Monday, April 23, 2012

Little Lamb

"That's a special little girl you have."

This from a friend of the family who has called to check in on us. And by us, I mostly mean me. I'm doing a fantastic job of leading the world at large to believe I'm handling Mom's death gracefully, but there are a handful of intuitive people, friends of my mother's, mostly, who know the bond we had and know how it was at the end, who call me from time to time to make sure I'm not crouched in a corner with exposed wrists and a packet of razor blades.

When anyone asks me how I'm doing, I feel like Han Solo at the intercom on the Death Star. Everything's perfectly alright now. We're fine. We're all fine here now, thank you. How are you? And then I blast the intergalactic PA system, because clearly I'm not fine and I don't want Imperial company.

And inevitably, after whoever is calling me that day finds out that I am still hanging on to the ledge and have not yet let go, she asks me about Ainsley. And I pause, because how Ainsley is doing is a really fantastic question.

She did wonderfully at the funeral. She played "Amazing Grace" on the guitar and even though the entire room starting sniffing while she played  it (let's not kid ourselves; the communal weeping is the entire point of "Amazing Grace" at a funeral), she kept herself together with a preternatural poise. During the entire experience, Ainsley has not shed a tear. It has caused me both worry and frustration; I have a hard time believing she's not devastated over the loss of a woman who loved her beyond reason and who was a huge part of her everyday life. And the part of me who has wept nearly every minute I've found myself alone in my house the past 3 weeks is almost angry that she isn't wearing her heart on a tear-and snot-covered sleeve.

I see small signs, though, of her grief. Little things that, if I look too long, make my soul hurt. Like when she comes down the stairs every morning carrying the little stuffed lamb that someone gave Mom while she was in the hospital. Or like this morning, when I caught her reflection in the rear-view mirror, carefully stroking the tiny gold angel pendant that was the last necklace my mother wore and which has now become hers.

They are subtle signs that behind that resilience that children have, that ability to continue to seek joy and embrace fun shortly after a death, she hurts. And occasionally, but not as often as her non-stoic mother would like, she fesses up.

Ainsley competed in a regional speech competition last weekend and, to our surprise, advanced to state. This is fairly surprising for a child who talks so quietly in everyday conversation that I have to ask her to repeat herself 5 or 6 times and still sometimes have to nod and hope that I didn't just agree to buy her a pony.

I found myself in an inexplicable funk shortly after we got home from the competition; the day loomed large ahead of me and free time is currently not my friend. I watched Ainsley and Jason frolic around the house, laughing and having fun. I thought of how very proud Mom would be of her "baby." Of what a beautiful girl she has become. Of how very fully she lives her life. My heart became even heavier thinking that "Mamaw" was not going to be a part of this life anymore.

"Oh, Ainsley," I sighed later that night, when it was just the two of us getting clean and ready for bed. "I really miss your Mamaw tonight. If she were still here, she would be so proud of you today."

"I know. I thought of her when I first got up this morning and thought of her again right before I gave my speech."

"You did?"

"Yeah, I thought of her right before I started talking and decided I was going to do it for Mamaw."

The lump in my throat eventually went away, though it might have taken some tequila to dissolve it.

Yes, family friends. That is a very special little girl that I have.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Above Water

When I was a skinny little daredevil child, I regularly waited in long lines on hot, summer days to jump off of the high-dive at my local pool. The first time I jumped I was, naturally, scared as hell, but my friends made it look more like fun and less like death.

I'll never forget the nervous anticipation as the line took us up the long stairs to the platform. The number of people in front of me shrank as each person at the head of the line took a deep breath and leaped into the abyss. But there was always someone in front of me, a buffer, as it were, between myself and the deep blue unknown.

Until suddenly there wasn't.

I was alone on the platform, 10 feet above the water. It might as well have been 100 feet up for how very vulnerable I felt. I was wearing a Puritanly modest swim suit, but I felt utterly naked. It was just me and the humid Kentucky air. And very far below, so far my nearsighted eyes couldn't clearly make out the markings on the bottom, the clear, chlorinated, seemingly deadly pool.

It was my turn. So reluctantly, and with no one left to prepare me, I jumped.

This is exactly how I felt after the passing of my mother.

I was a small child again, and it was my turn. No one was ahead of me, and I was alone over cold, unknown depths. Jason and I have lost all of our parents now; it's just us against the world, and no one is there to buffer our fall. We are next in line.

It happened so fast. One day I was visiting my mother in the hospital, listening to a hopeful oncologist. The next, we were told that something had gone wrong and that we needed to move my mother to hospice. Ultimately it was not the cancer itself, but the brutal regimen we had to choose to fight the cancer, that proved too hard for her body to take.

I had braced myself for the worst, because that is what I do. I listened attentively to my mother a week before she died when she went over her desired funeral arrangements with me, even though I kept telling her she was going to make it, because I knew that relentless optimism and denial do not, by themselves, cure leukemia. I knew what she wanted, I knew she didn't want to suffer, and I knew she was leaving us days before anyone else seemed to know. But nothing prepared me for the feeling of complete loneliness I felt in the hour after her death, sitting alone in a hospice conference room, wanting to make all the necessary phone calls before heading home to begin grieving with my husband and child.

But I did the same thing the brave little girl I used to be did on the high dive that day--I jumped.

Despite the fact that I've lost Jason's stepfather and mother and my own father, there was just so very much I didn't know about handling my mother's death. I thought I knew what I was in for. Yet you can't possibly know until you're at the end of the platform.

I had no idea how many times I would start to pick up the phone to ask her a question about her own arrangements, or for a friend's phone number I simply could not find.

I had no idea how calm I could be, how businesslike, when getting a call from the funeral director the day of the visitation asking me a macabre and technical question about the appearance of my mother's body for the family hour. How horrifyingly easy it was in the end to separate my responsibilities as funeral planner from my emotions as grieving daughter.

I had no idea that I could cry so much I felt dehydrated for the better part of a week.

I had no idea how much harder it would be to get through a death without my mother crying with me.

Mom told me years ago, after Jason lost his grandmother, how her heart ached for anyone who lost a mother. She told me you never really get over it, and nothing is ever the same again. She was so sad for Jason's mom. I prayed at the time that it would be a long, long time before Jason or I experienced this.

It was not nearly long enough.

I know that healing will come. I know because it has to. My life will never be the same again; I am now a parent-less person, and that's a game-changing title. But I am a parent myself, and Ainsley needs me now more than ever. Our little family just got smaller, and I need to mom up to fill the gaping void left by the death of a person who used to say that, though she loved her two daughters beyond reason, felt "there's just something special about Ainsley."

I look at her, our precious, only child, and feel bad for her in so many ways. For someday it will be her turn. She will find herself standing on the platform, the head of the line.

And like those before her, she will have no choice but to jump.