1095 Days Later: ‘I’m Here, No Big Whoop’

“What is so significant about today?” my husband and I wonder.

Today is the day my mom’s spirit was released from her suffering body. Three years ago today, she died.

“Is this a day we want to mark?” we both wonder. And in the parlance of exam essay

It's 3 a.m. and I'm wide awake.

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m wide awake.

questions, “Why, or why not?”

For the last three years, in the wee morning hours of May 7 I have awoken. I rarely awake during the night. If I do, it is usually to roll over and resume sleep. The last three years though, near 3 a.m., I awaken. Fully.

It does not escape me that in these same wee hours, my mother’s spirit made her escape.

Is it a shift in the energy of the universe, revisited at this time, that wakes me up? The extraction of her physical presence and the vacuum that created in my life and the lives of so many others that rouses me from slumber? Is it some spiritual clock my soul has set within me, to go off once a year, a recollection, an alarm.

Is it her thumbprint on my soul, the smooth river stone she placed in my heart, which anchors my soul, full of all her teachings, her love, her goodness and complexities, pressing ever deeper into my memory, my being? Is her spirit nudging it deeper, each year?

I get up hours later and rush to Mass to meet my father and honor her. I’m doing OK until the priest mentions her name, her full name, during the intentions. “Shut up!” I want to yell at him and cover my ears. “Don’t you dare say her name as being gone, departed, dead. Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

Instead I sob and think, “My mom is dead. My mom is dead.” 1,095 days later this still seems unreal — and unreasonable.

The priest talks about the dispersal of the apostles after Jesus’ death.

Painting titled 'The ballerina' by Iraqi artist Afeefa al-Aiby from the exposition Arab Culture in the Diaspora.

Painting titled ‘The ballerina’ by Iraqi artist Afeefa al-Aiby from the exposition Arab Culture in the Diaspora.

I think about the many people who loved my mom, who were deeply touched by her love, who treasured her friendship, companionship, her loving heart. Siblings, cousins, her husband, her children and children’s spouses, grandchildren, other family, the families of her children’s spouses, her dear and loyal friends, distant relatives, childhood friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, children of friends, friends of her children, priests, nuns, volunteers, caregivers, doctors, nurses who cared for her, fellow patients, fellow church members, people who have read about her in my writing, before her death and after, the friends who I made simply because we both had dead mothers — all of these part of the diaspora of Judy’s love.

All of these people (and more) came together when she died three years ago, pulled inward by the transition of her spirit. Brought together to commune because of the magnetic energy and power of her love and how she made people feel. And then, they dispersed to all their different nooks, carrying with them that piece of Judy’s love and spirit.

Sometimes I feel sad about the dispersion. But more often I feel impressed.
I feel as if that’s the way it is supposed to be — and maybe the way my mom’s love was always destined to travel.

I am beginning to think that we only fully share what we receive from others, the gifts loved ones instill in us, after they are gone.

When they are living, we can imitate and approximate, but when they are gone, their intention of love becomes part of us, we own it. It activates and becomes a part of who we are and what we are now empowered to bestow on others.

A week ago, I had a dream my mom came walking back into the kitchen of our childhood home, after having been dead for three years. In the dream, I knew she was coming back to life!

She looked great, young and fresh and very calm. I stroked her cheek and marveled that she was whole again, all put back together, in health and beauty and peace.

While I felt shocked and awed in the dream, she was matter-of-fact and serene. Like, “hey, honey girl, I’m here, no big whoop.”

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Two Years

Yesterday marked two years since my beloved mother’s spirit escaped from the suffering of cancer and joined the spirit of Great Love that fuels all.

 
Two years flew by. Two years crept. I am not the same person I was before. Neither is my Dad, my brothers, sisters, my husband, my children, nieces and nephews. Life is always changing, of course. Change is painful, because it requires us to shift our thoughts, accept harsh realities and rejigger our deeply held expectations (sometimes a bit, sometimes a lot). Evolving is uncomfortable and awkward but it can be miraculous — particularly in hindsight.
 
