many forms of mother

"I am mother," a painting of my mom's
“I am mother,” a painting of my mom’s

My mother died this past December. I say “died” because “passed away” is too gentle. Too sweet. She was snatched out of life; she was ripped from us; she was stolen. There was nothing passive about it.

Since then, I’ve had my first Christmas without her. My first New Year’s without her. Her 57th birthday. Without her. And I’ve managed to survive each one.

But May . . . May may just be what does me in.

I open my email each morning and every subject line is “Tell Mom You Love Her,” “Perfect Gifts for Mother’s Day,” “Don’t Forget about Your Mom.” The in-store signs are equally dangerous. And the greeting card aisle? I’d rather be back in the hospital with her than trying to walk down it right now. I can’t even peruse the latest issue of Real Simple because mom is everywhere.

Everywhere, except here.

Needless to say, this Mother’s Day is going to be different for me. And so I’ve decided to do exactly what my mother would want: to stop grieving, stop aching, stop breaking, and to celebrate the many forms of mother.

Like my sweet sister, who strives to find mom-like things to say. Who let’s me call her when I’m hysterical and patiently calms me down. Who talks to me on my drive home so I don’t get lonely. Who buys me plane tickets to visit her and my own bottle of Design perfume. Who draws “Corkscrew.” Who tells me to write more poetry.

Like Grandmom, my mom’s mom, who asks how I’m doing and really means it. Who calls and emails and Facebooks–whatever it takes to touch base. Who offers love like only the mother of my mother could know how to do.

Like my best friend Amy, who knows everything I need before I ever say it. And would do anything for me without ever thinking twice. And makes me believe I’m the best person in the whole world.

Like my dad’s wife Rana, who made a point to send extra flowers to the funeral because she knew there could never be too many flowers. And offered to buy us even more Christmas presents. And hung my mom’s paintings in her home.

Like David’s mom, who welcomes me into her family unquestioningly. Who offers empathy without ever becoming overbearing. Who, even though David and I are 27 years old, sent an Easter card with money. Just like my mom would.

Like my friends from childhood and adolescence and college, Robyn, Tiffany, Leiko, Taylor, Brittany, who held my hand before the funeral, sent me the best care package I’ve ever received, kept me company on New Years Day, and made sure I knew they will always be there when I need them.

Like my Charleston friends, Madeline, Sarah, Joni, Kimberly, Stephanie, Amy who were waiting with hugs when I came back. Who are always ready to listen when I’m ready to talk. Who surprise me with capes and scarves and mustard blouses and good advice. Who buy me brunch with more biscuits than is humanly possible to eat.

Like my supervisors at work, Heather and Amy, who could not have been more human when I missed so much time. Who sent text messages full of hope and strength every day I was away. Who provide such a sense of comfort just by being the incredible women they are.

Like my aunts, Sandra, Sarah, Susan, who made the worst week of my life a little better by being extensions of mom. Who held me when I needed it, made sure I had something to eat and somewhere to sleep, and did all the things that mothers always do.

Like my extended family, Melanie, Gayle, Phyllis, Candace, Celeste, who remind me how lucky I am to be a McCollough-Shelnutt. And always know what to say to lift my spirits.

These women are proof that there are many forms of mother. And my mother would be the first to say so.

So to all the email blasts and commercials and radio spots and banner ads reminding me not to forget about mom, let me be clear: there will never be a Mother’s Day for the rest of my life that I forget about my mom.

But this year, this May, this Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate these women.

And say thanks.

Thank you for being a new form of mother in my life. Thank you for filling a gap in my heart. Thank you for weaving the seamless network of love and support and kindness that has kept me afloat for five tough months.

You are precious to me. Happy Mother’s Day.

the lost and the found

St. Anthony of Padua
St. Anthony of Padua

 

Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please look all around.
Something is missing that needs to be found.

Those are the words my mother would recite every time something was lost in our household. Except she’d replace the “something” with the name of the misplaced item: my homework, a favorite pair of shoes, or most often, the car keys. She’d finish off the request with a triumphant “Thank you, Saint Anthony,” always confident in her faithful patron saint of lost things.

Saint Anthony usually pulled through for her, too. With the exception of her engagement ring – and I’m sure he did his best with that one – I can’t remember a single time the requested item wasn’t found. And believe me when I tell you, we kept the poor guy busy.

Maybe it’s because my mom was such a spiritually keen woman. She was on a first-name basis with many saints and angels. Or maybe she just had that mother’s instinct, the sixth sense of knowing where something was without ever having seen it.

“That’s what mothers are for!” she would have sung at me upon finding something I’d lost. I’d just shake my head in disbelief, dumbfounded by her mom-magic.

The trouble is that not all lost things are meant to be found. And the thing I’ve lost now is my mother. Despite my prayers, all the patron saints and angels in heaven cannot help me.

When I was younger, mom once asked that if something was ever to happen to her, would I want her to come back as a shooting star or a rainbow? Perhaps even a budding rose? A question to which I’m pretty sure I responded that coming back from the dead in any form was going to scare the shit out of me, and she should probably just rest in peace.

So I guess you’d call it ironic that just four months after her death, I find myself constantly concentrating on the night sky, hoping to spot even the faintest star taking a dive.

Thus far, I haven’t seen one. Some nights I can’t see any stars at all.

But there are other times when I sense her presence without the help of stars and rainbows and fresh blooms. Like when I walk into a cafe that’s playing Paul Simon’s Graceland on repeat. Or when I find an old photo of her that’s fallen down the side of the fridge. Or even last night, when I grabbed a novel from my bedside table, hoping to finish it off before falling asleep, and in the final pages, it quotes the prayer to Saint Anthony.

