I remember being six years old, curled up on my mom’s lap post bath time. We sat on the plush purple carpet of my bedroom floor as she leaned her back against my white dresser. I was wrapped up in her arms like a little burrito in a towel. She rocked me back and forth and whispered, “Will you stay like this forever?” punctuated by a kiss on my forehead. I remember wondering if I actually could stay this size forever. Right there in her arms, nothing could ever harm me. This was before the teen years when I became too cool to be vulnerable to her loving touch. Before I would rather lie in bed alone with 90210 playing in the background, journaling about how I wished I had a boyfriend. Before she was diagnosed with breast cancer and began her fifteen year battle against this disease. Before I became a motherless daughter and then a motherless mother.
I hear the calls of my four year old Zach from down the hall. It’s 5 a.m. “Mama, Mama, MAMA!” I trip on my sheets as I scramble out of bed, regretting the Instagram scrolling I had done until 12 a.m. the night before. Motherhood does not care if you’re tired. I run towards his door before his screams wake up my two year old, Evan. His vocal cords only know one decibel, no matter how many times I remind him of an “indoor voice.” He drags me to the TV and posts himself on the couch. “TV and Baba,” he demands, to which I reply “Can I have TV and Baba, please?” It is way too early to be correcting demands and grammar, but dammit this kid has to learn. I do as I am told by my little dictator and cuddle up next to him as the dark night sky continues to sleep through the windows behind us. The parenting scramble melts away with my first born in my arms as I whisper to him, “Will you stay like this forever?” My gut churns as I remember how safe I felt in my mom’s arms. How much I took it for granted. My children have no clue what their mommy is missing and while that void is more full with them in my arms, it is still there. Creeping on me through sense memory.
I allowed myself to “go there” later that day in therapy, uncovering the sadness that had been buried beneath my productivity and distractions of motherhood. For the first time ever I sat with my therapist and ugly cried as she put a blanket around my shoulders and coached me through the waves of emotion. She held my shoulders with a blanket wrapped around me and told me when to release the trapped noise and blow out my breath like I was blowing out a candle. Once the emotion was flowing, there was a fear of where it would take me. How dark it could get. “I am right here with you. Let the sound out. It’s ok. I am right here,” she said in my ear.
“It has been ten years,’ I mumbled to her with a side eye as her hands warmed my shoulders. “That is not a long time, Jamie,” she replied softly. “You take care of so many people. Who is taking care of you?” And then I really had at it. Who is taking care of me? Every day I take care of a business and all of the people within it, my two kids, my marriage, our home, our calendar, and on and on. I get support from so many people I love, but even collectively they are not my mother. No one can replace a mother. I have tried to fill this massive void in my life with work, substitute moms, and a very full social life. In this moment with my therapist, it really sunk in that my mom is permanently gone and it is OK that I effing miss her. I miss how she took care of me.
“What do you think your mom would tell you right now?” I reveled in the thought of connecting with her, of course. I know her voice. She told me a month before she died that if I had a question for her just ask it and the answer would be within me. I paused and took a breath “She would say it is ok to be sad, if I were you- I’d be sad too!” I laughed and was released by her words coming through me. “This sucks,” I said to my therapist, who was still holding my shoulders. “Yes. It sucks.” she replied.
There is no rainbow disguise here — it is going to suck in these moments of mush mixed with clarity, sitting with the loss. It is going to suck to not have my mom. It is going to suck to be a mom of two trying to be the best I can for them while still feeling broken in my grief. In these broken moments, I am reminded that my mother had so much of her own trauma that she brought with her every day she mothered me. She lost her mother and father by the time I was three. Then the worst possible loss of all, the loss of her own child. My brother Alan died in a car accident when I was thirteen. Just five short years after this tragic loss, my dad died from Leukemia. I am very intimate with loss. An inadvertent grief expert. My mom was my example — when shit hit the fan she turned negatives into positives. She was strong for her children. She went to lunch with friends before going shopping and getting her nails done. She smiled and laughed even though her heart ached. The more she did that, the more she came off as “normal.” Everyone called her inspirational for having lived through so much and continuing to stand upright and be productive. I loved seeing my normal mom. I didn’t want to see her pain because then I might see mine. I have recently allowed myself to be more vulnerable, to name my pain, and embrace that it is ok to not be ok. I hope my children are empowered by that. That I am not perfect. We all have flaws and challenges and this is mine.
Grief is a journey.
I left my therapist’s office with swollen eyes and got my eyebrows waxed. Pampering myself has always been a go to when life doesn’t make much sense. That and seeing an afternoon movie, leaving the theater like a jailbird smelling of buttery popcorn and slurpees like “damn I got away with it.”
It is Mother’s Day and I’m a mix of sad and happy. That doesn’t keep Zach from saving me from his tantrum. Four is the new terrible twos. I’m trying to dress him in the living room as he flails his body screaming “Mama! Stop!” I pick him up and take him to his room to calm him down. We sit in his comfy reading chair as I hold his pant less body on top of mine and start shushing him. He melts into me and I remember holding his bare body the day he was born. Shushing him. Loving him. I tell him what I’m thinking “You used to live in my belly.” He laughs at the thought of being a baby. “You would wiggle around and I would rub my belly and say “I can’t wait to meet you” and on the day you were born I held you just like this and I said “It’s so nice to finally meet you.” He melted further cocooned into my neck. “I love you sweet boy. I love you so much. Mommy will always love you.”
I close my eyes and lean my head back on the soft pillow behind me. I hold him tighter and ask him again to stay this size forever. He laughs, “No mama, I’m not a baby!” As our laughter fades into the air, I remember that day being held by mom wrapped up in a towel and I know Zach feels as safe in my arms as I did in hers.