On January 29, 1958, my mother died quietly at home, in bed with my father.  Her frightening ordeal with a brain tumor, surgery, and agonizing recovery finally gave way to her eternal peace.  She was only thirty-three years old.

            My mother’s name is Margaret.  Margaret Arminta Lane Claughton.  She left behind my daddy, eight-year-old brother, and me, four years old at the time.  It took me nearly fifty years to say her name without my throat tightening with that feeling that I will absolutely choke on the millions of tears stored inside.

            Growing up without a mother was something I never wanted to do.  I felt ashamed that I was the only one in my class at school without a mother. I thought I was the only one in the world going through life so alone and lonely.  How could a mother die and leave her children?  The harsh reality of a motherless child is best lived in denial.

 I didn’t know what to do with my feelings, and I certainly did not know the term grief.  Whenever I had those lonely times, those sad times of missing Mama, I pushed grief down and ignored its wanting to be seen.  I disregarded the yearning to be heard.  I put all those feelings on pause and postponed any acknowledgment of how I felt, and mostly, no one ever asked how I was doing.  We were all busy trying to survive, each one of us hurting in our own ways.

So, I abandoned myself. 

I silenced the tears and the huge, overwhelming fears about what would become of me.

            In first grade, a classmate and I asked to go to the water fountain, which was down the hall.  I remember her perfection.  Her ponytail was neatly brushed and was long, blonde, and swung in time with her walk.  Her dresses were store-bought, and she had more than one pair of school shoes.  I noticed things like that because although I was not unkempt, I looked motherless.  My father tried to keep me clean, and my hair combed, but it was different.  My grandma made all of my clothes and Daddy trimmed my bangs which were always too short and uneven.  I felt motherless every day when I went to school and compared myself to others.  I felt different inside and yet I knew that not even a store-bought dress could change that.  Nothing could.

            My classmate and I held hands as we walked to the water fountain.  We whispered quietly to each other until it was my turn to get a drink.  I bent over and turned on the water and as I did, she said, “You always talk about your dad.  Don’t you have a mother?”

            I will never forget the cold fear that ran through me as she asked the question.  My blood stopped flowing through my veins.  My breath caught, and I froze inside.  Time stopped.  Yet, some resolve, from deep within, made me tell my first of many lies about my situation.  I stood up tall and looked her straight in the eyes, “Of course I do.”   Then we walked back to class in silence.

 I felt so ashamed. 

            Postponed grief will stay quiet for a little while.  It will be a ‘good girl’ and not bother you until something triggers a feeling buried inside and opens a door that will take two large football players and a sumo wrestler to close.  When my grief door is opened by a trigger outside of myself, feelings usually come out sideways.

            Postponed grief likes to lash out at unsuspecting loved ones, or set in motion a flood of heaving, hot tears during an inappropriate time, like in the grocery check-out line or in front of people you barely know.  This delayed sadness never dies.  It lives inside waiting for a crack or crevice to squeeze through and then burst into the room.  Not always dramatic, the postponed feelings sometimes like to make me feel immobilized like I can’t get out of bed.  It’s hard to know the toll these feelings will take, and which path they will choose.

            Graduations, my wedding, and the birth of my children were all huge milestones that brought to light the stark vacancy of my mother.  But one date, in particular, caused my grief to explode.  My thirty-third birthday.  The day I turned thirty-three my world turned upside down.  The realization that I was the same age as my mother when she passed made me actually feel my mortality.  When would I die?  How?  I began my anxious descent into depression, a place I would visit all year long.  A divorce, a fifteen-pound weight loss, and a job change were all products of my thirty-third year.  I wore my fear and dread around my neck like a heavy, rusted ship anchor threatening to pull me under the surging current.         

            My thirty-third year finally passed and with it a small piece of my anxiety about dying and leaving my children.  Relieved, I tucked my grief back into its place under my heart near my gut where it could upset me on occasion yet stay out of sight.  “Not yet,” I told my grief.  “It’s not time.”

Ten years came and went, and with them another divorce. 

Another loss conjured up my feelings of abandonment and reminded me that I had no mother to call or visit. It reminded me that I was unlovable and unable to keep a man.  I was a fish floundering on dry land, struggling to breathe.  Nevertheless, time both stood still and flew, as unbelievably another loss, my father’s death.

 “It’s time,”  my grief said.

 My father’s death was a fresh hit of complicated grief from years of a strained relationship, but it opened the door and with it came my childhood sadness wanting to be healed.  At the time, I could not understand why the loss of my mother took precedence over my daddy’s death.  She had been gone so long, yet it felt new as the postponed feelings poured out of my spirit.  The death of my father somehow gave me the permission I needed to grieve my mother’s passing and the loss of a daughter along the way. 

