Christmas Without My Mother, Death, Family, Gratitude, Grief, Love, Moments, Motherless Daughter, The Importance of Family

Celebrating Christmas Without Mam

In my life I’ve celebrated ten Christmases with my mother.The first couple I don’t recall. And the last two were very difficult. Mam was in hospital for my ninth Christmas. She wasn’t well enough to come home. Dad took my brother and I to visit her and we sat around the hospital bed thinking this was not how Christmas was supposed to be. For my tenth Christmas Mam was at home but both she and I were ill. In hindsight I’m certain that I was terribly anxious about the situation (Mam’s cancer) and my body was buckling under the stress. I spent all of Christmas (days of celebrations in Ireland) and my birthday, which is on January 3rd, in bed sick. Mammy returned to hospital on January 4th, and died at home with us on March 2nd, 1988, when I was eleven.

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Christmas 1983

The Christmases with Mam that I do remember are filled with happy memories. It was a time for close family to be together; playing with toys, reading books, going to mass, sitting by an open fire, preparing, sharing and eating delicious home cooked meals, drinking tea, sharing stories and watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory together. My small family consisted of Dad, Mam, my older brother and me. We all loved Christmas. The carol singing, the tree decorating, the lights, the cosy fire, the warmth of family, the good food and the joy of giving and receiving.

The Christmas when I was nine and Mam had to remain in hospital was confusing and sad. I understood for years that Mam was battling an illness. But that she couldn’t be home with us on the most special day of the year (it was that to me) was hard to take. My dad did his best to keep Christmas morning as normal as possible. I got my Cabbage Patch Kid beneath the tree, we visited Granny and my aunt in the morning and we went to mass. But of course it didn’t feel the same without Mam. Something was very wrong and life was showing us at an early age that we couldn’t always have what we wanted. Even when all we wanted was our mother home with us on Christmas Day.

After the hospital visit with Mam, my dad took us on a drive to a small lake. We stepped out of the car, wrapped up in our winter clothes and a beautiful swan floated gracefully before us on the water. For a few minutes at that lake all I could focus on was the beauty of the swan before me. I held my dad’s hand and stared. I remember that moment. There was beauty in it. My dad remembers it too.

The Christmases that followed Mam’s death were hard but they got easier. She was, and still is, always, missed. We kept some of the same Christmas rituals. We place the tree in the spot where Mam liked it in our living room. The majority of our Christmas decorations are a collection that Mam and Dad gathered together, some so old they are beginning to fall apart, several in as good a shape as they were twenty years ago; vintage and unique. We go to Christmas Eve mass as a family, though I get away with skipping Christmas Day mass now (staying in bed is more appealing!) We place gifts beneath the tree and open them as a family in front of Dad’s beautiful fire. My brother and I still hang our Christmas stockings on either side of the fireplace as was the case when Mam first got them for us, our names in red velvet lettering across the tops of each.

After Mam died we started going to my aunt’s house for dinner. Christmas Day became a different kind of day but it is still one that I love. If I were to list the reasons I love Christmas my list would include: time with family, messages from friends, decorated tree, warm fire, time for rest, delicious food, conversation, gift giving and receiving, Christmas songs & choirs, candles lighting, time to read and lots of hot tea. Time. Time to be still.

I credit my dad for the smooth transition. No doubt there was terrible sorrow and disbelief at losing the mother we loved so much, my dad losing his beloved wife. But Dad remained strong and he held us all up. He worked hard to create a nice memorial place for Mam, her grave colorful with freshly planted flowers and free of weeds. I never felt close to Mam at her grave. It never felt right that the cold earth separated her from us, though I can appreciate the beauty of the fresh flowers and the nice headstone where her name is engraved. We visit it every Christmas Eve after mass. Dad was always able and willing to talk about Mam to me. In my earlier days I didn’t talk about her too much because I didn’t want to upset anybody. Outside of our immediate family Mam wasn’t discussed often. But Dad spoke about her. She was and is, always remembered in our little family.

“…when people stop mentioning the dead person’s name to you, the silence can seem worse than the pain of hearing those familiar, beloved syllables.” Meghan O’Rourke

This Christmas I think I’ll light a candle in Mam’s honor. We did this on my wedding day last September and it was a beautiful thing, to have a light shining in her memory, with flower’s from my dad’s garden in a little jug (her jug), beside us as my husband and I said our vows.

