It’s your birthday. Just a few days before Mother’s Day. You would have been 69 this year.
It has been nine months since you passed.
Seven months since I asked for a divorce.
Four months since I left the courtroom, an unmarried woman again, trying to hold in my tears as I walked from the courthouse to the parking garage–and failing.
Your grave has a headstone now. I took the kids to visit you a few weeks ago. When I was taking pictures of your headstone, Henry walked into the frame and did this.
Felicity walked the cemetery’s pavement while Henry sat in the grass with me on your grave.
“Do you miss Grandma?” he asked.
“I miss her every day, Henners. You know why?”
“Because you loved her.”
“Yes. And because she was my mom.”
A moment passed and then he said, without any irony at all,
“Wow, you were really lucky.”
“I was,” I said. “I really was.”
After you passed, a few hopeful souls assured me that your spirit would visit me, in some way, in the following months.
There have been no apparitions.
But I did have a dream about you.
I was standing inside Sam’s Club (who can say why?) and you were just walking in, the large sliding doors opening to reveal your dark outline etched against the brightest of sunshine. I recognized you immediately. You raised your hand to wave at me, a huge grin on your face, as if you were telling me, I am having the time of my life. Or whatever this is now.
The thoughts came one by one.
Mom. You’re dead. I am dreaming.
And I just knew.
I wasn’t going to be able to reach you before this dream ended or before you disappeared or before I was transported somewhere else.
I just knew.
I would need to launch myself across the space between us. I would need to summon an unfathomable amount of psychic energy, just to come close.
And then I woke up.
My new life is full of moments like this, when I feel my heart stretching all the way back into my past, grasping at the years when everything was woven together, over and under and through. So safely and securely. I’m reaching back for the time when my life had parents. When my husband apologized when he hurt me. When I was one-half of a beloved couple among our friends.
I’m still grasping. I hate that I’m still grasping at the past. It yields nothing but longing and pain. And yet I do it. Even as my feet keep stepping forward through this life, even as I continue to build new walls and establish new rhythms, I am still Lot’s Wife, looking back at the city being destroyed by God’s wrath, daring the Divine to turn me to salt.
Why salt? Was it the salt of her tears? Were her tears so numerous, her grief so strong that she was consumed by it?
No, not consumed. She was frozen. That’s the difference. Her grief, her longing for her past life didn’t erase her. It transformed her into something else. All the soft, pliable cells in her flesh–capable of repair and regeneration–grew rigid and fixed in place.
This is what happens when your gaze becomes fixed on the past.
You become your tears.
You knew how to forgive, Mom. You knew how to let it go when people hurt you. You were an absolute master of this. You forgave even when everyone else believed that you shouldn’t have. But you forgave.
Forgiveness was so important to you that you even wrote it in the journal that I gave you for Mother’s Day in 1999.
It amazes me how strongly you believed in these words. You didn’t just say them. You lived them. I saw the healing that forgiveness brought to your life. You have shown me the wisdom of these words–that forgiveness is not only for the other person.
Forgiveness is for you.
It is your freedom from the past. Forgiveness is the force that uncoils the thick ropes that anchor your heart to the shore of your past, so you can set sail into your future.
I’ve restarted this next part over and over again, trying to explain what I’m struggling to forgive my ex-husband for. I tried brutally honest. Then, compassionate. Then, detached. Then, reflective. Each time I’ve written it, I’ve told the truth.
But in the end, whether it’s true is only a small part of this story that I’m now living.
Is it kind? Is it helpful? Is this healing me?
And then I’m staring at my mother’s words.
“Never remember details of a fight with a loved one.”
So I erased the words.
I don’t regret writing them. They needed to leave my head.
“I miss you” doesn’t even come close to what my heart feels.
You taught me the courage of stars before you left How light carries on endlessly, even after death With shortness of breath You explained the infinite And how rare and beautiful it is to even exist
I couldn’t help but ask for you to say it all again I tried to write it down, but I could never find a pen I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes
I couldn’t help but ask for you to say it all again I tried to write it down, but I could never find a pen I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes
With shortness of breath I’ll try to explain the infinite And how rare and beautiful it is to even exist
With shortness of breath I’ll try to explain the infinite And how rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist
My purse knocks against my thighs as I sprint toward the bright red ER sign of the hospital.
It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.
My mind flashes to a scene in Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is on the verge of being launched into space in an extraterrestrial aircraft. When the spaceship begins shaking as it ignites, through her fear, Ellie continues to utter, I’m okay to go.
Even though she doesn’t know what awaits her on the other side, she continues to say these words.
It’s okay to go, Mom. You don’t have to wait for me, is my prayer.
But I’m still running.
I’m running because none of her children are there.
Because my father died alone, without anyone who loved him to hold his hand.
I’m running because my heart is screaming for just one more moment to be with her before she escapes to places where I cannot follow.
And I will expend every last ounce of my energy to help someone I love.
The ER sign grows larger in my sight and I am breathless already because I’m so anemic. But I keep running, my heart pounding in my chest, fighting the lightheadedness, my lungs seizing.
And part of me wonders if my heart has known for years that this is how it would all unfold.
If my body was simply following the rhythms of my heart.
And now those early morning runs, my feet pounding the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., have prepared me for this very moment.
To run to my mother at this very hour, when she needs me the most.
Perhaps my heart has felt this moment approaching for years.
I haven’t really slept in days.
(It always seems like it’s dark when these things happen.)
My dreams aren’t dreams right now. They are instant replays of the last three days, holding my mother’s hand, watching her heart rate tick up, up, up as her face loses its color, its tone. Her eyes struggling to remain open.
(Labor and Birth.)
The image had been replaying in my mind for hours and hours.
It’s both too early. And too late.
(Dying and Death.)
I burst through the doors to the ER and slow to purposeful walk until I reach a set of double doors. I jiggle them. Locked.
A voice comes on over the intercom.
“Can I help you?”
“I need to get in. My mother is dying.”
“Do you need help getting there?”
“No,” I say. Then I repeat the number of the hospital room.
The door unlocks.
And I’m hustling now to the end of the hallway toward the first set of elevators. I need to go to the seventh floor. The buttons read 1, 2, and 3. I press 3, going as high as I can go. I ask for more directions, someone at a nurse’s station, a security guard, a custodian.
Every person stops what they are doing and guides me.
Down this hall, to the left.
What floor? Down that hall, take a second left. You’ll find the elevators to theseventh floor.
What room? Those rooms are in the west wing. Hang a right at the Exit sign.
I’m hurrying down the hallway when I see Doug come out of the room, flagging me down. He hugs me tightly.
“She stabilized again,” he says.
I gaze into the room and see that my mother’s bed has been lowered nearly to the floor. Warren is seated on her left, holding her left hand, the softer, unbroken one.
This room at the top of the hospital is dim, barely lit at all. The brightness and bustle of yesterday’s ICU room proclaimed plans and interventions. Real hospital work. But this room lacks any of that. Instead, it has been emptied, drained of all the light and equipment and interruptions. I wade into its stillness, as if it were a pond, the water barely rippling around my movements as I press forward.
She breathes heavily through her mouth. Says nothing.
There aren’t as many tubes and wires connected to her anymore. Just enough to monitor her heart and oxygen. An IV port for medication. Warren tenderly holds her arm where her last IV was threaded by Maria, an excellent nurse on the fourth floor who took the time to warm my mother’s arm with compresses to thread the IV on the first try into her tiny veins. The tape over the IV still bears the nurse’s initials and the date, MR, 8/11.
The monitor shows her vitals in bright green numbers and letters.
“Her heart rate is 155?” I ask Doug.
155 is my heart rate when I’ve been running for 30 minutes.
“She’s been holding at that for hours. Until just before I called you. Her vitals started dropping, but she rebounded.”
He pauses and his voice breaks.
“I think she’s waiting for you.”
I look at her chest rising and falling rapidly, how she is still fighting, even here at this late hour.
We could be here for hours, waiting for her body to surrender.
But I am resolved.
I will bear this moment for her. I will be here for her, no matter how long it takes. No matter how hard this gets.
“Mom, it’s Sharon,” I say. “I’m here.”
She breathes heavily, the cool washcloth still folded over her brow. Her eyes are closed.
I have no plan for this moment. I wasn’t committed to being in the room with her when she passed. I’ve allowed myself to accept whatever fate would have for the end of my mother’s life.