            My mother, a still-born daughter, and my father’s passing all came at me with full force.  No one was worse than the other, all vying for their place in line, ready to be seen, heard, and felt.  Ready to be grappled with, not one at a time, but fluidly, flowing back and forth, like a toddler mixing watercolors.  Messy yet beautiful.

            A kind and gentle therapist helped me to sort things out and most importantly, helped me to speak my truth.  Not in a fast, nonchalant regurgitation as I was used to, but in a methodical, heartfelt way acknowledging the intensity of each loss.

            Grief does not have a timeline, nor does it follow a prescribed blueprint.  I will never ‘get over it,’ I will continue to go through it.  Most likely, the sting of loss will stay with me until my days are over and then follow me to the grave.  Like a long, lost friend who visits once in a while, my grief leaves me with a fond goodbye and a tender sigh, promising to return.  My pain is lessened with each visit, and I am growing to respect this sadness that ebbs and flows.  It reminds me not only of my love for those who have gone before me but their love for me.  And in its own way, that is enough.

All Is Well

            It’s Mother’s Day and I am filled with a tender longing that never really leaves me, only swells larger every May.  There are countless books, blog posts, and podcasts that encourage us, motherless daughters, to celebrate our missing moms or sit with our grief in hopes of calming that anxiety that threatens to destroy us.

            It’s suggested to talk about your mother; say her name aloud, share memories (if you have them), and honor her in some meaningful way.  I’ll probably call my big brother because he knew her best.  He is my only link to her, my lifeline of memories.  Over the years his memories have become mine, for which I will forever be grateful.

            When I was younger, the loss of my mother felt like I was floundering in outer space, not tethered in any way.  I was slipping away and there was no one to catch hold and ground me.  As I have aged, my grief feels more like a heavy wool blanket that suffocates me under the weight of sadness.

            My mother’s name is Margaret.  Margaret Arminta Lane Claughton.  She is laid to rest next to my father in the Llano Cemetery in Amarillo, Texas, where she has resided since 1958.  A lifetime ago. 

If I lived there still, I would take flowers to her grave.  But, since I don’t and I know she isn’t really there and there is no flower delivery to Heaven, I will buy flowers for myself in her honor, which is something I have never done before.

            My girls are coming over for a late lunch on Saturday.  We’re celebrating Mother’s Day and my birthday, which feels okay given the space I am sometimes in.  I want to sob and throw a fit, and selfishly sit and stare completely immobilized.  But I always try to rally where my girls are concerned and welcome their intent to honor me, and I genuinely want to honor them.  After all, I tell myself, we are among the living.  “Let the dead bury the dead.”

            I’m grateful for my sweet daughters, yet I miss having a mother, even sixty-five years later, I struggle.

            I remember being the only one in my elementary class who didn’t have a mother, and as we sat at our desks with crayons and paper, I was embarrassed as we made our annual Mother’s Day cards.  I sat silently coloring away at a card I did not want to make.  I gave mine to my dad and we took it to the cemetery on Sunday after church.  I was the only child without a mother and yet we all had to make a card.  I hope things have changed by now, and while I don’t think my teachers meant to be insensitive, the aftereffects were far-reaching and have stayed with me to this day.

            There are other little girls in this world, even older girls and women who are facing this first Mother’s Day without their mother.  I have no sage advice.  No ‘10 Steps to Honor and Grieve Your Mother.’  My journey has not been neat and tidy.  It has been and still is messy and heartbreakingly overwhelming at times.

            I find that when I am honest and let my heart feel what it needs to, I am sooner to breathe and feel a sigh of relief that everything will be okay.  Sitting in a quiet, calm place, I put my hand over my heart and whisper ‘all is well,’ until I believe it.  All is well.

            Just for today, just for this Mother’s Day, I will buy my mother the flowers I always wanted to give her.  I will set the table with her Dessert Rose dishes and enjoy my daughters and grandson, and it will be enough.  Actually, more than enough.

All is well, I whisper to that little girl within me.  All is well.         

Hello, Old Friend

Hello, Old Friend

            It matters not if your mother has been gone for six weeks, six years or sixty-four years, as mine has.  A mother’s love was our first love and remains that anchor always.

            Sometimes unexpectedly, I will feel an ache deep inside that sits heavy like a boulder and has the makings of an avalanche.  I go about my day, my life, as if there was no weight upon my heart, but my insides recognize this visitor.  I am reminded of it, this faint knowledge that it’s almost Mother’s Day, and I hope the rockslide of emotions don’t start.  I want to stay the course and keep everything in its place.

            I love being a mother, myself, although I have endured times of angst as I stumbled along trying to do “it” right.  Being a mother and grandmother has been my biggest blessing.  My daughters have grown up right before my eyes and no longer make me macaroni angels or hand painted plaques that say, “Prayer Changes Things.” They are always so good to shower me with gifts and thoughtful cards that I save in a big box, safely tucked away.  Someday, when I am gone, they will find it and laugh at me for saving so much, but that’s alright, I could not bear to throw away their words or thoughtfulness.

