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.