This Is Not Goodbye

“Now I’m the one going ahead . . . I’m not afraid . . . I can be brave, too . . . “ – Beth, Little Women

For a years, I’ve gone over nearly every aspect of losing my child. I imagine there are ones I’ve not thought of yet . . . but I have the rest of my life for them to find me. I’ve healed in some ways, not completely (never completely) and there are others which I’ve not inspected too closely. Simply, I’m not sure I will survive them. Yet, they stay visible in my peripheral vision . . . waiting their turn. This one, the one I’m attempting to write about, has been heavy on my heart since the moment I knew my daughter was dead.

Each detail of that night is like an autumn leaf that I keep pressed between the pages of the book of our lives. Most are worn from being held, in my hands, multiple times. If I turn to one page, in particular, one I’ve skipped past dozens of times . . . the leaf is in perfect shape. Vivid colors, the veins still strong. The smell brings me right back to the moment my boyfriend stepped out of the back of the police chaplain’s car.

I could tell by the look on his face that the young woman’s body was that of my daughter, Becca. As he held me, he told me they had allowed him to kiss her still warm forehead. I kept screaming, “I need to help her . . . I need to help her!” Later, he told me her spirit had ridden back with him in the car. I believe him. I asked him what she looked like. He answered, confused . . . lost.

When I think about this, anguish rises in soul and I can’t help but think I failed her at the most important time of her life. The end.

Mothers teach their children about life. I wasn’t given the chance to help her through her death.

When I took Becca to school, the first day of kindergarten, she and I both cried. She didn’t want me to leave and I didn’t want to go. But, I knew at the end of the day, she’d be home again. I could talk to her about all the new things. She would know I would be there to pick her up and she could trust that I wouldn’t leave her. Our time apart was more acceptable because we would hold each other again. This made the separations much easier on both of us.

Her death, I couldn’t hold her after and tell her everything was going to be alright. Lately, I’ve found myself wondering what that conversation would have been like.

“Mom, mom . . . what happened?”

“Come here,” I’d say, taking her in my arms, “you were killed in a car crash, honey.”

“But why? Why? How?” she would ask, confused, as I held her close to my chest.

“A drunk driver killed you . . . oh baby, I’m so sorry!”

“What do I do???? Where do I go? Do I have to leave you?? I can’t leave you, momma, the boys, I can’t go. I’m afraid. I don’t know what’s there!”

“I know honey, and I’m so sorry I can’t go with you. I don’t want you to either, but we don’t have a choice, my Becca.”

“But what do I do??? How do I go??? How do I leave you??”

“You have to be brave, sweetie. You have to be a brave girl. I know you can do that. I know you are strong enough to do this. It’s scary, I know, but just like when you went to school . . . I’ll see you again after, I promise.”

“Mommy . . . momma . . . I don’t want to go!!”

“You have to turn around and walk away, honey . . . “ even with these words, neither of us loosens our grip.

I take her face in my hands and look into her beautiful green blue eyes, “You have to go before all of us. I didn’t want it this way . . . but it’s what we have to do right now. I will always be your momma and you will always be my Becca. My only daughter. The one who made me a mother. I know you are scared, I’m scared to be without you . . . but our love will never fade. You are beautiful and smart and strong and brave. I promise I will be there with you one day. We will all be there. The boys will come. We will all be together again, I promise.”

I can feel her head shake slightly in my hands.

“Go now, my Becca, go and wait for us. Be strong. Soar through the heavens. Glide past stars. Dance in the winds that blow around the entire world. Play. Laugh. Visit us when you are lonely. And know, you are always loved. It’s been such a privilege to be your mother . . . you were my first true love, my girl.”

I would gently kiss her forehead and let my hands drop to my side, as my daughter turned away and bravely walked into her heaven.

Forever Searching

As I’ve shared in my writings before . . . I have a very complicated relationship with divinity. The easiest way to explain it is like this: I feel that “god” is a person I am angry with but can’t seem to remove completely from my life. Yet, I have no intention of ever getting close to him again. I have relatives like this, too. They’ve hurt me deeply. I know they exist but I don’t have them in my life. There is a silent truce between us and I am fine with this.

