Other Stages

We climbed the four flights of stairs to the olive green door of our apartment. Short-pants was ahead of me. She stopped at the landing, just before the door, and turned toward me. “Grammy’s happy now,” she said, “It’s just the rest of us who are sad, the ones left behind.” The edge of her mouth spread into a wide-open smile, her oversized chalky teeth in full view. She beamed awkward and proud at once, fully aware that she could console me with her wisdom. Where does she come up with these things? As if she could read my mind, she went on, “I read that in my Molly McIntire book, but it makes sense.”

Funny what our mourning minds construct to soften the blow of our loss. She’s happy now, we say. Is she? Happy lying in a polished box under the frozen soil? My mother, a card-carrying member of Republicans for Choice, now buried a mere stone’s throw away from a newly placed memorial that I’d never seen before, a marker engraved with prayers for the lives of unborn children “in hopes that our nation will stop the abortion that kills them.” Is she happy about that?

She’s with Daddy now. Is she? Although my last post was engineered around this idea, I have no evidence to prove it. He’s been dead for 23 years. Did he wait for her in some celestial green room with a monitor, watching the rest of her life before she came to join him? What if he reincarnated? What if right now he’s some pimply teenager fumbling his way to second base in his parents’ suburban basement?

I suppose this is would be the anger that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross referred to in her five stages of grief. Anger being the stage that follows denial, which is what I guess I was doing for the last year because my mother didn’t look or act like somebody with a terminal illness. My anger rises from the dust and residue of all the clichéd things we say about a good death, and how she didn’t suffer and how her family was with her, and she died on her own terms.

They weren’t my terms.

I wanted to be able to ask her advice about how to manage my girls when they are rotten and unruly teenagers. She had some experience in this domain, having survived my adolescence. I wanted my mother to watch my daughters grow into young women, to see them graduate from college. I wanted her to be around. I wasn’t done yet.

I keep wondering what do I have to do to wake up and be in a different reality where she’s still with us. Is that bargaining? Check the box for the Kübler-Ross’s third stage, too.

Right away, Buddy-roo noticed the ring on my right-hand ring-finger, a narrow gold band with two rectangular blue amethysts set with two miniature diamonds. I told her how my mother bought the ring from a jeweler in the Russian market in Phnom Penh. My sister was living in Southeast Asia at the time – hard to believe it was 10 years ago – and organized for us a Christmas trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was a trip filled with indelible images: two sisters sunbathing on an island beach on Koh Samui; my mother, tired and proud after climbing the steep and treacherous stairs to the very top tower of the Temple of Angkor Wat; we three lined up in a row, each in our own single-seated cyclo, complete with toothless drivers and the backdrop of Hanoi’s chaotic traffic.

The jeweler – his name was Sarat, my sister’s most favored vendor in the market – was charmed by my mother, like everyone we introduced her to.
He spent nearly an hour showing her all the rings he’d designed, telling her about his gems and precious stones and where he found them in Cambodia. I remember how, after my mother went to bed, my sister and I would sit at the hotel bar and shake our heads. Everyone was always so enamored with mom. If they only knew what we knew, we’d mutter to each other, knowing that what we knew was a daughter’s privilege, and that despite all her motherly flaws, we, too, admired her fiercely.

Buddy-roo wanted to try on the ring. I twisted it off my finger and handed it over. She held the band, turning it back and forth to make the stones sparkle under the light. It was too large for her ring finger, even too big as she pulled it down over her thumb. “Can I have it someday?” she asked. “Sure,” I told her, “someday you can have it all.”

I’m haunted by that someday, that future moment when I will leave Short-pants and Buddy-roo to their grief, when they will rifle through my earliest love letters to
De-facto, making fun of my copiously worded and disclaimer-ridden proclamations of affection, or when they read the letters in that shoe-box that I should probably destroy now while I can, the syrupy ones I wrote to my parents when I was an introspective, awe-struck student seeing Europe for the first time. Or when they go to write my obituary and realize that I used to be somebody, somebody who was a competent professional before becoming their quirky, forgetful, imperfect mother.

As I begin to sort through the relics that belonged to my mother, I see her anew. I study her photographs a different way. A college friend of hers writes a note about some mischief they stirred up on campus; I am surprised to think of my mother involved in such antics. Now comes a new view, I suppose, to see her as someone beyond my mother, to frame her in larger context, as a woman coming of age and living a range of life experiences. A regular person – just like me.

It makes me look at the girls and think this: by the time you can possibly understand who I really am, it will probably be too late to know me. Then you, too, will know this hollow, cheated, bereaved anger.

