Fresh Ink for Old Wounds

“My mother is dead.”

I don’t say it to make people uncomfortable. Or to get attention or pity. I say it because it’s true.

My mother is dead. And she has been for three and half years.

When people who could be my mother’s age find out my mom is dead, the first question they ask is how it happened.

“Pneumonia,” I’ll explain.

They look incredulous. “People still die from pneumonia?” (Even if they don’t say it, I can tell that’s what they’re thinking.)

I’ll nod in response. Yes, yes they do.

The next thing they want to know is how old she was when she died.

“56,” I’ll say. “About to turn 57.”

They wrestle those facts together and arrive at the same inevitable conclusion: It could have been them.

I got my first tattoo right after I graduated from high school. A peach on my right hip.

I was class of 2004’s valedictorian and president. The peach made me feel less bookworm, more badass.

I planned on keeping the new ink hidden from my parents, but I never could keep a secret from my mom. I walked straight into her bedroom as soon as I returned from Psycho Tattoo and whispered, “Can I tell you a secret?”

Her eyes lit up. She nodded.

I pulled my blue jean skirt down just enough to reveal the peach.

A smile spread across her face. “Can I get one too?” she fired back in equally hushed tones.

We were conspirators. Always.

Sometimes I post about how much I miss my mom on Facebook. Usually around Christmas or Mother’s Day. Sometimes around her birthday.

People often offer words of comfort in response: “She’s with you every day.” “She’s there, just not physically!” “She’s always in your heart.” “She lives on in you.”

When I got a quote to have my hair and make-up done for my wedding in November, there was a $600 minimum charge for an on-site stylist. The salon owner suggested I have my mother’s hair and make-up done to help reach the threshold.

And that’s how I know that the supportive people on Facebook are wrong.

My mother is not with me every day. And she won’t be there on my wedding day.

The photographer won’t take a photo of us as she zips up the back of my dress. She won’t laugh nervously as she meets my fiancé’s family for the first time. And she certainly won’t help me reach the minimum balance on my hair and make-up bill.

“She’s with you” is a nice thing to say, a nice way to cope. But I had my mother with me for 27 years, and I can tell the difference.

When people see my tattoos, they sometimes tell me, “I love tattoos on other people, but I don’t think I could ever get one.”

“Why not?” I’ll ask.

They explain, “I don’t think I could pick something that I’d be okay with forever.”

I’ll nod and pretend I understand, but really, I know nothing lasts forever.

My mother died five days before Christmas. She was in a coma before my sister and I ever arrived at the hospital in Tennessee.

I used to come up with positive spins on the grief, like “We had 27 years together, and all of them were great” or “It’s better she went quickly instead of watching her suffer.”

The truth is 27 years were not enough. The truth is I’m jealous of everyone who gets to say goodbye before losing someone they love.

The truth is if I had the choice between more time with my mom and closure at the end, I don’t know which I would choose.

The truth is it doesn’t really matter anyway. No one gets that choice.

When I was young, my mother once asked me if something were to happen to her, would I want her to come back as a shooting star or a budding rose.

I didn’t answer. I thought it was a stupid question.

My most recent tattoo is on my left forearm. It’s the largest and boldest and most colorful of them all. And it’s the only one I see every day—a pair of budding turquoise roses.

It reminds me of her, but not because of the question she asked when I was young. It reminds me how she let me be me. How she taught me to trust myself. How she helped me bloom.

And despite what all my wonderful Facebook friends may say, I realize my mom won’t be sitting behind me on the first row when I say forever to the man of my dreams this November.

But I find peace in knowing I’ll be wearing her love on my arm. On that day and always.

be patient with the process

I can say without a doubt in my mind that December 21, 2013, the day between my mom’s death and her funeral, was one of the hardest of my life.

My sister and I zombied through Pulaski, Tennessee, with red eyes and runny noses doing all the things that immediate family members do when someone dies. We ordered flower arrangements. We visited the funeral home. We reviewed the drafted obituary. We picked out songs for the memorial service. We worked on a eulogy.

But the most difficult thing we did that day was visit her home. It wast difficult because Mom’s adorable house, situated at the bottom of a hill on West Jefferson Street, was perfect. It was a sanctuary. A reflection of the essence of her. Except the essence of her was gone.

Mom had remarried that spring and my sister and I went to her house that day in hopes of getting some of her things that held sentimental value and comfort and memories for us. To me, the most important of those things were her paintings.

Mom started painting about 10 years ago–mostly of angels or Madonnas. I loved her whimsical, vibrant style. 

redtennisshoes

When we arrived to her sunroom-converted art studio, we found a handful paintings stacked in the corner. I flipped through and recognized a few from her Etsy shop. But there was a particular one I loved that was missing.

I asked her husband–Tom–if he knew anywhere else that painting might be, and he suggested the small storage shed on the side of the house.

And that’s where we found it.