Whatever was bound to happen would unfold just as it should be. And it did not need to involve me.
But here I am.
In this room.
And I know that Death is here.
I feel it thick and still in the air around me. It doesn’t spin around us, like a vortex pulling my mother into some other dimension. It drifts and floats, like dust in the air when the light shines through a window. Only there’s nothing to see. You can only feel it, seeping like thick syrup, settling heavily into your ears, your mouth, your nose. So heavy is Death in this room that simply uttering words takes a concentrated effort, not to mention anything meaningful or heartfelt.
I open my mouth to speak and, at first, I choke, the sob caught in my throat.
I push it down and remember.
I will bear it for her.
“I’m going to play some music for you, okay, Mom?” I say calmly, searching for the live version of Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, just recently performed at the Newport Folk Festival less than a month ago. “I’ll start with the one that you said you loved last night. Remember that? I played it for you and you said, ‘I love it.’ It was a little hard to hear you, but I know you said it. Here it is.”
I let the song play without interruption and we all listen to Joni sing to my mother with her haunting, soulful voice. I hold my mother’s right hand, rubbing her knuckles, her fingers. I say nothing.
But now they only block the sun They rain and they snow on everyone So many things I would have done But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now From up and down and still somehow It’s cloud illusions I recall I really don’t know clouds at all
“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
More tears fall and I wipe them with the back of my hand.
I can tell how loved she is, the ICU nurse on the second floor, Regina, had said as she administered morphine the night before, into the IV that Maria had placed. Two amazing human beings who treated my mother with such compassion.
So many people here with her. You’d be surprised how many people leave this world alone in these rooms.
Have more heart-breaking words ever been said?
The song finishes and soon we are listening to troubles melting like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, rainbows stretching off into the distance, leading my mother to an unknown land.
I want that so much for her.
Even as my heart cries out for her to stay.
I want for her to wander into a land of rest and peace, where her memories of broken hips and legs and arms and necks, of cancer, of diabetes, of untreatable, chronic pain… Where all these memories become nothing but distant moments in time through which she has persevered. Where she has no need for morphine or demerol or toradol or fentanyl or hydrocodone or any of the other medications that only cut the pain in half.
Tears and more tears. I pull her hand to my wet cheek. Just two days ago, when she could still utter words, I asked her if she was in any pain. She fought to simply whisper the words, “They can never make it pain-free.”
I wish I could have born some of this pain for her.
But I know her better.
She would never have allowed that.
Just as I would never allow my children to bear my pain.
The song finishes again and I look over my shoulder at the heart monitor.
156. 154. 155.
The fog of Death that surrounds us is growing. Why is it getting heavier?
Doug is seated behind me, his head rested against my mid-back, as if literally supporting me so I don’t fall over. Every now and then, I feel him turn to look at the monitors. Warren is gripping my mother’s hand, sometimes pressing it to his face, sometimes lowering to the bed and bending forward over it.
It’s so hard to remain upright. I’m not sure how I could explain to anyone else why, in this moment, simply sitting up and speaking takes unimaginable strength.
But it does.
How many moments has my mother faced that were as heavy as this? What would she do?
And then I know what to play.
The soft notes of the song begin and I’m transported back to those final minutes, laboring with Henry, this song soothing my ears while my screams filled the air and my hips lit on fire. Those last moments just before I hemorrhaged and nearly bled to death on the bed, only minutes after I finally pushed Henry free from me.
“I played this song when I was in labor with Henry,” I say. I pray that she can understand. That she feels my intention. Because I cannot find my words to articulate it in this moment.
What I want to express is that I’ve been here before, in this most sacred of spaces. More sacred than any cathedral or altar. I’ve been here before–But never on this side.
There is a stillness in the air when Life enters this world that I cannot explain to anyone who has not been present for it.
Now, I know that there is also an unexplainable stillness when Life leaves this world.
We all want to bear witness to the beginning of Life. We believe that it is good and holy and pure.
But who wants to bear witness to the end of Life? Even though it is just as sacred?
I will bear it for her, I tell myself.
“Mom,” I hold my voice steady. “I want to tell you that it’s okay to go. You don’t have to stay here for us. We’re all going to be okay.”
I pause and consider what to say next. Doug and Warren are both bent forward, their heads bowed, reverently as I speak, my head lifted, my back straight.
Now, I understand. Why Death is so thick, so heavy.
This room is not empty.
It’s overflowing with everyone waiting for her.
My father. My mother’s mother. My mother’s father. And on and on. The generations have poured into this room, surrounding her and holding her, just as They held me when I cried out for help in laboring with Henry.
They have returned, these People of my Blood.
My heart almost cannot stand it.
I know what to say now. I close my eyes and I speak without any hesitation.
“And Mom…everyone is here with you. It’s not just me and Warren and Doug. Everyone is here. Anna is here. Nate and Lisa are here. Holly and Corey here. Dominic is here. Felicity and Henry are here.”
The words are spilling forth from me, as if she’s relinquished her sword to me and allowing me to fight this last battle for her.
So I will not stop.
I will do this for her.
I will help her over to the Other Side.
I keep listing all our family, as many as I can remember, all her brothers and sisters, their spouses, their children, her cousins, her friends. My shoulders hurt now, physically ache, simply from the action of sitting upright. I can almost feel my mother transferring her burdens, her cares, her wishes, her regrets, her Love, all to my own shoulders.
Perhaps that’s what Death really is.
A great transfer of all the emotions and cares that one person has carried to those they leave behind.
I will bear it for her.
The hospital door opens, but I don’t look at who it is. Words are still pouring out of my mouth, names, reassurances that we’re going to be okay.
“It’s okay to go, Mom. We will all be okay. You can go. Dad is waiting. Your mom is waiting. Your dad is waiting.”
“It’s okay to go, Mom.”
“It’s okay to go.”
I repeat this over and over, my last reassurance to my mother.
That if she would be courageous enough to press on toward the unknown, I would also be courageous and press on here in her place.
I choose to carry this pain of losing her. For the rest of my life.
Because it will free her.
“You gotta go, Sweetie,” Warren says, his voice as broken as his heart. He clutches her hand to his lips and kisses it, his tears freely falling. “I’ll see you there.”
“Mom,” my voice shakes. “There’s not a single person who loves you who can’t be here for you right now. We are all here and we love you so much.”
Doug taps me, but I keep going.
“But we’re going to be okay, Mom. I promise you. It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.”
I say it over and over again.
Doug taps me again, but I keep going.
“And the last thing I’ll say, Mom, before you go…” I take a breath. “I just want to thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches.”
Warren reaches across the bed, over my mother’s body, and grasps my hand.
“She’s gone, Sharon.”
It’s true what they say about how a person changes in that first minute after death. In that first minute after death, I surrender to the wave of grief crashing over me and weep over my mother’s arm and hand until I feel her go cold.
But that coldness is all it takes for me to know wholly and thoroughly that the thing that made my mother who she was–a spirit, a soul, an essence–was not her body. She was not just skin and organs and fluids. She was so much more than this body that is now left, apart from her.
I’m the first to stand up.
It’s surprisingly easy to do.
To get to my feet and walk out of this room, knowing that I’m stepping into the shoes that my mother is leaving behind. She would be the one to say the hardest words to the people who need to know.
I feel it already, the passing on of matriarchy.
I will be the Keeper of Family Memory from now on. The one to memorialize what we’ve lost. The one to keep her memory alive by baking her recipes. The one to be a mother to all of us left behind.
And it starts now. With this walk down the hallway, where I will say the hardest words to say in this moment. I will say it.
At the nurse’s station, a young woman is eating what looks like her lunch, a large bowl of noodles, something that requires her to anchor her head over the bowl to not make a mess. 4:30 a.m. I suppose it is lunch for the night nurses.
She sees me and puts down her spoon.
I point to the room behind me.
“She just passed.”
The nurse’s face goes solemn.
“I’ll let the doctor know right away.”
I shake my head.
“There’s no rush.”
Dawn is breaking by the time I arrive back at the hotel.
I meet my sister in the lobby of the hotel. She is sitting on a bench, tears already running down her red cheeks. I lean down, hold her by the back of her head, and kiss her forehead. She stands to hug me.
