“How could I ever prepare for an absence the size of you?”
~ poet unknown
Some losses are, to borrow a phrase from my grandfather, “no bigger than a minute.” These small absences are insignificant in the scheme of things, and easy to measure. You work your tongue up into the gap in your mouth and probe the space your tooth once occupied. You plunge your hand into the pocket where your wallet should be. In those “no bigger than a minute” cases, the loss is really no larger than the space it inhabited.
But when the loss is the size and shape of love, it defies measurement.
My mother committed suicide when I was twenty-six. If a detail is needed, it’s this: she suffered from manic depression. The whys and hows of her death don’t alter the pain we suffered; they don’t buffer our hearts or close the book. We’ve been walking this loss for seventeen years and we’ve yet to spy the end of it. It’s so dense we can’t punch our way through, so high we can’t see the sun.
I’ve marked my grief by the milestones I pass. She wasn’t there when my doctor told me I was infertile. She wasn’t there when I went shopping alone for our soon-to-be-adopted son, and followed a mother and pregnant daughter from rack to rack, eavesdropping on a conversation that should have be mine. Nor was she there the day Zachary was born, or the day he took his first steps, or the day he became a brother to Tera. At each of those milestones, her absence thickened the room and dulled the light.
Every milestone hurt but for some reason the most recent had a disproportional sting. In September of last year, four boxes of books arrived on my front porch. I yanked open the first and pulled out a book — a book with my name on the cover. There’s no explaining the thoughts and feelings that rush over you when you hold that first book in your hands, when you realize the task is truly finished. I’m not sure even a writer can put words to that moment. But even while I sat there holding that book, a shadow fell across the moment and stole a piece of my joy. She wasn’t there to share this milestone.
I grieved anew the rest of that week. What would she think? What would she say? I knew of course, and yet I wanted to hear it straight from her. I thought again of the selfishness of her death, and how the ripple of that one moment has yet to strike a shore. My frustration was palpable. I couldn’t remedy this lack. I couldn’t take a single action that could pry the words I needed from my mother’s lips.
Early the following Sunday morning, still stinging, I went out to my office (a separate building behind our house) to search my files. I was teaching the 3-4 year olds at church that morning and needed a particular item for our craft. I had a notion that deep in the back of my files, I’d stored — for some unknown reason — an old report from college. For my required special needs course, I’d written a fictional account of my nonexistent, vision-impaired son, Alex. I’d had to create a diary of his daily activities for an imaginary week in our lives. The cover to this report was what I was after on this morning — it was transparent blue plastic, just what I needed for our Sunday school craft.
I smiled when I saw it. How had I remembered that? I flipped the report over and released the tabs, pulled the pages out and tossed them in the garbage. I didn’t need the report. I didn’t even know why I’d kept it all that time. But I was glad I’d kept the plastic cover.
Later that afternoon I went back out to my office to find a book and noticed the garbage needed emptying, especially with the added pages I’d thrown in that morning. Walking over to pick it up, I glanced down and saw that the report had separated itself into two halves, one flopping forward and one flopping back. And right in the center, tucked down deep, I saw just the edge of a half-sheet of paper. An inexplicable nudge made me reach down into that shadowy spot and pull out the page. Holding it up, I saw familiar, lovely handwriting, and read this:
Her words held me like a hug. I cried, and traced the letters with my finger, and read them over and over again. When I could make myself set it down for a moment, I found a frame for her note, slipped it inside, and placed it near my desk where I can see it easily. I can’t count the times my eyes have drifted to her words. God brought me a gift — a whisper across the years, a nod of approval, a touch from a hand I long to hold. He brought me what my mother couldn’t, on her own.
I will never stop missing her. But I’ve realized something odd: I know my mother better today than the day we buried her. I suppose that’s because I’m a mother myself now, so I understand the pride she felt for us, and her gladly made sacrifices. I recognize, now, those times when she gave her portion to us and lied about not being hungry. I understand the odd combination of love and anger and fear that filled her heart those nights she waited up to hear my key turn in the door. I know the questions she had about the future, and her place in it. I know her better, and if she were alive now, she’d be my friend.
I know my Father better, too.
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Written and posted on Wind Scraps on February 13, 2005.