Of Mothers and Memories
by Ellen O'Donnell
My mother passed away 11 years ago on Thanksgiving night. I struggle to remember the exact date of her death. The anniversary of it is inextricably attached to Thanksgiving.
She was diagnosed with Adrenal Cortical Cancer in late September. The following nine weeks are a confabulation of disturbed memory and racing recollections of traveling to and from Rhode Island. Weekends were spent with my dying mother and distraught father, and weekdays trying to refocus on my own family. My children were so young that my daughter has little memory of a grandmother who loved her in a special way. She was the only granddaughter in the mix of boys. Grace was 6 years old on Thanksgiving night 2005.
When I cleaned my mom’s closet out weeks after her death, I found a stockpile of beautiful, expensive dresses, sweaters, and coats that would see Grace through several years of special occasions. A corner of the closet was filled with precious items which surely cost too much. My daughter was something of a life-size doll for both my mom and me. Grace knew indulgence in fashion from the moment she was born.
After the whirlwind of wake and funeral, as I tried to settle into a life absent my mother, I received cards on a daily basis for weeks. My father, in his heartbreak and with a slow shake of his bald head, would repeat this mantra in response to the outpouring of condolence, “People are awfully good.”
There was one such card that affected me more than any other. I thought I had saved it, but could not find it, as I sifted through special things this week. It doesn’t matter. While the words may be imprecise, the message is indelible.
My friend, Betsy, who lost her mom as a young woman, shared this sentiment:
“When your mother dies, you lose your North Star; your guiding light.
For some time, you will find yourself imbalanced, your navigation will be off.
Regardless of your age, it changes your world.
It is only understood by those who are motherless.”
That beautiful letter moved into my soul the moment I read it on a cold, quiet December afternoon. I was 43 when I lost my mom and Betsy’s letter was like a gift. Even in my incalculable grief, I understood that the death of one’s mother is an equalizing human experience. In the natural course of living, parents pass before their children. All of my friends and cousins who still had their mom’s, who sympathized, but could not empathize with the depth of my loss, would someday experience the same. To be sure, I was imbalanced for quite some time when my mother left this earth.
In the last two years, I have attended too many funerals, watched too many friends and cousins say goodbye to too many mothers. It feels like time to take a cue from Betsy.
My mother’s greatest gift to me was her example of faith.
She was an epic churchgoer, a Catholic from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. I am not any of those things, but there is a moment I call upon when my own struggle is mighty. My mom might say this moment was the work of The Holy Spirit.
Despite the fact that I had philosophical issues with the “Big C” Catholic Church, my local parish had been home to me. I was a catechist and you could find my family, 6th row left of center, each Sunday morning at 9 am. I loved the ritual of the Catholic mass. The predictability and familiarity of the liturgy were like meditation for me. Once my mother passed, church became impossible; the smell of incense or a single organ note undid me. I vividly remember that first Christmas Eve, entering the church with my family, finding our pew and, as the congregation settled in and the choir led with “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” grief grabbed me by the throat. I let go of my 6-year-old daughter’s plump, impossibly soft hand and made my way out of the church with as much dignity as I could muster. The cold night air was a welcome relief, and I wept as I walked the parking lot for the hour it took for mass to be over. The strains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and my mother’s favorite Christmas Hymn, “O Holy Night”, wafted from the Church into the night air. Each note like a stab into my already broken heart. I knew then, that church would never be the same for me.
For two months following my mom’s death, the night was my demon. I battled through the daylight hours but once my head hit the pillow, unsummoned tears leaked from my eyes, and my mind raced around every detail of the previous months. Exhaustion ushered me to sleep but dreams of my mother woke me nearly every night. I dreamt, not of my mother as I knew her, but of the diminished her, twisted with the pain of cancer that consumed her body. It was as though I never knew her whole. Her pain was a nightly visitor.
The first waking moments for those grieving are predictable. It takes but a moment of consciousness to remember the pain that has been dreamt away in the deepness of sleep. As consciousness nears, the ache rebuilds. I woke most mornings of those two months willing fresh tears away.
As the world turned to a new year, a challenge I was not ready for presented itself. My husband’s father had died the previous January. He was a kind, benevolent, smart, wonderful soul. A Mass of Memoria was scheduled on the anniversary of his death. I could not fathom surviving it. I wanted to summon the courage I knew I needed to do the thing I knew was right. I spent the week before “psyching myself up” to gut it out for him, to be an example for my children. The night before, I crawled into bed and prayed that I could be relieved, Dear God, just once, no dreams of my sick mother. I fell asleep that mid-January night, determined to rise to the occasion regardless of which visitors came to me in my sleep.
Once my mother passed, church became impossible; the smell of incense or a single organ note undid me.
All I can remember of that night is that when I woke tears did not well, nor did bad dreams fly to my consciousness. What did was this: My mother and I walking the boardwalk of Fenway Beach in Weekapaug, Rhode Island, both of us carrying beach chairs in our hands. The sun was high and the sand was soft, and my mom looked lovely in her skirted bathing suit and white cover-up. We set our chairs down, side by side. The waves were gentle and our toes massaged the sand.
That’s all I recall of my dream on that January night, and it is enough.
I believe that The Holy Spirit visited me that night. That my mother sent me a message that went like this: All is well with me, and you will be fine. Go be who you need to be. Don’t worry anymore.
And I did. I honored my father-in-law in the way that he deserved. Any tears I shed in the church were for the memory of him.
My grief did not end that January night; it remains in my soul. My friend, Betsy, was right. I lost my North Star when my mother passed. I am not so sure, 11 years later, that my navigational ability has improved. I remain a bit unsettled but feel as though I am finding my way.
I dedicate this writing to the women in my life whom I love. Many of you have lost your North Stars. Many of you have yet to. In your grief or grief to come, I wish you peace and the surety that the Holy Spirit is present. I have experienced him/her many times since that January night in 2006. Listen for it in your sadness, be open to it in your grief. What a lovely gift for a mother to a daughter. It is as precious as the perfectly smocked dresses my mother bought her grandchild 12 years ago. It is as perfect as a handwritten note from a friend that would resonate in my heart forever.
Ellen O’Donnell is a personal essayists and blogger who writes to rumble with her middle-aged world. No subject is off limits and she writes to help understand her place in the world in the hope that her musing resonates with the experience of her readers.
Ellen’s personal essay, “I Write to Rumble” will be published in the April 2018 edition of Fiction Southeast, in a series on why writers write. As well, two chapters of her in-progress memoir, “All That Carry On…” has been accepted for publication in Memoir Magazine. Ellen is the December 2017 winner of Scribe Jar essay contest. That piece is entitled, “Fifteen Santa Clauses.”
Ms. O’Donnell is the mother of two adult children, and has been a Private College Counselor for twenty-two years. As well, she is a high school lacrosse official and avid, competitive tennis player. Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, Ellen lives in a lovely cottage by the lake in Brookfield, Connecticut with her 7 year-old rescue Labrador, Seamus.