For as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve processed grief in the same way. I write. When my dad died, I wrote an article that ran in the church bulletin. When one of our co-workers at that church died suddenly, I wrote a poem for on his memorial bulletin. When we felt the grief of losing friends and jobs, I would usually write something - a letter, a blog post, an email. When Heather’s grandparents died, I turned to my blog to express my pain. This is how I do things. I prefer to put things on paper. I feel like I’m a decent verbal communicator, but I am a much better written one.
Then Mom died.
There were no words to write. I couldn’t bear to even think about sitting at a computer and espousing my feelings. I was hoping I could have something done for her memorial service, but that didn’t happen. Over a month has gone by since that day and I have not been able to write … anything. The very thought of writing at all has been paralyzing to me. Truth be told, many things of late have had that same effect.
We had one of the most tumultuous periods of our lives in the last six weeks. The kids finished school, including Josiah graduating from Middle School. Heather completed her residency and won a ton of awards and received all kinds of accolades. We packed up our whole house and moved to Houston, Texas. We unloaded all of that craziness. My rheumatoid arthritis, which had stayed cooperative while packing, had enough after our drive and it flared with a vengeance. Then, a week after Heather and the kids showed up at our new digs, I flew to South Florida to tell Mom goodbye.
There is this website - stress.org - that provides a stress test for you to try out. There are different levels of stress, depending on what things you are dealing with at the moment in life. The top level is 360 points and above. At this point, you are “80% likely to have a physical breakdown related to stress.” Heather and I have laughingly taken this test several times in our married life. We usually are up around 300 on an average day. My rating was 450 points this month. I told her the other day, “I found out what level that isn’t funny anymore. 450 points. That isn’t funny.”
I have been a wreck. I am overwhelmed. I get panicked over doing things that I used to do with ease. I missed an entire cycle of bills because the thought of looking at them made me melt down. I had trouble unpacking boxes, making appointments, going shopping. It seemed like every time I went to the grocery store with the kids, I would freeze up halfway through and have a mini panic attack. They weren’t being naughty - it just was too much. And this didn’t go away in what I considered a timely manner. I called my old therapist from Orlando last Sunday, just to have someone to talk to about things. He was, as always, brilliant and insightful. Then I had the worst week yet.
This past week was atrocious. I would be perfectly fine. With no warning, I would be crushed by a wave of despair. Then I would be down for hours, crying from time to time. We went out to a mall the other day and on the way home, I told Heather, “That was not a good idea. That was too much to handle.” I have felt broken and weak and helpless and useless. I have been working for the last couple of weeks, but it seems to take all my energy - well whatever little bit I have left after a day full of summer vacation related kid arguments and issues. Again, the kids are not being naughty; they are being kids. But it seems like there is hardly any reserve.
I know that everyone says grief is different for every person and that it doesn’t go away quickly. But that is hard for me to accept. I have tried to solve this problem. I have tried to figure out what to do to make this end so I can go back to the way I was. It doesn’t even make sense, though. Sure, there are times when I break down and it is a logical event. When I saw Mom’s birthday on my phone calendar as I scheduled teaching assignments in November, that felt like a knife in my heart. At church this morning, they sang In Christ Alone, which was a song that my mom loved and had played at her memorial service. Obviously, that was a tear-inducing moment. But when I’m standing in the middle of Target, I’m not actively thinking about Mom and missing her. I’m just looking at school supplies or Funko Pop! figures. That isn’t something to bring on tears. I’m not thinking, “Awww man, Mom would have loved that Walking Dead Michonne bobble head. That folder was righty up her alley.”
After I went away to college, I have hardly ever lived in the same town as my mom. There was a brief time when we both lived in Orlando about 11 years ago. But that was it. For over 20 years, my relationship with my mom has been nearly exclusively through the telephone. We would go see her a few times a year - fewer the further away we moved. Once Facebook came along, there was a little more virtual interaction. But most of the time, it was over the phone. I guess I thought that would make it easier. I didn’t SEE her all the time. Not SEEING her would mean it didn’t hurt so much. That was the case with my dad. The geographical distance helped the healing process. There had also been some forced emotional distance on my part over the years. I could not always fill the role my mom wanted (needed?) me to fill. There were times that I felt emotionally manipulated. (Anyone who knows anything about me and my church experiences knows that I HATE emotionally manipulative relationships.) So I put some distance there. It was necessary so that I could still relate to and interact with her without being pulled into everything she was going through.
