Happiness had not come to her early in life. A thousand years of
it would not have made her blasé. Her palate for all the joys of
sense and intellect and spirit was fresh and unspoiled. Nothing
would have been wasted on her. She liked more things and liked
them more than anyone I have known.
A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
Parenting is challenging on good days. I hadn’t expected a day when I couldn’t fathom being a mom. But then my mother died–suddenly and preventably–and despite how thankful I am for Grace, I hadn’t reckoned how hard it is to mother when I just long to be mommed, to be adored merely for existing, one last time.
After flying all night across country knowing she was dead, holding my sobbing sister’s hand, I watched a dazzling sunrise force the worst night of my life to become the worst day. Despite every muscle aching with exhaustion and sorrow, we got right to the business of death. It’s almost like producing a pageant. Since Mom’s important final requests were made clear, many tiny funeral decisions had to be made extremely ‘right away’.
Our East Coast based sister Deirdre had watched Mom die, so when we all tearfully reunited, she said, ‘I don’t want to be grown up right now,’. Since my husband and kid were coming in two days, Elizabeth and I took the wheel. I wrote Mom’s obituary and eulogy while Elizabeth picked out hymns and psalms would dazzle mom the most. We were mothering in lieu of and for our Mom- detailing for the undertaker her make up and how she’d prefer her hair to look for those who might request a final viewing.
I silently vowed to never look at the body, since one of the few things I actually do believe is that her body was no longer containing the essence of my mom. Driving to the beach house where she raised us, I could feel her energy guiding me, telling me what to do and where to find tiny gems. I’d quiet my mind and in the silence reach a hand up on a shelf in her crowded, messy office. That’s how I found many of these photos, some of which I’ve never seen before. Wearing her thirty year old cardigans, and writing her remarkable life down helped my shock ease into sorrow, mellowing my sadness with how extraordinary my mother truly was.
We picked out Mom’s final outfit, wondered if undergarments were necessary in a casket (they are), and debated over which of her hundreds of pairs of shoes might be the perfect complement to her golden metallic ruffled dress and matching shrug (she’d call it more of a bolero, than a shrug) usually reserved for weddings.
We collected shells from the beach she loved dearly, a handsome bedside photo of her smiling husband and a copy of her favorite book, Travelling Mercies- because Judy believed you’re never alone if you have a good book. Someone got the idea of writing to her in the book and pretty soon, over 2 days, hundreds of her loved ones stained Travelling Mercies with tears and prayers. Before the funeral we tucked the personalized book in her simple pine coffin– all to be cremated with her.
Then, Andrew and Grace arrived for the wake and funeral. Suddenly, instead of dressing like a slob while momming my dead mom, I had to get dressed, brush my hair, cram myself into despised pantyhose while cleaning and dressing and feeding and caring for my crazed toddler,just to resemble presentable human beings while accepting the love and sadness of hundreds of stricken, heartbroken people.
And as hard as it was to mourn, it was so so so much harder to mom. I suddenly got motherhood– and my mother– on a whole other level. Our mom gutted herself for us. She turned herself inside out to give us more of life and herself than we wanted or thought we needed.
So I get up when I can’t imagine getting up and I make lunch and escort Grace with a smile to school, still in my slippers, so then I can crawl back home, falling down all the steps into the basement of myself, where I wait out the interminable, tired, weepy and insistent, lazy sadness in the dark.
I cannot imagine my mother wallowing in her grief like I am but I’m sure she’s a little flattered by how much I miss her. Judy was not a wallower. But she did lose her gentle mother at 16, which must have been brutally primal. Knowing how much Mom loved people, it’s unbearable to imagine how sad she must have been. Was she allowed to lay in bed all day weeping until her jaw ached or burst into tears over a sinkful of dishes until she dry heaved? Did anyone let her sleep so long her hair grew matted around a forgotten hairband as she tossed and turned all night returning to the one cold fact that no amount of hope can make untrue?
Did someone hold her and let her stain their shirt with hot streams of tears? Or was she told, ‘Her suffering is over. God’s will is done’. Maybe my mom was given time to mourn but if one might generalize the grief culture of 1950s America, most people were expected to buck up and carry on. From what little is known of her bastard father, I don’t expect Mom got much comfort from him.
Ironically, so many people reach out to ameliorate my grief, but alone is the only place I want to be. I’m too much of an enabler to let someone helplessly witness my ugly raw unquenchable sadness, guilt, self-pity and remorse. ‘Sorry’, I want to say, ‘but please don’t hug me, because it won’t make Mom not be dead.’ But because I’m polite, I accept hugs and feel the nice warmth of others bounce off my hollow shell.
Due to the enormity of the outpouring of grief from far and wide, I can safely say that Judy mothered not only us, but everyone she could get her hands on. She spoiled us with love. Judy didn’t do boundaries which was a mixed blessing for my sisters and me. But right now I’d give anything for her to get up in my corn flakes; she was always trying to fix up my friends or find my daughter black ‘grandparents’ because she read somewhere that would be good for Grace’s self esteem as a black woman.
I want a do over just so I could be more patient, or actually be more interested in what interested her. But it was hard, because absolutely everything and everyone interested my mother. This quote encapsulates my mom.
We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the
others are here for I don’t know.
W. H. Auden
I was told I’d feel empty- but I feel the opposite of empty- I’m so full–of remorse, gratitude, guilt, love, lost wishes and opportunities missed, that it’s more a lack of tension- like the tension of a gentle thread that ceaselessly connects you with someone to whom the entirety of your life matters. Everything that happens to you, and I mean EVERYTHING, matters to only one human in the history of you- and it’s your mother. When that metaphorical umbilical cord is cut one last time- being truly alone in the world is what aches so much.
And just like the first time our umbilical cord was cut — I’m a newborn- preverbal, weak, craving sleep 21 hours a day. I blink in the persistent daylight, cry from loss of safety, hungry but unable to eat. Other people living too loudly make me want to scream.
My perch in the world feels less well-lit now that mom isn’t aiming her beamers on me. I’d roll my eyes till they spasmed at how special my mom insisted I was. My sister cried, who else in the world will care about how my daughters did at school auditions today? How many times a day my first thought is, ‘Oh, Mom’ll love this’. She’s the first number in my contact list on my phone. How do I delete that? I don’t. I just learn to live with it.
So, I go to bed telling myself she is dead in the hopes that I won’t wake up tomorrow and have that awful moment where I forget to remember. So I barely sleep and repeat the mantra, ‘she is dead’ until night gives up. Day after day has to be worn and tolerated, like an uncomfortable pair of shoes, until I can kick them off and climb back into bed.
But now that the person I look most like in the entire world, and have endeavored all my life to not be like, is gone, I crave people uttering ‘You look just like her!’ I’m finally proud my mom named me after herself. My name is Judith Kathleen Dennehy and now I better run, because someone needs her butt wiped.