“She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and those who hold her fast are happy.”
Proverbs 3: 18
Occasionally, in a quiet lull, while I’m washing dishes, or driving… my mind sifts through fading memories of being a little girl. I was my mom’s “velcro kid.” I picture a time when I’m maybe three or four years old, shielding myself behind her knee. It was usually when we went somewhere unfamiliar with a lot of people—a big family party, or when my mom stopped to chat with someone unrecognizable at the grocery store. I’d wriggle myself into the spot I felt safest. From behind her legs, no one else could spy me. Like a vine, my hands, arms, head, and legs happily entwined around that life-giving trunk. I usually went unnoticed if I remained very still and didn’t speak. My skin was firmly pressed against hers creating one fleshy amalgamation. But if the person with whom she was speaking addressed me directly, my mom would swivel her torso and reach around to find me. And sometimes to my great horror, she would grab my arms and carefully peel me away. If this action had been accompanied by a sound effect, I imagine it would mimic a long, thick strip of velcro being ripped apart.
I was attached to my mother, both physically and emotionally. Even as a gangly teenager, and a young college student I sought physical closeness with her, sometimes laughably to her utter annoyance. Never too big or mature to insist that she “scootch” over on the recliner where she comfortably planted. After seizing enough room for myself, (I was practically on top of her) she would stroke my arm or scratch my back as we took in a tv show or football game on a chair meant for one. I clung to her stability, protection, and warmth until the day she died, a little over a month after my 22nd birthday. When she was ripped away that last time, it wasn’t the sound or feeling of velcro being parted, more like a piece of aged, worn duct tape suddenly and harshly yanked from a smooth painted surface. The damage was unmistakable.
This is the second chapter of my short memoir, “Chasing Normal.” It details the acute period of grief right after my mom died. I posted the first installment earlier.
I felt surrounded by the grave. The last time I had been to my grandparents’ Florida home, I had accompanied my mother. Back then, I was a carefree teenager. A lot had changed. My grandmother had courageously fought mouth cancer, enduring a significant part of her palette being removed. She did not survive. I could not have conceived at the time that her firstborn, my mother, would follow just two years later from lung cancer. It was strange being in that home with two crucial people missing.
The home was completely different. My grandmother’s soft, feminine touch was nowhere to be found. Instead, every available space had been covered in a swashbuckling nautical theme. My grandfather had hung paintings of ships and seascapes, sadly erasing almost every trace of his deceased wife. It was unsettling, but not completely surprising. While hey had eked out forty-nine years of marriage, I suspect it was not always the happiest of unions. They used to bicker—a lot. His hearing was going, so she would raise her voice. “John!” was often punctuated with heavy sighs and exasperated eye-rolls. It never erupted into a full-blown argument, but there was always an undercurrent of seething.
I liked my maternal grandma. Although, I sometimes sensed that there was a time limit or expiration date on our welcome. Past that window of time, we grandkids were interlopers. It was understandable; She had raised seven children, almost single-handedly. As a typical husband of the 1940s and ’50s, my grandfather dutifully provided for his family. He was away a lot while serving in the Navy, and later, as a U.S. postal worker, who moonlit as a musician. Grandma had finally retired from the business of child-rearing. This was in contrast to my dad’s mom, my Italian Grandma Pippa. She couldn’t get enough of my brothers and me, as if her happiness depended on breathing the same air as ours. As different as they were, both were as good as gold and surprisingly linked through their deaths. Grandma Pip had died about one year after my maternal grandma, and precisely one year before my mom. Three years, three deaths. The matriarchs of my family were dropping like flies.
I’m working on a short story about a series of random events that happened shortly after my mother died. Her death is a theme that makes its way into much of my writing. This is the first edit of my first installment.
Armed with a Cucumber and Cheap Ham
In the days and weeks that followed my mom’s sudden death, I was feeling anything but normal. Yet circumstances and the people surrounding me seemed to be marching onward. It was all strangely just as before… Oh, but it wasn’t.
We buried my formerly vibrant mother. I headed back to college to complete the last days of my senior year. Finals. Not sure how I managed. It could have been the result of a handful of professors who took pity, although I don’t know if anyone actually knew. Or maybe I was on a mission and the distraction offered a sort of respite from the darkness, allowing me to become hyper-focused on my studies. My mom had happily anticipated my graduation after all. Whether it was attaining that noble goal, or a blind eye from the administration, or a combination, I will never know precisely how I passed—with an impressive 3.5 G.P.A., I might add.
Graduation followed without my biggest fan present. Troubled and searching for her in the faces of all those happy onlookers, I reached for the diploma. My dad and brother were there, albeit late. There had been a panicked minute or two where I thought no one from my family would witness my proudest achievement to date. When they rushed in, visibly harried, I let out the breath I had been holding. They were emotionally lost and grieving as well. But I couldn’t help thinking that she would’ve been on time.