Mom had a lot of physical problems and had battled lots of things for years and years. The first time she told me she was dying, I was 10. And that became a recurrent theme for the next three plus decades. It was hard to balance the pull of a child to his ill mother and the reality of recognizing that not everything required a massive response of sadness. It was hard. And I may have gone too far in my protective engineering - especially in her last six months. But I could not be the husband, father, and employee I needed to be and be in a constant state of mourning for years. I had to have that buffer to function. For all of those reasons, I guess I assumed that when Mom finally did pass on, it would be a relatively normal, easy process.
I completely underestimated just how much she meant. I couldn’t erase the thousands of hours of conversations that we had. We would laugh about silly stories. We would get riled up at things people did to offend us - especially Church experiences. We would argue. We would get angry at each other. We would push each other out of dark spots and challenge each other. We would have theological discussions, political discussions, educational discussions, culinary discussions. “Just a phone call” was hardly JUST a phone call. I remember so many things about my mother: watching her cook or bake, seeing her sit in the living room reading her Bible, coming around the corner after school and seeing her yellow station wagon in the FIRST spot. But so many of the biggest memories involved us talking.
There were the conversations from my dorm room at UCF, where I would be so upset and lonely - desperate for someone to love me, wondering why no girls ever wanted to be with me. There was the first night after I moved to Tampa, when I called her crying about how I knew it was a mistake. No one knew me; no one liked me; I wanted to go back to Orlando. There was the day that I knew that I had met my wife - a spunky little blond girl that reminded me SOOO much of the fire and strength my mom displayed. (I had NOOOOO idea.) There was the day when Josiah was born, when I called her from my cell phone outside of Orange Park Medical Center. I was telling her all about him, while trying to understand together what the heck was going on in the world. (He was born on 9/12/01 and we were in labor all day on THE 9/11.) There were the countless days when I would call her on my way to pick the kids up from school, or on my way to teach some class in Charleston, or on my way home from a Defender Ministries event. I can see these moments. They became such a part of my life that it is only now - after a month - that I realize just how present she always was, even when she was hundreds of miles away.
Now, I’ll find some great deal on something at the grocery store and think, “I should call Mom and tell her.” I’ll finish registering the kids for school and be impressed by the faculty there and want to let her know. I’ll hear that Heather got another recognition at work and I’ll want to brag about her. (She ADORED Heather. On her last morning, she talked to Heather on FaceTime and she lit up so much. When they hung up, she said, “Now I’m happy.”) I’ll hear a good sermon that talks about emotions, which really was just what I needed to hear (that was this morning) and I’ll want to let her know that once again, help came right when I needed it. But she isn’t there. I can’t call her. I can’t send her pictures of the kids’ new shoes. I can’t post something on Facebook and know that she’ll like it within two minutes. I can’t text her “I love you” any more.
We hear a lot of things about a mother’s love. It is truly one of the most powerful things on earth. For me, it looked like a phone - be it a coil coming off a handset, a cordless one with a big huge antenna, a flip phone, an iPhone. Life changed; phones changed. But there was always a never-ending source of love on the other end of that line. When I didn’t have any friends that I could count on, she was there. When I was just a single guy, full of fury and loneliness, she was there. When I was a confused new dad, a selfish husband, a lazy worker, she was there. When I was a compassionate father, a loving spouse, and a trustworthy teacher, she was there. She heard all of that and loved me through every single twist and turn. I guess it isn’t so easy to have someone that ingrained in your life disappear.
I held my mom’s hand as she was drifting away. I looked at Holly and said, “She’s going.” Holly took her hand and grabbed my phone to text Chris. I sat down next to her on the floor and held her head as she took her last breaths. And then I just cried so hard. For the last thirty minutes or so, I just talked to her. I told her about our new house, about the new town we were in, about the stuff the kids were into, about how much it felt like Florida. I asked her if she was getting ready to go dancing. She said, “I can’t dance.” I said, “You will be able to soon. You can dance with Dad.” She made a face. To the very end, she was Mom. I know that in time, things won’t hurt so bad. I know that I’ll be able to go to the store and not freak out. I know I’ll find someone to listen to my pointless stories about recipes or shoes or virtual classroom adventures. (I’m going to be that old man in the Perkins telling stories to the waitress, aren’t I?) I know that I’ll be able to look at November 4 on the calendar and not get teary. Some day that will happen. Some day...