Grief is a greedy bastard. You can quote me on that.
My mother died twenty years ago today. No Hallmark cards for this milestone. Come to think of it, I bet there are – I just haven’t seen them, but now I’m certain to get a pop-up ad in my Facebook feed. Anyway, I knew I would write about this anniversary and well, let’s face it, I’ve had a lot of time to gather my thoughts. I had decided a while ago that I wanted my post to be more of a celebration of my mother’s life than a somber reflection, maybe share some stories that would tell you what I want you to know about her. The kind of stories that reveal someone’s true character. Like the time my conservative Republican mother cared for one of my suitemates in college after she had a miscarriage. Yes, it sounds like an Afterschool Special, but it really happened.
I attended college at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia – the small town I grew up in. I lived on campus and was quite the naïve freshman when I met my two suitemates from Northern Virginia – Molly and Julie (yes, the names have been changed). They had been good friends in high school – schools much larger than mine and they arrived at JMU with a lot more experience in all manner of things than me. They seemed nice enough, but I rolled my eyes when I saw their matching Winnie the Pooh comforters when I walked past their room on move-in day. I had to readjust my initial impressions after they both snuck their boyfriends in that first night. It was a lot for a greenhorn virgin to process. I was terrified we would all be expelled if Mrs. Layman, our dorm mother (shut up, I’m old), discovered the contraband boys. Fortunately, Mrs. Layman was ancient and could have never made it up the three flights of stairs to our suite.
Turns out Molly and Julie were fun, sweet girls and I really liked their boyfriends, too. We became fast friends and they schooled me in some of the more colorful electives of higher education. I’m not sure what my mother thought of my new friends, but she was nice to them – fed them, let them do laundry at our house – real perks when you’re living in a dorm. One weekend that fall, most of us went away for some reason – I can’t remember where – and Molly was the only one left in our suite. She had seemed edgy for a few days and I assumed it was a combination of boyfriend issues and cramps – a debilitating duo for sure.
When I got back to campus that Sunday evening, I went to check on Molly. She was tucked under the covers in her bed, looking rather wan. I asked her if she was okay. And then she told me about her weekend. She had been feeling bad on Friday evening and went to the infirmary – where she had a miscarriage. I think I stopped breathing and I became very aware of my own racing pulse. She told me that she thought she might have been pregnant – she had missed a period – and that’s why she had been so upset lately. The infirmary released her on Saturday and sent her home with a few parting gifts. Turns out an 18-year-old young woman scared and away from home needed more than some Ibuprofen and a box of Maxi Pads. So, she called my mother. At this point, I remember thinking having a heart attack would have been preferable to talking to my mother about what had happened. And what did my mother do? She picked up Molly and brought her to our house and gave her ginger ale and Saltine crackers and let her spend the night in my old room. Now I was ready for a trip to the infirmary.
Mom was a wonderful mother in many ways, but she never had “the talk” with me. Everything I learned about reproduction growing up was from a grainy film I saw in the basement of the Health Department when I was in Girl Scouts. Let’s just say that I did my own research. I barely dated in high school – mainly because I knew I was gay and well, such things just weren’t talked about back then. My mother was strict and I knew she would have a strong opinion about Molly’s situation. When I finally gathered the courage to call her to tell her I had gotten home safely from the weekend, she didn’t mention what had happened. We small talked for a bit and when it was time to hang up I somehow managed to form the words, “Thank you for taking care of Molly.” Gulp. I braced myself for her onslaught of disapproval, but her response was brief and resolute: “She needed a mother.” We never spoke of it again and I think that might be the only story about my mother that you need to know.
I’ve certainly known that feeling of needing a mother over the past two decades. I deactivated my Twitter account a couple of weeks ago. It’s not like I had a following or anything, but creepy Elon Musk was just a bridge too far for me. I did enjoy some of the snarky humor on the site and once in a while, it was fun to connect with a celebrity or two. I followed the actor Mira Sorvino – I found her posts relating to #MeToo very insightful. Her father, the late great Paul Sorvino, died this past July and Sorvino made a post I understood all too well.
As a writer, I cherish words and I swoon when someone chooses just the right one. Unmoored. Mira Sorvino nailed it. I knew exactly what she was speaking of – that uneasy and sometimes scary feeling of drifting with no sense of direction. Pilots can sometimes experience this as spatial disorientation – feeling like they are flying in a straight line when in reality, they are leaning into a banking motion. Spatial disorientation was determined to be the cause of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. Kennedy was confused about his plane’s position over water while descending at night and lost sight of the horizon. In simple terms, he wasn’t where he thought he was. I think grief is a form of spatial disorientation. There have been many times during the past twenty years that I thought I was doing fine – or at least okay – when, in truth, I was drifting dangerously off course. Once in those early years, I spectacularly crashed and burned and hurt people I deeply loved. These days I try to practice gratitude over regret, but the residual damage can never be undone.
