Monday, September 30, 2013

Baby Alice

We all gathered under a beautiful tree, its branches reaching over the large deck that encircled it. White chairs sat in neat rows, filled with people who loved her and loved her parents. A set of tables lined one side of the deck, covered with bulletin boards, handmade quilts and a baptism certificate. The pictures that were pasted to the bulletin boards were gorgeous.  They spelled out the six days that Alice was on the planet. The six days that her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles got to love her, and kiss her, and tell her how much she was loved.

And then she was gone.

Her grandpa said it best, as he spoke his truth at her memorial service. He started his speech with "It's not fair". How right he was. He was so right, and so in tune with what every person sitting under that tree was feeling that his three words made new tears stream down my face.

How can it ever be fair that a little person as perfect as Alice not get to live a full, long life? How is it fair that she was born into a large, loving family who would have spoiled her rotten?

Her daddy is a co-worker of mine. I'd never met her mama until that day, under the tree. But what I know about them is enough to make me want to scream "IT'S NOT FAIR" into the wind.

He's the director of children's programming at the large rec center where I work. He's the perfect person for the job. He's retained just enough of his kid side to fit in well with the little people who stream through our doors, but he's grown up enough to do the boring stuff like schedule programs, create camps and juggle a million activities at once. He's a shining light in our building, always willing to drop what he's doing to help anyone who needs it. More than once he's gotten me out of a computer jam, when I'm sure he had better things to do. He is the king of safety and co-teaches our CPR classes every six months.

He would be a perfect dad. He was ready to be a perfect dad. He'd planned to take off the whole month of December so he could stay home and throw himself into raising his little girl. He painted her nursery the exact color her mama wanted and in his free time dreamed about which Indie band she'd play in.

From what I hear about her mama, there is no doubt baby Alice picked perfect parents. Her mama works in the social services, helping troubled teens find their way. Nothing Alice would have done in her teen years would have rattled her mama. No matter which Indie band she joined.

But Alice didn't stay long. Her little light joined the world on September 20th. She spent several days hooked up to machines while the people who loved her gathered around her incubator and prayed desperate prayers.

And then the tubes were removed and the incubator opened. Her mama and daddy got to lift her out of the warm box and hold her in their arms. They got to dress her up the tiny clothes they'd received from many baby showers. They got to whisper their love for her into her tiny ears. She was passed from grandparent to grandparent, so everyone could have a chance to feel her light before she left.

And the pictures were taken. Pictures that lined one side of the deck that surrounded the tree. The tree of life sheltered those of us who were remembering a special little life. A life that enriched her parents hearts more than they could have ever imagined, and then broke their hearts deeper than they knew was possible.

She was surrounded by love, but she didn't get to stay long. Just long enough to say hello and goodbye to the amazing parents she picked to bring her into the world.

I know there is a reason for every life and every death. But after walking away from that service to celebrate her tiny life, I couldn't stop crying. No matter how much you try to reason away why she left so young, it never adds up. I always come back to

It isn't fair.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Letters From a Daughter

The anniversary of my mom's death passed just a few weeks ago. It's been so long now, that I've lived without her. Something deep in my soul carries around an ache for her, but the chaos of life does a good job of keeping those feelings off my daily radar.

This year, about the same time I was making myself stop long enough to remember that day, almost two decades ago, that we buried her, I saw an interesting invitation online. Hope Edelman mentioned on her facebook page that she was issuing a new edition of her book on mother loss and was taking submissions of letters from motherless daughters.

This is the same Hope Edelman who lost her own mother before she turned 20, and went on to write what I consider the bible of mother loss, called "Motherless Daughters". She was doing the book tour when my mom died and my sister bought three copies, one for each of our mom's suddenly motherless daughters. Hope's book made me weep, every time I read it, then re-read it through the years, but it also brought me comfort, that I was not alone in the unique lonesomeness I felt. Her follow up books about mother loss also deeply impacted my life and hold treasured spots on my personal book case.

As soon as I saw Hope's call for submissions I knew I had to send her something. I have so many thoughts and feelings about losing my mother, and how it changed who I am and how I mother my own children, that I felt a deep urge to get something written for Hope, as soon as possible.

My list for the afternoon went away. I immediately opened up a new Word document and started writing. An hour later, as I took a break from the office chair, I sat outside with my husband. Breathing fresh air helped clear my head and hearing just a bit of my husband's perspective on the subject helped me focus as I headed back to the computer desk.

In the end I came up with two letters. Two very different letters, on different aspects of losing my mom. I sent them off to Hope and got back to my daily list.

This morning she sent copies back to me with an email saying that parts of them may be printed in the new edition of her book called "Letters from Motherless Daughters". I could not have been more thrilled. I opened up the letters, to do a final edit on them before I officially submitted them, and was surprised by the tears that flowed once again.