            Yet, when it comes to Mother’s Day, I fall silent.  I feel uncertain of what to do with myself and I am deeply aware that the sadness I feel is not in aligned with the way most of the world thinks.

            I want to cry and sit alone with my sadness.  I want to look at pictures and have a cup of tea or a glass of wine.  And, at the same time I want to go with my daughters for a long walk among flowers and beautiful trees, feeling the sunshine on our faces, confirming I am alive.  My feelings are a contrast as day is to night. 

            I want to celebrate my mother.  I want to celebrate being a mother and my daughter being a mother.  But there’s that ache deep inside that wants nothing to do with sunshine, long walks or brunch.  That ache says, “You’re alone, so be alone. No one understands anyway.”  That ache makes me separate and odd because I hurt on a day others feel joy and gratitude.

            I’ve long ago made sense of being left motherless.  I understand that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and more than that, I understand that this ache will not kill me.  While there are times I thought it might, it has become an old friend, although unwanted, that is familiar and will retreat after a time. This old ache will go back to where it lives, underneath my heart, lodged over to the side.  But it will come back another time, perhaps unannounced, smaller in size. 

 Please don’t feel sorry for me, as that is not what I want.  I know I am okay.  I am not alone on this motherless journey; I know there are far too many who travel with me.  I want them to know it is fine to have feelings that go back and forth.  It is okay to have the ache and still want the sunshine.  It will not always hurt this bad, so go ahead and feel.  God in His wisdom has given us the ability to see both sides, to feel both sadness and sunshine. 

            “And gradually his memory slipped a little, as memories do, even those with so much love attached to them; as if there is an unconscious healing process within the mind which mends up in spite of our desperate determination never to forget.”
― Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds  

The Angels Sing

The Angels Sing by: Nancy Malcolm

Playing outside in a gentle rain, stomping through puddles, and laughing wholeheartedly

            Eating ice cream for breakfast

            Wearing my Easter dress shoes to school before they became too small.

            Coloring outside the lines

            My daddy would say these things were frivolous, irresponsible, even wasteful.  Thus, the spontaneous gene was not passed down to me.  It died a fast death somewhere between The Great Depression and my mother’s passing.

Growing up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, we were rarely allowed to have fun.  My father, a recent widower, was structured and purposeful as electrical engineers are prone to be.   I feel he became even more so due to my mother’s absence.  He felt overwhelmed at times and we could tell because his voice would rise, and he would enunciate his words with harsh diction and authority.  We, my brother and I, knew exactly when his anger would peak and tried to avoid it at all costs.  He never admitted his struggle to hold us together and remain functional, as that would have been seen as weakness.

I remember one specific time when I saw my father happy. He was in the kitchen making us a homemade pizza.  Benny Goodman, The King of Swing, was playing on the turn table and my father was drinking a Gibson.  This stood out to me because he was not really a drinker and I had never before seen little white onions on a toothpick.  Daddy was dancing to the music and making our pizza, and my brother and I felt awash with his happiness and sudden break from our strict routine.  It was a spontaneous moment for Daddy, and we were witnesses to his ability to laugh and dance.  Now, as I look back, I say ‘bless him.’  He wanted just a few minutes of normalcy, a few minutes of fun.  Perhaps he had a memory of my mother floating along with the smooth clarinet notes, holding her in his arms and swaying to the beat.

            The story doesn’t end well, though, because my brother and I complained about the pizza with garlic, tomatoes, olives and other strange ingredients.  We were kids doing what kids do, but the mood ended as my father began to feel frustrated with our immature pallets and bickering protests.  I remember the music being turned off and us having peanut butter, while he finished his drink and pizza.  I felt his sadness reappear as another lonely Friday night came to an end.

            Benny Goodman and his Orchestra played a song entitled, “And The Angels Sing.” This was popular around 1939 and the early ‘40’s and just listening to it brings back so many memories of my dad through the years.  He loved jazz.  Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few, were his favorites.  On rare occasions, his music seemed to transport him to a more carefree time, and it showed on his face and in his demeanor.  Sometimes he would break into a Charleston or foxtrot by himself, always on beat and always with a smile. And I was always amazed at his spontaneous display of pure joy.

            ‘Bless him’ and bless Bennie Goodman for showing us a part of our father we might never have seen.  This must have been the part my mother fell in love with.  She probably admired his spontaneity and smooth moves on the dance floor, and no doubt, as she looked down on us from above, she wanted nothing more than for him to be happy again, carefree and spontaneous.

We meet and the angels sing,

The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard,

We speak and the angels sing,

Or am I reading music into every word?

You smile and the angels sing,

And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start,

We kiss and the angels sing,

And leave their music ringing in my heart.