I grabbed for any lifeline when I was searching for the horizon and my younger sister was the one who most often caught me. She was only 38 when our parents died. We have taken turns rescuing each other over the years and in those truly despicable moments when we have both been dismally adrift, we have somehow managed to keep each other upright. During these times, we often recall stories about our parents – most of them not as dramatic as the one I shared from my college days. Most are funny and sweet and quite ordinary. The sharing of the knowing is what keeps our loved ones alive and we treasure these conversations. Often, when we’ve made it through a particularly rough ride, we find ourselves laughing at our own resilience. And we always express our gratitude for each other. We know our parents would be proud of us in these moments.
So, I knew I wanted to be with my sister to commemorate the anniversary of Mom’s death. It’s a little tricky since my sister lives in California and I’m here in North Carolina, but she’s always been a bit of a gypsy and as fate would have it, she’s on the east coast for several weeks for work. I wanted us to meet in a place that was meaningful to all of us – me, her and my mother. The town we grew up in no longer holds any comfort for us. It’s a funny thing when you lose your parents, you lose your hometown, too. We have no connections there – just the house we grew up in. Charlottesville, Virginia has always held a significant place in our lives. My mother spent a lot of time there as a child – her mother’s sister lived there and they often visited from their home in Lynchburg. My father attended the University of Virginia and passed his love of all things UVA on to my sister and me. My brother went to Virginia Tech, so the UVA gene skipped a sibling – but that made for a lively rivalry over the years. My sister also studied at UVA for a while and I lived in Charlottesville for a dozen years when I was a department store buyer for Belk. It remains the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived in and some of the happiest times of my life were spent there. It feels like home to me in a way that Greensboro or Winston Salem never have.
Wait, I may have buried the lead here. On a blustery Saturday night in December of 2002, my mother took her last breath as I held her warm hand in a quiet hospital room in … Charlottesville. Her death was beautiful and peaceful, so Charlottesvile felt like the perfect place to celebrate her by doing some of her favorite things – like shopping and drinking champagne – both aerobic activities in her book.
And then, on a Sunday night a few weeks ago, three University of Virginia football players were gunned down on a charter bus in a parking lot on campus as they returned to Charlottesville from a class trip to Washington, DC. Unfathomable. Charlottesville was once again the site of unthinkable violence and thrust into the national spotlight for the most heinous of reasons. My wife and I awoke to the horrible news on that Monday morning when we turned on the TODAY show. There have been over 600 mass shootings in the United States this year – this year – we rail at all of them, but when they feel personal, it is different. I was gutted. I immediately texted my dear friend Chris who has lived in Charlottesville for almost fifty years. It felt important to be connected with someone else who was heartbroken.
That’s another thing about grief – it stirs our innate communal needs. We desperately long for union with others who feel the same way. Anderson Cooper has a new podcast about loss and grief, Is That All There is With Anderson Cooper. It reached No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts in the United States after two days in release. Turns out grief is the Taylor Swift of podcasts. Cooper is 55 and lost his father when he was 10 and his brother, to suicide, when he was 21. Cooper has known grief but kept it at a distance until his mother died a few years ago and he had to deal with sorting out her things – and, in turn – his unattended grief. He felt isolated and wanted to hear about how others navigate this lonely journey. The podcast is very personal and deeply moving, especially when Cooper’s voice cracks with emotion as he articulates his own grief. You see, grief is also a great equalizer – it can even bring intrepid war correspondents to their knees.
I listened to each episode of Cooper’s podcast at my desk because I wanted to take notes. I can be nerdy like that. The other day, I went back and reviewed them because I knew there would some pearls of wisdom I had gleaned about grief that I would want to share in this post. Turns out that nothing I wrote down that Cooper and his guests had shared was anything I had not said or thought myself these past twenty years. I had just found so much comfort in hearing other people say these same things. Grieving is such a solitary act that this communal experience felt so affirming to me – life affirming, because to be alive – to be human – is to grieve. As Dr. BJ Miller, a hospice and palliative care physician, succinctly sums up in Episode 3 of the series, “A full life includes sorrow.” The title of this episode slayed me – Sorrow Isn’t an Enemy. In fact, sorrow is often our link to others and why we share our stories over and over again – to feel connected and keep our lost loved ones alive.
There will be lots of stories in Charlottesville this weekend and on Saturday evening we will have dinner with some dear friends who knew and loved my parents. They will have stories, too. There will be lots of laughing and most certainly a few tears. And my mother will be gloriously in the middle of all of it.
You see, joy and grief may seem like a peculiar pair, but they really can coexist. Perhaps not always peacefully, but the good news is that they mate for life.