Weeks after writing these letters, they still make me cry. Weeks after that date on the calendar that makes me think of the day I said goodbye to her forever, these words about losing her, and missing her, still stir something very deep.

In the years that have passed I have seen that many women walk among us who understand this loss, this pain of living without a mother. You might never know it until you mention your own mother loss. Then suddenly their story emerges, and that familiar pain flashes from their eyes.

I decided to post the two letters I wrote to Hope, thinking maybe there might be some other woman out there who needed to know she was not alone. It's a unique loss, and a unique pain. Since I believe 'we are all just here to help each other', I am posting these letters today. Just in case they can help someone else.

Dear Hope,                                                       August 31, 2013

Yesterday was the 19th anniversary of my mom's death. My niece, who was growing in my sister's belly when we buried my mom, will turn 19 soon. It's sad to me, that I can always know how old Rachel is, because it's the same number of years that I've missed my mom. But it's a reality in my family. We had one life, then came a funeral, and we were launched into another life.

My mom died of a stroke. She had just turned 50. She had just lost a lot of weight and was starting to really enjoy her life. After years of taking care of everyone else, she was finally having some fun. And then she was gone.

I'd learned about the 'stages of grief' in college and they made me very angry. I knew I'd go through most of the stages but the acceptance part made me furious. It would never be okay that she died. I'd never be able to accept it.

After 19 years though, I kind of have a new view on the situation. She's still gone. As much as I yearn for her, she'll never be back. And sometimes it feels like it would be weird if she were back now. So much has changed.

The lives of my family - my siblings, my dad, my own little family - have moved on. The lives that have been built in the past 19 years are probably different from what might have happened if she'd been here. It's like a different matrix.

After she died the hub of our family was gone. We gathered that Thanksgiving and ate the first turkey my dad had ever cooked, and talked about how much we all missed her. But soon we stopped gathering. There was no hub keeping us together. My dad was moving on, setting up his new life, and my siblings and I kept in touch individually.  We no longer felt like a team.

If it weren't for that fact, I don't know if my husband would have taken the job that required a move to Washington D.C. Since we didn't feel like the clan was a unit anymore, he took the job. We've lived in five amazing states since then and it helped his career immensely.

Nine years ago I made a huge decision, to have my foot cut off. It was a foot that was deformed most of my life and I finally decided that I wanted to cut it off and start over. I'm not sure I could have made that decision if my mom were still alive. She was so deeply entwined in the surgeries I had as a child, to correct that foot, and always felt like it was her fault I'd been born with it at all. It would have bothered her deeply to know I wanted to cut it off. I'm not sure I could have moved past her feelings and had it done.

Because I had the surgery, I live a pretty active life with my new bionic foot. I know she'd be happy to see that, but the irony is, I don't know if I could have had it done if she'd been here. My life matrix would have looked very different.

There are still times that I miss her deeply, but they come more in moments than full days.  When my tall 17 year old son walks in the kitchen, a child born on my brother's birthday and has turned into his Uncle's twin, I get a twinge in my heart, knowing she'll never know him. We'll never sit on my back porch and marvel at how much Isaac has grown, and how much he looks like his Uncle Dale did at that age. That hurts my heart.

When I'm walking a beautiful trail, surrounded by autumn leaves, feeling the cool autumn breeze on my face, I miss her. Her birthday was in October and she loved the fall season. Oranges and yellows make me think of her and most years I feel like I'm enjoying her season for her, as I take time to recognize the beauty around me.

And in a way I feel like she's still here sometimes. There's a song  that came out around the time of her death, that has lyrics close to what I'd imagine she would have said to us if she'd had a chance to say good-bye.

I hope life treats you kind, and I hope you have all you've dreamed of. And I wish you joy and happiness. But above all this I wish you love. I will always love you.

That song has come on the radio at too many perfect times for it to be a coincidence. I strongly feel it's her way of telling me she's still here, watching over me.

On my daughter's thirteenth birthday, the child who is named after my mom, I was driving home from a mother/daughter night out with her, looking over at her as she told me what she liked about the movie we'd seen, and a sadness fell over me. I was sad that my mom couldn't see what an amazing young woman her namesake had turned out to be. Then that song came on the radio. Tears flowed down my face.

Once I was leaned over my mother-in-law's shoulder as she flipped through pictures of the latest adventures our family had been on, and suddenly I had a twinge of sorrow. I felt a physical ache, that I'd never show this set of pictures to my own mom. And at that moment, that song came on the radio behind me. I knew she was there.

