One year, my brother sent our mom a birthday card that really made her smile. It wasn’t one of those Hallmark deals with corny poetry and glitter — it was just a cheap little card. It had a photo on the front of a little boy sitting on the steps outside of his school, with his lunchbox beside him and his head on his lap, as if he were crying. Inside the card it said: “Some days, I still just want my mommy.” I think she loved it because she loved feeling wanted.
I think about that card a lot, particularly the sentiment printed inside: I just want my mommy. That thought wandered into my head the other night, as it often does, when I suddenly realized the date. March 8th. March 8th, the absolute worst day that ever was, ever.
In the seven years that have passed since she died, I have never gotten into the habit of honoring the anniversary of her death. March 8th is not the day I choose to remember her. It isn’t the same as those birthdays, Mother’s Day, or Christmas. Or any of the other happy occasions that bring her to mind and make me wish she were with us. The anniversary of her passing is a black mark, a day that got knocked off the calendar in sheer repulsion. A day too sad to commit to memory.
A pattern has emerged in the last few years. The anniversary goes by without my paying any mind — no more than usual, that is, because I think of her every day — but I don’t think about holding her hand in the hospital bed, listening through the night as she struggled for breath and the morphine slowly stole her life away. I elect to avoid that place whenever possible. It is as if I am walking down memory lane, the branches pulled aside to clear the path ahead. The coast is clear and then smack! One of the thin, springy branches snaps back and whips me in the face. I often feel guilty for having forgotten: I mean, here I am years later, still locked in a prison of grief. Should I not have kept count of all the awful days that have gone by and how many times I have needed her? I am forever affected by her death, but somehow, I sometimes forget that she died.
When the realization hits me, I count on my fingers — how long has it been? Seven years? Seven. Years. How it that possible? How I am still walking around with this hole in my gut, like the umbilicus that once tied me to her never healed? But then, maybe it didn’t. What is the shelf life of a mother-daughter relationship after the mother is dead and gone? At what point do I cease to be hers?
When shall I no longer wish to curl up beside her warm, soft body, my head in lap as she strokes my hair? When does a child no longer want or need their mother? I can’t fathom it, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to let go, because she was mine and I was hers and whatever wrong she did — and there were wrongs — and whatever I took for granted — and I did so, regretfully — she is mine. And I am hers: a mournful child crying on the front stoop, waiting for my mommy to pick me up and make me feel good again.
May is a crummy month for people without a mom. More than at any time of the year, there is a constant reminder that you have lost that most influential person in your life.
Even as I worked in my office today, there was a Mother’s Day Craft Fair going on outside. Nope, no thanks. I don’t want to look through the various trinkets and see what she might have enjoyed.
For the past several years I’ve been quite happy to celebrate my mother-in-law on Mother’s Day and leave it at that. But I’m a mother this year. There are a multitude of new layers to my usual Mother’s Day grief that weren’t there before.
In a case of bizarre synchronicity, I found myself having a meltdown over my motherlessness just earlier this week in reaction to something that had nothing to do with Mother’s Day approaching and everything to do with needing to talk to my mother. It’s possible that subconsciously, I was feeling a little bit off-center already due to the holiday coming up and was therefore extra sensitive, but whatever the reason my desperate need to speak with Mom coupled with my despair at leaving my daughter in the care of others while working and my umbrella fears of inadequacy converged to create a big, unholy mess. At the end of the day, I sat down with M in my lap and thought that all of it, all the tears I had cried that day, were actually about my need to be reassured that I’m a good mother — and the person I needed to hear it from isn’t around anymore.
Truthfully, I don’t miss her with my whole heart every day. Most days, in fact, I’m practically normal. But sometimes — and more often since becoming a mother myself — there is a day when I need her input. And what I’m learning is that this is normal. Particular to the loss of a mother, the grieving process doesn’t end at acceptance — it doesn’t end at all. It is a process, and ebb and flow of sadness and peacefulness, that continues for a lifetime. This is a comfort to me, as there have been several exasperating moments over the last six years when I’ve wanted to bang my head against the wall — “Why aren’t you OVER it already?!” Well, because I’m never going to “get over” it or “past it”. “Moving on” really isn’t an option for those experiencing this kind of grief. Our roadmap of the grieving process is really a curriculum of coping techniques and emotional management. And then being kind to yourself when you have days during which coping is unmanageable. As Hope Edelman says in her book Motherless Daughters: A Legacy of Loss, there will be days when you are just as sad as you were on the day she died. And that’s okay.
