It has been 3 years, 8 months, 26 days since you left this world. Our lives are so full up with grief that it’s hard to recall what it was like before. And my life is now overflowing with the love of a little boy who makes my heart explode into glittery confetti every single day. It has been especially difficult lately. I have been unable to keep the lid on the grief that threatens to immobilize me if I let myself get too close to it.
Having a child brings up grief that I didn’t expect, and that was difficult to navigate. But it’s planning a wedding that has been my biggest challenge. We met with the pastor today, and she told us that, given everything we have been through, marriage is a leap of faith. It had never occurred to us that we wouldn’t grab hands and take that jump, but she was right.
She wanted to know about our history, so I quickly told her of my loss. I told her that you are gone, we lost you in 2013. I didn’t tell her that the other night, when I went upstairs to make the bed, I fell on my knees sobbing because I had one of those fleeting moments where I forget that you’re dead and I wanted to call you. I did not tell her that a couple of weeks ago, I had to leave the drugstore because there was a woman in there with her infant child and her mother and I could hear their delightfully normal but enormously privileged conversation and I wanted to whack them both in the face with a package of disposable diapers before I scurried out to my car to break down in tears.
These days, grief comes in short, intense bursts that threaten to explode my lungs. It sneaks up as that thick, choking feeling, and my eyes grow hot with tears, and I want to give up. But I also have to remind myself of who you were and not who I wanted you to be. I have to grieve that, too. I have to grieve that, in some ways, I didn’t get the mother I wanted. I got a mother who loved me greatly, but whose baggage was suffocating at times. I got a mother who wanted to give me the world, but who gave up trying when I was only a child. I got a mother who taught me some beautiful lessons, who instilled in me a sense of self by letting me be myself, a mother who gave of herself to others, even when she had nothing left for herself. They call that being “codependent,” and I have had to unlearn many of my own negative behaviors, which grew out of what I was directly and indirectly taught.
You never told us to be stubborn in romantic relationships, but your unwillingness to concede and your eagerness to fight all night was a message. You never told us to berate ourselves, but our little ears heard you rebuke yourself over spending too much at the store or not keeping the house clean enough. You did not teach us to hate our bodies, but the whole family equated thinness with virtuousness and that message lives in our cells whether we want it or not. You did not mean to tell us with your actions that our worth was directly tied to whether a man loved us, but we girls took that message home and will spend our lives disentangling ourselves from it.
Children pick up on everything. I watch my son’s eyes watching me, and I know that he sees and hears everything I do. It is terrifying because I am profoundly imperfect. I am a series of imperfections all woven together into a tapestry that makes up my flawed existence. Sometimes the magnitude of my brokenness, my faults, my defects—sometimes it brings me to my knees because I want to be better. Sometimes I scribble into my journal about how desperate I am to give up bad habits and create better ones, to be a more organized person, to be more likable and less obnoxious, to be less anxious and more social. Sometimes my tears soak the pages and mar the letters, and I cry harder because I can’t even write in a journal correctly because I am a mess.
And sometimes it brings me to my knees to recognize and acknowledge that you, too, were imperfect… because you, like the rest of us, were human. You were just a person trying to survive this difficult existence, trying to navigate parenthood when you didn’t have your own mom to rely on. Your mom was only alive for the first five months of your journey as a mother. Five months. You had to care for an infant with million-ton weight of fresh grief pressing down on you.
When I am unpacking my emotional baggage, and I am justifiably angry with you, I inevitably come back around to the reality that, in spite of your own grief and addiction and astounding pain—the kind of pain that would ruin other people—and for all your flaws, you also taught us to be compassionate. To be forgiving. To love, above all else, because loving makes everything else seem unimportant. It makes flaws navigable, and pain manageable, and life livable.