Reese Witherspoon Can Get Lost in “Wild” Without Me

Reese Witherspoon, Wild, Mother's Day

After mom my died, I swore off Mother’s Day. I resented that my husband bought me cards and signed our daughter’s name. When you shove your gut full of emotions, it’s difficult to gently pull them back out.

As countless women pack the theater to watch Reese Witherspoon (as Cheryl Strayed) hike her way to healing, I will be staying home. You would think that “Wild”, a movie of a woman losing her mother “too soon,” would be exactly where I should be with my buttered popcorn. You see, my mother died at the age of 47, when I was 28 years old and oh, yeah, six months pregnant with her first grandchild. That is why one would think the story of a young woman feeling lost after her mother’s death, drug addiction and ending of her marriage might pique my interest. Actually, though, I am jealous.

No, I do not wish my neighborhood drug dealer would have found me in my fragile state. I am happy to say that I survived my mother’s death because of my husband’s love. But as Strayed was left alone with her emotions and an empty backpack, I was saddled with a newborn baby.

I had already planned to visit my mom in May of 2003 at the end of my final semester of graduate school. She was living with the rest of the family in their new home in North Carolina. I figured as soon as I graduated I would jump on the plane to celebrate with her. Maybe even shop for some last minute baby things. Alas, that scenario never happened.

Rather, just days before a final paper was due and I would put on my cap and gown, I had one last conversation with her. She was despondent that the latest doctor refused to try any experimental treatments on her open leg wound and reiterated amputation as the treatment of choice. Sometime around the previous Thanksgiving she cut her leg, was bitten by a bug or stabbed it on something. We will never know where the wound came from, only that it ended her life. Treatment after treatment never made it smaller or better. Instead it grew and grew until her leg became septic. Mom was sure that there was a way to save her leg. I remember telling her that I wanted to save her and I that I would be there soon. “Give me until Sunday and I’ll be on my way.”

Instead, on Thursday I got the call from one of my sisters that Mom was in the hospital. It turned out that the sepsis wanted more than just her leg. In an effort to save her, they amputated her leg and the sepsis spread. I went to my prenatal appointment, where her best friends were my midwives. They all but told me that I was going to watch her die. On Sunday I graduated with my masters degree and hopped on a plane. Barely…I broke down at the check in desk and the Southwest agent almost didn’t let me on as I was an emotional mess. So I sucked it up, ate my emotions and got on a plane. Fast forward a week or so and you’d find me in a church greeting my mom’s new friends, old family friends, and others who wanted to wish the poor pregnant girl condolences over her mother’s untimely death.

So much rage had to be swallowed during that time. From the priest who kept calling her “Helen” when her name was Irene to every plan I had about the growing life in me being thrown into chaos. I wanted to run away from the whole thing. I needed Strayed’s backpack. Instead I would replay every.single.time. that I begged her to stop looking for a miracle and just get the amputation.

Now, I know that Strayed did not run away from her problems, but good gawd, what I would have given to not have to go to work and just sit somewhere under the stars and cry my heart out. Instead, I fell into a depression where I began to reject any sort of happiness. I refused calls from my best friend who only wanted to help me. I called off any sort of baby shower plans. How could I ever be happy again?

I have no idea how I snapped out of it. I believe it may have been a bit of my husband pushing me and me deciding to spite my mom by being happy. She could not hang on a few measly days for me to arrive, so why should I stop being happy? Looking back, I know being happy could not really punish my mom, but I was in that stage of grief – anger at her. Yeah, I was a big hot mess inside. But I kept moving.

Our daughter was born and I focused on her. Celebrating the most perfect baby ever born with oodles of pictures, mama & me yoga and blog posts. While I would occasionally cry, I mostly continued to shove my agony aside. It sounds silly now, but it was also what the rest of the world told me to do. Focus on Ella. And that I did.

Mandy Van Deven lost her a mom just a few years ago and last year I supported her fundraiser to head off on her own healing travel journey. As much as I am jealous of Strayed and her backpack, I knew that even if I could not, Mandy should. I know she found solace in Strayed’s words, even though I cannot even bring myself to read them. When I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I went back and forth between seeing it as a perfect portrait of mourning and delusion. “Come on, he is never coming home…just like my mom!” My lack of mourning was clouding my sense of everything.

Maybe my backpack was actually a diaper bag. After mom my died, I swore off Mother’s Day. I resented that my husband bought me cards and signed our daughter’s name. I rejected any celebration of me and my mothering and focused on the radical nature of the holiday. Our daughter’s day care would have her make adorable crafts that beautifully stabbed my heart. I rarely talked of my mom despite thinking of her constantly. When you shove your gut full of emotions, it’s difficult to gently pull them back out.