Then, I tell her everything, as much as I have the words for. There is too much that I don’t have words for yet, that I don’t fully understand yet, that I will need time to make sense of, that I will need to find the language for. But I say as much as I can and promise to myself that someday I’ll sit down and commit the sacredness of this morning to human memory, that it may never be lost.
But in this moment, what I say over and over again is this:
“I told her we were all there. And we were. We were.”
When I was 25, I asked Mom if she would teach me how to decorate a cake. She said, “Well, sure.” She showed me how to pile the icing on top and level it out, being careful not to pull crumbs up from the side. I made a lot of mistakes. The icing was too thin in some places. Chunks of cake came loose and polluted the icing. I pointed to a hole that I had somehow made in the cake. She looked at it and said this:
“Oh, that’s just a good place to put a flower.”
She took a tiny, flat metal flower nail and spun it in her fingers as her hands moved swiftly and without any hesitation, creating a flawless rose. She placed it on top of the hole that I had made.
I cannot think of a better metaphor for Mom’s life. A master of turning the holes into something beautiful.
I want to tell you about who my mom was.
Her name was Cecilia. Born May 9, 1954 in Spencer, Iowa to Cyril and Virginia Bundy. She was the second oldest child, the oldest daughter of seven children. She spent her childhood on family farms in Iowa and Minnesota. When she was in high school, she moved to “the Cities,” a.k.a. Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota. She attended a Christian university, University of Northwestern, for two years. She met my father, Leland Tjaden in August 1974 at Cross of Glory Baptist Church. They were married here, in the same place that I’m standing right now, on September 6, 1975. From 1977-1984, they had four children, Phillip–who has since become Anna–Nate, Sharon, and Holly. In 1985, they moved to Dayton, Ohio for my father’s job with Supervalu, a grocery store chain in the 1980s. In 1986, my parents adopted Cecilia’s sister’s child, DeAnna–who has since become Dominic– and they raised him as their own. Yes, two of my mother’s children are transgender. And she recognized and loved them as beautiful creations of God.
In the summer of 1987, my mother received a phone call while she was decorating cakes for other people’s celebrations–her house was on fire. We lost everything. We were homeless. This event changed our lives. It taught me that the worst tragedies in our lives are almost always the times when we see humanity shine. I witnessed and felt the care of others so many times in this period of our lives. Our church sheltered and fed us until we were back on our feet.
Our family often lived paycheck to paycheck. Our furniture came from Rent-a-Center and we were frequent users of layaway. But we always had enough. We may not have had what our friends had, but we never went without what we needed. My mom could feed a family of 7 on $50 a week in the 1990s. Again, it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to eat. But we never went hungry.
In 1997, doctors found a slow-growing cancer in my mom’s small intestine. It was called a carcinoid tumor, a cancer that circulates in the blood and disrupts the endocrine system. My father’s response to the news was devastation and sadness. My mother’s response was level-headedness and optimism. This was just a thing that was true about her now and she would do what she needed to do to treat it. But beyond that, it wasn’t going to rob her of her joy and positivity. She believed deeply that God had plans for her and that those plans were ultimately beneficial to all those she loved–even if those plans included her death at an early age.
She kept that same spirit for the next 24 years.
I want to tell you some things that my mother loved.
Her Myer-Briggs personality type was ISFJ, like me and my dad. “The Protector” personality.
She loved musicals. The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel. Anything Rogers and Hammerstein. She could watch Christmas movies anytime of year. It’s a Wonderful Life. Literally all of the Hallmark Christmas movies ever made. And Lifetime movies. For music, she loved the Carpenters, Anne Murray, Josh Groban. Almost any Christmas song you can think of–she loved it.
But then there was her other side that loved action movies like Taken, Westerns, suspense, thrillers, and as Warren calls them, “men-bashing” movies, where the husband is the main villain. There was a period of time when Mom loved a TV series called Snapped, which was about wives who completely lost it on their husbands and ruined their cars or poisoned them or something like that.
She and Warren enjoyed something they called “Chicago Night,” with TV shows about Chicago PD or Chicago hospitals. Things she could watch over and over included Law and Order: SVU, Heartland, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Little House on the Prairie.
She was patient. She loved jigsaw puzzles, the more pieces the better. She loved crosswords and word puzzles in Penny Press puzzle books, particularly “Escalators” and “Magic Square Anagram” puzzles.
She was creative. Her passion and profession was decorating cakes and she truly loved the work. She worked at so many bakeries: Stumps, Cub Foods, the Rolling Pin, Cake Box, Ashley’s Pastry Shop, Kroger, and CJ Farms. She and her dear friend, Judy Smith, even ran their own cake decorating business for a period of time called “Classic Wedding Cakes.” I know she’s my mom, but really, her decorated cakes were among the best I’ve ever seen. She had a real talent for it. I remember taking her into a local bakery and she looked in the case at the cakes. When we left, I asked her what she thought. She just shook her head and said very simply, “Nothing special in there.” That was all she said.
Her favorite kind of cake was white cake with buttercream icing. If you were going to buy her a donut, she’d ask for a cake donut. Most people knew her for her decorated sugar Christmas cookies, but if she wanted to bake cookies just for herself, she’d make peanut butter cookies.
Although she was a fantastic baker, she was not known for her cooking. All five of us kids can remember the countless times that we would protest the “hot dish” that my mom had made for us, a concoction of elbow macaroni, ground beef, stewed tomatoes, onion, and sometimes celery? Actually, she put celery in a lot of things that shouldn’t have put celery. Like her chili. I remember my husband, Doug, taking a bite of her chili and a confused expression came over his face. He looked into his bowl and moved his spoon around. “Is there celery in this?” I said, “Yep.” “Who puts celery in chili?” I just shrugged. My mom leaned heavily on cream of mushroom soup and Lipton onion soup mix for seasoning a dish. One thing that it seemed that no one ever agreed with her on was her love of chicken hearts, livers, and gizzards. I remember a stuffing that my mom made. Holly took one bite of it and just said, “Mom… what did you put in this?” And she said, “You can tell?”
Beyond baking, my mom loved to do so many kinds of crafts. She sewed everything from matching Christmas and Easter dresses for her girls to curtains to handbags and even stuffed animals. There was a period in the 90s when she made–with Nate as her assistant–stuffed bunnies out of muslin cloth and dressed them up in little dresses. She quilted and made a lot of quilts for people, including me. She crocheted so many blankets, especially in her last years, when she volunteered to crochet blankets for people in hospice. In the 1980s, she went through a phase when she made barretts, all decked out in lace and beads.
As a parent, my mom recognized and valued each of her children for their uniqueness. She saw potential in each one of us, even if we disappointed her. She gave second and third and fourth chances. There was no end to the chances she would give. She was proud of whatever we did, as long as we did it to the best of our ability. She was the Keeper of the Peace in our household, the one that kept the ship sailing, even if we didn’t know the direction that we were going as the Sea of Life tossed us this way and that.
She was the owner of a perfect laugh and a Minnesota accent. And she always granted the most generous interpretation about others, even when she could have extended judgment.
My mom was an eternal optimist.
When I hugged my mom good-bye as I was leaving after my father’s funeral, I said, “I just want you to be happy for the rest of your days.” It was 2014 and the cancer was mostly asleep inside of her, but it was never too far from my mind.
She looked at me and said, “I will be.” So confidently and assuredly. And I knew she meant it.
I just couldn’t understand how she could be so optimistic, but she absolutely was. She hadn’t met Warren yet. As far as she knew in that moment, she could have been facing a lonely, financially difficult widowhood.
And yet she believed that the best was yet to come.
And by God–she was right.
My father was my mother’s first love, the father of her children, and what I say next does not take away from that cherished truth. Warren was her soulmate. Both children of farmers, lovers of the quiet land. They spent 6 incredible years together. He held her hand as she passed and still looked at her with the same adoring eyes that he had for her throughout their marriage. His last words to her were, “You gotta go, Sweetie. I’ll see you there.”
Warren, what a gift you were to my mother. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts for being in her life. You will be in our lives forever now. You can’t get rid of us! You are my children’s grandfather and we will visit and care for you just as we would my own mother.
On the night before my mother passed, I read a letter to her that intended to read at her funeral. But she deserved to hear it in this life. I’d like to read that letter now.
