My sister’s mother died the day after Thanksgiving, on Black Friday – giving new meaning to that phrase forevermore. Black Friday, indeed.
I flew out to be with her for the funeral, to offer what little comfort I could. I wanted to be the stalwart big sister offering a shoulder to lean on, comforting arms to hold her, sage words of wisdom. That’s what I intended. That is not what happened.
I knew Kathy’s mother, JoAnn, for about thirty years, from the time Kathy decided she wanted to know her birth mother and sought us out when she, my brother and I were all in our early twenties. JoAnn was a force to be reckoned with. No shrinking violet, she. When my own mother died almost seven years ago, JoAnn told me, “Well, I’ll just have to be your mother, too, now.” I can still hear her saying those words – so strong, so sure, so… matter of fact. I held on to that because it felt so normal in a world turned upside-down.
Kathy and I grieved together, with our brother, for the mother none of us ever truly knew well, even though my brother and I were raised by her. Our mother was an enigma. I remember that Kathy said she felt robbed because she had only known our mother for twenty-some-odd years. I also remember thinking that she probably knew her as well as any of the three of us.
I was puzzled by how different my grief for my mother was from the grief I experienced when my dad died the previous year. When he died, I was inconsolable. I wailed, I took to my bed, I was consumed with grieving. I was taking baby steps toward being functional again by the time my mother died. I braced myself for another wave of debilitating grief.
I made it through the funeral without breaking down. I didn’t fall apart in the coming weeks… months. I felt guilty that I was not devastated by my mother’s death the way I had been (and still was) by my father’s death. I rationalized, I wondered, I reasoned, but I couldn’t make sense of it. Tears occasionally overtook me and I wept for a time, but it was never the deep-wracking pain I felt when my dad died. Why?
Finally, because I am the kind who has to have a reason for all things, I decided that I did not grieve my mother the same way because I had done my grieving some twenty years earlier when she divorced my dad and left our family to chase her dream of being happy and fulfilled with a man who was my age. Maybe there was some truth to that. I don’t know. It did feel as if she had died then. The mother I knew became someone I did not recognize. She walked away and never looked back, leaving behind not only her husband of 30 years, but all three of her children and all of her grandchildren. She didn’t come back in to our lives for thirteen years.
I settled on that, convinced it had to be the reason for my seeming indifference to Mom’s death. And I filed it away.
Until I went to JoAnn’s funeral.
On the drive to the church that day, I started feeling an uncomfortable tightness in my chest. The moment we walked through the doors, tears formed at the corners of my eyes. Impatiently, I brushed them away and silently admonished myself to knock it off. I threw my arms around my sister every time I got near her, patting her back and asking if she was okay. I did all the sisterly things I thought needed doing. I watched Kathy like a hawk, shadowing her through the church as we waited for the service to begin. I held her hand, put my arm around her protectively, and kept watch. And all the while, the tightness in my chest grew as tears threatened to spill down my cheeks.
When the service started, I walked in with the family, searching for that fine line between supportive and intrusive. I sat with the family, but several rows back where I could still keep an eye on Kathy. The pastor started the service by asking everyone to stand and join him in singing one of JoAnn’s favorite old hymns. I got through the first line before the first wave of tears hit.
I’m not really clear on the rest of the service as I found myself awash in a sea of grief that had too long been denied expression. The incapacitating grief I had convinced myself I escaped when my mother died had been there all along, waiting. A tiny crack in my carefully constructed armor became a gaping maw as I sat there at JoAnn’s funeral. All the pain and loss I bottled up came rushing out in a torrent.
I was mortified. I tried in vain to stop the flow of tears, to be respectful of the people there who had a right to their time of grief. I felt disloyal to my sister, to her children and grandchildren. I was angry with myself and embarrassed, but still the tears kept flowing. There was no stopping them.
As the service came to a close, JoAnn’s words from so long ago rang in my ears. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to be your mother, too.” In a final act of mothering, she had done what I couldn’t do myself. She helped me to grieve.
Yes, JoAnn was a force to be reckoned with. She mothered my sister, loved her, taught her and raised her to be the amazing sister I love so dearly. She embraced me with open arms when Kathy came looking for us and found her birth family. She welcomed my mother into her home and understood the need for Kathy to know her birth mother and brother and sister. And in a final act of unselfishness, she somehow set me free to give expression to my own unexpressed grief.
I’m still struggling to understand everything that happened that day at JoAnn’s funeral. But I know that something supernatural took place. There is a place inside me that has finally begun to heal.