But that is, amazingly, exactly what our daughter did. Slowly she made Mother’s Day our day. She did things that reminded me of my mom and I told her so (at my husband’s urging). I still can’t listen to George Strait songs; he was her favorite singer. But we do make cut-out cookies for Christmas using the recipe my mom used since she was a little girl herself. Eleven years seems like a long enough time to “get over” losing one’s mother, but as someone told me days after she died, this is something you never get over, but it does get easier. For some of us we need to hike towards that ease, for others we get walked there.

Veronica Arreola writes the blog Viva la Feminista, where she tries to navigate and understand the intersection between feminism, motherhood and her Latinadad. You can follow her on Twitter @veronicaeye. To schedule an interview with Veronica or talk with her about booking her as a speaker, she can be reached at veronica.arreola@gmail.com.

Image via Depositphotos/Jean Nelson

  • This brought tears. Thank you.

  • I thought I would die. It is the biggest loss I’ve known. I cannot imagine how people live with the loss of their children. Thanks for telling your story.

  • There were so many mixed feelings after reading this book. It was so self-indulgent I thought, but then I also wished I could have escaped and been on my own for while.
    Weeks after my Mother’s death though my Father was diagnosed with aggressive cancer which started another 2 year medical catastrophe.
    So yeah, I will not see this movie or recommend this book to anyone.

  • Lisa Solod

    Everyone has their own journey and Strayed’s may seem selfish to you (I haven’t read the book, either, but it is impossible not to know what it is about) and in a way it was. She had no one to care for but herself, while you had an entire family to think of: there was no way you could package your grief and take off. You had to live through it as long as you needed to. I understand the jealousy. Freedom is something to be envious of. Sometimes. But as you found out freedom can also mean learning to live an entirely new life, even if one is forced into it against one’s will. My relationship with my own mother has been fractured by abuse and neglect, but I had to put away the emotions caused by those things when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s ten years ago, and I have made peace with who she was and who she will never be again. Most importantly I have made peace with myself. Deep inside you feel your mother was selfish for not treating herself properly and for leaving you at such a crucial time. She was, if inadvertently, but even the most careless mothering teaches us something. You found the strength to be a good and loving mom to your child. That is something to cherish.

    • Freedom Elf

      Lisa, you sound like you had the same experience as I did, and I agree with you that we all have to come to grips with both the good and bad. I applaud you.

      The writer of this article seems very judgmental; everyone handles grief in a different way and some people do have more “resources” at their command than others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their grief is “easier.” In fact, sometimes I think it is the opposite, because the people raised with all options open to them don’t often develop the resilience that people born in lesser circumstances must learn to live with at an early age. We all need to treat each other with respect, not condescension.

      • Lisa Solod

        I am unsure as to who you think is condescending? Veronica? Me? I don’t think Veronica is at all; she spoke her truth. As did I. I think it is obvious that each of us go a different road to get to where we need to be.

      • Veronica

        I am confused as to how you think I was judgmental of Cheryl. I was trying to get across that I envy her healing process.

    • Veronica

      Thanks Lisa. I am sorry that I came across as thinking that Strayed was selfish. It is certainly not selfish to take time to care for one’s self. And I certainly was not clear that I have moved way past blaming my mom for her death.

  • Beautiful essay! Thank you for sharing and so sorry for your loss.

  • Beautiful essay. We can honor all ways of grieving. Your line about the diaper bag being the backpack was wonderful.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience. I lost my mother in 1975. She was 56 and I was 21. She was my best friend and I was devastated by her death. I was actually sitting right next to her when she took her last breath. Like you, life had no meaning for me after she was gone. Who would I call everyday to share what had happened that day. I had spoken with her every day, and we always ended the conversation or call with “I love you.” It’s been almost 40 years now, and I can still be brought to tears by a memory of her. It does get better, but you never forget. There is very little that has been written about losing your mother as a young adult. There are many books about losing your mom as a baby, or a young child, but they are of no help when you are an adult beginning life on your own. I often wonder how my life might be different today, were she still alive. I guess that is not for us to know. Thank you again for sharing your story. It touched my heart, as you often have over the years my friend. Sending you much love.

  • I’m sorry.

    This was beautiful. I love that you acknowledge your husband’s role in your healing, as well as your daughters. May it connive to become easier.

  • Teresa

    I loved your essay. My mother is alive and I can not imagine what I will feel when I lose her. In many ways I feel I lost her to alcohol and neglect years ago. But I do love her…it’s just that secrets I have to keep from her about my sexually abusive step father, secrets I keep for her own good and the good of my half brothers have driven distance between us….. I envy the kind of closeness you had that would make such grief you have suffered.
    But for those who think Strayed’s journey was selfish or self indulgent… woah, you should try it. It is an undertaking for the only the bravest and most powerful among us. I admire her and I know that physically I would never have the courage to take it on. The woman is a viking.