We met on November 24, 1981 at 3:51 in the morning. It was a Tuesday, just two days before Thanksgiving. I don’t remember it, but now that I have two kids of my own, I know that it’s likely that you’ve never forgotten that morning. You told me after Felicity was born that I had been your hardest birth. That surprised me because I was your third child. You didn’t know why it had been that way. But it was. You and Dad had expected that I would be born before he had to leave for his early morning shift at the bakery. But no. At 1:00 a.m., Dad left for work.
And so, while the world slept and my father went to work, you labored alone in those final hours, which I know from experience are the loneliest, most painful, and most detached hours that you can experience in life. No matter how many people surround you, you are still alone in your pain.
These are hours when you are certain there is no one in the world who is currently suffering as much as you are. They are hours when you bear the entire weight of humanity, pushing, pulling, and pressing you from all sides. There would be no human life if not for the ability for women to bear this pain.
I repeat: Life depends on the strength and fortitude of women to bear this pain.
You bore so much pain in your life. You bore it without most people even knowing, a true testament to your roots and upbringing in rural Iowa and Minnesota, where the simple economics of farm life governed. You cannot reap what you don’t sow. You cannot take if you don’t give.
And so when life gave you pregnancies, it also gave you severe hyperemesis gravidarum. When it gave Dad the opportunity to turn his job into a career, it also gave you an extra 800 miles between you and everyone you loved. When it gave you the stress of raising teenagers, it gave you the stress of raising more teenagers. Sorry about that. That was actually completely unfair.
Mom, you were the oldest girl in a family of seven children. You talked about how difficult it had been to move from farm life to city life in high school. The teasing hurt you. So you turned to your faith. Your faith taught you that even if others didn’t accept you for who you were, you would always be accepted and loved by God. For you, being God’s child gave you the support and comfort that you needed as you grew up in a culture that you didn’t understand.
Losing Dad was tough, but why does it feel like it hurts more to lose you?
Maybe it’s because it feels like a world without your mother is a world without the greatest compassion and the most acceptance and unconditional love that you have ever known.
For a long time, I didn’t want to be a mom. Moms were so uncool. So passé. So not who I wanted to become. I wanted to be accomplished and talented and maybe someday well-known. I was going to do much, much harder things than being a mom.
What a fool I was. Such foolish, foolish thoughts. So full of pride. How could I ever think that you weren’t exactly the person that I should aspire to become?
How could I ever think that being a good mom was easy?
Being a good mom has turned out to be literally the hardest thing that I will ever do. And I’m finding now, over and over again, the empathy and the perspective that I need to understand just how difficult it must have been for you to raise 5 of us.
I’m so sorry, Mom.
Mom, it’s because of you that I’m able to keep the whole thing in perspective.
The world will always find another teacher or writer or employee. But your family will never find another you.
I know that my heart will always call out for you when I’m hurt.
I know that I will always miss your presence, but I know that I’ll miss it the most at Christmastime. Every time I smell those fragrant pine cones, covered in cinnamon and clove, I can almost hear the scratch of the record player starting up Anne Murray’s Christmas Wishes, the notes of Winter Wonderlandblending into Silver Bells.
As deep as my sadness is right now, sadness is not what I want this to be about.
What I want to talk about is my gratitude—all the reasons that I’m thankful you are and will always be my mother.
Thank you, from the bottom of my soul, for not just being our mother but living your life for us, as if we were your true calling. We never felt like you had something more important to do.
Thank you for creating a home in which I always felt that there would always be enough—even when that wasn’t guaranteed.
Your optimism and positivity, which eclipsed all of Dad’s worrying.
All the times you were there when we needed you. In all the ways that we needed you. I don’t ever remember you telling us that you could not be there for us, no matter what the problem was.
For your lifelong examples of what it means to love God and live as a cherished creation of God. Through all of the financial and physical hardships, through Dad’s illness and death, you showed us how to feel grief even as you move forward.
Thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches and that I’d bite into while I was eating at school.
Thank you for the pair of shorts that you sewed for me late into the night when I told you I got laughed at for wearing the same pair of jeans two days in a row in fifth grade.
Thank you for disregarding the doctors’ original prognosis in 1998 and going ahead and living your life anyway. You showed me why it was important to you to not allow people to only see CANCER when they see you. Even though cancer could consume your body, you would never give it the victory of consuming your spirit. You kept your identity and your wholeness until the end.
Thank you for teaching me that one of the very best things that you can do in this life is to be kind and generous to others—Because you never know when you will be the one that needs to feel that kindness, especially when you feel like you just cannot go on.
Thank you for filling my memory with positivity, laughter, imagination, and creativity.
Thank you for my freedom, how you basically dropped me off at college and said, “Have fun!” You gave me the space to take ownership and responsibility for my life.
Thank you for allowing me to feel a broken heart and giving me the space to learn how to keep on living after rejection and loss.
You were pretty amazing with space. Space to allow me to figure out marriage. Space to figure out how to be a mom. Space to feel my way through the pain of miscarriage. You were always there when I needed you, but you were always sensitive to how space could give me agency and ultimately, more resilience.
Life is funny and awful. Because now that I have all the space, what I wouldn’t give to give it all back just to have you back in my life until I’m much, much older. No matter how old you are, you’re never ready to lose your mother.
One of the first thoughts that I had when you told me in August 2019 that the cancer was back was… “Please don’t leave me alone in this world. I don’t know how to I can be okay in this world without knowing you are in it.”
But you have always been preparing me for this, haven’t you? For years, you have been giving me the space to steer my own life. You have been cheering me on from other states as you’ve gone on to live your life. You’ve encouraged me as I’ve developed my own social support network around me through friends and church. In my mind, I know that I will be okay. I know that I will wake up tomorrow, make the coffee, do all the things, and make it to the end of the day.
But my heart doesn’t know that. All my heart wants is to stop losing the people that I love.
When I first asked you why you gave me my name, you said I was named after Song of Solomon 2:1, I am the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley. This didn’t really mean much to me, especially since I was eight years old.
But what you wrote in my baby book made more sense.
You wrote “The Rose of Sharon, the beauty of a desert.”
You saw me as a flower in the desert.
I came into your life at a challenging time. You were a stay-at-home mom to two young boys, aged 4 ½ and 2 years. Dad worked early morning hours at the bakery, often six days a week. We know now that Dad struggled with bipolar depression for years, but at the time, you just thought that he was moody and needed help seeing the positive side of life. And that’s what you were there for—to be his partner. To provide balance. From week to week, money was perpetually tight. I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t complain about any of this, ever. That was your life. He was your husband and we were your children and God was God. And you rejoiced and were glad in it.
You saw me as a flower in the desert.
Desert flowers don’t have deep roots, but they do have extensive roots. They spread out far and wide to gather as much nourishment as possible, to prepare for the lack of rain. I really can’t think of a better metaphor for how I’ve lived most of my life. Drink up as much as you can now because the drought is coming. One way or another, it’s coming.
My roots have never been deep. We are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, uprooted from homes and cultures. Children of rural farmers, isolated for miles on every side. We moved away from all our extended family early in my life. For generations, this was how we lived: stretching out instead of digging down.
There were many seasons in life when you and Dad could not depend on your family because of how far away we lived. So we reached out to the church. And they were our support. They provided structure and guidance. Love and belonging. You showed me how to make a family with those around you. How to help others and how to have the humility to be helped when you needed it. And we often did. We often did.
Thank you for this, Mom. Because now that you and Dad are gone, this is how I will survive. This is how I will bloom and continue to grow in a life where my roots are almost gone. I will reach up and reach out. I will trust that someone will be there because I know the world is full of suffering—and because it is full of suffering, it is also full of empathy. My family that remains. Friends. Always friends. I will reach up and reach out because I need help to face this world without you.
“She’s out of isolation, so you don’t need to bother with a gown or gloves. Whatever it is, it’s not COVID,” the ICU nurse says. I glance at the whiteboard. Nurse: Megan.
Through the window, I see my mother reclined on the hospital bed, her eyes closed, her chest rapidly rising and falling. This labored breathing has been ongoing for days now, her heart rate increasing steadily over the days. 90. 100. 110. 125. 130.
It holds at 140 now.
140 is my heart rate when I’m jogging or doing kickboxing. And there, she lies, reclined on the hospital bed, her body racing as if accelerating toward some unknown destination in the distance. Does she know where she’s going? And when will she arrive?