Over the past few months, I’ve gone to church more than I have in the past ten years. The first time, I told myself, was to support my friend. Like many mothers who have lost a child . . . our faith is damaged and we seek answers. That is what I said to the Bishop when he asked me what questions of faith I was struggling over. But, I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said above, I initially believed I was going to be of support to someone else. Sitting in a pew in a catholic church, then a folding chair in an old mall, and today, in the lobby of Martin Luther King Elementary School, I’ve realized I’m searching, too. I consider myself Agnostic because this term comes closest to what I seem to be. I know there is “something” but I don’t know what, exactly. There are times when I wish I had unflinching faith, but it’s not to be I guess. Not for me, anyway.

I felt that today, as I sat in a group of six people, listening to the Bishop speak. My friend and I were invited to this service personally by the Bishop. He knows our stories of child loss. And I truly think he thought he could answer our questions, assuage our fears. I am thankful he cared enough to want to do so.

Listening to his words, I believe he was trying to tell us that god takes, but god gives, too. That god took something from our lives to make room for something else. A seed has to die for a plant to be born. God has to squeeze us hard to get the best juice. I understand what he was attempting to explain to us. But, I have trouble with it.

God could have squeezed me in a different way. God could have taken something else from my life. If a seed has to die, let me be the seed. The flower that should be growing is my daughter. I am sure my friend feels the same way. I think nearly all grieving mothers would gladly change places with their deceased child. Happily, and without a second thought.

If we could, we would give them life, twice.

Near the end of the service, the Bishop asked me to share what my questions were. I’ve not had this chance before. A one on one discussion, with a man of the cloth, where I could honestly voice my thoughts. So, I did.

I told him I don’t understand a god that would take my child yet let my pedophile uncle live. I have trouble believing “god is good” when Syria is happening. That there even is a god who would let the horror in the world continue without doing something about it. None of it makes sense to me. And his answer was the same one I’ve been told over and over again: you just have to have faith.

That answer isn’t good enough for me. It wasn’t good enough before my beautiful daughter was killed, and it sure the hell isn’t good enough now. I am not angry with the Bishop, I am thankful he cared enough about me, my friend, about my struggle to take the time to build a sermon around it all.

Later this afternoon, Stacey and I were walking around a thrift store. There were two Willow Tree angels sitting on the shelf. One of them was titled “thank you for the gift” the other was “angel of learning”. I don’t think those angels were there by chance. Our children are our gifts. The brightest blessings we could ever receive. And learning. Oh the things we’ve learned since losing our daughters. The biggest? How to live without them here.

I read once that our relationship with the deceased keeps developing as we learn more and we come to terms with their absence. I think I will forever search for answers. Answers about her death. Answers about all “the bigger questions” and that’s alright.

The searching keeps me moving forward.

Shores

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a night on Mackinac Island. For those of you not familiar with this location, it’s an island off the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, with Lake Huron lapping it’s shores. We arrived in a small town at the edge of the Mackinac Bridge. Parking our car, we left our luggage with the porters and waited to board the ferry. The waters were a cold steel gray topped with fast moving whitecaps. I was scared. I’ve never been to the island, ridden the ferry, or been on one of the great lakes when the waves were so large.

Traveling with another bereaved mother, who’d been to the island many times, we boarded the boat. This trip was a sort of pilgrimage for her. Anxious about going somewhere she’d last been with her deceased child, she settled into her seat and looked out the foggy window. I ran my sleeve across the glass . . . trying to clear it enough to see outside. The ferry started to move and the swell of the waves grew larger as we pulled into open water.

My friend told me where the life vests and exits were “just in case”. Then, thinking it was funny, started to sing lyrics from “The Edmund Fitzgerald”. I looked at her with horror and she said “it’s a nurse’s sense of humor, dark”. Not long after that we hit a huge wave that lifted the boat about five feet into the air. Now, you have to know this boat seats nearly a hundred people and has two decks. Being tossed that high means the water was rough! For a moment, we hovered in the air as the boat fell. Then we slammed down into our seats. And I thought, if I die, I’ll see Becca. I think we lose our fear of death when we have a child that’s gone before us.

Either the captain slowed down or the waves calmed down as we approached shallower water, I don’t know which. I was then able to concentrate on the hazy shapes in the distance. I asked if the shape I saw was Mackinac Island. My friend said no, it was another island, but we were almost there.

