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.