  • This piece gutted me. I’m blubbering. I dread the day when I lose my mother, but this helps me understand your pain in a way nothing else you’ve written about it has. Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for fighting through the pain. Thank you for being there for your daughter and letting her bring out your motherhood. And thank you to your husband who found a way to help you when no one else could.

  • Thanks for sharing. Losing a mom is one of the hardest things in life.

  • I lost my mom in 2013. She was 97 and had developed dementia. I lost her little by little. But what you went through was so much harder and much too early. Thank you for sharing this and for your strength. Your motherhood shines and we all owe our dear mothers alive and gone praise for what they showed us and how they loved us.

  • we all deal with the loss of our parents differently. My mother died in a similar way — her illness was a mystery and ultimately the attempt to treat it killed her. I left my job in government because of a political situation when my mother was ill. Lost my home because it was torn down to become a condo. Moved in with a boyfriend started grad school. Found a new job. My mothers illness got worse. She died. I was laid off from my job. I found myself walking up the aisle at Northwestern to get my diploma in a totally bereft state. My mother and her sister – who had died the same year- they were the ones who had set me off finally to grad school. It was for them and to honor them that I finally received the degree after starting off down that path many times. I still have the copy of Existential Psychotherapy I marked up after she died and the dog eared copy of When things fall apart” that I read. How I prayed for any diversion to take me out of my pain. I don’t believe I have fully recovered yet. In the end, losing one’s mother is like a color leaving the rainbow. I’ll go see the film Wild myself because I too longed to wander at that time of loss and chose instead To remain here with my family obligations, I too have wandered wild. In a world of defined roles and classifications, I have walked without definition, bush whacking my own way through career and love. Thank you for sharing your story. each journey is so different.

  • Veronica this was a very touching essay. Our mothers are so important in our life – so much that I’m not sure we all realize it. I’m sure writing this helped you heal even more with the help of that beautiful daughter of yours.

  • Good honest piece. My mom died at age 57, when I was 24. Plenty of floundering ensued and I still miss her every single day. I doubt that taking a hike would have helped me either but we all do what we can to cope with the shit life slings at us. Including for you and me and Strayed, writing about it.

  • Sandy P.

    Roni, my friend that made me remember the movie I saw shortly after my own mom died, about 35 years ago. It was Terms of Endearment and I sat alone, in the back of a movie theater with my heart ripped to pieces. I haven’t been able to watch it again. You learn to live with the hole, but it never really closes. I was 30, recently divorced and struggling with what was going to happen next. Timing is everything, when something that life changing happens to you.

    You have become a wonderful, compassionate woman and loving mother. I’m sure your mom would be very proud of you and what you’ve accomplished. Your daughter is a lucky young lady.

  • karindelana

    There is a line about this in the book & film when Cheryl explains that most women cannot be distance hikers because they have families, responsibilities etc in their lives that they cannot just walk away from. In the story she refers to her own mother of course but that is actually one of the threads that Cheryl talks about in her journey. Very relatable for women.

    • Thanks Karina. I obviously would never know.

  • Linda Lowen

    “Maybe my backpack was actually a diaper bag.” Whatever you wear and wherever you’re wearing it, you still do it so much better than Cheryl Strayed. Veronica, thank you for a brilliant piece that brings honesty to the subject of how we deal with our mother’s death. We shouldn’t be celebrating/making movies about the women who ditch it all and fall apart. We should celebrate/make movies about the women like you who simply soldier on because that’s what must be done. It may not be romantic, may not lead to a bestseller, but it’s what we do…

  • I’m so, so sorry for your loss – I know that sounds cliche, but it’s true. My mom found out she had advanced stage breast cancer a few months after I gave birth to my son, and I so understand what you’ve written here about anger and so much else. It is so strange to juggle new life and the threat – or conclusion – of death. I’m glad that you’ve finally found peace.

    I will say, though, that while I understand being jealous of someone who seemingly took the easy way out – drugs, a no-strings-attached hike – Strayed’s situation was actually pretty breathtakingly shitty. And while I haven’t seen the movie, her book was nothing like I expected. It was raw, genuine and merciless. It actually helped me deal with a lot of the emotions and fears I have about my own mother’s situation. It’s far from frivolous and Strayed’s choices seem neither easy, nor something she exploits for pity.

    I have no ties to Strayed. I haven’t even read any of her other work. But I guess I wanted to put this out there, in case someone else might find reading (or watching) “Wild” helpful, as I did.

    Again, I’m so sorry for what you went through. I wish you continued healing and joy in your little girl.

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