This isn’t a pretty post. It’s agitated and discomforting. It doesn’t resolve and tie up in a pithy bow at the end. You were a bit too whiney in that one, someone will say, after reading it. Why, I wonder, when a woman speaks the truth about anger or frustration, this is called whining. Were I man, I’d be allowed to punch holes in the plaster wall. Which is what my words are meant to do right now, because I have been on an airplane all night and I am tired and honest and angry that my mother has been taken from us.

Everything else I’ve written about her death has been well-behaved. Why can’t the poignant be joined by the raw and unrefined? I want to write it as it is: real, rough, full-bodied grief, something that’s messy, mad and just a little bit selfish, something that will be diluted if there are too many drafts and edits, something that’s ugly and maybe hard to read. Something that screams at me to just press publish.

7 Responses to “Other Stages”

  • Delphine Says:

    When I was ready your posts these days, I was sometimes saying to myself “she’s lucky.” You seemed to have accepted your mother’s choice in a way (even if you were sad), to have been able to spend time with her. I am not a christian, so I was kind of jealous reading this joy and comfort that can come when you can think about your beloved ones in heaven (I can’t, I just can say “they lived their life fully). I was also jealous cause even if I do love my mother, truely, deeply, there is a huge big “fossé” between us since I divorced and I begin to understand that it will probably stay as it is forever. So when I was reading your posts, I was touched, and sad, and I have to admit kind of jealous. I was thinking about my own mom and was afraid that anger could stronger than sadness the day when she would die. So don’t think it is a man’s thing or it is bad to write these words or to feel what you feel. Even if it is not what we would like, we’re just human beings, no superwomen, no saints. And it is a relief to know that we’re not alone being imperfect. I don’t if my words make sense to you and help you…

    Take your strength from your man and your daughters, and your friends. That’s what I do. And sometimes, it helps…

  • Kunyi Says:

    I think this is a culture that is in love with idea that there are “good” and “bad” emotions. Even that we label them as good and bad means we discount some and praise others. We say to ourselves – “oh, I shouldn’t feel that way” if we experience the “bad” ones, like jealousy, anger, sadness, etc. It’s like cutting out half of our human experience. Making it not count. Maybe we feel “that way” because there’s a real, truthful, honest reason for feeling that way.

    I still believe that sometimes PMS does us a favour – it’s a time that perhaps the scales fall away, and we can be furious at things that need us to be furious about. When we can see what the truth is for a moment before we need to temper our ferocity so that people don’t run too far away. (My boys are eager for me to simmer down with a glass of wine when this happens.) The amplitude of my emotions are BIG. Both the ones that make me feel good, and the ones that make me feel bad.

    Eve Ensler does a great bit at TED on girl emotions. It made me feel vindicated that my girl emotions can make the earth quake. And Laura Ullrich says “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Perhaps we should all try to weave in a little bit of poor behaviour every day.

    I can’t help but wallow in the depth and strength of my emotions, all of them. For me, the trick is to not feel undone, dismantled, or ashamed of them.

  • j Says:

    I was waiting for this type/tone of post. I’m glad you pressed publish. I love Short-pants’ wisdom, and Buddy-roo’s directness. They complement you, they are you, as you are your mother’s daughter and always will be. Allowing the immense power of vulnerability to take hold and to ride with it seems to only enhance your writing! Fantastic! xxxxx

  • Lee Says:

    I’m experiencing the wisdom of Short-pants and the joys and tears of Buddy-roo and we all love you and your gift for writing whether you are writing nice or pounding walls….you have the words for all of us… thanks..

  • magpie Says:

    The “good girl” in me keeps me from raging – about my mother’s death, about my brother’s inadequacy as executor, about the loss of my past.

  • Dee Says:

    This is your grieving process. Have at it, you are allowed.

  • Square-Peg Karen Says:

    MD, this post is soooo beautiful — in that scary, hold your breath way that a thunderstorm 2″ from your tent door is beautiful–REAL and rocking you to your foundations – opening your eyes – bringing up feelings you’ve forgotten, bringing you face to face with power (altho in this case – as opposed to the thunderstorm – not the power of nature, but the power of human nature — the rawness of life). Every time I read someone’s writing about grief – that is REAL writing, not hogwash/whitewash/b.s I am tuned into corners of grief in my own heart, pieces of hurt that I’d forgotten – and I BLESS the person whose words I’m reading – because there’s something so deep in really touching our grief — something so life giving(actually it’s quite rare to find this kind of writing -not so many folks have the guts to write like you did here) …none of which does diddly for your pain – but I wanted to share with you that your words touched me deeply.
    My heart goes out to you as you keep walking thru the pain of your mom dying – being without her. Thank you for pushing “publish”. Thank you for sharing about your mother and about your feelings.

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