Conversation 4/8/2016, driving home in the rain:
Me – “Today would have been my mom’s birthday.”
Cassidy (7yo) – “Well… actually, Mama, it still is her birthday.”
Me – “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”
Cassidy – “We should sing her Happy Birthday. She would like that.”
Me – (quiet)
Cassidy – “Mama, are you crying?”
Me – “A little. You want to sing?”
(Everyone sings Happy Birthday to Grandma)
Cassidy – “Look! A break in the rainclouds with bright sun right over our house!”
Tye (5yo) – “Awww… and there’s rain everywhere else. I guess Grandma is crying, too.”
Losing a parent is tough. It seems to me that it really doesn’t matter how well you knew your parent, either. They might have been your best friend. Perhaps you saw them every other weekend and every other Thursday, as I did with Mom. Perhaps you only first met as adults. When they die, if you know they have died, there is a void. A person who created you is gone. And that leaves a hole.
Today, my mother would have turned 73. But she died a year ago this month. She had a massive stroke, then another, and then a heart attack… Just as quickly as she had entered this world, she was gone.
It was hard to take her first stroke as seriously as I should have. My mother had been dying my whole life. In fact, we used to joke that her tombstone would read, “You see? I told you I was sick.” She was a hypochondriac, once even telling me that she knew she was, with a dismissive laugh. She was on a slew of medications and probably had about 6-8 surgeries every year (if not more). So to this day, it is still hard to believe that she is really gone.
My mother didn’t raise me. My brother and I lived with her for a brief time after she and my dad first divorced… But then they remarried, and redivorced. After that second divorce, Shawn and I went to live with our dad. I was probably about 7 by then. We saw Mom every other weekend and every other Thursday until she moved to Florida when I was about 12. Because I lived in Cleveland, I saw her about once a year from that point forward, whenever I flew to Florida. I don’t remember my mother ever coming to visit me.
But as I grew older, she did, too. She began reaching out to me more often. About once every year or two she would call and want to explain why she left me as a kid. Most of the time, she would apologize for “having to” leave, and we would wind up fighting. I would always tell her she never HAD to leave… It was her choice, and I just wanted her to own it. But she always had an excuse that I didn’t want to hear. “Your father threatened…”, or “I couldn’t afford…” – any number of things that didn’t matter to me anymore. All I ever wanted was an unconditional, genuine apology.
Then, sometime early 2015, Mom left me a message. She wanted to talk, and I could tell it was “that” talk again. It had been a couple of years, so the timing was right. I kept postponing the call until I felt I couldn’t postpone it anymore, and then, sometime around February, I finally called her back.
“Hi, baby. I wanted to talk to you.”
“I know, Mom. It sounds like you want to apologize again for leaving me.”
I heard an audible sigh. “Yes, actually, I do.” She sounded indignant.
I know she could hear the frustration in my tone. “Mom, you do this every year or two, and I would really rather not go through it again…”
“Shannon, please. Just hear me out.” I remember that there was something different in her voice. A sincerity that I hadn’t heard before, maybe? The desperation was gone; the pleading, childlike tone to which I had grown so accustomed had been displaced by something far more genuine.
“OK…”, I said reluctantly.
She took a big breath, as if building up her courage. “You’ve always told me that I had a choice in leaving you, and you were right. I did have a choice, and I chose to leave. I made the wrong choice. Many times, I made the wrong choice.” I heard her voice soften and crack as she held back tears. “For all those choices, I’m sorry. I never should have left you.” She paused. I waited for the disclaimer.
“And that’s all I wanted to say.”
I remember physically pulling the phone from my ear as if I were going to see someone other than my mother through my phone. I put the phone back up to my ear, pulled it away again, and put it back again. “OK,” I said.
There was a moment of awkward silence that seemed to last forever.
“OK,” I repeated. “I forgive you.” I felt my throat tighten.
“I love you, baby. Thank you. Let’s talk again soon, ok?”
My mother was known for her 3-minute voice mail messages and her hour-long conversations that were impossible to end, so again, this voluntary closing to the conversation was foreign to me.
“OK, Mom. I love you, too.”
Then, as I went to hang up, I quickly put the phone back to my ear.
“Yes?” She had been waiting for me to hang up first.
“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”
I hung up and was quiet for a long time. I remember feeling it was all surreal… after a lifetime of defensiveness and excuses, my mother had finally taken responsibility. I felt a growing sense of peace as the underlying irritation that had always coated my heart faded.
Within three months of that conversation, my mother died. I can’t help but wonder if, somehow, she knew. I have replayed this conversation in my head a thousand times. She will never know it, but it is the greatest gift she ever gave to me. I have since learned that she had at least one similar conversation with another family member. It was like she was tying up loose ends, healing a lifetime of wounds.
In the last year, I have often wondered what our relationship might have been like, had we had this conversation 5, 10… 20 years ago. It’s hard not to think about that, honestly. She was my birth mother. Who doesn’t want to be close to their mother?
But we weren’t close. I loved her very much – don’t get me wrong. She was a special woman. She was vibrant. Bubbly. Eternally young, despite the fact that she was, allegedly, always dying. She was a little kid, trapped in an aging body. She danced like Elaine from Seinfeld, but she sang like an angel. Oh, that voice… it was unlike anything I have ever heard before, and unlike anything I will ever hear anything again. Her voice floated. It rang. She used to say she sang from her toes, and everyone in the room knew it. She made people feel.
It’s hard to accept that I will never hear that voice again.
It’s hard to accept that she has been silenced.
There is an intangible strangeness in losing someone who created you. There is the thought that you are next. Life is short, and we are all mortal. But more than anything, it is the simple things that are missed.
It’s her birthday, and there is nothing more that I want to do than to be able to pick up the phone and call her. And I can’t.
And that hurts.
So on this birthday, I look to the sky, and I thank you, Mom, for that healing conversation. And I honor every part of you that lives on in me.
I honor your kindness. We both know I got that from you.
I honor your likeness. Every time I look in a mirror, your eyes smile back at me.
I honor your free spirit. It lives on in my maxi dresses and my bell bottoms.
I honor your love of writing. I will keep going until it happens… for us both.
And I honor your voice. I may not be the coloratura that you were, but because of you, my children will have memories of lullabies sung in a way that only a mama can.
From my toes.