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I think about the people who don’t like Christmas, who feel they have nothing to celebrate, who feel lost and lonely, hurt and afraid. Christmas can be a terribly hard time for people. I think back to my little self, a small nine year old, holding hands with my dad as we took in the beauty of the swan before us while my mother lay suffering in the hospital on Christmas day. I worry for my ten year old self, sick in bed on my mother’s last ever Christmas with us. My poor mother. I consider my father. My brother. The pain that so many go through, in different ways, at different times. I’m one of the fortunate ones. The light came through. Mam lives on inside of me. I write about her and it helps. Poetry and the written word speak volumes and I always find a quote that resonates. Let’s look for the beauty where we can. And if we cannot do it this Christmas, maybe another day.

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A Messy World, Being Kind, Gratitude, Grief, Love, Moments, Motherless Daughter, On Writing, Storytelling, Writing Memoir, Writing on Grief

Showing Myself Kindness

It’s a messy world out there. And I’m one of those deeply feeling people Glennon Doyle Melton is talking to when she says,

“You are not a mess. You are a feeling person in a messy world.”

These words have really helped me. And my new goal with this quote in mind, is to be the kindest person I can be…to myself.

I’m writing a memoir about losing my mother to ovarian cancer when I was 11 years old. In fact, I’ve written the book. I just have to edit it, again, for maybe the eighteenth time, because there are too many words in the book. At least, that’s what I think, and I’ve read that agents will not look at a first time author’s work if the word-count is too high. So I’m back editing my memoir again, and it’s painful. It’s painful because I have to reread all the heartbreaking things that happened in my childhood as a result of Mam getting cancer…

…The first time she told my brother and me that she needed to go into hospital to get an operation. The time I lay awake in bed crying into the night because I missed her. All those Mother’s Days when Mam was not around. The Christmas she couldn’t be with us at home because she was in hospital. The time she got stung by a wasp when she was already so sick and weak. The time I saw her in a taxi coming from the hospital and the happiness poured from every cell in my body because I didn’t expect to see her and yet there she was, heading home, to be with us. Gripping my dad in the hallway of our home as sympathizers lined up to tell us how sorry they were…

Every time I reread the words it breaks my heart. And so, I need to be kind to myself.

Writing this memoir has been cathartic for me because it has allowed me to feel, to cry and to release my love and pain into this story form. But it’s not easy to go back over the story day in and day out, year in and year out, while I reexamine and query agents and wait. It’s difficult for me to know what I should take out and what I should leave in. I want to leave it all in. But the word-count is dropping and I do feel like the memoir is improving.

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

And so, yesterday while I was meditating with Oprah and Deepak, I realized how tight my jaw was, and my neck. I noticed how good it felt to lie on my yoga bolster and breathe.

I breathed in and I let go.

I’m a newly wed and exhausted from all that the wedding entailed. The upcoming election has me exhausted. The injustices around the world have me exhausted. And my current work project is so close to my heart and so draining at times, that I decided I needed to find a way to connect with my deepest self and be gentle with that person. I considered ways to do this. And since I’m a writer I wrote down what came to me. Here it is:

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I will try to remember these questions throughout my day. And at night I will run through them in my mind before going to sleep. These questions ground me and remind me of how to be kind to myself. All of them are true to who I am. There is nurturing in all of them.

And I will keep telling my story. Mam’s story. Our story. Stories have a way of connecting all of us, reaching others, ignoring our differences and splitting our hearts wide open in this messy, messy world.

Meanwhile I will go through my list and ask myself “Did I…?”

I am not a mess. I am a feeling person, sharing my story.

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Anniversary, Death, Grief, Moments, Mother's Day, Motherless Daughter, Offering support to someone who has lost their mother

Five Ways to be Present for Someone Who Has Lost Their Mother

I lost my mother to ovarian cancer when I was 11 years old. I’m 39 now. I’ve lived more years without my mother than with her. And I’ve been through countless experiences without her by my side. When I was little people outside of my family didn’t speak to me about Mam. I’m sure they didn’t want to upset me, or themselves. They figured it was better to ignore the topic and move along. They didn’t know what to say. After so many years as a motherless daughter I’ve come to understand the ways in which we can be there for others who have lost. There are triggers that are upsetting to us, and there are ways in which a person can make a profound difference in our day. Recently somebody wrote to me and asked me how they could support a friend who had lost their mother. I responded immediately. I didn’t need to think about it because I’ve lived it.

