Grief is messy. Anyone who doesn't know this should have caught my act the Saturday before Mother's Day. There I was on my sister's front lawn at 7:30 in the morning, sobbing and muttering and rooting through the Johnson grass for my daughter's other sock so we could run away.
It started with a sleepless night. It always seems to. This time last year, I was anticipating breakfast in bed for my first Mother's Day. Gil brought me scrambled eggs, a crisp newspaper, and a pile of presents: a cotton nightgown, a book of essays, and "Eloise in Paris" for Mona. I was fat with new motherhood, full of milk and brimming with love for the man who'd convinced me a house and family were not such bad things at all. Now I remained convinced, but where was he to say he told me so? He was dead, and I was miles away, a new widow in my old hometown, dislocated, confused, and crying in the middle of the night. At about 5, I fell into a light doze.
That Saturday morning, I woke to the sound of Mona calling, ready to get out of her crib. My two nieces, 5 and 8, were complaining and playing by turns. My sister was trying to make oatmeal for everyone. She had been up for hours. In a manner of speaking, she's really been up for eight years, with two young kids and a world of hurt still left from our mother's death in 1992. For my sister, that loss will always be tied to this holiday of brunches and orchids, when she realized that she'd soon lose her mother just months after becoming one herself.
I was 28 then, still single, and living miles away. The loss of my mother marked the resounding end of childhood and left me guilty for having moved so far from home. But my sister was lost in new motherhood without her mentor.
Now, eight years later, we were both tired and worn out from caring for others. "How'd you sleep?" my sister asked, and I said, "Lousy." After a considered pause that I wish I'd considered longer, I added, "I guess it's Mother's Day approaching."
"I know," she said. "Mother's Day is always hard for me too--"
"I mean it's not JUST Mother's Day," I snapped, and she snapped right back at me: "Well, I KNOW it's not JUST Mother's Day!"
So there we were, grief shoving its heavy foot through the door between us. Each of us expecting the other's listening ear, we were momentarily like little girls again, vying for attention and understanding. But we aren't little girls anymore, we are mothers ourselves, and when death has cleared the field of so many people who loved us--both parents, all grandparents, now Gil--we have to be our own comforters and referees all at once. That morning, it was just beyond us.
For months, I've been borrowing keys or cars to stay on top of errands, and staying with friends or family to avoid being alone with Mona too long. Often when I most need my dignity, when I can hardly manage basic civility, I have to swallow my pride and ask for a favor. There've been so many times that I wanted to rage, pull at my hair, rip my clothes, and pound the earth--now, for example--but there are always the neighbors or the baby to consider, and now inside my sister's house there were two older children, who certainly would remember an angry scene. These, too, were familiar feelings from the past year of grief: utterly isolated, but never alone, always adrift, and never quite safe.
When Gil and I were newlyweds, I told him one night that wherever he was, there I was home. When Mona was born, we tried to pass on that feeling to her: that wherever she found herself loved and accepted, she belonged. But when the person who is your heart's chosen home goes away, where does your heart go? Where do you go?
Except for me and Mona, the street was empty. I put Mona's shoes and socks on, stood up, and offered her my hand. She glanced at it and took off running in her funny, loose-hipped baby way, not even looking back to see me following, so secure that I'd be there.
I found a lawn down the block for us to sit on and look at pictures from a book of baby animals I keep in her bag. I pointed out the fox cub and the duckling and the bunny and waited to collect myself and go back home to my sister.
I found her door unlocked. I sat at the kitchen table, and my brother-in-law put a hand on my shoulder. My sister said, "I'm sorry," and I said I was too. Then we ate our oatmeal. The next day, we went to the grocery store and marveled over the pastry counter and got the girls balloons and bought orchids for each other. We exchanged Mother's Day gifts at our parents' gravesite, with Mona running happily in the grass, perfectly at home.
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