What’s causing her high heart rate? I had asked the doctor.
It’s the body’s stress response.
We don’t know.
There would be nothing else to say until more tests were done. More and more tests.
I look at my mother through the door.
She is dying. Surely, they can see that.
I slide the door of the ICU room open and step inside and rest my eyes on my mother. And the reality of the situation washes over me again, a horrible reminder. Oh, right. It really is as bad as the last time that I was here, just hours ago.
But then, I realize. No.
It’s not as bad as last time.
It’s actually worse.
I want to tell every nurse and doctor and hospital worker, This isn’t what she looks like. She’s really not like this.
In a week, she has transformed from a robust 68-year-old woman into a woman who looks to be in her 80s. Frail.
I place my cup of coffee on the floor beside the chair next to her bed and sit beside her. The welts that have emerged on her face and arms are starting to crust over. The doctors guess that it’s a reaction to antibiotics to treat a UTI, but it’s just a guess.
I slide my hand under hers. It’s not as hot as yesterday, when her fever was 102, but it’s still so warm. Her fingers are swollen. From what? I don’t know. Why is she breathing like this? There are new masses in her lungs, ones that have grown rapidly at some time in the last month, but is that what’s causing her body to run like its out of control?
Her spinal tap is clear. There’s no infection. Her brain is fine. Her heart is fine. Carcinoid cancer is strange. We don’t know everything about it.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “It’s Sharon.”
I open a document on my phone. It’s a letter that I’ve written to her. I was going to read it at her funeral, but she deserves to hear it while she’s alive. My eyes skate over the first line that I’ve written to steel myself to read it, but I can’t see through the blurry curtain of my tears. They drop freely onto my dress.
That looks so nice on you! she had said, not two months ago. Stitch Fix? I’ve never heard of it!
I look around the room for a box of tissues and see nothing. There are never enough tissues in these rooms. I wipe my face with the back of my free hand as I hold my mother’s hand. Then, I pull a used paper towel from the dispenser in her last hospital room and dab at my face again.
I close the app with the letter to my mother and navigate to a song. Something that has comforted me in the past.
See me someday sleeping softly Flowers draped across my knees Hear the cries of friends and family Missing me Press on
She’s not gone yet, but I miss her already.
I look down at my mother’s hand.
Just two weeks ago, she responded to my touch. One week ago, she could still acknowledge that I was in the room. Yesterday, with effort, she could say a few words–if they were important. I fed her a small piece of strawberry, and with great effort, she chewed it. Now, when she is aware, her communication has reduced to groans and a look from behind glassy eyes.
In this moment, her eyes are closed. I could almost convince myself that she was sleeping, if she weren’t breathing like she were running a race.
My head drops to her hand and I press it to my cheek, where my tears are now sliding over her knuckles and down her wrists. I turn my head and look up the side of her arm, upward at her as she is reclined in the bed and suddenly she seems as large as she was to me when I was a child. Authoritative. Grand. Only now, silent and suffering.
I want to wake her up, shake her out of this nightmare. I want to curl up in her arms. She was not a mother who would say something like, “Everything’s going to be okay, Sweetie.” Instead, she would say something simpler, like, “Hey, now. What’s wrong?”
Her hand is slick underneath my cheeks, my tears still spilling forth. There is Life there, inside of her, as strong as it has ever been. But not for long. Soon, her hand will turn cold and there will be no warming it up with peach tea or coffee with cream. I can still see the steam rising from her mug as she laughed about my ridiculous guesses for unscrambling words in a puzzle book.
The sadness settling over me is so heavy I cannot even hold myself up and soon, I’m collapsed over the rail of the hospital bed. I’m crawling up the side of the bed now, my face and neck pressed against her arm and hand, gazing up at her. I want her to snap out of this. For her breathing to slow. For her to look over at me and say, “I had the weirdest dream.”
But her face is so thin now. Her face has never been this pale, this thin, this drained of life.
I want to go back. To my beginning. When I was the Protected, and she, the Protector. When it was her tears of joy covering me at my birth, not my tears of sorrow covering her just before her death. How short the years were between those two turning points in our universe. I didn’t always take those years for granted. I cherished them more each time she told us the cancer was back. But how many years had the cancer slept–and I lost sight of my gratitude?
Moments with someone you love become so much more precious when you’re threatened with losing them forever. You find yourself making frequent trips to see them. Cherishing every word they say. Not throwing away their cards. Taking more pictures. More videos.
My mind drifts and I think of the woman who wept upon Jesus’s feet and then wiped away her tears with her hair, just before pouring expensive perfume over his feet.
Why was she crying? Jesus and his disciples believed that it was because she was “a sinful woman” and was plagued with regret.
But no one asked her. They just assumed that she was sad about her “sinful life.”
But now I wonder if she knew, in the way that I know now, that Death is at the doorstep. I wonder if she felt the same tight tug at her heart when she looked at Jesus, the tightness that I’m feeling now as I gaze at my mother in these final hours, as if she is being pulled into a thick fog while I am anchored here. Unable to follow, even at a distance.
Even though there was a time when we were so connected that the echoes of our heartbeats rippled throughout the same body. My hiccups were her hiccups, and hers were mine.
Wasn’t there a verse in Isaiah (Was it Isaiah?) that said, Death where is thy sting?
I know where it is. It’s here, in this room. I feel it needling me every time a monitor beeps, announcing some new threshold that my mother has fallen too far below or risen too far above.
The nurse, Megan, quietly enters the room and I don’t even try to hide my tears. What’s the point?
“Here,” she says softly, handing me a hospital washcloth. “This is better.”
I nod, unable to even thank her properly. I push the stiff, paper towels into my purse.
She doesn’t say anything.
There is nothing to say.
Life is filled with bitter music Breeze that whistles like a song Death gets swept down like an eagle Snatch us with our shoes still on
Behind me, I can hear the soft conversations of nurses in the hallway. I can’t hear the content, but the tone tells me that whatever they’re talking about weighs infinitely less than what is happening in this room.
Do they know? Can they tell what’s happening? Is it obvious to them too?
When do we start using that word, dying? Is it too soon? It doesn’t seem too soon.
Instead, it seems too late for someone to be notifying me. Instead, it seems that I was meant to figure this out on my own. It seems that we are in the wrong place here. ICUs are meant for people to get better. Why is she here anyway? Shouldn’t we be in hospice? Why are we pumping high-flow oxygen into her nostrils and administering potassium?
Why did we do a biopsy? Will the results read as clearly as a pregnancy test? Dying or Not Dying? When are the results supposed to come back? After she’s dead? Why are we still testing?
The sobs overwhelm me and I find myself praying not only to God, but also my father. My grandmother. Any ancestors who will hear me.
Please. She needs someone to guide her. She needs help to find her way forward. I cannot stand to watch her suffer like this another day.
I love her too much to allow this to go on.
There is a doctor’s knock at the door. They all knock the same–an interrupting, quick signal that you are next in line. But I cannot even lift myself to acknowledge the sound. If this doctor’s time is money, they’ll need to pay the price for now. And I will come away from this moment knowing that I owe them nothing. I will not shield them from my pain or my grief. They should know the weight of what is happening here, how the gravity of this moment warps time, slows it down, so that every moment is lived painfully and with the greatest effort imaginable.
They should feel it, if even to a small degree, in the way that I’m feeling it now.
My mother is dying.
Whoever is about to sit with me and talk with me already knows that, too.
He’s very kind, this doctor in his late 30s. He uses phrases like, “How are you feeling about her condition?” And “Yes, I agree that it’s time to modify her goals.”
When I ask if we can help her pass without suffering, he says, “We absolutely can.”
Then, a new flood of tears arrives as phrases that should be uttered twenty years from now are spoken today.
We can move her to a private, quiet room. Make her comfortable. Give her morphine for pain. Give her anti-anxiety medication.
How long will it take, we ask as a family.
Could be 30 minutes. A few hours. Or days.
I’m hoping for a few hours. Time to say what we want to say to her. To pray. To read to her.
But the thought of wandering for days in this Space Between Worlds…
The thought is crushing.
But I know that I will bear it, no matter how long.
I will bear it for her.
The night nurse comes, Regina. I believe she is the Holy Spirit, the Great Comforter, incarnate. She can’t be older than 35, but she speaks as someone who has traveled this road of Death many times. She props her hands on her hips like she’s telling us the specials on tonight’s menu.
