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Family Grief

HI Mom

After I raced to my father’s deathbed and but didn’t make it in time, my closest friend, whom I met when I was 15, brought me to her home. We poured some drinks and began to walk the neighborhood. The San Antonio summer heat had abated, and the soothing night breezes washed over us as we walked and talked for hours. The conversation ranged from my dad to the neighbor’s renovation to high school memories. The specifics completely escape me even though the walk happened less than two months ago. I only recall the feeling of being outside of regular time and the impulse to be outdoors in the dark, as I so often was with my father as a child, looking at the stars and breathing in the night air. 

Now it is my friend’s turn. Her mother has died overseas, and because of the situation, my friend also did not arrive in time. Even as I sort out my father’s death, my mind is returning to what we lose and what we gain when we say goodbye to our mothers. Both my mother and my friend’s mother were loving and devoted as well as critical and demanding. Although different in their styles and temperaments, there is a reason their daughters became and stayed friends. We both know what it means to harbor the twin desire to meet our mothers’ high standards and to break free of their influence and make our own choices.

When my mother died, I was able to be with her and have a few important last conversations. I was able to tell her I was sorry for times that I was cruel in the way only a daughter can be toward her mother. I was able to seek her counsel about a painful, long-ago incident that had been brought to mind at recent school reunion. I was able to care for her. Even in death she was completely herself and so was I. I found myself apologizing when she was impatient with the nursing staff, fighting back frustration when she told me how to arrange something in her room. I am haunted by a last encounter in which she became agitated and a nurse came in to administer Ativan to help with the anxiety that often accompanies the dying process. When she asked what she was being given and I explained, the look she gave me was a mixture of resignation and anger. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d done something wrong. She did not open her eyes after that.

But there were ways in which I knew I had pleased her. I felt secretly proud of “doing everything right” at her funeral and the lunch that followed. I remembered to put a pretty plant by the door. I set a proper table. I used the right tablecloth and found the right dishes, even though she had already sent many of her favorites to me. With the help of friends, the spread was nourishing and delicious. For a final time, her social circle enjoyed themselves in her home. 

Later, I sorted through her belongings and found poems she had written about some left-behind love interest. I found papers from her graduate school days and contemplated her secrets and unfulfilled ambitions. The housekeeper that helped my parents told me a story of finding my mother, sitting just as I was, reading old love letters one by one and then systematically ripping them up and throwing them away. When my mother realized she’d been seen, she put a finger to her lips – shhh, don’t tell

I found pictures that were taken long before I was born in which she looked ready for anything, excited to be seeing the world beyond the small town where she grew up. She looked like someone I wanted to know. In her death she became whole, a person to be understood and forgiven her foibles and even her faults. It is sad and curious that I find such forgiveness easy to extend to friends but found it so difficult to extend to her during her life. 

What I’ve learned since my mother’s death is that death as an ending is not real. My relationship with my mother has changed, become purer, than it was. That summer when she died, three years ago now, I had planted morning glories as I had done many times, though never very successfully. But that year, they climbed our house and bloomed in an amazing profusion of pink and blue and purple. The vines were as strong as rope when they finally died. Now they flower every year. Once in a while, a blossom will turn, as if to peek in our front door to check on us. Who else would that be but my beautiful, demanding mother wanting to know about every detail of my life and making sure we are all okay? Hi Mom, I say as little shiver envelops me.

What I think my mom knew, but we never discussed directly, is that it’s not what is in place when our parents leave us, but who. Friends, partners, siblings, colleagues – people we care about who will walk with us in the darkness, who can stand beside us, sometimes literally, sometimes through the imperfect means of texts or phone calls when a virus keeps us from being physically together. Tomorrow morning perhaps I’ll take a minute with my coffee to sit with the morning glories and ask my mom to walk with my friend as she travels across the sea to say goodbye to her own mother. I’ll ask my mom to be where I cannot, so that my friend will know that a mother’s love goes on forever.  

By Mimi Chapman: Writing about the intersection of personal and professional life

Professor, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I started this blog because I enjoy reflecting on different parts of life and work and sharing that with others.

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