And in those moments, I’m flooded with memories of her. Memories I’d completely forgotten. Memories worth more than shoes and homework and engagement rings and everything she and I have ever lost combined.

I have to believe it’s because of her. That somewhere not-so-far away, my mom is still calling on her old friend to find the things I’ve lost.

So thank you, Saint Anthony, for bringing her back to me.

 

 

revelations in grief

“You just don’t ever get over it.”

I guess that’s something I needed to hear.

Because each day the sun rises and pulls me gently from a dream, leaving your laughter echoing in my ears, only to rediscover that you’re gone, I know I’m not over it. And each day I creep along the Don Holt Bridge in rush-hour traffic, looking out my window at the diamonds blinking on the water below, and pick up my phone to call you and tell you about my day, I know I’m not over it. And as my mind races while I try to get some sleep, and when I forget to put sugar in my homemade oatmeal, and when I want so desperately to write about anything else, but the blank pages just stare back wanting only to hold more memories of you, I know I’m not over it.

No more than I was the day I let you go.

So when I heard those words – “You just don’t ever get over it” – my heart let out a heavy sigh. A burden I didn’t even know I carried, lifted from my shoulders.

For the rest of my life, my eyes may well with tears when I see a proud mother embracing her child. My throat may tighten like I swallowed a tennis ball every time I hear the singing of a choir. And our final moments together may always be the last thing I think of before I fall asleep.

And that’s okay. Because some things you don’t ever get over.

And now that I know, I can stop trying, stop hoping, stop waiting. For peace and normalcy and comfort that will simply never come.

You’re gone.

I’m not over it.

And I never will be.

My sweet mom, May 2013.
My sweet mom, May 2013.

prayer of the mourning child

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

But still I lie, eyes wide awake,

And feel my hands begin to shake.

For in dreams that wait to strike my mind,

Your heart beats on; we still have time.

I feel your laughter, hear your song.

I hold your hand and hum along.

I have no troubles; all is fair,

And I don’t dread what’s after prayers.

For momma’s love still holds me tight,

And keeps me safe till morning light.

But dreams are wishes of the soul;

They cannot make the broken whole.

And so my mind runs unaware,

Of lips that whisper children’s prayers.

“Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord your soul to keep.

If I shall die before I wake,

Please wait for me at heaven’s gate.”

this is the story of how we begin to remember

You probably didn’t know, when you forced me out of you, when you squeezed and contracted and pushed…You probably didn’t know that screaming ball of hot pink flesh, who grew in your womb for nine months and two insufferable weeks…You probably didn’t know that little hungry, demanding child would grow into a woman who wanted to be nothing more than a reflection of your energy, who longed to sway beneath the shadows of you and breathe you in.

You probably didn’t know, when I was two and hooked up to tubes and monitors in a hospital emergency room…When one of my organs wasn’t formed quite perfectly and the surgeons offered no promises what the next moment would bring…And you held my tiny, soft hands and stood by my bed and whispered gentle lullabies in my ear…You probably didn’t know that I would return the favor 25 and a half years later…And stand guard alongside your hospital bed…And sing you songs and tell you jokes and pray, and pray that you would stay a little while longer.

You probably didn’t know, when you brushed my hair and pulled it into a taught, perfectly smooth ponytail, when you pinned a giant bow to the very top – one with glitter or buttons or polka dots…When you tied my shoelaces and smoothed my ruffled skirt hems and wiped the dirt off my elbows and told me I was brilliant and beautiful and could be whatever I wanted to be…You probably didn’t know that I believed every single word…And never let doubt or fear settle anywhere near my dreams.

You probably didn’t know, when you tucked me in at night, and we read A Wrinkle in Time or Mr. Popper’s Penguins…When we said prayers out loud in that intimate space, when you kissed my forehead and pushed play on the cassette tape so I could fall asleep…You probably didn’t know how hard it was not to follow at your heels when you turned to go. How I longed for you to come back to me before you even left the room.

You probably didn’t know, when you planned my elaborate birthday parties – with goodie bags and piñatas and birthday cakes thick with sweet cream frosting…When I inhaled until my lungs felt as light as the balloons tied to the back of my chair and blew forcefully at the candles, trying to extinguish those melting time bombs before the wax collided with the cake below…You probably didn’t know every wish I made was for us to be healthy and happy and together forever…Every flame held the promise of a long life…Or so I believed as watched their reflection flicker in your endless brown eyes.

And I guess I didn’t know, when I talked to you 10 days before Christmas, and heard your hoarse voice on the other end of the phone telling me it sounded worse than it really was…And I told you to rest and carried on buying coffee mugs and goat’s milk soap and chocolate covered cashews for your stocking…I guess I didn’t know that would be my last, “I love you.” And there was so much more to say.

And I guess I didn’t know, when we sang the hymns and hugged and wept, when we called it a celebration even though we all knew it was a funeral…When we sat on the rows marked “reserved,” the rows that no one ever wants to be waiting for them…I guess I didn’t know how broken my heart would be.

And how much we all need our mothers. And how I would still need you.

angel painting
One of my mom’s angel paintings.

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

mother of mine

My mom has a gypsy spirit. And an infatuation with the Virgin Mary. She can talk to angels. And she is my favorite writer. No one even comes close.

Growing up, she drew hearts in my peanut butter sandwiches. And let me follow her around when I was scared by thunderstorms. On nights when I couldn’t sleep, she gave me a glass of warm milk with vanilla, then sat with me until my eyelids began to grow heavy again.

She is an artist. A dreamer. A friend.

She believed in me. Loved me. Made me.

I am forever grateful and proud to be hers.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you.

 

(This painting is one of the many my mother did of her angels.)