I was 11 when my mother had a nervous breakdown. I came home from school the front door was wide open, my fathers clothes were scattered all over the front lawn. When I entered the house I found my mother. She was there and not there at the same time, her eyes were somewhere else. My mother wasn’t making much sense. She told me things about her childhood that my 11 year old self could not process. She told me of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her step dad who was a cop in Merced. She told me she married her boss to get away from the abuse she went through. She told me her step dad had naked pictures of her that he threatened to show those photos at her brothers wedding. It would take me years to process this but what I came to learn is that my mother was sexual abused from the time she was very young by her sheriff step dad. She didn’t have counselors and my father joined an extreme religion that was making things worse for her and the guilt and shame she felt from her abuse.
I was 13 when my mother died the first time. She laid in her hospital bed, her eyes filled with blood, her body swollen like a football. Encephalitis, is what the Dr. said. “Did your mother travel to Africa?”, the Dr. asked. “No”, my father replied, we have never traveled. I laid on the floor in the hospital chapel begging God to save my mother. She lived, but it would be a long road. At the age of 13 the role I had as daughter reversed and I became my mothers mother. The Encephalitis left my mother brain damaged.
My grandmother told my father she would care for my mother after her near death. She convinced my father to sign over custody to her and she took her to Yakima, Washington. My mother lived there with her mom, and my great grandma. What happened next is hard to even imagine typing. My grandmother told my mother we didn’t love her, she made my mother file for a divorce and she wouldn’t let us she her.
I wrote my mother letters every week,” I love you mom, I always have, I always will Grandma’s lying.”
When I was 16 we stole my mother back from my grandma. We were allowed to visit, my dad asked my grandma to take my mom to ice cream and he kept driving. I will never forget that day. The song on the radio was playing, “Never Gonna Let You Go”, I remember so clearly the tears streaming down my face as we drove over the Snoqualmie Mountain Pass back to our home in Puyallup, Washington.
We were a family again. Everything was going to be ok…
Feb 10, 1988, was my mothers first day of physical therapy to help with her walking and balance. My father never picked her up from Good Sam Rehabilitation Center so she rode the bus. As we watched the 5:00 news we saw a photo of my fathers car. “Blue Eagle”, our family station wagon, I would recognize that car anywhere. The sticker on the back read, “Happiness is seeing your Mother in Law’s photo on the back of a milk carton. Missing Person. We hated my grandma.
The news caster came on and said that words that would alter the coarse of my life forever. “TWO MEN HAVE BEEN SHOT AND KILLED”. The air in the room left, my brother, mom and I watched in horror as we feared the worst. I don’t remember much about this moment, I do remember getting on our Snoopy and Woodstock phone and calling everyone in our little brown phone book,” Have you seen my Dad?” I asked everyone I knew. “No, No, No, No, No” they all answered. The sherif arrived later that evening to inform us that my father had been shot with multiple gunshot wounds. Just like that he was gone.
My mother went into State care, my brother with a friend and me with an Aunt. I am not sure what happened to our dog, but he was just gone, my house, my horse, my life shattered in an instant.
I had gained some skills caring for my mother so I went into overdrive and promised my dead father that I would care for my mom and brother. I felt the weight of the world was on my shoulders.
It wasn’t the perfect situation, but people showed up to help, I am so thankful for the people that did this. They stepped in and the truth is now that I am older I know that it takes a special kind of person to walk into this mess.
I took my mother to high school parties with me. I picked her up from the nursing home she lived in almost daily. I would take her for her daily big gulp run at 7-11. My mothers room was near the door and she would wait for me. To this day I still have that picture in my head of her waiting for me to come get her 24-7 it’s an image I have replayed over and over and over again over the years. I loved my mother so deeply and I also resented that I had to care for her when I just wanted to be a kid.
I was 22 when my mother died. She had 3 strokes in a row. Her death was so different then my fathers because I got to say good-bye. I told her it was ok. That she had suffered for so long and I would be ok. I had no idea how not ok I really was.
When she died the compound grief of my Fathers Murder and my mothers death were way too much. I was in college my first year at WSU. I laid in bed for days and a dark depression swept over my room like the blob. I was suffocating from the pain of her loss. I could not breathe. How was I supposed to go on when I had been my mothers keeper for so long. There was no line where my mother ended and I began.
How do you crawl out of these dark days? When the bottom falls out, how do you muster up the will to survive? This is a question I have asked myself for years. How do we do this?
The answer is one step at a time. Friends, family, people that enter your life, I call them angels.
I made my way to the book store and saw the book titled “Motherless Daughters“, by Hope Edelman. I bought it and read it from cover to cover. I carried that book around like a bible. I put on my yellow headphone and my cassette player walkman and I walked my way out of this deep depression. I got a therapist on campus and I started working through all these losses and trauma. It wasn’t the first time I had been in therapy. My father and I had went before he died and thank goodness for that. Therapy saved me.
