I asked my dad a couple of times before the one year anniversary of my mother’s death if he wanted to do anything on that day. The first time I asked him he simply shook his head. A week later when I brought it up he said, “No, it isn’t something to celebrate.” I wanted to say I wasn’t thinking we’d go out to the bar or anything, but I let it go, knowing we each need to grieve in our own way. When the date arrived I went to the store and bought one white balloon like the ones we released at her memorial service. I drove to the park where the service was held and I walked up the hill to the clearing where we all had gathered. I held the balloon under my arm, cradling it close to my body so the brisk fall breeze wouldn’t take it from me until I was ready to let it go.
I’m not sure if I went to the park to honor my mother, remember that sad day, or if it wasn’t really for more selfish reasons. Because the prayer I murmured out loud to myself that afternoon was for me, not my mom. I prayed that the anger I had been feeling since her death would go away once and for all, and I asked that my nighttime dreams be about my healthy mom and not my sick mom – the mom who’s suffering broke my heart over and over again, day after day during the last months of her life.
As the autumn wind swallowed my words I let the balloon go. It sailed almost straight up into the blue September sky. I stood squinting in the bright sunlight and watched as it rose higher and higher, determined not to take my eyes off it until it was lost from sight. Several minutes passed, and then, at the exact moment the balloon left my view for good, a hawk swooped in just over the treeline and flew directly over my head. It was the only bird within sight, the only bird I saw the entire time I stood on that lonely hillside. The hawk soared and dipped on an invisible current of air and I turned and watched as it flew in the opposite direction of the white balloon.
The year of first’s is over. First Christmas without mom, her first birthday coming and going without her here to celebrate it, the first baby born in our family without mom around to fuss over her, and now the first anniversary of her death. Last year at this time I was in a small emergency room watching my mother gasp for each breath, looking a doctor in the eye and saying yes, I understood what it meant if they didn’t put her on a respirator and instead gave her meds to help her go to sleep. Of course I only knew what it meant in the moment, which was that it would end my mother’s many months of suffering, but for those of us who loved her it was the beginning of the grieving process which is really just one long bumpy road of goodbyes. At the end of one of my books I write: Some eight years later, when the earthly lives of my daddy and brother had safely made that transformation from flesh and blood to mist and memory, when the grief had finally settled itself comfortably into the undercurrent of my days and nights, my voice came back to me and I picked up a notebook, opened it to the first page, and I began to write. I’m not quite there yet…but I’m getting there.
See other (nearly) Wordless Wednesday participants here.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt died on Sunday. A former public school teacher, he came late to a writing career publishing one of my favorite memoirs, Angela’s Ashes, at the ripe old age of 66. Born in Brooklyn in 1930, his family returned to his parents’ native Ireland when he was four years old and his memoir chronicles his years growing up in poverty with a mostly absent alcoholic father in the slums of Limerick. He famously wrote: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.
My mother had a similar childhood, but here in the states and with poor French Catholic parents, not Irish. Still, fourteen children, very little money, and an alcoholic father bring about like miseries whatever your demographics. It’s funny, but I catch myself sometimes feeling angry at my mother since she passed. For dying and leaving me. For loving my brother more. For her “You can’t take it with you!” attitude toward money which has cost me financially over the years and left my father vulnerable at the age of 80 with a large monthly mortgage payment. And yes, for not understanding me, that universal childhood lament that few of us escape – miserable childhood or not.
I know it’s childish to think these thoughts at my age, especially given that my childhood was a fantasyland compared to my mom’s and Mr. McCourt’s. But I also know that a part of us is always our mother’s child, no matter how old we grow in years. And whether we write an angst filled memoir and name it for her, or gaze into the eyes of our newborn granddaughter and miss her more than we ever thought possible, we know in our hearts that we’d forgive our mothers a thousand times over for the woes of our early years for just one more chance to tell them how much we love them.