“I want to be clear about what we’re doing tonight. We’re going to do a terminal wean. We’ll do everything to make her comfortable and relieve her pain.”
It’s not insensitive the way that she says any of this. Instead, it instantly puts me at peace. What we are doing is not unusual or awful. We are only getting out of the way of Death. We are simply fulfilling my mother’s wishes, even though it means that she’s leaving us behind.
We read last minute messages from friends and family who want to say goodbye. We hold the phone up to her ear to allow family who can’t make it to talk to her. My mother says nothing. She cannot talk. All she can do now is groan, and only when absolutely necessary. She breathes heavily through her nose and mouth, which quickly dries out her lips. The tone in her jaw is gone. She cannot keep her mouth closed. Every time Warren carefully applies Chapstick to her lips, tears sting my eyes.
Can she still hear? I wonder. While half of me is glad that we are talking to my mother as if she can still hear us, the other half of me remains skeptical and wonders if this is all a show to make ourselves feel better.
Her brain is fine, the doctors had said.
As I sit on my mom’s left, my daughter, Felicity, walks in, tears slowly careening down her nine-year-old cheeks. She has been pinballing between entering the ICU room and remaining in the hallway.
Anything you want to do is fine, I assured her. Only do what you want to do.
She sits on my lap, facing away from me. She’s too tall for me to hold her like a baby anymore, so I do the next best thing and bear-hug her from behind.
Felicity gazes over at her grandmother and places her hand on top of hers.
My mother groans.
My chest tightens and I swallow.
“She can hear you, baby girl. She knows it’s you.”
Felicity leaves her hand there as her little body shakes in my lap. I know in this moment, my mother hates that she’s making Felicity sad. She hates that she can no longer mask the fact that she’s dying. She wouldn’t want to scare Felicity. She would despise the fact that the only sound she could make to comfort Felicity was a monotone groan. She would encourage Felicity to not let her condition make her sad. She might even tell Felicity what she had said so many times before, “I’m getting better and better every day, Felicity. Don’t worry about me.”
Without warning, Felicity jumps to her feet and moves to the other side of the bed.
“Can I hug her?” she asks.
“Yes. As tightly as you want.”
She leans across the bed and rests upon my mother and pushes out her shaky words.
“I love you, Grandma.”
Warren helps Regina remove my mother’s neck brace, which had been supporting her nearly healed neck after her most recent fall.
They remove the arm brace, which had been keeping her broken right arm in place.
Regina pulls away the tubing that forces high-flow oxygen from my mother’s nostrils.
A lump rises in my throat as a thought occurs to me.
We are removing all her armor now, letting it fall away, leaving her vulnerable. We all understand that she can’t be any more broken than she is now. Nor, are we are protecting her anymore. We’ve wandered off the road to recovery long ago. Now, we’re on a different path, each of us recognizing it at different times, as if we are each acquiring a new language at different speeds. I’ve been able to read the signposts for weeks, but I know that others have only been able to read them for days.
We are handing Mom over to a Thing that we have all feared, no matter what our faith teaches us. No matter how many cheery faces have told us confidently that there’s Heaven waiting for us on the other side, none of us have seen this destination, nor have we traveled there. Perhaps someday I will find comfort in the thought of Heaven. But not today. Because my mother’s path to get there is covered in thorns, ripping at her mercilessly even as she barrels blindly forward.
She will travel this last path alone, exhausting every weapon and tool that she used in this life. She will do this alone, just as she did when she gave birth four times. Just as she did when she fought through unbearable pain when she broke her back in 2007–and all the years of pain that followed. Just as she has fought this cancer for 24 years.
Like every other time before, she would do this last battle all by herself.
No man has ever come close to demonstrating the strength that my mother has.
Not even close.
She is the only person I’ve known who has chosen over and over again to walk into the shadows of Pain and Loss.
And still found the Light inside of it.
And then held that Light up for all to see.
Warrior isn’t the title that she has earned.
She is the Hero.
Maybe that’s why her body is still wielding its sword, slashing at shadows.
We can’t tell her to stop fighting.
But at least we can take away her pain while she fights.
I haven’t been writing much here, but I have definitely been writing.
What I’m working on has turned into a fantasy series with (likely?) 4-5 installments. I’ve finished the first book (although… I’m already thinking a prequel to that book would be nice to write later on) and I’m approaching the climax of the second book.
I’ve been slowly chiseling away at this monster of a second book on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 2-7 a.m. (Yeah, you read that right.) I’m not very exciting on Friday and Saturday nights, but the benefit is that I’m rarely, if ever, interrupted early Saturday and Sunday morning. Everyone is asleep. Because everyone else is sane.
I understand this.
It’s a price that I’m willing to pay to bring this story to light. It’s a story that just won’t go away.
Some themes that are central to this series of books:
How humanity understands and interacts with the Divine
The relationship between pain, growth, healing, and death
Healing that causes harm and harm that causes healing
The cyclical nature of creation and destruction: Creation as destruction and destruction as creation
Some questions that the series explores:
Who deserves to be saved or healed? Does everyone deserve a second chance?
When should healers withdraw their healing and leave a person to their pain/fate?
When should the needs of the group take precedence over the needs of the individual?
Where is the line between pain leading to growth and pain crushing someone’s soul?
How do the dead continue to influence the living?
I’ve been inspired by When God was a Woman, a book about the transition in human history from primarily polytheistic worship of a female goddess of creation to a monotheistic worship of a male god of creation. If that sounds interesting, please check out my previous post, “God, the Mother.” I’m also combining bits of history and mythology from Turkey and Serbia.
I’m not going to lie: Writing this second book has been a slog.
In April, I had a few very bad weeks and almost abandoned the book completely. I was in that “murkey middle” part of the book and things were just getting very unwieldy. I struggled to keep in mind what the motivations for my characters were and what they would want to do in certain situations. It’s very hard to write alone, in the dark, sitting on a pile of words that no one else reads, for weeks at a time.
What got me through this part was sharing parts of what I was working with others. Just getting some general feedback of, “I like this character” or “I want to know more about that” gave me the motivation to keep going.
Some people say that quitting is easy.
It has never been easy for me to quit.
Once I start something that I believe is worth the effort of my creativity and persistence, I will nurture whatever I’m doing until it grows into what I think it can become.
So the next time you’re up at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, drink a cup for me.
Stay with me as I take you through some things that I’ve been thinking about.
It has been seven years since I saw that message from Mom.
Call me as soon as you can.
And I just knew. Before I pressed Call, I knew that at the end of the conversation, I would know that you were gone. I remember looking at that button on my phone thinking, Just one more moment before I know for sure. I need one more moment of not knowing. Just one more moment before I know and I can never not know again. I need just one more moment.
This is not happening.
But it is.
I sat at the top of the stairs and I pressed, Call.
I heard the words and they rattled inside my mind like marbles in a jar. Away. Passed. Unable. Last night. Nurses. Dad.Breathing. They were all words that I knew and understood, individually, until they were forced to be in the same sentence. I had the context to expect these words. You had not been doing well for weeks after you fell. I was expecting this.
My mind understood. But my heart did not.
The reality of losing someone who has seen your hand grow from the clenched fist of a newborn to the open palm of an adult. Someone whose memory populates the entire landscape of your childhood and teenage years.
It should not be possible to lose someone as important as you were to me.
And yet it does.
All the time.
The first time that Felicity asked seriously about death was shortly after the pandemic broke out, no doubt fueled by the never-ending news updates about the virus. She was six years old. We were watching Hook, specifically the scene when Rufio dies. When the movie ended, she was sobbing.
I had never seen her cry like this before. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “What happened to Rufio?”
“Well, he died,” I said.
“But what happened to him? Where did he go?”
I could feel my heart seizing in my chest. This was an important moment and I literally had no words. I almost wished that I was still 19 years old, certain of the destination of souls depending on who was right and who was wrong.
So I did what all smart parents do.
I stalled. And then I put the question back to her.
“Where do you think he went?”
“I don’t know!” she sobbed harder.
I panicked. Like I said, I had never seen her like this before. This moment was crushing her and she was seeking out my comfort and certainty.
Say something! I chided myself.
“No one knows for sure what happens when we die,” I began. “But I think that we go to be with God.”
She sobbed even harder.
