It’s four o’clock on an early spring afternoon, and I am sitting alone in my car in the middle of the Kroger parking lot, sobbing uncontrollably. I stopped here after work, intending to quickly pick up a few things for dinner, but grief has completely derailed my well-laid plan. I am incapacitated, unable to leave my car. I try desperately to regain my emotional footing. I remind myself that I am a mature adult—a 56-year-old woman, for heaven’s sake, a tax-paying, reasonably productive member of society. But none of that means anything to me now. I am inconsolable. I can only bury my face in my hands and cry like a frightened, motherless child.
Because that’s what I am. My mother died six weeks ago, and every day since I have awoken with a sense of apprehension, of uncertainty, of not knowing what it will feel like to be in the world without her hovering somewhere around the edges of my life. My first steps each morning are tentative, as if I am testing the ice, unsure if it will hold me or give way. And I am astonished at how deep, pervasive and ever-at-the-ready my grief is. I had my mother much longer than most children—especially we late-in-life cabooses—have a right to expect. She slipped away peacefully in her sleep at 96 ½ years old, never having suffered a major illness or infirmity. She had a remarkably good life, and if there is such a thing as a good death, she had that as well. I was naïve enough to hope that because her death hadn’t been “tragic,” the sadness wouldn’t be so profound. So far my hope has not been rewarded.
My tears flow daily from what seems a bottomless well. They spring forth without warning, mid-sentence, triggered by something as sacred as the “Ave Maria” and as mundane as a Chick-Fil-A billboard. Today it was a recipe. As I pulled into the parking stall, I was mentally debating the ingredients in an old family recipe. I couldn’t remember if it called for vanilla wafers or ginger snaps. Switching off the ignition, I shrugged and actually said aloud, “Ah, well, I’ll just call Mom and ask her.” Immediate realization, a catch in my throat and then the total meltdown.
I was born last in a family of three daughters and one lost son. I was the consolation baby, the one who had not been in the original plan, the one intended to make up for the tragedy of the stillborn infant who preceded me by a year. The loss of that child was the great tragedy in my mother’s otherwise charmed life. I remember as a young child hearing mysterious, hushed references to “the boy,” spoken with such reverence that I instinctively bowed my head. Into the saddened silence that always followed, someone would suddenly chirp, perhaps a bit too brightly, “But if he were here, then we wouldn’t have had Lee Lee.” Next, a chorus of “That’s right” as all eyes and smiles—wistful? grateful?—turned in my direction.
That allusion to family planning, obviously well above my young head, confounded me. How they could know they wouldn’t have had me, I used to wonder. Had God told them I had originally been slated for another family until the tragedy redirected me to them? What I did understand, though, was that a very, very sad thing had happened—and happened most particularly to my mother—and I was put here to make it better, to make my mother forget “the boy,” the one who was somehow sacrificed to make room for me.
As a young child, I was, as everyone often remarked, “tied to my mother’s apron strings,” and at the time I couldn’t have imagined a place I wanted to be more. I was extraordinarily attached to my mother, partially because my sisters were several years older, but also because my mother—and I—wanted and needed it that way. After the trauma of delivering a full-term stillborn child, I can only imagine how fretful my mother, high strung and emotional to begin with, felt throughout her pregnancy with me. It was as if I absorbed her fears while in her womb, as if molecules of anxiety and apprehension passed through the umbilical cord directly into the marrow of my forming bones, setting up the symbiotic relationship my mother and I had for the first several years of my life. She was afraid to let me out of her sight and I was afraid to be let out of it. I felt safe only in her watchful gaze and repaid her attention to me by being as clever and entertaining as a young child’s resources would allow.
When I was eight years old, I was separated from my mother for the first time in my awareness. My parents left me in the care of my older sister when they traveled to New York City to attend my father’s Navy reunion. They might as well have gone to Jupiter, so far away did it seem to me. Fifty years later, I can still remember lying in my bed that first night, crying myself to sleep in the dark, because I missed my mother so desperately. I became the object of much gentle teasing in my family for years afterward for the response I offered when my mother called to ask what I wanted her to bring me from New York.
“What do you want, doll baby?” she asked.