Would I rather have her here, physically? Yes. But time moved on and life unfolded without her here, and this is the reality I live with. I continue to raise my kids and count my blessings that my dad found a wonderful woman to be their step-grandmother. I have visions in my head, about what my mom would have been like now, with these teen age grandchildren. But I can't let myself dwell on them, or I get sad and forfeit the good life that has grown up around me. 

Every once in a while I hear that song. The tears flow, as they probably will until the day I meet her again on the other side. But I find comfort in the fact she's still watching over me.

Thank you for your amazing  books. They have carried me (and my two sisters) through the past 19 years. I know it must sometimes feel like a burden, that you are the token expert on mother loss, and you can never 'get away from it', but you've done such an amazing thing for so many women. You've given us a community of other women who understand. Take a break from it when you need to, but know that every effort you make is like a pond ripple moving across the water. Your influence continues on and on and on. And those of us who are touched by it are very grateful.

Very Sincerely,
Judy Berna

And the second letter: 

Dear Hope,                                                       August 31, 2013

The day after my mother died my four siblings and I were standing in circle in her kitchen. My older sister had two books in her hand. One she handed to me, and one she handed to our other sister. I read the title - "Motherless Daughters" - as my fingers began to hold it, and I nearly dropped it on the floor. At a gut level my body rejected the idea of ever relating to that title.

I had a mother. I had a great mother. I had that mom who was everybody's mom. She raised five of her own and many foster children too. She took in neighborhood kids with special needs as their moms had trouble finding day cares that would take them. I had that mom who was constantly giving to everyone  else. She sensed the needs in hurting people and instinctively knew how to meet them. 

There was no way I'd ever need a book about motherless daughters.

But then I did. 

The phone call came. We huddled in hospital waiting rooms all weekend as she fought to come back from a vicious stroke. And then we had to let her go. Release forms were signed, and we huddled around her hospital bed, hoping she could hear us tell her how much she'd be missed. 

Then she was gone.

And I was a motherless daughter.

A week after we buried her my elderly neighbor caught me as I was walking out to get the mail. "I heard about your loss. I'm so sorry. I lost my mom 42 years ago and I still miss her every day." I appreciated her condolences but the thought of living with that suffocating grief for the rest of my life honestly scared me.

At that point I was holding back tears during the day, as I mothered our two toddlers, waiting until they were asleep in bed before I allowed myself to hover in the shower, weeping into my hands, for as long as the hot water would last. I craved a place where I could go scream at the top of my lungs, "AHHHHHHH! IT'S NOT FAIR!"

As much as he wanted to help, my husband felt lost too, not knowing what to say as I cried myself to sleep every night, telling him I felt like I'd been pushed off a huge cliff, into an adulthood with no back up. The thought of my mother not being there as I navigated through the rest of my life was just hard to even comprehend.

Weeks passed. Then months. Soon it was the first anniversary of my mom's death and I couldn't believe I'd lived a whole year without talking to her, or hugging her. My babies had a whole year of developmental changes she would never know about. Most of the time I still couldn't believe she wasn't just 'out there', somewhere. I still had dreams where we'd dig up her grave and it turned out she was still alive, and so thankful we'd come to save her. It still wasn't real that she was gone. Forever gone.

That was 19 years ago. I recall it like it was yesterday because it was a huge turning point in my life. I dog paddled through the grief long enough that I finally wore myself out. Slowly I started to build the life that didn't include her.

Now I live in a house with four old 'children'. Two of them she never knew. The two she did know look very different at 20 and 21 than they did as the 1 and 2 year old toddlers she tickled and hugged. It's a surreal thought, that she doesn't know these kids who are so close to my heart.

She loved kids and she would have loved these kids. But that's not the way life turned out. My husband tells me I grieved for the idea of what life should have been like and I think he's right. I was mad that she was gone, but I was also so very sad that the life I'd imagined was not going to happen. The years of her spoiling them, encouraging them, telling them how much they reminded her of their aunts and uncles at that age - gone.

Because life doesn't stop just because your grieving heart feels like it has, years passed by. 

Those kids grew up. We moved to other states and made zillions of memories. None of them including her. I missed her, but she was not a part of my life for so long that she became a spirit that was with me, more than a mom who was there to have my back.

I try to tell my kids stories about her, and remind them that she would have loved them to their cores, but it's just words to them. She'll only be a real person to me and my husband.

Now I feel like I'm waiting for the day that I hear about a young neighbor losing her mother and I will become the elderly woman, there to tell her that I lost my own mom 42 years ago. And I still miss her. Every single day.

Thank you for your books, Hope. They have been like life rafts as I've navigated the past 19 years. Through your own grief you accidentally ended up making several million other motherless daughters feel not quite so alone. As I've told you many times before, you are a gem.

Very Sincerely,
Judy Berna