Note: I wrote this piece nine years ago in 2005 when my daughters were 11 and my son was 7. Since that time, I’ve grown quite a bit, and I am not as frightened of the future as I was then. This piece marks the first time I laid bare my soul and put into words what I was feeling at the time–and if you are reading this, know that you are the first to have ever seen it.
At 42, I am older than my mother. Well, I’m older than my mother would have been if she were still alive. She died in 1974 at the age of 40 when I was 11. Nineteen seventy-four has always been, for me, the switchback in my life’s river. Nothing that happened before that time resembled what was to happen after it.
My mother was young, vibrant, active, exciting, attractive, and gregarious. Her death not only left a hole in the heart of our family, but in our small community. Hundreds wept at her funeral, while my brother, sister, and I sat in a catatonic stupor, and my father did his best to demonstrate that he was fit enough to raise two teenagers and one on the cusp. He fooled almost everyone.
My father—fifteen years my mother’s senior—raised my brother, sister, and me as best he could. His best was stellar; his worst was downright awful. In between bouts of alcoholism, which was, in the 1970s before Oprah and Dr. Phil, never, ever talked about, Dad was, at his best, the best we could have ever hoped for. He was wise, articulate, and had a vast knowledge of virtually everything, and if there was something he didn’t know, he made it his mission to find out. He was also extraordinarily funny. With an unusually amazing sense of humor, my dad was quick-witted, sarcastic, and bigoted (at times), but mainly he was just really, really funny.
But at his worst he was mean, nasty, emotionally bereft, pitiful, unhealthy, and an embarrassment to us. Living in a small town meant that we didn’t share our secret with anyone, and our burden was ours to bear. We never entertained the thought of seeking help with our burden; we just thought we were unlucky. Sad, unfortunate, and unlucky kids were we, still mourning for the mother who should have been there in his place.
Growing up without a mother is something that I don’t recommend. My siblings were older than I, so they were quick to find outside activities– mainly sports–that would keep them away from home and the burden of keeping track of our father. This left me at home with him, and it was my responsibility to make sure that once the bottle of whiskey was drained and he was properly anesthetized and in his bed, that he kept on breathing, snoring, and coughing, all reassuring signs that he was going to live to do this to us another day. Having my mom there would have at least taken the responsibility off of me. But then if she had been there, he wouldn’t have had the need to pickle himself on a daily basis, either.
So I grew adept at opening doors without a sound, taking my father’s watch from the tray on his dresser and holding it up to his gaping mouth to see if he was still alive enough to cloud its face. I also became a master at keeping myself occupied. I read the books that my mother had read, I watched a lot of television, I talked to myself, I ate bread and butter sandwiches, and I longed. Sometimes I would sit on the living room sofa and look out the front window and out at our long driveway willing her blue Chevy Impala to wind its way up the drive. Longing was something I did regularly. When I realized that longing wasn’t going to bring her back, I prayed as if she could hear me through God, Jesus, and Mary. I prayed the Rosary—something my Godmother had taught me to do—hoping that I would receive some sign that she had heard me.
Unlike my peers, I delighted in going to Mass each week and sometimes even in the early morning hours of the weekdays before school. Faith in God and faith in heaven was what kept me from going off the deep end in those dark times after my mother’s death and during my father’s wet episodes. And praying was like protecting. I had ritualistic prayers that I said each day at the same time using the same intonation that I felt sure would ward off any more sorrow destined for our family. The praying didn’t ward off the sadness, the alcohol, or the grief, but it did set me on a path of faith that at times was both paralyzing and comforting.
Aside from the emotional pall, my mother’s death affected me in more practical ways, too. I never had clothes that fit, where before I was always the best dressed kid in my class. With puberty came certain needs, and often those needs were met in a haphazard manner, so that I was often running to the nurse’s office at school to take care of what I thought of as the most embarrassing and humiliating of rituals. Having an older sister didn’t help, since she was, at that time, a creature who delighted in my misfortune, however has since become my most cherished and closest friend and confidant.
Since she could drive and shop on her own, my sister had an array of clothes and shoes that I would have to wait years to grow into, owing to her considerably longer legs and even longer feet. My father, for his part, had no sense of what a preteen and later a teenage girl should be wearing, so he often relied upon my late mother’s friends to help him out with the ordeal of shopping with a young girl. However, shopping with them just wasn’t the same as it would have been with my mum, and I would have died a thousand deaths before I would have asked any of them to buy me a box of Tampax.
I steadily grew into my sister’s hand-me-downs, but I’d often come back to school from Christmas vacation and stare wistfully at my friends’ new jeans, new sweaters, and shoes that actually fit, and wonder what my life would be like if my mother were still alive. Still, there I was longing, still praying, but beginning to realize that this dark cloud which hung over me might just be the worst thing that would ever happen to me, and that I would most assuredly be protected from any more grief in my life.
My high school and college years remained unremarkable. I was bright, somewhat athletic, and had my share of boyfriends, heartbreaks, and good times. I eventually became a teacher, just like my mother. I helped my sister take care of my father–though she definitely did the heavy lifting. By this time, dad had ruined his body by various means, and was waiting to die a long, slow, miserable death. There were good times with him during those last eight years of his life, but we mostly existed to serve him and take care of his needs. Throughout that time, I met the man I would later marry, had a wonderful courtship, and became a wife in a 15-minute church wedding to accommodate the needs of my ailing father. Not long after my honeymoon, I found I was pregnant.
And here’s where I received what I like to think of as my life’s reward. Not only did I get pregnant without really even trying (I was in fact sort of surprised that I had wound up in this situation!), but on April Fool’s day, during a routine ultrasound, found that I was carrying not one but two baby girls. There were no twins in my family, there was no reason for this to have happened, but maybe, just maybe, God had a plan for me. Maybe this was what I was longing for. Maybe this was the answer to my prayers. Could this be a reward for the lonely years I spent longing? Were two babies a replacement for one mother? One extra human being to make up for the one I lost?
My father died eighteen months after my twins were born. He finally succumbed to the many diseases wracking his worn-out and used-up body. I miss him, and fortunately I miss all of the good things. I miss his humor most of all, and even now, I find myself doubled over laughing about something off-hand (or more likely off-color) that he said that was just so very, very funny.
My babies are eleven now, the same age I was when I lost my mother. I will be happy when they turn twelve. I still continue my litany of prayers for their comfort and safety, as well as the comfort and safety of their little brother and that of my soul mate—my husband. I still long for my mother, and I still have conversations with her when I imagine what it would be like if she came back to life. What would she think about the kind of mother I have become? Would she approve of how I am raising my daughters and my son? I know she would love my family and the sweet life my husband and I have made for us. I still love imagining that she is here with me. And if I’m as strong in my faith as I say I am then she is. She’s right here.