Life without my mom was once unfathomable to me. Since I can remember, which is very far back, I categorized that concept as impossible. Apparently, I was wrong. Life without my mom’s physical presence is possible. It has occurred. Her spiritual presence persists in my life and makes itself known in myriad ways, and I am thankful for these reminders. Her physical absence still represents a significant vacuum in our lives. (I think I speak for me and all of you reading this, too.) I continue to battle with that beast but I also have come to accept it a bit more. It enrages me, but I have made room for the absence, too.
 
I guess the absence has its purpose. Without it, would I recall the way her lovely (always cool) long fingers gently stroked on my face? Without it, would I hear her voice in my heart, like a song, calling my name, the names of our daughters, my nieces and nephews. Would I remember the way she would angle her head and smile at someone when she was really listening and wanted to show her sincere attention and concern? And then would I find myself doing the same (without consciously knowing it)? Without the absence, would I feel moved to cook her recipes, to read the books left untouched by her bedside, to reread her love notes and cards to me and my family over the years? Would I be able to recognize her smell when I pull on a sweater of hers, freshly taken from a box sealed up with her things? Maybe not. And that would be a true tragedy.
 
So I guess I must construct a truce with the absence.
 
I can definitively tell you that two years of additional life, love, laughter, pain, tears, joy, dancing, weddings, births, apologies, devotion, prayer, meditation, yoga, running, singing, cooking, baking, connection, new friends, enduring friendships, gardening, reading, writing, growing would not have been possible without you. 
 
Without the friends and family of each of us, without the friends of my mothers’ we never even knew, who remember her and carry her with them and who find it in their hearts to carry us, and love us, my Dad, my brothers and I would not be here today.
 
Without the love of family, the love of friends, the self-sacrifice required to hold us up, to accept us as we are (broken and healing, awkward and tentative) we would not have made it to this point. It is a debt of love we owe to the world because you have given us this gift of your love and friendship.
 
Thank you for keeping my mom’s memory with you, in your hearts, in your words, in your prayers. Thank you for loving us where we have been these last two years. 
 

Missing the “Mom moments”

An open letter to a young mother, out to lunch or shopping
with your child/children and your mom 

Hi there,

First, you are beautiful. So is your child. And so is your mom.

Second, I am jealous of you. But I’m working to be much more than just jealous. I want to be happy for you. I want to be glad.

But more than that: I want to share in your moment. I want to take your moment like the softest pashmina made, clench it in my hands and then stretch it across my shoulders tightly, wrapping it all around my body, twice, if it will go.

When I look at you, shopping with your mom and your child, eating with your mom, chatting with your mom, I wonder. Do you realize how precious this is? Do you understand the way this moment is nourishing your spirit? Maybe you do. I do not believe I ever fully did.

Did you know this is a moment? A moment of significance, importance? The most simple, yet sublime comfort there is? It’s a moment of togetherness with your child, your mother, and you. Here in this café, walkway, shopping mall, store, grocery market – this moment is something you will remember forever. Long after your mother can no longer accompany you.

I want to tell you, it is. I want to tell you, like your best friend might, this moment is precious. That you should be basking in it, if you are not. Are you making mental notes? Are you taking mind pictures of your mom’s face as she wipes your child’s chin, reaches for his hand as you cross the parking lot, or takes the stroller as you pull a blouse from the rack, and ask for her opinion?

I do not know how to explain its significance except in the negative. For that, I apologize. But these small moments, which seem infinite to you right now, are finite. You might get hundreds, thousands even. But there will be a point when they cease to exist.

And when they do, somehow they will be what you miss most about not having an alive mom. The lack of them will take your breath away and wound you in ways you did not understand you could be hurt.

Here, in this precious moment, your beautiful mom gets to love you, her beloved child, and her adored grandchild, simultaneously. Her presence provides instant, unspoken support for all that you are doing or attempting to do to raise your child.

Whatever life you’ve chosen (working, not working, freelancing, volunteering, turbo-parenting), your mother supports you, even if she gives you pause to think about it all once in awhile. Whatever lessons you wish to impart to your child (even if they are just: use a napkin, say thank you, wash your hands) she is reinforcing. Whatever woe presses upon your heart leaves marks on your mother’s heart, too.

And here’s the last bit, then I will leave you in your glorious moment.

Even if you are harried, rushed, oblivious due to the many demands of wifehood, motherhood, or work, and you don’t feel it, you are nourished, upheld, comforted, spoiled and delighted by this connection with your mother, the source of all you are. This happens imperceptibly while it happens. And it’s happening.