1.Someone you know has lost their mother. There is nothing you or anybody can do to bring their mother back. What you can do is ask them how they are doing and be ready to listen. If your friend or loved one has recently lost their mother and isn’t ready to speak about it try again in a few days or a few weeks. It might take months for them to be ready but it makes a world of difference to know that there is someone who genuinely wants to be present for them. And when they are ready to talk give them your full attention, take their hand if you feel inclined, and let them talk or cry. You don’t need to say anything. Just hear them out. Sometimes we think that we need to offer people answers but we don’t. Being heard is the key here.

I’m not suggesting you need to be a therapist for this person, or that you should neglect your own life or your own self-care. In some cases a person might need encouragement to see a therapist. Often all we need is a quick release or just the knowing that we can talk to a close friend when we need to. Some women have never had the chance to talk about losing their mothers. One of the most special things you can do for them is encourage them to talk about their moms. Just watch as their eyes light up!

2.Be aware of what you are saying. Over the years I’ve been reminded time and again what I’m missing out on when I’m with friends and they are talking about going for pedicures with their mothers or taking vacation with their moms. It always sparks a little something, but it’s unavoidable really, because so many women still have their mothers and like to do things with them. Honestly, it brings me joy to witness the blessings of others, even when I feel that twinge of sadness for myself.

And when I’m in the company of strangers, people don’t know my circumstances. Maybe if people stopped assuming we all had mothers, that would be a start. Even my teachers in school would tell us “Bring this note home to your mothers!” and they knew my mother had died! They never seemed to think! When I was a teacher I made a very conscious decision to always say to my children “Give this to your mom or dad or whoever is taking care of you!” According to the children’s personal circumstances I changed how I spoke.

If somebody in your circle has lost their mother, it might not be the best thing to start up a conversation about the blessings of having a mother, in their company. That might sound obvious, but it has happened to me. In college I had two friends discuss the joys of having mothers who cared for them while I bit my lip and looked away. And I know I’m not the only one who has had this experience.

3.Pay attention to dates. That person’s mother had a birthday. When was it? What date did that person’s mother die? This is huge! Mam died on March 2nd. That date is ingrained in my brain. I go to bed the night before in anticipation of the day ahead and I wake up with thoughts of Mam, how she died, how little I was, how uncertain everything was and my mind is just spinning. Some women spend the day in bed, unwilling to get up and face the day because it’s too hard for them. Imagine the difference it would make to receive a text message or a kind phone call letting that person know that you are thinking of them. Send them a bunch of flowers. Flowers brighten everyone’s world. Perhaps ask what their mother’s favorite flowers were and send those.

The same goes for your friend’s mother’s birthday. What should be a celebration is now just a memory of past celebrations. Ask your friend if there is anything they would like to do on that date to help celebrate or remember their mother.

Mother’s Day is very tough. Please understand that while you might be celebrating your mother (and this is a wonderful thing) she is mourning hers. And if you are very close to that person, please don’t remain silent on the day, hoping nobody will remember. A motherless daughter never forgets those dates. Help her know that she is not alone.

4.Introduce her to other friends who have lost their mothers. This is another huge one! I wish I had known other motherless daughters growing up. I didn’t know any. I felt very alone in this. I felt different from everybody else. I was very fortunate to have a fantastic father and I got on very well with my older brother but if I had been introduced to another little girl like me it would have made a tremendous difference in my life.

Recently, through my author’s page  I heard from a lady of similar age to me, who lost her mother around the same time as I did and lived in the same town. I remember the girl though I didn’t know her at the time and had no idea that she was motherless too. When she reached out to me I wanted to do a time travel back into my past and throw my arms around that little girl. We could’ve been a team, the two of us, without our mothers but together, hand in hand.

