Doing the Best We Can

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September 11th will be the 6th month anniversary of my mother’s death.
Grief sucks.

It’s not straightforward, predictable, or tidy.  Some days I feel just fine, thinking, oh, I’m doing much better, moving on! Then WHAM!  I wake up on the weekend with my bones feeling like lead and I can only move from the bed to the recliner.  All I want to do is sleep.

Or I’ll be putzing along fine, doing my day, and something as small as bumping into something makes me suddenly collapse into tears.

I would like it to be “normal.”  Ok, if I’m thinking about Mom, or remembering a good memory of her, then yes, ok, let me cry.  But this out-of-the-blue crying or mono-like exhaustion seemingly unrelated to what the day is… I don’t like it.  I’ve always liked to be in control.  I learned that well from both of my parents.

I’ve had many losses in my 54 years, but few of them were shared around my parents.  I was 19 when our family friend and second mother Sandie died from melanoma at the age of 39.  At 19 I was naive enough to believe that surely God would not allow her to die when I needed her so badly, when she had young kids, and she was a radiant, loving being that the world desperately needed.  It was a rude awakening that you can pray all you want with great energy and desperation, and still a precious, loved human being can unjustly die much too young.

I understood my grief then.  I slept a lot when I wasn’t working.  I cried my heart out, alone in my room, because we simply didn’t talk about Sandie’s death after the funeral.  When I started to cry during a TV show in which someone died, my father was annoyed.  “What’s the matter with you?” he said with some irritation.   I cried harder and went to my room.

Grief sucks.  Complicated grief really sucks.  I love my mother.  But I wish we could have been closer.  But she grew up in the 1930s and 40s on a farm in southern Mississippi.  Her own mother was a tough little cookie, and she had to be.  She wasn’t one to show emotion much, there was too much to be done.  She had 6 kids; five of them boys, and a husband who drank too much.  Mom said he was pretty scary when he drank. My mother grew up being close to a woman who was a sharecropper on their farm, someone with whom she could ask questions about girl-things, and share her feelings.  Grandma was not the type.

And so my mother did what she knew.  She did special things for me when I was little.  She tried to make gifts special and she was awesome at planning birthday parties.  But she wasn’t one to cuddle or share giggles, or answer questions about “girl things.”  We never talked about sex.  Once I became a teenager and young adult, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with me.  I know she feared for me, being a girl, and the kind of trouble teenage girls could get into.

What I wanted with Mom was what I do have with my own daughter.  A safe place.  Cuddling and giggling, and talking about the things that scare us, anger us, and frustrate us.  We talk about what makes our hearts come alive. We share music and how it touches us, we go on mother-daughter dates, just the two of us, or share a movie night when Larry is away or working on something else.  Sarah knows I love her unconditionally.   I was determined to give her what I wanted as a daughter growing up.

That doesn’t mean we never argue or get mad at each other.  We do.  But we also know in the midst of such times that we are ok, and our relationship is intact.  She’s done things I may not have approved of at the time, but she knows I still love her.  And always will.

I love my mother.  I miss her.  I keep thinking of things I’d like to tell her.  When I hear about people we both knew and haven’t seen in decades, I want to call her.  But part of my grief, too, is that we weren’t able to have what Sarah and I have.  I realize, now, that she couldn’t give what she didn’t get either.  I know she did her best.  I know she loved me in the ways she knew how.  But there was a lot I didn’t know about her, things she didn’t share.  Things you just didn’t talk about on the farm.  You just went on and got done what needed to be done.

I’ve always wondered why I was born with a nature that wanted more.  That wanted sharing and loving and talking honestly.  Why did I become a person that wants to talk openly with the people I love, share personal stories, hug a lot, touch a lot, share how I feel about you?  When Sarah was small, Mom used to tell me that I told Sarah “I love you” too much.  I praised her too much.  I have simply given what I so desperately wanted.

For a long time I was angry with Mom for not being who I wished she could be.  Some people got angry with me for being so honest about her, as I’ve described something they didn’t see and I was ruining their image of her somehow.  We all present to the world an image.  And that’s normal.  My mother was someone else at church, with church people.  That’s not to say she wasn’t at all that person.  Obviously she was.  But with our families, and the people who are more intimately a part of our lives, we let that guard down, for better or worse, and what is under that image we present, is also a part of who we are.

Mom did a lot of good in her life.  She was a revival preacher before she met Dad in college, and according to my cousin, she had people rolling in the aisles and comin’ to Jesus.  She’d felt called during those years to being a missionary in some foreign country.  But she married Dad, and like a lot of women in the 50s, she put aside her aspirations and became his helpmate.

She was an awesome minister’s wife.  Of course, she didn’t get paid for what was a full-time job.  She had her own gifts of leading Bible studies, coordinating craft groups, preaching on Women’s Sunday, teaching Sunday School, comforting parishioners and doing a myriad of kind things for them.  Towards the end of her life, however, she wondered if she let God down by not becoming a missionary and fulfilling that calling.  I tried to assure her that she did a lot to spread God’s grace and love in the world, wherever she happened to be.  But I know it still nagged her.

I know my mother was proud of me, and that she loved me.  She let me know these things in the ways she knew how.  I, like her, found people (and lost people) who could give me what my mother couldn’t, but I never stopped longing to receive it from her.  And despite knowing that it was unlikely, as long as she was alive, it was possible still, to get those things I needed from her.  Now it’s not.  And that is part of my grief.  She was a precious soul who had a passionate, almost insatiable love of God and deep longing to be worthy of God’s love.  I’m not sure she ever truly believed she was worthy.

Because of my faith, I think she finally knows she is.

I’m learning to accept what she was able to give.  She didn’t truly know on this earth that she was loved unconditionally, so she couldn’t give that to me.  But when I arrived at her funeral, my brother gave me a letter he found among her things.  A letter she’d written before she had her stroke and got pneumonia, but was never mailed.

With the usual insistence that she was going home soon (from her “hotel”), she told me that me, Larry and Sarah were very important to her, and that she loved us very much.

I get it out and read it every so often.  And I thank her for doing the best that she could.  I try to do the same.