My mom loved the ocean. Every vacation, she was the vibrant ringleader of our family circus: She led us into new restaurants, into weird museums, into new stores and bizarre highway attractions. She hustled us into clothes, herded us into the car, and marched us all outward into the world and onto marvelous adventures. But at the ocean, she was still. She watched us. She watched the water. Her favorite part about it, she said again and again, was putting her feet in the sand.
About 5 years ago now, one morning in Kentucky, my mom didn’t wake up. I got the call on a wet England evening. One sleepless night later, I held an untouched airport coffee in one hand and the hand of the man I’d been considering marrying in the other. Just one day before, he’d taken me through London on the whirlwind date of a lifetime. That night, he’d gone out to buy bread. By the time he returned, I’d forever lost the chance to tell my mom about the day he had swept me off my feet.
One hellish 12-hour flight later, the arrivals corridor spat me out into a world of bewildered grief. Gail Federle had been a local leader. Her sudden death was hard, tragic news for everyone who had known her. And a lot of people had known her. They’d known her, and they’d known at least one of the three daughters she’d left behind. At 23 years old, I was oldest. My sisters hadn’t broken out of their teens yet.
The three months or so after her death don’t really have a chronology for me. It’s difficult to remember when I learned certain details. At some point, my sisters returned to school and my dad returned to work. I’d left everything in England. I stayed home.
For weeks, the dog wandered the house. The metal tags on the little flower collar mom had picked for her clinked as she haunted about. Clink, clink, clink… The dog looked in one room, then another, then checked the previous room again. Mom isn’t home. At night, the confused pacing continued. Clink, clink, clink… Where is she? Someone important is missing. We can’t sleep yet. Someone important isn’t here.
I do remember one thing clearly, though. I remember parents.
I remember fathers.
At the funeral, I remember Mr. Bryson, a tall, tall man with a big southern mustache, proclaiming, “Your mother was a beautiful person!” It was all he got out, but it was among the most sustaining things said to me that day.
I remember Mr. Baker standing patiently alongside Mrs. Baker at the airport, waiting with my dad, both of them somehow braving the terrible task of ushering me into the nightmare I had to face.
Maybe obviously, I remember our own dad. My sister already wrote the perfect tribute to him: http://theodysseyonline.com/transylvania/person-never-thought-would-best-friend/400388
I also remember mothers.
For about three months, from November through the most depressing Christmas of my life and through our first New Years as a family of four (not five), I was pulled up again and again by the arms of mothers.
At some point, I learned that mom had been found on my bed. I also learned that local mothers had been at the house in the aftermath, desperately trying to imbue comfort into a deeply wounded home. One of the things they’d done, I heard, was to flip my mattress. I sincerely believe that exercise of metaphors is what makes us human. We build temples and towers. We hang flags and topple monuments. We wear medals and uniforms. And those mothers flipped my mattress. In the face of our inconsolable grief, people should have been helpless. But again and again, mothers staunchly refused not to help.
Volunteers from a local church materialized on our porch. Mothers I’d never met before. Somehow women’s hands were there, carrying boxes and label makers, waiting patiently as I emptied half of my parent’s shared closet.
Mothers took me out to lunch. Mothers sent letters. Mothers sent their sons and daughters. Mothers listened and shared precious memories. Mothers refrained from preaching: Whether anyone knew I was atheist or not, I don’t know, but patience and restraint never went unappreciated. Mothers cooked enough casseroles for us to build a broccoli cheese castle with a Ritz cracker crumble moat.
Peru’s “Día de la Madre” (Mother’s Day) is on May 8 this year, the same as the States. This year, “mother” finally feels like more of a verb to me than a noun. The women who helped me, as tolerant, empathetic people, they chose “to mother”. My mom, a woman I was only just beginning to get to know as a person, she chose “to mother”. The greatest sense of loss I feel today is that I got to know her mainly, if not only, through her “mothering”. She was so good at it. There must have been so much more to this person, and at 27 years old I’m discovering a whole new set of questions I desperately wish I could ask her. Questions that have less to do with taking care of me and more to do with life as a broader concept.
Peru celebrates Mother’s Day in approximately the same way we do in the States. For about a week, the commercials about women panicking over laundry are replaced with ones showing women being happily surprised by whatever each respective store sells. In one interesting twist, though, there’s one part of Mother’s Day that Peru takes very seriously: They visit the dead. When we were last in Peru, I joined Ivo (yes, the man whose hand I held in that airport in England) and his cousin on their trip to the cemetery. His cousin was meticulous: We scrubbed the gravestones. She was disappointed she couldn’t get the interior of the carved letters cleaner. We placed flowers and then, for about a half hour, she talked to her mom. And she talked to Ivo’s mom. She introduced me and she told them about her life and she cried for a little while.
We all hold the dead in different ways. But the wish to reconnect seems universal. I spent November of 2011 desperately cleaning the house. And part of cleaning was hiding away trigger objects. Mom’s coats in the hall closet, her makeup, hairbrushes, receipts, her purse, anything with her handwriting, anything with her fingerprints… I cleaned it. I cleaned and cleaned. Then we all gritted our teeth and somehow bore December in that clean, clean house. I dragged myself through January. And finally, I had to reconnect.
I packed my clothes. I withdrew all the money I had, a few thousand dollars at most. And I got on a plane to Miami, Florida, a city I’d never been to once before in my life. I went to go live with Ivo. And both of us, missing our mothers, sought out the ocean. We went to a place where we could finally be still. The moment I put my feet in the sand, I knew it was the right decision.
I can’t possibly mention in just a thousand words every person who taught me what it means to be supportive. But I’m grateful to all of them. To all the mothers and fathers, and to all their sons and daughters. And even though I now live literally thousands of miles away, I’m so pleased to have Fort Thomas to come home to.
Happy Mother’s Day. Happy Father’s Day.