It wasn’t until I moved to Portland, Oregon and discovered the Motherless Daughters group here, at the same time as I discovered Hope Edelman’s book, that I began to meet and form connections with other women who had lost their mothers. What a gift it has been!

5.Don’t compare having a bad relationship with your mother to someone whose mother has died. Certainly this is traumatic in its own way. I have friends who are estranged from their mothers and I listen to them speak about the rejection they felt growing up or the abuse they suffered. In some ways I feel that what they’ve been through may even be worse than what I went through because I had a very caring, devoted and nurturing mother. At the same time it’s not the same thing. One friend of mine would say “I may as well go with you to the Motherless Daughters group because all I do is fight with my mom. She may as well be dead!” This was very upsetting to hear. All I wanted was my mother and even though my friend wasn’t on good terms with hers she still had her at the other end of the phone line.

Everyone’s circumstances are different and some situations are so bad that the person’s mother is as good as dead to them. My point is acknowledging the differences. Death means gone forever and no opportunity whatsoever to change that, no chance of ever seeing that person in the flesh again and no possibility to alter the past.

We have the potential to lift others in times of sadness. Often we want to help but we don’t know how.

The round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.

Parliament Hill Fields –  by Sylvia Plath

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Gratitude, Grief, Moments, Mother and daughter, Motherless Daughter

The Beauty of Mothers

There is a young Asian woman living across from me. She has a new baby, a young child, a partner and a mother. I’m aware of this not because I know her, we’re both relatively new to this neighborhood, but because throughout my day I catch glimpses into her life. My writing desk is situated close to a large window that looks down directly into the back of her home. Like us, that family has a large glass sliding door in their kitchen and that’s where I often see the young mother rocking baby or feeding baby or singing to baby. I also witness this when I’m in our kitchen sitting at the table. What has struck me the most from witnessing all of this is the longing I feel, not for a baby as many might imagine given my age, but for my mother.

This woman’s mother is tiny. She wears her greying hair tied up in an Asian style knot where her glasses often rest. She shuffles about in slippers and wears a light pair of pants and a heavy mauve sweater that comes almost to her knees. Buttons run the entire length of her sweater on the back and she wears a turtle neck underneath, even when it’s sunny. It’s not like I’m spying on the family. Our glass windows face theirs and they spend a few hours a day on and off the patio, especially now that the weather is so warm.

What I’ve been noticing are the little things. How the old mother is so helpful; stepping inside the house for a paper towel that she hands out to her daughter with the baby, taking the empty food bowl from her daughter and bringing it inside while daughter rocks baby in the shade. This adorable little mother comes out with the mop when her daughter has taken the baby inside, and she rinses it out over and over, presumably after mopping the kitchen floor. I’ve watched her spoon feed the baby until the child’s mother came out, in her black and white tie-dye pajamas, ready to take over. I’ve seen her water the family’s plants and sweep dust from the doorstep.

These are the things I notice that touch me deeply because I am without my mother. It’s not that she lives far away or that I don’t get on with her or anything like that, it’s that my mother died and there is no hope that I’ll ever get to see her again. And so when I witness a woman with her mother, doing everyday things that most people take for granted, it stirs several emotions. Sometimes there’s jealousy and sometimes sorrow, and almost always that sudden intense reminder that I am motherless. Even after all these years. But there are other emotions too. Strong ones. I feel a rush of love for this mother and daughter and for the bond that they share. I want to dash over and tell them how lucky they are and how lovely. I’m certain that many daughters don’t realize how blessed they are in the moments. When that woman is holding her daughter’s baby, cooing into its ears, rocking it to sleep so that her daughter can have a little break, that is a gift so precious to behold.

Every relationship is different and I understand that mother-daughter relationships aren’t always smooth. I’ve known women who’ve lost their mothers after a tumultuous life-long relationship with them and yet they miss their mothers dearly. Each relationship is unique but from my point of view I know what I am missing. I’m missing a dear woman who would love to be a part of my life today and if I could have any of these little moments that my neighbor has with her mother, with or without the baby, for even a minute, I would take it. I would look deep into my dear mother’s eyes, I would touch her soft hand and I would say “Thank you. I love you.”

I’ve heard this quote though I don’t know who originally said it-

“Life doesn’t come with a manual, it comes with a mother.”

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