Not just the painting I was hoping for but dozens of them. Stacks and stacks of her work–most of which I’d never seen before.

We brought them all in the house and began revealing one after the other, lining them along the walls so we could take them in. So we could bask in them.

paintings

They were magical. They were beautiful. They were her.

In addition to painting, Mom was a writer. And many of her paintings included words. Sometimes names of the Madonna or angel she was painting–Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Other times just uplifting messages, whatever she felt inspired to say.

And as my heart swelled looking at those paintings born from her hands–the hands that raised me, the hands that molded me into everything I am–it was as if they were speaking to me.

A butterfly blinking the words “Joy is everywhere.”

joy

A beautiful angel offering up “Transformation.”

transform

A pink and purple tree, saying simply “Love grows.”

love

A skull surrounded by roses soothing, “I honour what is lost & found.”

lostandfound

A wavy-haired woman suggesting that “Grace makes us whole.”

grace

It was like she had put those messages there for us. To ease our pain. To hold us as we cried. To echo in our heads as we mourned the loss of her.

The largest painting, nearly four times the size of the others, was of an anatomical heart, pierced with several spears and bursting with flames.

heart_far

And written in Mom’s familiar handwriting in the top corner were these words:

“In sorrow’s stillness, a tear comes that prisms light, a sigh comes forth

and something that was broken breathes.”

I don’t know what Mom was thinking when she painted those words. Or who she had in mind. Or what angel guided her hand. But those words were exactly what I needed to hear.

Now nearly eight months have gone by. I’m past the phase where I forget she’s gone and am constantly t-boned by that devastating realization. I’m past the phase where I cry all the time. I’m past the phase where I can’t sleep at night, where I can’t sit still, where I can’t let my mind wander.

Instead, I’m in the phase where I just miss her. And I wish she was still around. To be my goofy mom and my sweet friend. Some days I can’t think about anything except her. And she’s all I can ever seem to write about, no matter how long I spend trying to think of another topic. And I get scared when I can’t remember exactly how her voice sounds or what her different facial expressions look like or all her amusing catchphrases.

Some days I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of my grief.

And on those days, I know if she was here, she’d remind me of the words I found on another one of her paintings last December.

bepatient

And of course, I know she’d be right.

baptized in grief

Circular Congregational Church Charleston SC by Steven Hyatt-13-L

I used to go to church all the time. Sunday school. Sunday service. Luncheons. Wednesday night supper. Choir practice. Youth group. I drank holy water growing up the way I drink red wine today.

But until this past Monday–Memorial Day–I hadn’t been to church since my Mother’s funeral in December. Not for Christmas. Not for Easter. Not for Ash Wednesday. Or Good Friday. Or Bad Fridays. Or any damn Sunday in between.

But on Monday, at 2:30 in the afternoon, I found myself on a wooden pew of the Circular Congregational Church in downtown Charleston.

I was there for a free concert, part of an annual performing arts festival. The Festival Singers, an a Capella group from Georgia, were scheduled to perform.

The sanctuary filled quickly with locals and tourists and family members and friends. The pews groaned beneath our weight. Bearing all the burdens we didn’t even know we carried.

Arriving early to ensure I could find a seat, I waited. Filled my lungs with deep, tense breaths. I steadied my trembling hands by clutching the purse in my lap. I told myself I could make it.

I held it together through the powerful opening number. Through the Funeral Ikos, devastating as the words were. Through the Polish folk songs from the Holocaust. Through the African spirituals. I held it together through the standing ovation. I heaved a relieved sigh, undetected among the thunderous applause; I was going to make it.

Then the music director turned to the audience. It is tradition, he explained, to end the show with Amazing Grace.

And that’s when I felt my chest swell. Like a raging river was rising up inside of me. And the beat of my heart matched the pace of those waters crashing against my rib cage. A dull, familiar throb pounded at my breastbone, just beneath my collar.

Because that’s where I carry my grief, my guilt, my pain.

A tall, slender soprano stepped forward to lead with a solo. Her voice cut through the humid Lowcountry air with piercing clarity and precision and ease.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see. 

My river found its way to the surface. Slipping down my cheeks in quick, sloppy tears. I struggled not let out an audible cry. Not to visibly shake.

But I did nothing to stop those tears from coming.

I cried for my love-hate relationship with religion. For needing it now more than ever, while feeling it slip further and further away.

I cried for my own wretch of a soul. Wading blindly through the waters of doubt and grief. No grace in sight to save me.

And though it should have been a day when I cried for those who gave their lives for this country, I cried instead for the woman who gave life to me.

As that unwavering soprano voice soared along the arches in that sacred space, I let the words wash over me.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares

I have already come.

‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

and Grace will lead me home.

I let the tears take with them even the smallest salty portion of my sorrow.

That moment of release was all the grace I needed.

