On August 12th, 2019 the eighteenth anniversary of my mother’s death will once again rip me to shreds.
The worst day of my life started like any other Sunday. I got up with no alarm clock and began my day having breakfast with my husband, Darryl. My not quite 62-year-old mom had undergone rotator cuff surgery on Thursday and had come home from the hospital on Saturday, so I planned to put together a nice lunch and take it over. However, around nine or so, my dad called to tell me that mom wasn’t feeling great and just wanted to stay in bed and rest.
Suddenly, I had a day of rest stretched out in front of me like a luxurious blanket. We settled on the sofa and cued up “The Big Hit”, a Mark Wahlberg movie I had enjoyed on first viewing and wanted to watch again. Halfway in, the phone rang. Darryl answered on our new portable phone, which we had never used to receive a call. The volume was so high in the handset that I clearly heard my dad say to Darryl, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Joan passed away.”
At that moment, my world as I knew it ended. My mother, my best friend, was gone. Just gone. In the time it took my dad to say twelve words, I was destroyed.
I had never, to that point, experienced shock. As I ran to the bedroom to throw on clothes that I could be seen in outside of the house, my brain shut down. All I could say was, “No.” There was simply no way this was happening. I had seen my mom less than eighteen hours earlier. I’d served her my homemade broccoli-cheese soup. I’d run through her post-surgery mobility exercises with her. I’d told her I loved her and I would see her for lunch the following day. My brain could not accept that those were the last words I would ever say to my mother, her response the last words I would hear her say to me.
As Darryl drove me to my mom and dad’s house, the twelve miles felt like one hundred. I tried over and over to dial my uncle’s number on my cell phone. My brain would not function well enough to dial the number, though I knew it by heart. I was desperate to connect with someone who I knew would come help me hold my dad together. He’d been with my mom since she was fifteen and he was sixteen. He barely remembered life without her. I knew he would be lost. I knew I would, too. When I finally got through to my uncle’s home, my aunt answered the phone. She was shocked by what I told her. She promised to get in touch with my Uncle Clint and get him there as soon as possible.
When we got to the house, I ran to my dad, held him, both of us crying. “I want to see her,” I wailed. Dad and Darryl supported me between them as we went back to find her in the bed. Her pajama top, the one we’d shopped for the weekend prior, was partially unbuttoned. Paramedics had come and gone, there was nothing they could do. It was real. She was really gone. I felt like someone had blown my heart out with a shotgun at very close range. (Darryl has said many times since that he wishes I had not gone in to see her, but I had to see it to believe it. Otherwise, it would never have been real to me. For at least a year, at times it still wasn’t, and I did see it with my own eyes.)
The only thing to do then was to marshal the troops. I began phoning family, friends, employees, coworkers, and neighbors, the news of the catastrophe spreading like a plague through the network of our lives.
Everything was made worse by the fact that my only sibling, my brother, Curtis was somewhere between Thomasville, NC and an unknown town in Florida, heading to training before starting a new job. He did not have a cell phone back then and wasn’t expected to call home until he got there. A friend alerted the highway patrol and they agreed to pass the word along his route and to try and get him stopped and heading back towards home. They were unsuccessful. When he gave his name at the reception desk to check into his hotel, the clerk told him, “You need to call home immediately.” So, the news that he had lost his mother came to him from hundreds of miles away from his little sister, who was so torn up she could barely get the words out. His training would have to wait. He’d have to head back home to bury his mother instead.
As I sat on the sofa, my body as close as possible to my dad’s, he clenched my hand in his. The house filled up with the people who loved us, who loved her. Everyone was shocked and had no idea what to say or do. In times like these, you find out who your true friends are. I’ll forever remember the kindnesses and the care shown by all of them, but there were a few standouts. Alex, our best friend for many years, lived an hour and a half away on a good traffic day. He was there in an hour. My husband’s sister, Phyllis, was there in a flash and couldn’t do enough for us. My closest aunt, Willa, and her husband, John were on vacation in Michigan. They left within fifteen minutes and drove straight through to get there for us.
