neurons. New people I meet will never know the person I was before October of 2016. There’s also a slight difference between people whose parents lived to be the age they generally die naturally, and people whose parents die suddenly. In addition to grieving the past, they also grieve the years of which they’ve been robbed. In my own case, it delayed my grief for about a week and a half, because I was so physically and emotionally shocked. Nothing felt real until I got back to DC and settled into my new normal, which was not talking on the phone with my mother for several hours at a clip at least a few times a week. My mother was fairly conservative- and by that, I don’t mean politically. I mean behavior, clothing, etc. I grew up that way, but after I moved out on my own I was, shall we say, more adventurous. Therefore, I really didn’t have much to say in terms of my own life, so I know A LOT about what it takes to be an elementary school music teacher/choir director. In fact, one of the pieces of grief I continue to work through is that I “ran the game” on my mom all the time…. the one where you keep people talking about themselves so that they don’t want to/get a chance to know anything about you.
When I was literally suicidal and in the hospital, I was forced to open up. Though I couldn’t tell my mom exactly what I was going through, I could tell her enough, and she was more resilient than I ever thought. Not as breakable. I spent years covering up things I didn’t have to, mostly because I was convinced she wasn’t a safe space.
If there is any reason that if I win the lottery, I’m buying Argo and her husband (and her family, and their pets, and their grandkids’ college etc. etc. etc.) whatever they want, it’s because the conversations she and I shared effectively gave my mother back to me. If they don’t want anything because they have no idea what to think, I’ll just donate to a charity I am spot-on sure would be a big hit. Man, I’ve thought a lot about this for something that is unlikely to happen considering I don’t buy tickets……………………………..
I spent so many years frightened out of my mind that I would say something that would offend my mother, I was never truly real with her. Not once. I never lied about anything, but it took me three years to show her I had a tattoo, if that gives you any indication…… and I didn’t have a tattoo. I had five.
I wish I could have been more authentic. I’m much funnier when I am.
My mother was the type person that if she said something that everyone was thinking and didn’t say it, we would all fall out laughing much more than usual because she was the last person we’d think would spill it. I have no doubt that in some ways, she was just as bottled up as me, because underneath her exterior, it always seemed like there was way more than advertised.
It’s not surprising, though. As a preacher’s family, there is such pressure to be perfect people, and none of us ever are……………. but we all curate our personalities to some extent. It’s the level that changes (one of the many reasons I think preacher’s kids make good spies- all of us have the ability to take in shocking news while smiling and acting as if nothing has happened).
In fact, taking in the shocking news of my mother’s death, smiling and acting as if nothing had happened was how I got through my first few days. It was impossible to receive people without public armor. I knew four people at the visitation, had heard of maybe another 20, and there were more than 150-200 between it and the funeral. It was truly overwhelming to such a degree that those memories are burned in so hard that they’ve replaced my first thoughts when thinking of her. That’s what I mean by “rewired.” There is nothing in the world that compares to or prepares for losing your mother, even losing someone else, because she’s the only one who literally carried you. It’s a different feeling, like you’ve lost your first apartment, as it were. I felt all the time, and still feel a little bit unmoored. Because you’ve lost the only one who carried you into the world, it’s an awful feeling no matter what your relationship was while they were alive- and unlike other feelings of grief, it’s one of the only universal ones. Everything else is as individual as a fingerprint.
I remember having such unhinged anger in the beginning, because I was the first of my closest friends to lose a parent, and some of them are much older than me. I also had quite a bit of anxiety and closed myself off to everyone except Dan, because we didn’t know each other well, but had that one thing in common, and at the time it was consuming my entire life. The anxiety came from not wanting to lash out at my other friends, because their parents being alive didn’t mean anything was wrong with them. I didn’t want to get my crazy spatter on their clothes….. fights and gutter snipes based on something I couldn’t express in a way that would make sense to them, because there is no frame of reference. I could even say out loud that I was just railing against their parents still being alive, and that still wouldn’t make any sense because people think they know what it will be like, and they don’t. No matter what you think it’s like, that’s not it.
The reality is that everyone reacts differently, so not only do you not know what it’s going to be like objectively, you don’t know it subjectively, either. Your reaction will be based on what you know, not what I do.
That’s why there’s such a drive to keep a lid on it. I don’t want my grief to inconvenience our relationship, because one has nothing to do with the other in terms of how much I adore you. I’m just on a completely different road, traveling in a completely different direction, in a completely different outfit.
And in time, more and more of my friends will be traveling with me, and our relationship will change in an irreversible way….. just like the relationship with your mother. The permanence of the change is that when your mother dies, so does a piece of you. The individuality is that none of us have any idea what will go in its place. It’s not that you can replace your mother with something else; it’s that all of a sudden, a lot of your time and energy empties out of a relationship that can never be resurrected. The time gets filled up with other things, and you don’t know ahead of time what you’ll do with it.
It shakes you like a Diet Coke.