I think about my mom almost daily since her death 26 years ago. While it’s been too long since I’ve heard her laugh, she has left me with a bounty of wisdom that sustains me. In fact, there are simply too many lessons to enumerate. She was a Catholic school teacher by profession, so it was in her nature to instruct and impart knowledge. But there were also things she most certainly did not pass down. There are some worldly teachings she decidedly left by the wayside. And for that, I am even more grateful and bolstered.
For those of you who mourn the death of a loved one, this is the time when we joyfully (yet often with tears in our eyes) anticipate our eventual reunion in heaven. May the powerful hope of seeing our dear ones again, that is made possible by our Lord’s victorious Resurrection, be with you this Easter season and always. Oh, what a glorious day!
“Hmmm… ” Slow intake of breath. “That’s right… It’s your dad who had the breast cancer…” recognition dawning as he squints at the data on the computer screen.
A solemn nod from me.
“Two separate occurrences?” he asks, though it’s more of a statement as he already knows the answer which is spelled out in clear Helvetica 10-point on the monitor before his spectacled eyes.
We share a moment of deliberate eye contact. I look away first. He turns back to the digital records with renewed concentration.
No one enjoys flummoxing their doctor, unless it’s some singular distinction of good health, like having perfect cholesterol levels, or never having taken an antibiotic in one’s entire life. I can claim neither.
I secretly cried after Mass yesterday. My kids told me that one of the new altar boys that they served with had his grandparents in town for Christmas. The enthusiastic Nanna and Papa were so gleefully proud, they couldn’t refrain from snapping photos to memorialize their beloved grandson’s biggest moments. Clearly, their hearts swelled with pride for their daughter’s treasured offspring.
On the drive home, I told my boys that if Grandma Maureen and Grandpa Jerry were living, they would have taken loads of pictures too. How proud they would be. How proud they are. “Maybe they’re taking photos from heaven…” I mused. Then the quiet tears.
Last week I was on the radio! And I didn’t even have to get out of my bathrobe. My recent post about the etiquette of speaking to those who are grieving got the attention of a national Catholic radio show. A producer from “Morning Air” on Relevant Radio contacted me via email asking if I’d be interested in being interviewed about my essay, “I cried with Michael Jordan.” So, I peeled myself off the ceiling and quickly replied yes. A couple days later, after gravely bribing my children to remain silent in the background, I was live on the air with John Harper of the “Morning Air” show. I can’t help thinking my parents were smiling down on me since I finally got to use the Radio part of my Radio/TV/Film degree from the exorbitantly priced Northwestern University. Thanks, mom, and dad! (My mom used to urge me to apply wherever I wanted. “If you get in,” she’d remind me, “I’ll clean toilets to cover the cost if need be.”) Such parental sacrifice they modeled for me.
Certain iconic sports images of epic underdog wins and poetic last plays witnessed over the course of my life remain imprinted on my brain. Consider Tiger Woods dramatically donning the green Masters’ blazer as the first person of color, Michael Phelps shattering the record for the most gold medals, the Chicago Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series triumph against my beloved Cleveland Indians. I could easily go on, but there’s one memory that is even more enduring. Yet, I suspect many of you probably won’t even recall it.
For me, the moment crystallized not just a legendary sporting achievement, but an encounter with sadness and mourning in the midst of victory. It was Father’s Day, 1996. Michael Jordan had just won his 4th championship for the Chicago Bulls. His win was rendered even more momentous after a brief retirement and triumphant return to the sport that made him a household name. Also notable, this marked Jordan’s first major career win without the support of his father in the stands. Jordan’s dad had been murdered three years earlier.
Today is the 25th anniversary of my mother’s sudden death, a singular event that undoubtedly forever changed me. While the sting has lessened over time, I still struggle with the profound loss almost on a daily basis. It informs my thoughts and dreams, which may explain why I wrote this essay.
Don’t tell anyone, but for quite a long time I’ve had a Fantasy Mom. Just as four-year-olds will gleefully gush about their imaginary friends, I’d like to brag about my Fantasy Mom. She’s the most loyal, loving, funny, kind and of course, wise mother who ever did NOT exist. Fantasy Mom is an intricate combination of my real mom, and every warm,maternal character I’ve admired over the years.
Fantasy Mom firstly derives from the foremost matriarch, the very real Blessed Mother who quietly, yet staunchly remained at her son’s side during His greatest suffering. Despite doubtless unimaginable dread and fear, she never wavered. I’m confident she journeys alongside me too, especially as I navigate life’s more dodgy roller coasters. Her presence offers such peace and calm. She’s certainly my gold standard for all mothers. So how do you improve on sinless perfection? I mentioned this was a fantasy, right?