Poems & Essays

10 Aug

Consolation Baby

In Mother Words Blog 22 Responses

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.

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20 Comments

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  1. Dana

    August 10, 2015 at 11:26 pm

    Oh I can relate to this. My mother died 8 years ago and I still miss her every day. I’m so sorry for your loss and my heart is with you. Thank you for sharing this beautiful and mournful essay.

    Reply
    • Lee Gaitan

      August 11, 2015 at 10:46 pm

      Dana, sometimes I think we big need our moms even more! So sorry you’ve lost yours too. Thanks so much for writing.

      Reply
  2. Haralee

    August 11, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    I am sorry for your loss. I know sometimes a wave of grieve just hits and the Kroger parking lot is safer than driving and better than in the cookie aisle!

    Reply
    • Lee Gaitan

      August 11, 2015 at 10:48 pm

      Haralee, who told you about my cookie aisle cruising? 😉 Seriously, my drug of choice for self-medicating my grief was ice cream–I mean A LOT of ice cream. It seemed like the only comfort…ironically comfort food has now led to uncomfortable pants. thanks for writing.

      Reply
  3. Lee Gaitan

    August 11, 2015 at 10:45 pm

    Dana, sometimes I think we big need our moms even more! So sorry you’ve lost yours too. Thanks so much for writing.

    Reply
  4. Beth Havey

    August 12, 2015 at 12:39 am

    So lovely, Lee. I lost my mother in 2013 and I think of her often and I need her sometimes. I needed her a lot when she had dementia and the connection wasn’t there. Now I am more at peace, but she was my life–as I lost my dad when I was three. She was an amazing giving woman. Thanks for your words.

    Reply
    • Lee Gaitan

      August 14, 2015 at 1:30 am

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Beth, but it sounds like you had an incredible mom. I think we live the rest of our lives missing them. Thank you so much for sharing a little piece of your story here.

      Reply
  5. Amy N.

    August 16, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    Thank you for such a poignant piece about grief. My mom lost her battle with cancer in 1993, when I was 19 years old, and it’s a loss I’ve never been able to fully process, not even now when I’m in my early 40s. I too was a “caboose” and tied to Mom’s apron strings. We were best friends, and I miss her every day. Peace.

    Reply
    • Lee Gaitan

      August 17, 2015 at 10:35 pm

      Amy,

      I’m so sorry you lost your mom so young. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been–she missed out on so much of your life. Grief is not a straight road and I don’t know if we ever completely stop mourning those we’ve lost. I think the sadness percolates up more at certain times and then recedes–but never disappears. Blessing to you, my friend.

      Reply
  6. Ann

    August 21, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    Your stories usually make me laugh – out loud – but this made me cry and I can so relate. I lost my mother 33 years ago – she was only 64 and we definitely had a challenging relationship for most of my life as she had a drinking problem. But I remember idolizing her as a young girl and thankfully she was sober for the last 3 years of her life and we were able to create a strong relationship as adults. I still miss her and as I was very close to her mother, my grandmother, who lived 5 years longer than my mom and died at 90 – I remember going to the nursing home and she recognized my husband but talked to me about me as if I was just a nice lady visiting her. Lee my heart goes out to you – I can so relate. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  7. 1010ParkPlace

    October 17, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    I just came across your blog via Ann Hoffman-Ruffner’s site. As I write this, I’m waiting for my mother to die. She has dementia, and it’s been a slow and heartbreaking journey.

    Your mother-daughter relationship was very different than mine. While my mother still remembers me, we’ve never been close, so it’s somehow ironic her dementia has been healing for both of us. We’ve become closer. I want her suffering to end, but I’m wondering how I’ll feel when it does.

    Brenda
    http://www.1010parkplace.com/my-mothers-last-days/

    Reply
  8. Silly Mummy

    February 5, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    So sorry for your loss. This is so moving and beautiful, and your mother was clearly an amazing woman.

    Reply
  9. Anna Palmer

    February 10, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    This is so gorgeous and sad. It is almost as if you lost her twice. Yet even as a “stranger” she held you in esteem. Which must have been confirming even as it was alienating.

    Reply
  10. Terri Webster Schrandt

    February 10, 2016 at 11:49 pm

    So I’m blubbering like a baby, and it there are any typos in this comment, I blame the tears you invoked. What an incredibly beautiful story of love and loss, Lee. My mom is now in a nursing home with full om dementia and deterioration of her physical body to lupus, RA, etc. Her time will be sooner than later I’m sure. Cheers to our moms (I’m 56 too), and “Iwanchoo, Mommy” resonates strongly with me.

    Reply
  11. Lori

    February 11, 2016 at 3:16 am

    What a beautiful piece! Oh, my heart.

    Reply
  12. Gilly Maddison

    October 13, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    Oh my – that made me well up too. So sorry. Your description of being orphaned really tugs at my heart strings – at 60 years old, I have this yet to come and I dread being in the world without my mum (and dad of course). They are 88 and 90 and I know it can happen at any time. Love to you across the pond and I hope the rawness doesn’t last too long before it gives way to peaceful recollection.

    Reply
  13. Sue

    October 14, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    Oh Lee I can feel your pain in this post. My mother passed away 30 years ago after battling for 10 years from cancer. I remember I couldn’t really cry too much at the time but 6 weeks later (that must be a common time) I was hanging out the washing and a neighbour popped her head over the fence and asked how I was. I fell to pieces. Like you, as the kids were growing up I would still think ‘Oh I must phone Mum and tell her’. A beautifully, written post and sending you love.

    Reply
  14. Anna R Palmer

    October 17, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    I am crying as I read this. And somehow I relate to the role of mother in this story. What a loss for her as well…her little Lee Lee.

    On the composition side I find this beautiful. I love you tentative steps each morning, testing the ice as you said, and also bringing to mind the child you were tied to her apron strings.

    Reply
  15. Jamie Sass

    October 17, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    My mom’s been gone for a little over 4 years. She died right before I turned 30 and I feel like she was robbed from me before I even knew what important questions to ask. I feel for you.

    Reply
  16. Amber Temerity

    November 15, 2016 at 1:35 am

    Absolutely crying as I read this. Thank you so much for sharing your story and for reminding us to appreciate time a bit more <3

    Reply

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