My mind starting thinking about how grief is often times described as waves. How we are fighting the currents and just trying to stay afloat. I agree with this description. Then, a thought flashed into my head. She’d been here before. She knew what the islands looked like when the weather was sunny and the waters a clear blue calm. She’d never been here when the weather was as it was that day. But she knew that the mist covered shape in the distance was solid ground. Even though, at the moment, she couldn’t see it. The trip across this stretch of the lake wouldn’t last forever. She KNEW there was land.

Our ground was solid when our children were alive. When our child died, a tsunami swept across our land and wiped much of what we know away. On our good days, we stand on that ground, looking at the drastically changed landscape surrounding us. On the bad, the waters rise and sweep us to sea.

During these moments, the ones when we think of how easy it might be to slip below the surface and give in, we have to look across the water and find a familiar shape. We know there is land. Reaching it might be difficult . . . but it’s there! The waves rise and fall. When they carry you to their crest, find the land and swim towards it. Keep doing this, over and over. Until you make it to shore.

I think my friend was calmer than me on the ferry because she knew what lay ahead. I didn’t, therefore I was more anxious. We can help ourselves, and each other, by remembering what we stood on before our child died. Reminding each other that the maelstrom won’t last forever.

As we drew closer to the island, the soft shapes started to come into sharp focus. My friend pointed out a white church very close to the shore. She told me that her daughter, Mckenna, wanted to get married there some day. Now, she wouldn’t have the chance. Her mom was going to leave a rock, with her daughter’s name on it, outside of the church. Her pilgrimage.

The ferry slowed, we floated on the waves, and I took a picture of the church through a foggy window. A picture taken for a grieving mom, a daughter who’s future was stolen by someone else’s hand, and for me. Someone who didn’t know this shore existed, but felt blessed to visit it.

I don’t always know where my journey will take me. I do know that the journey can be better if you don’t always do it alone.

Still Mothering

Behind me, there is a red set of shelves. In it’s former life it was a dresser. When I no longer needed it as such . . . I took the drawers out and made them shelves. I couldn’t get rid of it because it is a piece of furniture my daughter knew me to own. On it’s top, I have photographs, candles, and the marble urn which holds my daughter’s ashes. I always keep fresh flowers next to her urn. I call them ‘Becca Flowers’. Every night, I kiss her picture and tell her I love and miss her. I am going to do this until the day I die.

Another bereaved mom I know goes to the cemetery, to visit her daughter’s grave, every day. She decorates for the approaching holiday and talks to her child. I was privileged enough to help her choose new flowers, in the colors of Mardi Gras, to put in the wreath she keeps there permanently. We spent about twenty minutes picking the right flowers and color combination. The mom took much care in making sure the bouquet was exactly what she wanted, what her daughter would like. I understand her desire to spend the time and care she did in this small task. I do the exactly the same thing when I choose flowers to put next to Becca’s ashes.

Last week, I was talking to someone at work about how much I admire this mother for going to the cemetery every day to see her child. In response, he asked “Do you think that’s healthy?”. My immediate answer was “Yes.”. He asked me to explain and it’s taken until tonight for me to be able to put my reasoning into words.

When our child is born, and placed into our arms, we accept the responsibility that comes with being a parent. We help them learn everything they need to learn along the way. We love them completely . . . most times more than we love ourselves. Every single aspect of their life . . . we are a part of. As they grow, our role in their life changes. What they need from us moves from one thing to another, but it lessens as they grow more self sufficient. Then comes the days when they seem to barely need us at all. Yet we still have the deep calling to care for our child. It never goes away. Even after our child dies.
Especially after our child dies.

Try to imagine, if you can, having your child’s full life narrow to the size of a burial plot. Or a marble urn. All your mothering, the love you still need to give them, has such a small place to physically fit. The younger the deceased child the longer the list of things they never had a chance to do. Graduate from school. Attend college. Fall in love. Marry. Become a mother. Our child is robbed of so much.

Bereaved mothers are robbed, as well. Instead of helping my daughter choose a wedding dress, I chose what she would wear for the visitation. Becca will never call for me, while she’s in labor, because she needs her mom. All of those things, the mothering I never got to give her, still need a place to go. Where do I put it? I keep fresh flowers next to her urn. A candle burns every night.

