Please, I beg silently, stooping down to pick up the pieces of my 9-month-old’s lunch off the kitchen floor, set to the soundtrack of a shrieking preschooler in the next room. Please, someone, tell me it gets better. I don’t know how to do this.
Well, maybe I should be more specific. The infant-raising part, I (mostly) know how to do that. My daughter has an older brother, a feisty three and-a-half year old whose infancy came with a steep learning curve. The hard parts of raising her at this stage come with the certain knowledge that yes, it will one day be over: she will not always put everything in her mouth; she will not always be cutting teeth.
What I don’t know how to do is be a mother without a mother.
“Eight to eighteen months,” the oncologist told my brother and I. I stared at him, trying to concentrate on his words as I kept an eye on my son, who had clearly Had It with being made to be quiet in a strange office.
“We’ll start chemotherapy,” the doctor continued, “But it won’t cure anything, won’t reduce anything. It’ll maybe slow it down.”
My son tugged on my sweater, exposing the wide band of my maternity jeans. I was due in two months. She’ll be around for my baby girl, then, I thought. That’s okay.
But with that knowledge came new questions: could she be around my newborn while on chemo? Did we have to think about face masks, gloves, sleeves? Certain medications? Nothing seemed certain now except the knowledge that she wasn’t going to make it.
What in the world would it be like when she is gone?
But she hung on for her granddaughter. When my daughter was born my parents made the six-hour drive East to meet her. I was happy to see my mother in a hospital for a reason that had nothing to do with her illness. And she was able to travel to see us again for the baby’s baptism, when she was 9 weeks old. After the party, after I put my son to bed, I left him with my husband and snuck away to my parents’ hotel with the baby to get some extra cuddle time.
“Would you look at her!” My mother kept saying, overjoyed that we made the extra trip. “Beautiful. Just beautiful.”
The oncologist’s estimate proved correct. Nine months after his diagnosis she was actively dying, and my husband, children, and I sped as fast as we could to see her one last time. She was too sick for my son to see her, but my daughter was young enough to have no idea. Everyone in the hospice facility was happy to see my baby girl. Nurses cooed over her chubby face; family members I haven’t seen in years were happy to get a turn for a cuddle. I checked in at the front desk on my first night there, four nights before my mother died.
“What a darling baby!” said the receptionist, her eyes friendly behind her glasses.
“Thank you,” I replied. “She’s here to visit her Grandma.”
The receptionist’s face fell. “Oh, her grandma...So --”
“Oh,” she said, her face awash in sympathy. “So young.”
I offered a sad smile. “So young.”
When we reached her room the morphine had been dripping a long time; my mother wouldn’t be with us much longer. But she swam up out of it enough to know that I was there, that my daughter was there. Her eyes were closed, but she was aware, and smiling, and I held my baby up to her face and guided her chubby little hands to my mother’s cheek.
“We’re here, Mom,” I said, “The baby is here.”
We were there, and she knew it.
The day after my mother died I tried to keep things as normal as possible for the kids. It was a Monday, and we went food shopping on Mondays, so even though we were away from home, to the grocery store we went. And the next day, we went to the zoo; and as we walked past the penguin exhibit and saw flamingoes and a ring-tailed panda, I tried to wrap my head around the knowledge that my mother was gone. At her wake I wore my baby in an Ergo carrier over my black dress and worried about my son, who had developed a stomach virus overnight.
What a strange new world to be in: spinning so wildly in the outer space of grief, yet tethered so tightly to the solid ground of raising small children.
I know how wonderful I feel when I’m doing a great job as a mom, when the playdates are all organized and I feel happy building the hundredth block tower of the day with my son; when the school stuff is in order and the dentist appointments have been made. I don’t like the kind of mom I am now. This grieving mom - who’s not sure how to grieve at all, much less knowing whether or not I’m doing it “correctly” - also has a lot of guilt. I’m sad, and so I snap. I yell. I forget to pack extra Pampers in the diaper bag for my daughter, forget to bring snacks to friends’ houses. I hold my preschooler to the highest of standards and think of all the ways I’m failing him, because he acts out when I’m sad. He doesn’t process his understanding of my grief with any logic whatsoever. How can he? How many times has he watched Lady and the Tramp because I can’t move out of a chair; when the thought of my mother being gone pins me down with its intensity?
I’m flying blind, and I’m reminded of that same feeling I had when I was a brand new mom and felt completely out of control. And once again, my poor kid is suffering from the fallout.
It’s an awful feeling.
But I’m trying. I’m trying so hard. It’s only been two months, and I am honest with my son when he asks me why I’m sad. I’m trying to spend time in the sadness, not running away from it, facing it as head on as I can; and when there are days that I forget she’s gone (and there are days, admittedly, because as of the mother of two little ones there is plenty I forget) and the knowledge comes rushing back to me, I try to lean into it. I howl in the shower; I wait for it to pass.
And it does, surprisingly. Like a rain cloud that releases its rain and moves on. As hard as the days can get, there are moments when the sun comes out. All I can do is keep hoping for days when those stretches of sun last longer and longer.
Two weeks before she died I wrote her a letter. I was planning on making a last trip out to see her, but the January weather was proving uncooperative.
...One of the things I’m thankful for most is that you never forgot how hard it was with little kids. It’s so hard, Mom. And I know that it’s going to be over one day and they’ll be grown up and fly the coop or whatever, but it’s so hard to know that when you’re in it. Kind of like trying to tell a solider in the trenches that it’ll be okay, the war will be over in three years. Sounds like a great thing, but when the dirt is kicked up all around your spot in the trenches because of the bullets, and you’re sure you’re not going to make it, well...it gets hard to see. And I guess it’s a normal thing when they do get older to forget about how hard it was, and to remember only the cute things they said or how funny they looked trying food for the first time; but you always remembered that it was hard. And I love that, because everyone else forgets.
“I loved your letter,” she told me over the phone. I tried to imagine her sitting there, just skin and bones now, in the little room off the bedroom she shared with my dad, and all the effort it took for her to shuffle herself out there to sit in the sun.
“We’ll see each other again,” she told me. “When the war is over, right?” she asked me.
“When the war is over.”
Guest post written by Christy Gualtieri. Christy is a Western Pennsylvania based freelance writer who loves to spend time with her husband, son, and daughter, especially while cheering on Pittsburgh's great sports teams. She blogs about religion and pop culture at www.asinglehour.wordpress.com.