And it’s wonderful. And so are you. And so is your mom.

I can see clearly now and your underwear is way too small

When someone you love is fighting for their life, a lot of stuff goes by the wayside.

A more basic version of you emerges. You develop a predator-like focus on the beasts you’re fending off. For our family, those beasts were cancer and death. We were on the side of many more years and love overcoming illness.

Our eyes were opened, and focused on beating cancer -- and not on so many other things.

Once the battle was over, my focus seemed to shatter into a thousand pieces of distracted attention.

Lately I’ve been working with my SuperGlue, in tongue-over-lip concentration, trying to fit at least a good portion of the pieces back together again.

The pieces are interesting! And shocking.

Take, for example, my daughter Prima’s bedroom closet. It was bursting at the seams with too-small clothes, socks and shoes. While I was the cancer predator, I just shoved new stuff in there, making small pliant promises I would go through it all later.

Later came the other evening. My younger daughter out with her dad, we dove in and began culling through the mess. I tackled her underwear drawer first. I found my 8-year-old daughter had been squeezing herself into size 4, 5, and 6 panties.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” she told me bluntly, when I apologetically pointed out the size discrepancy. “They stretched out.”

Oodles of guilt and shame were followed by a profound love of my Prima, who tends to find the silver lining, especially when she can spare someone’s feelings.

Another interesting piece was our desk. Sheesh! Outdated bills had started mating under the piles of unrequited junk mail, coupons that shouted, “FREE!” birthday cards never sent and school notices that never notified us. (Me: Did you know Prima has a half day today? Mr. B: No, did you?)

The Bailey's desk was about 1000 times worse than this, and remains a work in chaotic progress.

A carefully placed stack of colorful woven baskets yielded bills from the early cancer predator days, shoved away and now outdated, thankfully, and easy to shred.

I’ve woken up! And the living room needs painting and the floor needs changing and our lives need a fresh coat of paint.

The cancer predator was cruel, but it’s over now. And as much as I miss my Mom (with every thought and every breath, every single day), I am glad it’s gone – even if I have to start with tight underwear.

It’s a Messy (Wonderful) Life

When I first started writing this blog, I was telling a friend about a little frustration I was experiencing with Mr. Bailey. She gasped and smiled, astonished and relieved.

“But I thought it was a ‘Wonderful Life’ for you!”

The truth will set you free, even if the truth is a emotional mess. Art by Max Fujishama

“Are you kidding me?” I told her, laughing along. Right then, I silently vowed to make sure this blog wasn’t just some cherry-coated version of my messy life.

It’s been really messy lately.

I lost my mom to cancer 12 weeks ago yesterday.

Her death was the culmination of two years of head-spinning living. (She was never dying, until the very end, when she was.) Chemo and vacations, radiation and celebrations, laughing and crying, wig shopping, nail biting, port accessing and tests that went our way and, then, didn’t.

There were highlights – a family trip that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, a closeness with my dad and my siblings, an appreciation for what the day would bring and, ultimately, a good excuse for me to get off the crazy breakneck pace treadmill of modern life and focus on what really mattered.

Maybe by that list you can tell I am an optimist, a half-full kind of girl.

But the truth is, since my mom died, it’s hard to be half-full.

When you walk around missing an essential part of yourself, of your spirit and guide, your own personal unconditional, it’s difficult to feel fully committed to optimism.

“Write,” Mr. Bailey would tell me. “Write,” my best friends would softly suggest. “Write,” my therapist would encourage.

I made all kinds of excuses.

Modern Mary contemplates what and where to write from here.

“I can’t get into Modern Mary’s headspace right now,” I would say.

“It’s too fresh,” I would rationalize.

“No one wants to hear about my grief,” I would moan. And some days that really feels achingly true.

Today I realized with all my excuses and all my faux writer’s blocks, I was breaking that vow to be honest with my readers about my messy life.

I think my readers can handle the muddle because life is messy, just like my Mom used to tell me.

Sometimes it’s so messy it can take your breath away and make you doubt what you know to be true.

But the mess is beautiful and difficult, and ultimately what makes us fellow travelers on this journey of life.

And all we can do sometimes is just to share it.