The next couple of days were some of the longest of my life. Curtis had spent Sunday night in Florida, driven all day Monday, then not shown up at dad’s house until Tuesday afternoon. Over and over in those two days, dad said, “I can’t imagine where Curtis is. Why isn’t he here yet?”
Well-meaning friends and family filled the house with food and support. I was grateful, but bone tired, wanting only to close myself in a bedroom and go to sleep. Who knows, maybe I hoped it was just a nightmare I could wake up from.
The day of the memorial service, Wednesday, was the most emotional, stressful, just plain hard day of my life. After the service, the house filled for the fourth day with friends and family. All I wanted was peace and quiet. I excused myself, went to my mom’s bedroom, the room she’d died in, lay down on the bed she’d taken her last breath in and completely broke down. I sobbed and sobbed, crying more tears than I had cried cumulatively in my 36 years of life prior to that day. I wasn’t sure I could ever stop. I had never felt more alone in the world. I wished for Darryl to intuit how much I needed him, but when he didn’t, I opened the door enough to call him in there. He held me while I cried some more.
For two and a half weeks, I only went home to get more clothes. I couldn’t imagine leaving my dad in that house alone. But life goes on. I had to go home sometime, so I did. I’d never felt more bone tired and numb. My own bed seemed like an oasis. But things were no better once I was there. I didn’t sleep more than an hour or two at night and my brain would not function as it used to.
When my mother passed away, new Highway 16 was being constructed one-tenth of a mile from the entrance to our neighborhood. We had watched as the road inched towards Highway 73, then underneath it, then on towards Denver and points beyond. Each day, I drove over the progress being made beneath the existing highway. I would look at the new road taking shape 15 or so feet below the one I was driving on and think, I could just start accelerating back about a quarter of a mile or so, take a slight right, and catapult into the void. I could be done with this pain. I could be reunited with my mom. I had these thoughts every day, every time I crossed that bridge. Sometimes I wanted to follow through with that plan more than I wanted to keep driving, but I didn’t. I thought about what that would do to my dad, to my husband, and I just could not put my own desires in front of their feelings. I had to find a way to go on.
People say that time heals all wounds. I don’t know about that. It hurts less, most of the time, than it did that day. The numb feeling lasted a month or so, then the sorrow burned that away. There is no statute of limitations on grief, though. I’m in no way healed 18 years later. I can be okay for months and hear a song, smell a smell, experience a flash of memory and I am right back there, destroyed all over again. At those times, not having my mom feels like someone chopped off my limbs, shot a hole straight through my heart.
I know I was blessed to have my mom for the 36 years I had her here. She wasn’t perfect. None of us are. But she was my idol. Every role she took on in life, she did with capital letters. She wasn’t just a mother, she was my Mama. She wasn’t just a manager at work, she was The Boss. If she liked you, she wasn’t just an acquaintance, she was your Friend. She was solid. You could count on her. Always. Her word was her bond. I can’t think of a single time she ever lied to me or to anyone else in my presence, even when lying might have spared feelings. If she made you a promise, it was written in ink, not pencil. If she said ‘no’, you might as well accept it, because that was her final answer. No matter what, I knew I could count on her to always be her. There wasn’t a disingenuous bone in her body. She was strict on us, expected the best from us always, and taught by example. I wanted nothing more than I wanted her approval. It would’ve crushed me to disappoint her. I still crave and miss her approval. No accomplishment has the shine they once did because she isn’t here to cheer me on anymore and no one else cares like she did.
I sobbed my way through the day this past Thursday. I ached with wanting my mama, feeling like a three-year-old lost at the mall. I sometimes wonder if that feeling will continue to unexpectedly overtake me for the rest of my days? I wasn’t ready to say goodbye and I can’t wait to see her again. I imagine Heaven as a wide beach where I will get to take a walk with my mama again, someday.