The hardest part about losing my mother is that I would quickly learn that no one would ever love me like my mother. People would show up and they would say, “You are like a daughter to me”, but like a daughter or “like a mother” is not the same as a mother. People mean well really they do but this loss, it was up to me. I had to learn how to mother myself. At 22, I wondered how the heck I would do this. I am 46 now and I can tell you it is constant work and that missing her part doesn’t ever go away, yet somehow I have made it.
What did I do to heal?
I found a motherless daughter group in Seattle, I went every week for 12 weeks. I listed to stories from other women of all ages talking about how losing their mother had completely changed everything for them. Their relationships, their parenting, their friends. I watched, listened and learned.
I went through lots of bad relationships and I picked men that were wounded like me. I guess that saying of “like attracts like” is true. But somehow I was able to see this and I knew I didn’t want to chose bad relationships for myself.
I told myself I would date myself for a year and I did exactly that. I remember so clearly an exercise my counselor gave me. A blank cup. “Now fill your cup with all the things that make you you”. I had no idea, I was so embarrassed to say that I didn’t know what was in my cup because I was so busy filling everyone else. I learned how to fill my cup, I kept that cup on my fridge to remind me daily what I loved. The color purple, coffee with friends, Tulips, Beaches, Children, Candles. Every time I saw something and recognized that I loved it I put it in my cup. Identity is hard to come by when your a child of trauma.
Travel heals trauma- I met the man of my dreams after dating myself for a year. We moved to China. We traveled the world. For the first time I realized that suffering is universal. A man jumps out of the ditch, a turtle in one hand a frog in the other. It is his dinner, he is happy. I couldn’t fathom this.
There is so much I want to say about all the spaces between the words I wrote above. But for the last 25 years every Mother’s Day my body remembers this loss.
I feel it in my bones and if you lost your mother I know you know this. People often think that you grieve in a linear way. You lose someone you love, you grieve and should be sad for a while and then get over it like a virus. If I have learned one thing in the 25 years after my mothers death this myth is so untrue.
Grief comes in waves. There is no manual, you don’t get over it like the chickenpox. It waxes and wanes like the moon, it flows like a windy river down the path of your life.
For me it can be a song, or an angel, and I remember one of the most vivid times watching a friends mom bake bread. I looked at her aging hands and burst into tears because I realized at that moment I would never know what my aging mothers hands looked like.
The birth of my children, I ached for her. I became best friends with the pharmacist at Target as I held my new born up to him in tears asking what to do for his colic tummy.
What I know for sure is this mothers day my mother has been gone for 25 years. I turn 47 the same age she was when she died. My boys are 13 the same age I was when all of this trauma and loss unfolded. I have come so far.
I sat in a Motherless Daughter group at 1440 with Hope Edelman, and Claire Bidwell Smith, two people I adore in the Mother, Parent loss field and I sat with a group of over 30 women, all ages who had lost their mother. There I was 25 years later still working on my mother loss. I am also training to be a therapist. At that moment when an issue came up and I watched all of these women nod their heads up and down when someone asked, “Do you know what I mean?”. I saw so clearly the power of “me too”. I didn’t care if people thought I was stuck, or should be over my dead mother because I knew at that moment that this is a life long process called the Longtail of grief.
My memories of my mother never die, I learned at that retreat it was ok to talk to her. We did a guided meditation that I didn’t expect we picked our favorite place, walked down the beach and came upon a bench. We were asked to picture our mother sit down with her and let her know what was happening in our life. This was one of the most powerful exercises I have done. I realized at that moment that I hadn’t actually talked to her in so many years. I was so busy thinking I had done the work to move on.
The truth is when you lose your mother you never move on or get over it. It’s a process called the Longtail of grief. So this year I am doing it a little differently. Instead of avoiding the card isle at Target I am walking into it. Picking out the perfect card for my mother and writing her a letter to update her on my life. I finished my first year of grad school to be a counselor. My husband got a job, My twin boys her grandsons are almost 6 feet. They are funny, kind and the light of my life. My two pugs keep are like medicine and I am beginning my business of helping others walk through there grief. A dream come true.
This mothers day, 25 years later I know that I will never get over my mothers death but my relationship with her doesn’t have to die just because she did. Talk to her.
I love you Motherless Daughters, you are not alone. There is a whole tribe of women that get you.
Self care, Self love, it’s ok to feel what ever you feel, go into the grief, laughter, love and light. You got this! I’ve got you, are some of the most powerful words I have ever heard in my life. I’ve got you, You got this.