Angel Wings

Angel Wings

written by Nancy Malcolm

 

I’ve never really been a good sleeper.  I remember waking up early that morning while it was still dark outside and padding into the living room.  My father had closed the door leading into the bedroom he and my mother shared. I imagine he scooped me up and asked why I was up so early, as he sat us in the rocking chair.  He might have told me my mother was gone, but I don’t remember his words, only being held and rocked.

In the way that four-year-olds know things, I knew something was wrong with my mother.  I’m sure I was told about her illness and hospital stays but some sixty years later, I cannot remember the details.  The adults in charge of me most likely explained the circumstances in simple, cryptic words appropriate for a child. Only much later would I learn that my mother had died in the night and that my dad was rocking me as we waited for the funeral home to take her body away.  I find it unnerving that I awoke at just that time. Did her soul pass over my sleeping frame to tell me goodbye? Was I awakened by an angel’s kiss or my father’s sobbing?

All that mattered to me at the time was the warmth of my daddy’s lap and the rhythmic creaking of that old rocking chair.  It would be years later before I would feel the complete impact of her death and even now, I am taken aback at the enormity of my loss.  Our loss.

My mother died of a brain tumor when I was four years old.

I have only two vivid memories of my mother.  One was the day we brought home a wheelchair for her.  After the surgery to remove her brain tumor, her face was droopy on one side, her speech was slurred and she had trouble balancing enough to walk.  Because I was only four years old, I was told these facts, I don’t remember them first hand. I truly have no memory of my mother’s face, voice or mannerisms.  My dad always said that our mother was very frustrated with her inability to care for my brother and me after the surgery.  My brother was eight years old and with us being so young, I’m sure we took advantage of her slow mobility. The realization that she could no longer keep up with us was probably more than she could bear.  She was only 33.

I remember my dad and me pushing the wheelchair into the house and us laughing and talking.  But, she didn’t want it. I can see her now, standing in the living room in her robe. She had one hand on the piano to balance herself as she said with her garbled speech, “No.  Don’t need it.” She cried and was angry and shoed it away with her good hand. My brother and I were sent to play outside while my dad tried to calm her down. I do not know if the wheelchair stayed or not, but I know that she became resigned and despondent after that.  Her life as it had been as a healthy, young mother of two, was over.

My second memory is of my mother’s funeral and my dad picking me up to look at my mother in her casket.  He wanted me to kiss her goodbye. I didn’t want to because her lifeless body scared me. My reluctance made him more sad and upset.  

 My mother looked as though she had been gently laid in her final satin bed.  She wore a bright red shirt-waist dress made from a heavy wool fabric. While her face had been stitched carefully to disguise the drooping eyelids and mouth,  her dark brown hair looked fresh and stylish and her lips, painted in a blood-red matte finish, looked pleasant, not pained.  

“Don’t you want to kiss your mama goodbye?” he prodded and held me up to see her.  He leaned over with me so I could kiss her cheek and I kicked my legs and began to cry.  

What a sight that must have been, a young widower and his two small children standing at the casket.  As a child, seeing my mother’s body stiff and unnatural had to have been frightening.   I realize now that my father was lingering at her side.  He didn’t want to let her go. He knew that for the casket lid to shut and for her grave to be filled meant the end of his life as he knew it and ours too.

Years later I would recall that story to a therapist and for the first time, someone acknowledged for me how scary that must have been.  That was the first time I admitted it to myself. Unknowingly, my dad had made me feel ashamed at not wanting to kiss her goodbye and I was finally able to see the scene through a different lens.  For most of my adult years, I was petrified to attend funerals and I couldn’t figure out why. I would make up stories saying why I couldn’t attend and if I couldn’t get out of it, I would become anxious and shaky, nearly making myself sick.   I had a true fear of death and seeing a dead body and that did not change until much later in my life.  

There is a huge distance between my mother’s angel wings and the harsh reality of death.  My childlike mind never fully understood it or separated the two. My father would tell us our mother was an angel in heaven now, and still, we felt the fear and ugliness of death.  How can they both exist?

To this day, I don’t like loud noises such as gunshots and slamming doors or references to the dead coming alive or anything unpredictable that would make me jump.  I still cover my eyes or leave the room if a television program seems too frightening or the music too intense. It’s all just too much for me. I’ve been afraid since way back when…afraid of everything.   And for me, real life has been much more disturbing than make-believe. As an adult, I understand the process and realities of death, but the child in me is chilled to the bone and I can’t stop the shiver.

When Pictures Are All You Have

 

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My whole relationship with my mother is through photographs.  I don’t remember talking with her or being held by her. I only know the likeness of our features through these black and white photos adhered to the page with black corner holders, neatly placed in an album.

My Dad managed to continue my “baby book” photo album until I was about 10.  The photos early on with my mother stop when I was 3. My mother was already sick and becoming unable to care for us.

Then, of course, there are the pictures of my brother and me after my mother died.  I see the stress on our faces, particularly my Dad.  He struggled to make us look nice and well

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My 5th birthday party 

put together, and no matter how hard he tried, we looked motherless.  He would pose us in our Easter clothes or Sunday best and tell us to smile. The outcome is obvious in these Kodak moments as he tried to make us look like our mother would have wanted. Alas, no pasted on smile could hide our broken hearts.

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My Dad, brother and I seven months after my mother died.