And I instantly knew that it was the wrong thing to say.
“I don’t want to be with God! I want to be with you and Daddy!”
“You’re not going to die, Kermit. You’re going to be fine. This virus mostly hurts people who are older.”
“But what if it does?”
I swallowed the growing knot in my throat, pushing it deep into my stomach and straightened myself. She wasn’t saying it–but I knew what she was getting at.
“Is that what you’re afraid of? That me and Daddy will die?”
“YES!” she continued to sob.
At this point, three-year-old Henry walked into the room and saw Felicity crying. He walked over to her and put his arms around his sister and said, “S’ok, Ficity.” She hugged him back.
And in that moment, my three-year-old had given more comfort to her than I had.
Of course telling her that she would “go to be with God” was a terrifying concept. Who was God to her? Some large, unknowable entity who lived up in the clouds. Although she had learned in church that “God is Love,” her six-year-old brain understood love as a packed lunch, a hug when you’re sad, and the voice that says “good night” before the light goes out.
I pulled her into my arms and held her while she sobbed.
And then I told her the truth.
“You will never be alone. Daddy and I have surrounded you with friends and family so that this will never happen. Even if you lose me and Daddy, there will be someone to take care of you. You don’t ever have to worry about who will take care of you and Henry.”
“Who will take care of me?”
And then we spent the next five minutes listing, in order, the people that would take care of her. I started with those we had designated as her legal guardians should such a situation arise. Then, I kept going. I named every friend that we had incorporated into our lives, one by one, holding a finger up for each person who loved her and cared about her. When I ran out of fingers, I made her hold one of her fingers up for the names that I was still listing.
When we got to twenty names, we looked at our fingers and then I held her hands in mine.
“You will never, ever be left alone. Ever.”
The day after you died, I got a bouquet of flowers from my friends.
Our friendships are special.
I understand this more now that I’m approaching 40. To continue to share weekly dinners and breakfasts with a group of friends throughout your 20s and 30s is not typical. We’ve taken vacations together, both long and short. We’ve stayed after parties and helped each other clean up. We’ve made each meals when we were sick. We’ve supported each other through the stuff that we don’t talk about with just anyone. We’ve come together to support each other as we’ve lost parents. Six times over now.
And when the pandemic came, we moved our dinners to Zoom and suffered through the constant, Wait, what did you say? Go ahead. Wait, me?, just so we could stay connected.
After 15 months of separation, we had our first in-person dinner a few weeks ago. When I hugged my friend, Ben, I said, “I’m not letting go first.”
He said, “Okay.”
And we just stayed like that for a full minute.
What is a word stronger than “grateful”? If there is one, that’s how I feel toward my friends.
I wish you had a friend group like this when you were alive.
Does time make it easier?
It’s not so hard when I’m remembering the things about you that make me laugh and smile. All the ways that you were completely unique and unforgettable. Whenever I see someone dressed oddly, I remember that one time we were at the gas station together. I took stock of what you were wearing on a hot July afternoon through the driver’s side window of your sedan. You were so tall that all I could see was your belly, covered by a blue and maroon striped dress shirt, tucked into teal and black swimming trunks. When you got back in the car, I laughed at your bare feet, shoved into brown loafers. You grabbed a McDonald’s napkin from your glove compartment and mopped at the sweat underneath your baseball cap.
It’s also not so hard when I’m remembering things you used to say. Whenever situational context pulls something you would say out of the depths of my memory, it makes me smile. You lack motivation, but not know-how, you used to say our border collie, Gator. Down at the Old Country Buffer, you would say to talk about the restaurant, Old Country Buffet. It’s the Boss! You know they call him the Boss?, you would ask me every time Bruce Springsteen came on the radio in the car.
But then sometimes, no, time does not make losing you easier.
It hasn’t been easy to hear How Great Thou Art or Amazing Grace. I miss the way you would lower your head and mutter the words. Not sing. You weren’t a huge singer. But mutter, yes. You were a soulful mutterer. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.
It’s not easy when Felicity reads a story to Henry, cover and to cover, and he asks her what the difference is between a My Little Pony storybook and a My Little Pony comic, and she comes up with a perfect child-appropriate answer. You never got to see them like this. I wish you had.
And the squeezing of my heart when I look at Henry’s school pictures and I think, He has my eyes. Which means he has Dad’s eyes.
Those are the times when it is not easier.
After seven years of life without you, I understand a few things better now than I did in the immediate days after you passed.
First, the times when I’ve felt your loss the most were the times when I built the walls high and kept everyone at arm’s length.
These were times when I was perpetually stressed by the endless juggling of work and care-taking when the kids were small(er). To be honest, I was afraid of running out. Running out of what? Everything. Energy. Time. Love. Everyone wanted something from me and so I gave and gave and gave–almost as if I were trying to beat life to the punch. Ha-ha. You can’t take away when I’m readily giving and giving and giving. And that’s what I did.
Until I had nothing left except numbness.
And in that quiet numbness, the feeling of loss would rear its ugly head at surprising and unpredictable times. And I was shocked by it. I thought I was fine. I had been getting everything done for everyone else, hadn’t I? But in all that business, my heart called out for me to acknowledge what I had lost.
Dwell on it? No. But acknowledge? Yes.
I don’t fully understand why the acknowledgment matters so much. But something within the human heart calls out for remembrance. It’s why we have namesakes and statues and days of remembrance. Perhaps we sense on a primal level that the worst horror of death is in the Forgetting.
Maybe it’s why no matter how far I meander here and there throughout the year and throughout my writing, my steps and my words always bring me back to this sacred space of remembering you around this time of year.
Second, after seven years of life without you, I can say for sure that the one thing that has helped the most is this:
My commitment to keep my heart open to Love.
To welcome new friends into my life.
To share my house and food, conversation and laughter.
To sacrifice for those I love, even when I’m not sure of the outcome.
To listen and believe and comfort.
To give and hold.
Every act of love and care that I’ve given someone else in the time since your death has healed me.
Because every act of love proves I have not surrendered to the pain of loss.
Because every act of love is an act of Courage.
People who have lost understand this more acutely than those who have not. Because after someone you love dies, you have the evidence that the act of loving can feel like a painful, reckless act.
Because the more people you love, the more you have to lose.
And so to continue to love after you have lost proves, once and for all, your tremendous bravery.
You understand this, Dad, especially because of your experience as a father. That first child that enters your arms opens a giant hole to your heart that remains exposed forevermore. The more children you have, the more vulnerable you are to the ways they can hurt you.
And you were a father of five.
To love deeply is the definition of courage. So much can go wrong. But it is the act of loving that gives us the greatest joy, the greatest reason to not only live, but thrive.
When I want to remember you the clearest, I always find myself in the passenger seat, you in the driver seat, hand on the wheel. I don’t know why, but we are headed south on route 127, going toward Oxford, back to Miami for classes. We pull over for Croissan’wiches–sausage, egg, and cheese–and coffee from Burger King and we eat from fast food wrappers in the front seat. We talk past each other over and over again because the space of our common ground is shrinking now that I’m building my own life, replete with different interests and concerns. We both feel it, crumbling on all sides of us, accelerating now that the time we spend together is limited to school breaks and summers. It pushes us closer together for the moment even as the edge approaches fast.
But I couldn’t see that.
I was looking somewhere else.
Somewhere off into the distance.
Somewhere where you were not.
I was falling in love, making new friends, traveling, taking class after class after class, and redefining my beliefs. I was growing up, reaching out, moving on.
And you were standing there.
Is this the terrible pain of parenthood that they don’t tell you about?
That as you are standing there, the circle where you stand with your kids gradually and imperceptibly shrinks over the years? Until you realize that everything around you has changed and your shared common ground has dwindled to only your shared moments from the past?
Maybe it is.
And maybe your wisdom to me now would be to say,
Stop looking off into the distance. Stop looking for the approaching edge. It will get here soon enough. Just stand with me. For now.
For one more moment.
Just one more moment before everything changes.
Just one more moment.
Love this moment.
Write it on your heart.
And when it’s time to let go, remember that they can be loved by others, just as much as they were loved by you.
Find comfort in that. Because I know it’s true for you.
I remember staring out the window at the laughing children, sliding around on the giant 80′ Slip N’ Slide that my husband had constructed for Felicity’s sixth birthday. Blue skies, white fluffy clouds, 85 degrees, the smell of a freshly cut lawn, the sound of laughter, and a tub of beers and soda, already half gone.
