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 firstname.lastname@example.org.