Choking on sobs, I sputtered, “I-I-I ‘wanchoo,’ Mommy. I ‘juswanchoo.’” (Translation sans tears: “I want you, Mommy. I just want you.”)
Pitiful little eight-year-old me could never have envisioned how, just a few years hence, those short apron strings to which I’d clung so tightly for so long would begin to stretch farther and farther as I grew more and more independent in the necessary process of separating from my mother. The process started innocently enough with pajama parties and first dates, continued through college, jobs, a husband and baby—then no husband, a grown daughter and a new husband—and somehow, before I knew it, more than forty years had passed. There were times during those years when the tie that bound me to my mother was so attenuated that it was nearly invisible, perhaps undetectable by others, yet I knew it was there, fully intact, unbroken by time or distance.
Until about two-and-a-half years before she died, my mother’s mind was completely clear. She had strong opinions on world events, knew the score on family matters and could reconcile a bank account down to the penny. And then came the fall. Amazingly, the 94-year-old bones of her leg and hip all mended back together, but the anesthesia required to set them in place took a permanent toll on her memory. She became confused about who people were unless they were standing before her in the flesh, and even then her recognition could be spotty. Since she was living with my two sisters at the time, more often than not she knew them, but I, living 500 miles away, was a different story altogether. I existed only as a name, an abstraction, floating around somewhere in the ethers. The notion that she had a third daughter, just out of sight, struck her as preposterous.
“Oh, you girls are crazy,” she would say with a laugh if my sisters tried to tell her about me. “I don’t have any other children. That’s ridiculous!”
And so after more than five decades of being the youngest child, the caboose, the consolation baby, my identity as “daughter” was deleted from my mother’s memory bank and the file was renamed “friend of the family.” When she referred to me as such during our visits, of course I understood that it was the effects of the anesthesia talking, but it was still unsettling and painful to sit face to face with her as she politely inquired how my mother was doing. In the beginning, I would laugh and tell her that she was my mother, certain that if I repeated it enough, sooner or later it would click with her. But that never happened, so for the last years of my mother’s life I had to be content playing the assigned role of family friend.
The last time I saw my mother we sat together on my sister’s screened-in porch. For nearly two hours I recounted story after story to her about my childhood, including the famous “I juswanchoo” incident, hoping to elicit a spark of recognition from her. She listened intently with her head cocked and her forefinger resting upon her cheek, amazed that I possessed such detailed memories about a family that was not my own. My voice finally trailed off and I fell silent for a few minutes, trying to reconcile myself to the idea that my mother would leave this earth with absolutely no idea who I was. Suddenly, she reached across the table and put her hand over mine. She looked at me, her eyes tender and moist, and said, “I remember when you were a little girl. You were so pretty. Everyone always said so. And now you have grown up to be such a wonderful person. Your mother must be very proud of you. I would be if I were your mother.”
I stared back at her, wide-eyed and stunned, as my quivering lips struggled to blubber a thank you. My mother passed on many gifts to me as her daughter—her sense of humor (and drama), her talent for cooking, her appreciation of music, and her love of languages, to name a few—but nothing compares to the gift she gave me, the family friend, with her words that day. Those words sustained me through her decline and passing and they continue to bring me comfort even as I mourn.
And so, here I sit, a 56-year-old woman, crying in my car, in the middle of the Kroger parking lot. I don’t know whether to buy vanilla wafers or ginger snaps. I don’t know how the recipe will turn out if I make the wrong choice. I don’t even know if I still want to make the dish now or not. My chest heaves and my head falls back against the car seat as I make a final attempt to stanch my tears. Looking heavenward, I exhale the only truth I know for sure at this moment. “I wanchoo, Mommy. I juswanchoo.”
Lee Gaitan has worn many hats in her 25 years as a professional communicator, from public relations writer and television host to stand-up comedienne and educator. She is the author of two books, Falling Flesh Just Ahead, and the recently released My Pineapples Went to Houston—Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry. She has also authored a chapter in the bestselling book, The Divinity of Dogs, and is a blogger for The Huffington Post, Midlife Boulevard and The Good Men Project. She lives in suburban Atlanta with her husband and dog. Connect with her at www.leegaitan.com; https://www.facebook.com/mypineappleswenttohouston; www.twitter.com/LGPineapple.