 

Photo Credit: “Circular Congregational Church Charleston SC” by Steven Hyatt, available for purchase at The Churches of the World

the difference between hating and healing

You’d never believe it, but the thing I had confused my entire life, the thing that I couldn’t get straight – left to right, up and down – the thing I was so wrong about I would’ve sworn to death I was right, that thing was the difference between hating myself and healing myself.

And I know what you’re thinking. Those two things are nothing alike. Even a complete twat would know the difference between hating and healing. But I’m here to tell you this complete twat was damn wrong about it. For a long time, too.

Every time I picked up a cupcake or a French fry or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked Fro Yo, I thought of it as a treat to myself. A little splurge just for me. Because I was having a tough week or I had gotten a promotion. Because I deserved it.

And every time I laced up my running shoes and dragged my tired butt to the gym and moved myself round and round on the elliptical like a hamster on a wheel, well that was my punishment. Punishment for looking like a linebacker instead of a lady, punishment for not fitting into a single pair of pants, punishment for not going to punishment the day before.

And just like that, the lines were not just blurred, they were completely wrong. And I was lost in a world where I healed myself with hatred and hated myself as I healed.

I probably would have gone until I was a 45-year old obese, depressed, and real-damn-confused divorcee before I figured it out. But instead, my mom died. Right before Christmas.

And I swam around in a fuzzy world of grief and denial and numbness for a few weeks. Then one Sunday evening, after a zombie-like day spent walking around my apartment aimlessly holding onto a can of Pledge and an unused dust rag, I decided I should go to the gym.

But it wasn’t like every other time I went to the gym. Because I wasn’t being punished. In fact, just the opposite, I was going to try and heal.

So I went and pounded my feet on a treadmill for 45 minutes until my cheeks were red and I’d sweated so much my nipples were hard from the dampness of my shirt. But the whole time I was there I repeated five words in my head: “THIS. IS. HOW. YOU. HEAL.”

And the next day I went back. And I didn’t look at how many calories I burned. And I didn’t think about how I wanted to look in a bikini. And for once, for once in my entire life, I wasn’t there to change me. I was there to heal me.

It didn’t take long for the food revelation to follow suit. I think I was in the shower when I realized how ass-backwards I’d been my whole life in the way I thought about eating and exercise.

I finally figured out that healing yourself is about putting good things in your body. And taking care of yourself. And spending the time to do the things your body needs.

Every day, I make decisions focused on healing – first, from the loss of my mother, but also from the years and years of hate I inflicted on my body.

I don’t obsess about food or constantly day-dream about my next meal. I don’t dread going to the gym. And I don’t think about how I want to change myself.

Healing is based in love. And I’m finally healing myself. And I’m finally loving myself. And there’s this peace in my world that I can confidently say has never existed before. And I’ll tell you what, it’s quite beautiful.

the day before the longest night of the year

Some days grief swirls around me in violent bursts, whipping and stinging my skin in a fury of longing and dread. Some days I feel her warm hum hovering around my ears, singing sweetly that she has never left my side.

But part of her did leave. Silently and swiftly, my mother crept away from us. My sister and I by her side, clinging to each arm. Blevin softly singing hymns while the EKG counted down the time we had left. I pressed my face into her breast, as her bloated hand, shiny and rigid, rested stiffly, numbly on my arm.

I cupped her forehead with my hand and patted her soft, fine hair. The same hair as mine. The hair I always used to complain about. As I leaned in to kiss her cheek, I strained to breathe in her gentle scent and bring her back to me, even if only for a moment. And just as a sweet mix of Suave shampoo and Design perfume filled my lungs, she was gone.

When I was younger, I was scared of having children. My mom and I had such a special connection, I believed it impossible to have the same relationship with a little girl of my own. That’s how much I loved her. In an unmatchable way. In a way that could not exist twice in the same universe.

I loved her like an anomaly. And she loved me like I was still a part of her womb.

She had the perfect advice for every situation, every conflict, every worry. And when she wasn’t sure the right thing to say, she’d talk to my angels or do a tarot card reading or look up how Gemini’s are being affected by the moon cycle until she had a response she deemed acceptable, until she felt like she had helped.

She would advise me to write out my troubles, to jot down my dreams. When stressed, she told me to imagine myself as a hollow reed, letting calming air flow through my body.

She told me I was beautiful. She told me I was brilliant. She told me I was a writer. And whenever I was struggling to make a decision – no matter how big or small – she told me to do what my body told me to.

So as I stood paralyzed in that critical care unit, deprived of sleep and drained of tears and watching her struggle for every shallow breath, I whispered back to her what I thought she needed to hear:

My sweet momma, if you are tired of fighting, if you are weak and weary and worn, if you can hear the angels calling you home, don’t you worry about your little girls. Listen to me when I tell you, it’s time to heed your own advice. And do what your body tells you to.

"Harvest Queen," a painting of my mother's
“Harvest Queen,” a painting of my mother’s