A year ago today, around 8 p.m., I was home. I was getting ready to start a new job and send the kids off to their first days of school the next morning. It had been an extraordinarily happy last day of summer holidays.
Then the phone rang. I saw it was my sister, and the good day got better. We were somewhat estranged, and I felt I had to make all the overtures, so I was thrilled she’d called me.
But her voice shook. She started telling me something about Mom and Dad. Something about them driving. And then she said Mom had been killed. Dad was in ICU.
I screamed because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you hear terrible news. But I didn’t feel anything yet. The only feeling I remember at the time was deep confusion. I kept asking people what I was supposed to do now. And I was asking them seriously because I did not know. I assumed for quite some time that I would go to my first day of work and my kids would go to school the next day, as planned.
By the next morning, I’d made arrangements to drive myself and the kids the 16 plus hours up to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where my dad had been hospitalized. I lay in bed calling schools, sending texts, and feeling very proud of myself for how well I was coping. I must be moving through those grief stages well, I thought.
Then I pushed back the covers, stood, and collapsed. My legs wouldn’t support my body. I crawled to the bathroom, making keening high-pitched sounds that woke my 7-year-old and brought her running.
Some experts talk about seven stages of grief. Some list more or fewer, but I’ve never yet seen a list that includes terror. But that’s what I felt right then, cowering in my bathroom as my youngest tried to comfort me.
This year has been – to put it mildly – intense. Grief is ugly. It hurts your body, makes your stomach sick, keeps you awake beyond exhaustion. It is complicated, and it doesn’t conform to charts and neat, pre-packaged stages. The more difficult the living relationship, the messier the grieving. Grief means ugly crying at work and staying dry-eyed at your mother’s funeral. For me, among other surprises, grieving meant losing almost all interest in two things that had been my lifeblood: reading and writing.
This year has been a reckoning. It’s been about reflecting and re-evaluating. And for that I needed to let myself feel real and painful things. I’ve sometimes used reading as a way to not feel, to not think about my own life. And I guess that’s okay. As far as addictions go, reading is a pretty healthy one to have. But this year I needed not to escape my feelings. And writing is about shaping real things into sentences other people might want to read. I didn’t have it in me to shape things this year. Only to feel and to let the feelings stay in their unshaped, most real, most unreadable, form.
My dad was hospitalized for three months. My three siblings and I live in three different countries. For these reasons, we weren’t able to have my mother’s funeral until this past February. The following is the eulogy I read for her. I know there are things I said she would have not wanted said, but I hope I did her life some justice. I hope she would have felt the love and respect for her that came a little too late to offer her in life.
The other day when we posted my mom’s obituary online, one of her cousins used the words “sweet and humble little soul” to describe her. That was nice to read, but it’s not how I’d describe my mom.
If I chose one word to describe my mom it would be “strong.”
My mom was strong. Inside our house, she was a force – THE force – to be reckoned with. The words, “FIND THE SCISSORS” can still strike fear into my heart. (Did I use her sewing scissors? Did I – god forbid – use them on PAPER? Did I forget to put them back? Please let them be found in Guy’s room, not mine!)
My mom was strong. She was little, and she would tell us that as a young girl she’d been painfully shy. She might not have looked strong from the outside, but to me everything about her life reflects her strength.
My mom came of age in a time when admitting to mental health problems was pretty much taboo, and so she suffered with undiagnosed anxiety and depression on and off for probably most of her life. But this shows me her strength. One of her favourite phrases – it irked me like crazy when I was a teenager – was “You’ve got to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
My mom did that. Sometimes depression would sink her, but invariably she pulled herself up by her bootstraps without intervention or medication. One day we’d come home from school, and our house would be filled with the sound of her singing again. It makes me wonder what all she could have achieved if she’d come of age in a time when getting mental illness wasn’t so stigmatized.
When I was sixteen, we moved to the house where my mom lived until the end of her life. It was tough on all of us, but probably most tough on my mom. I remember her telling me she felt like she’d lost a part of herself when we moved away from the house on Willoughby Crescent, the one she’d invested with so much of her hopes and dreams. But eventually, my mom pulled herself up by her bootstraps. She started singing again. She sang as she stripped away the ugly orange-brown paint that covered the gorgeous wood floors and bannister. That was hard work. Work she’d never done before, but she taught herself how and kept it up until it was done. She sang as she tore out rotten plaster and wallpapered our bedrooms. She didn’t like the view from one window, so she taught herself how to etch glass. She built bookshelves, replaced ceilings, and rerouted plumbing. She had a vision of what that house could look like, and she made it real. That took strength.
My mom had this unshakeable faith. Through all the upheavals life brought her, through the changes she saw in society in her lifetime, she never lost her faith and her love for her Church. That to me is a sign of her strength.
So too was her acceptance that her children didn’t share her faith. Although it meant so much to her, she figured out how to love us enough to stop lecturing us. To accept her adult children for who we are rather than who she wanted us to be. As a parent of a newly-minted 18-year-old, I am just becoming aware of how much strength of character it takes to watch your children make choices you don’t like. To bite your tongue and love them through their mistakes, their failures, their differences of opinion.
Anyone here who ever argued with my mom on Facebook or in person knows how much she loved to have the last word. Giving that up didn’t come easily to her, but for the sake of our relationships with her, she worked at it. It didn’t come easy, but she gave us that gift.
My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just nine days before my mom’s death. They stuck by each other through everything life threw their way for fifty solid years. If that’s not a feat of strength, I don’t know what is.
My mom always loved to sing. She lived 72 years. She survived the deaths of her parents, several siblings, money troubles, breast cancer, estrangements from loved ones, and things I’ll never know about. In the end, she always sang. She was practicing Ave Maria in the car before she died. It comforts me to know she spent some the last moments of her life in song.