Where does my friend do it? She keeps her daughter’s plot neat and tidy. Adorned with all the gifts she will never be able to place into her hands. I watch her rub her palms lovingly over the winter grass. Hear the words of loss and longing she speaks, as she places a kiss over her daughter, and tells her she’ll be back to see her tomorrow.

Is it healthy you ask? I think it would be unhealthier to have all of this love, and loss, bottled up inside of us with no place to go. We are mothers. Our child died, but we did not cease being their mother. Caring for the final spot our child inhabits is what we can do to care for our child in their absence. This helps us heal.

I hope those who have not lost a child can understand the importance of our actions when it comes to this. I also hope, very sincerely, that they never truly understand the truth of my words.

Sanctuary

This morning, at the last minute, I decided to go to church. I’ve not gone to church for a very long time. There are some pretty long standing beefs between myself and organized religion. Both the institutions themselves, and the deity said to be in charge of it all. Thus far, I’ve not written about religion in my blog. I guess today is the day to explain my beliefs. Only because I feel full disclosure helps my readers understand from where I write.

As humans, we like labels. Labeling a thing as either this or that helps us understand. It defines . . . but also confines. The closest definition of a word that explains religious beliefs, that I can find to describe myself is “agnostic”. However, even within the definitions, there are varying explanations, so it can get muddy. So, here’s my choice in what the meaning behind agnostic means to  me: I believe in the existence of a greater power, such as a god, but it can not be either proven or disproved. I know we can not know everything in the form we inhabit, here and now.

I don’t believe god is either male or female, rather both energies. I believe in the existence of another plane where our souls travel to upon our death, though it’s definitely not the Heaven of fluffy clouds and golden streets and the sound of harp music. I am not making fun of those who do believe in this place, who do believe god is an elderly white haired man sitting on a throne. I strongly adhere to the sentiment . . . to each their own. Please, know that I am not belittling your beliefs.

With my beliefs being shared, in a brief manner, I’ll now talk about my experience at church this morning.

I’d gone to catholic church as a child, with my nana, many times. The name on the wooden sign out front of the massive brick building was “Most Precious Blood” and it terrified me. Inside was no better. Cavernous and dark, it’s interior was old looking and felt eerily haunted to me. Though I can not remember any of the words that were said by the priest, I do remember the general feeling of being told I was not good enough to even be alive.  That there was little hope of escaping purgatory, even as a small child, no matter how hard I tried.

Today’s experience was much different. Though I did hear something to the effect we (the congregation) didn’t deserve “his” love . . . the message was much more positive than I had expected.The priest said that upon being baptized, in the catholic church, followers are given a mission. To spread the word of the church. There was a line in a song that said ” Lord, let me be a sanctuary”. As an agnostic, this is a sentiment I can get behind.

I want to be a sanctuary for other grieving mothers. Having traveled this journey myself . . . I know the terrain, the dark spots, where we can find light. No, I don’t have all the answers but I DO have experience from which to draw. When I say to another bereaved mother that I can understand . . . I really do.

My mission is to help other mothers who have lost a child. I won’t, however, say god had a plan for me to do this after my child died. I don’t believe that statement. It’s a choice I am making to turn my darkest time into something that shines light in our world.

I had a friend tell me, a few weeks ago, that my mess is my message. This saying is easier for me to say with full belief in it’s words. As I grow stronger, I am more able to use the horrible truth of losing my child as a message to reach others who are in a similar situation as my own.

Driving home after mass, another bereaved mom and I discussed what we heard and how we interpreted the words. She said that she has a firm belief in what her mission is after the loss of her daughter. To bring the truth of grieving, and all it’s parts, to our society. So others can understand what a parent goes through upon the death of their child. She said exactly what I believe: society needs to be taught the truth of grief. Before I lost my daughter, I didn’t understand. Neither did my friend. Now, we do and we have to do something with this painful knowledge.

The issues I have with organized religion did not disappear today. I’m not sure they ever will. In future blogs I will talk about them because I think it’s important to share my story fully.

Tonight, though, I’ll go to bed with the renewed belief that I have to do something with my knowledge and experience. I am not going out to try to bring people back to the church. But I do hope that, with my writing, I may be able to help people move back toward themselves.