I learned a lot about my mother’s personality and countenance from her high school yearbooks, her college scrapbook, and my parents’ wedding pictures.   I saw her as a young lady, vibrant and energetic. I saw her laughing with friends and smiling on her wedding day. I read the endearing remarks from her school chums as they professed everlasting friendship and love.  Everything I know about my mother came from those that loved her and from these priceless black and white snapshots.

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Mom and Auntie Sue

 

 

My impressions of her came through the lens of someone else’s view, but for me, that is enough.  I’ll let their love and admiration, their memories be mine as well. When pictures are all you have, it has to be enough.

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My parents’ wedding

 

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

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Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord, my soul, to take.

 

When I was growing up, that was the nightly prayer I said before going to sleep.  My Daddy made sure I knelt beside my bed and recited these simple words.

There are few things in life harder than losing a child.  It doesn’t matter how old, how young, miscarriage, or stillbirth, the death of a child is unspeakable.  Those who have not walked this path, rarely understand the deep emotions.  Their sympathy is sincere but the empathy only comes from experience.

In 1977 my daughter, Autumn was stillborn.  I had never known anyone who had lost a child or had a stillbirth.  I had a lot of shame surrounding it and since my own mother was deceased, I felt I had no one to share this shame and confusion with.  My shame stemmed from not being able to give birth to a healthy child and I felt totally inept as a woman.  I had no one to help me understand or guide me in being compassionate towards myself.

A few of my friends had experienced miscarriages in their early pregnancies, but I had gone through hours of labor and delivery only to find out she had never taken a breath.  Now, 41 years later, I have known a few women who have had the same sadness.  I have had the privilege of sharing my experience, strength and hope with them and they with me.

Recently, I have found two organizations that give hope, love, and support to the grieving parents.  One was in our local newspaper recently, called, “Angel Wings of Lake Travis.”  These volunteers make burial gowns for these infants who are victims of an untimely death.  Often the parents are unprepared or unable to provide a garment for the child to be buried in.  These precious burial gowns are made from donated wedding dresses.  The volunteers sew little gowns with a vest and bow tie for the boys and an exquisite gown for the girls.  The gown is given to the family free of charge.  What a meaningful way to help these parents say goodbye to their precious little one.

Another organization dear to me is, “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep.”  When I was taking a photography class recently, a volunteer spoke to us about giving our time as a photographer.  NILMDTS trains, educates, and mobilizes professional photographers to provide beautiful portraits to families facing the death of their infant.  The free gift of a professional portrait serves to honor the child and the family, thus providing an important step in the healing process.

What makes these so special to me is the fact that I had neither for Autumn.  She had no burial clothes and I have no photograph or tangible reminder of her little soul.  I know I cannot change these facts, but I would give anything to help another family have the healing closure they and their babies deserve.

I hope you will visit these two websites and take time to read about their missions, and to donate if you are so moved.

Thank you for reading and allowing me to share something so close to my heart.

://www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org/about/mission-and-history/

http://angelwingslaketravis.wixsite.com/angelwingslaketravis

Enough

 

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I just knew there was a rule book for life that I did not read.  Guidelines for living that I never understood.  That’s exactly how it felt to grow up without a mother.  I felt everyone else knew the secrets to life, except me.

I was the perfect faker, the ultimate counterfeit girl, imitating others and impersonating the girls I read about in Seventeen magazine.  It was exhausting to be constantly watching others for cues as to what to say or do.

There are many of us walking on this earth, that for whatever reason, feel the same way.  I see the others now, and I know I was never really alone.  But today, when I notice someone who looks afraid or uncertain, I reach out to take their hand, literally or figuratively, so they can feel the warmth.

This life is too much for tender souls, but as we hold another’s  hand, we ourselves gain strength, and wisdom and safety.  We can feel safe and secure to be who we really are and know  that is enough.

We are enough.

Dear Motherless Daughter

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Nothing and no one can replace my mother.  I’ve lived 59 years without her and I know this to be true for me.  Nothing and no one.

A lot of people tried to comfort me by saying, “But, you had your father, your brother and a family of your own.”  That is also true, however, I had all those people and I still didn’t have a mother.  While I cannot speak for all motherless daughters, I can say for myself that not having a mother has affected me in every area of my life and the years have not erased the deep need I have for a mother, my mother.

Every true friend I have had, every man I have loved has known this fact about me.  There are plenty of others who don’t know that I am motherless and have assumed that I have “it all” and don’t know the meaning of loss or adversity.  To this I would say two things:  1.)  don’t assume you know everything about anybody and 2.)  if  you didn’t know this about me, then I might not have felt safe enough to tell you.

I have said these words a million times, “My mother died when I was four years old.”  But, it’s what I haven’t said that tells you the deeper meaning.  When my grandson was four years old, I looked at him and wondered to myself  how I ever lived with such loss.  Four is such a tender age, and to think of a soul wounding at that age and continuing to live until now at 63, is nothing short of a miracle.

I know my words may make you uncomfortable, downright uneasy, but what is buried alive never dies.  Put another way, I have to speak out, tell the world what it is like for us, the walking wounded.  I am sorry if my story makes you sad or my descriptions seem too harsh.  “Let it go”, you might be thinking, “Time heals all wounds, ” but to you I will say that we all have some places in our  hearts that need healing.  Look inward, take what you like and leave the rest.

My fellow motherless children, (you know who you are), you are not alone.  Keep reading.  At least I hope you do, for there is a language we know; a knowledge we have that unites us in kinship.  We share something that bonds us into eternity and gives us hope that someday…that hole will be filled up…..to the top.  We all take a different path to find our healing.  The balm of time may heal the wound, but the scar never quite disappears.  We are forever changed.