January 29, 1958, on a cold, blustery day before dawn, my mother died. I was just four years old, but I remember waking up early and padding into the living room. A lone lamp was on in the corner and across the room, my father was sitting in the old rocking chair with his head in his hands, sobbing.
He saw me and opened his arms as I jumped onto his lap. We rocked and he cried, holding me tighter than usual. Behind my parents’ closed bedroom door, my mother lay, having taken her last breath.
We rocked while we waited for the funeral home to come. I’m sure Daddy told me that Mama was gone, but I don’t remember his words, only how I felt. I’ve heard it said, the body never forgets. My brother was up by now and he and I stood like soldiers watching her being wheeled out of the house.
My life since then has been a mixture of poor decisions and lucky breaks, answered prayers, and untaken guidance. I have two beautiful daughters and two master’s degrees. I’m married to a kind, loyal man and I have a brother, four years older, who shares my early life and gave me his memories about our mother, so I could have them too. As kids, we survived an abusive stepmother, an emotionally unavailable father, and the never-ending sadness of not having our mother. When she died, our father said, “I will never be happy again.” And he wasn’t.
Still…my life is good. My children and grandchildren are happy and thriving. My home is open and loving. I’ve had a fulfilling career and now my husband and I are still healthy enough to enjoy our travels and live the retired life. Nevertheless, some days I still have an overwhelming sadness that takes my breath. I’m teary for a moment or for an entire day. I’m melancholy. I’m tenderhearted or just plain lonely down in my soul. I need my mother. Sixty-four years I have missed her. Sixty-four years and I still carry this sadness.
How can I carry so much sadness while still living such a beautiful life?
Is it God who grants me the reprieve from a sad, sad heart or rewards the sad heart with a lovely life? As a child, my father would chide me, “You’re too sensitive.” As an adult, I’ve been told, “You’re too serious.” Too much of other things like too tenderhearted, too nice, too emotional. I ask myself now, “Am I extra?” Do I have too much of the sadness gene? My being too much of anything is not the cause, it’s the effect.
Before I had the words, I would just take in that criticism, assuming “they” knew me better than I knew myself. But now I know it is the shadow that floats across my soul. The heavy weight of sadness that I sometimes stagger under, all while living my beautiful life. The sadness triggers a remembrance, and my body reacts with tears or solitude or wanting to rest. Psychologists now say this remembering is the impact of trauma on the body and the somatic (relating to the body) memory. The body of the traumatized person holds an implicit memory of the traumatic event in their brains and bodies. Sometimes it is expressed in PTSD, nightmares, flashbacks, and startle responses. The body remembers and refuses to be ignored. I have a hard time labeling myself as ‘traumatized.’ But thinking about being four years old and watching the funeral directors take your dead mother away, I feel traumatized. Having my father pick me up and lean over the casket to kiss my mother goodbye is traumatic. Not remembering her touch, or face or voice.. what would you call it?
The definition of trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. For me, trauma manifests like this: I am busy living my happy life and I see a young mother holding her child’s hand as they walk home from school. This never fails to startle me, like I all of a sudden remember I never had my mother walk me to or from school. I never had anyone to walk me to school, except occasionally my brother. I missed feeling secure in my childhood. I was hyper-alert, constantly wondering what would happen next.
When I see my daughters laughing with their children, playing games, or enjoying a moment, I feel joyous, too, yet empty because I cannot ever remember my mother interacting with me. I cannot remember her voice, smile or even her face. Did she think I was clever and precious? I would like to think she did because I have this wonderful life with loving people in it. My mother must have insisted I be given an extra dollop of blessings before she left this earth. She knew I would need it.
So, I continue to live my beautiful life, while sharing the sadness as it comes in spurts. I accept the good and the bad, knowing that is just the way it is. It is my normal.
I continue to learn the lessons that grief has taught me, like how to listen, to be gentle with myself, and to be compassionate to myself and others. I try to remember; this too shall pass, and above all, gratitude is the glue that holds me altogether.
I cannot say I am fully grateful for the sadness, but it is a reminder of where I have been. That reminder feeds my gratitude for the lovely life I am living now, and proves what I know is true, all things work together for good.
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28