I was holding back tears.
Not thirty minutes earlier, my mother was telling me in her it’s-not-a-big-deal voice that her cancer was back.
And it had spread.
And it was not good.
I stopped cutting the corn cobs, afraid the knife would go straight through my hand. When I looked at her, she was on the verge of tears.
My mom does not cry easily. And almost never in front of her kids.
It’s nothing to worry about. Don’t even give it a second thought.
These are things she has said over and over again since the first diagnosis in 1998. It was a blood cancer, something that would circulate in her blood, basically forevermore, emerging in locations like her intestines and her liver.
Neverthless, It’s nothing to worry about and Don’t even give it a second thought, were how she lived her life. Even when we didn’t believe her.
But shockingly, that advice has held up for time. Even after my father passed away, she kept on swimming. And if she felt sadness of anxiety, she never let it show.
And so to see her eyes filled with tears like that… That shook me.
I could hear “Young Blood” playing over the outdoor speakers as my husband pulled a long rope, held by a dozen tiny hands as they squealed in delight. I envisioned cancerous cells circulating in my mother’s blood and taking residence wherever they damn well pleased.
And all I could think was, There is never enough time, and I’m not ready, and but how much time do we have? and maybe we can start visiting every weekend, and Will there even be one more summer for Felicity to spend with her?
Through the window, I could see my two-and-a-half-year-old son, toddling through the giant bubbles of Dawn detergent until he fell backwards with glee. Tiny legs and arms sliding down the river of bubbles and water.
My sister came in through the back door and I fought my feelings with every shield that I had. Nothing’s wrong. Just don’t look at her. Talk about it later. You can’t talk about it right now. You have thirty people at your house. This is a fun event. It’s Felicity’s birthday. Don’t talk about it.
But when something this massive moves into your life, there isn’t enough armor to save you from feeling the full force of its crushing weight.
Our eyes met. And then we just walked toward each other, tears streaming down both of our faces.
And all I could say was,
There is never enough time.
But what I prayed was,
Please, God, don’t keep her here for me.
Keep her here for my kids.
That was August 2019.
We managed to get in two visits before my mother’s radiation treatments started. They lasted six months, so she would finish by February 2020. When we passed that milestone, I breathed a slow sigh of relief. At least that was done. We wouldn’t know how effective the treatments had been for perhaps another year, but at least the treatments were over.
And then March 2020 came, and with it, a new reason to panic.
My mom was still like, Well, what are you gonna do?
In October 2020, she got COVID and was hospitalized.
And when that news came, I felt that familiar sinking feeling of, There is never enough time and I’m not ready. I prepared myself again for what might be coming. If a truck is going to hit me, I’m the kind of person that would prefer to see it as it approaches, even if it doesn’t change the outcome. I just want to know. I want a few moments to think, “So this is how it happens.” I want to be alone with my thoughts for just a moment to say, “Okay, I’m ready.”
And then she recovered.
And after she got vaccinated, she was making plans to have my daughter stay at her farm for two weeks this summer.
I was sitting at my desk, working, when I received the text from my mother.
The malignant tumors are gone.
The long-standing, stubborn tumors remain. The ones she has lived with for over ten years.
I read the text from my mother with the news over and over again, shock keeping the emotion at bay.
But as I started talking about it with my husband that night, the dam burst. I turned into a slow stream of disbelieving, but grateful tears.
She’s going to live. For now. For how long? Will it come back? Probably. But not now. Do I deserve this? No, I don’t. But Mom does. I don’t want to go through this again. But we probably will. But she’s here for now. And that was my prayer. That she would be here for the kids. As long as it’s possible.
I couldn’t say any of these thoughts. They were too heavy for an already-heavy moment. But my mind drifted back to that moment in the living room, my sister and I holding each other as we cried.
We’re only young and naive still We require certain skills The mood it changes like the wind Hard to control when it begins
The bittersweet between my teeth Trying to find the in-between Fall back in love eventually
We’d probably be arguing about whether or not fears of the COVID pandemic are warranted.
I would plead with him to either wear a mask, (I’m not wearing a mask, he would practically hiss) or to stop going to Wal-Mart altogether. (You know, they got a deal on russet potatoes this week? Five pounds for $2!)
He would blame the spread of the disease on protesters, (That’s what you get for protesting! No one is making them do it!) and we’d go back and forth about the right to protest, perhaps a whole two turns, before he’d digress into something like, You know, this country was also full of protests during Vietnam. To which I would say, Exactly! And he’d say, Lot of good that did them. And I would face palm myself. And then he’d say, It doesn’t even concern you. It’s right there in the phrase: Black Lives Matter.
At this point in the conversation, it would be time to turn our attention elsewhere–because neither of us was going to change each other’s mind.
We’d talk about the weather, the kids, my work, Doug’s work, and house repairs. If we veered too much into local and state pandemic policies, I’d guide it back to a good book that I’d read, and he’d remind me for the thousandth time that he really loved Louis L’Amour’s westerns. Have you ever read any of those?
At some point, we would eat something that Doug had cooked: fried chicken or steak with billowy garlic mashed potatoes and blanched green beans. Dad would say a murmured prayer that no one could hear, head bowed low, and then silently eat his whole meal before wiping his mouth and pronouncing, “Well, you done good, Sharon.”
And we would laugh.
If my dad were alive today, we would be having some tough conversations. I know that. For sure.
But I also know that I’d rather have him alive to talk about them than to not have him at all.
Weeks 1-2 were a mix of denial and anger, all set to rhythms of Survival Mode, acquiring food and necessities, making sense of pandemic life, and figuring out how to rearrange the landscape of life in a way that we can all live with in this house.
Weeks 3-4 have been, so far, my low point. Replete with the constant wishing things were different, feelings of helplessness, and depression.
Week 5 was my Saturation Point of News. Since then, I’ve only been able to stomach 20 minutes of NPR while I’m making dinner. It’s just enough for me to think, Yep, things are still awful and No, we still don’t have a handle on this.
By Week 6, the depression started to lift as we were faced with the news that we’d been expecting for weeks: Sorry, no more school for your kids this academic year.
And our President thought it would be a good idea to look into using disinfectant to “clean out the lungs.”
This week, Week 7, I feel mostly resigned to living life like this through the summer and well into fall. In my mind, I overestimate (I hope) that we’ll be doing this same type of life through Christmas.
In Week 7, I was able to see my mom in person, though from six feet away and with masks.
In Week 7, I learned that COVID-19 is not just a respiratory disease–it affects the whole body through blood clotting. And I read this ICU nurse’s account of the inconceivable situations and grief that she and other healthcare workers are facing right now.
In all this darkness, I want to make plenty of room for the things that are still bringing me light.
My partner–My rationality, my burden-bearer, my chef and gardener, accountant and engineer. The person I still love to watch TV with (although we rarely have time to do that anymore).
Running. Sweet, sweet exercise. Early in the morning. Nothing but feet on the pavement and music in my ears.
Watching my kids grow closer together–This is both unexpected and welcome. They (generally) love being around each other. My daughter tucks my son in at night and tells hawks to “Stay away from her little brother.”
Working with co-workers via Zoom. Sharing our little victories in helping faculty teach online.
Attending church services via YouTube. I was surprised by how much my nerves are calmed every week by just hearing familiar songs and the liturgy. When so much is changing, my mind craves the unchanging, the stable.
Re-watching the entire American Pie series. And then all of the Austin Powers movies. (Apparently, this is the extent of problem-solving and just the right level of dumb that I need in my life to balance out all the soul-crushing news.)
It is freeing if we learn to accept that our lives are on loan and we are meant to give our lives over to others. That is the kind of lesson we are taught when we are young, though it often remains on the level of a noble idea that we may opt into or out of depending on our mood. What all the many sufferings of adult life show us is that this idea is actually the high and unbending rule, and it governs our bodies and our relationships and everything else, without exception.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo
There will be no return to “normal” because we are all forced to face our own vulnerabilities now. And so the question put to us now is, How will we react to this vulnerability? What will we do?
9. Listening to Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces.” But first, grab a box of tissues. You’ll need it.
Her poem hits all the right notes for this moment in time.
The uncertainty, the desperation, the frustration, and the sadness.