I suspect that this Mother’s Day will be both the same, and a little different, from years past. I will miss Mom anew this year, because I’ve joined her ranks and she isn’t here to share that with me. I’ll give flowers to my mother-in-law and my hanai-mom, because they have graciously mothered me in my mother’s absence. And I’ll finally experience Mother’s Day from the other side of things — a side that hopefully includes a little bit of sleeping in and breakfast in bed.
But the day that marks your absence is not the day I choose to honor your memory. I have worn the loss of you like a shroud, a heavy blanket to curl into on harsh, friendless days. Daily I attempt to commune with your spirit and resurrect your voice in my head — “Please Mommy, tell me what to do.” I miss you with a palpable need, one that starts in my toes and reaches up to my fingertips, reaching out for you. It triggered in me a irreversible reaction, a sweeping depression, an ebb and flow of mania and sadness. I have been lost in those tidal waters for years.
I remember you. I miss you. I am not alone. The loss of you means our cups will never quite be full — all love is not created equally when you’re aching for the love of someone who can’t or won’t love you the way you need to be loved. All the love in the world, good people that surround us and carry our will, cannot replace what was lost when we lost you.
When I was young, a terrible thing happened. The teeth of that event, jagged and complex as they are, shaped the contours of my personality in a number of ways (though I think it can be argued that I never stood a chance of escaping childhood without at least a few neuroses). Be that as it may, it was a short time after the deaths of my friends that my personality underwent a severe and startling shift. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. I feel like I continued to be pretty normal in the first few months after their deaths. It wasn’t as if I didn’t receive counseling afterwards. My parents talked to me about what happened, and they took me to see a nice lady in a tidy little office who asked me questions about my friends while I drew them as stick-figure angels with bright yellow halos. That lady must’ve thought I was handling the trauma all right, because I only remember seeing her once. In the meantime, my dad took a few pieces of leftover fence posts and some primer paint to make a roughly hewn cross that he hammered into the grass outside of their deserted home. They took me to the funeral — closed casket — in a starchy plaid dress. I sat, not internalizing anything that was said, as I contemplated with horrifying clarity exactly why the caskets needed to be closed and large portraits of their young, smiling faces be displayed instead. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Steadler I think her name was, was especially compassionate in the wake of the event, inviting me to speak with the class or with her if ever I needed to.
All told, I think I adjusted with the same easy acceptance that all children employ when synthesizing a terrible event with their reality: It was bad, and it happened, and I’m sad that it happened. And then you move on because you’re a kid, and without sustained, repeated trauma, chances are the catastrophes you witness aren’t going to define your personality like they would in someone older. Such is the extraordinary capacity of children to heal and to love, so effortlessly.
But eventually something changed. In what now seems to be an overnight shift, I lost all feelings of safety and comfort. I was afraid. All. Of. The time. Like, can’t-sleep-with-the-lights-out, must-have-the-doors-and-windows-barred, TV-on-and-blaring-or-else-shit-your-pants-in-fear kind of afraid. I had night terrors in which my deceased friends would come to me and tell me that the afterlife was lonely and they wanted me to join them. In my dream, I would start to suffocate, then wake to find my face in a pillow.
Prior to this constant fear, I quite distinctly remember sleeping peacefully in my bedroom with the lights out, window open to the breeze, moon light streaming in. Then a change happened, wherein I became so utterly terrified of the darkness that I never opened my windows or blinds unless it was light out. I kept the overhead lamp on my bedroom’s ceiling fan blazing all night long, and if my parents tried to exchange the 100watt bulb for something dimmer, I’d throw a fit. Not knowing or not understanding why I needed to sleep with the TV on, my parents would remove the set from my room if I had done something to incur a punishment. This lead to some explosive tantrums during which I tried, with a child’s inadequate articulation, to explain why they just couldn’t take that away from me. It wasn’t about entertainment — it was about survival: bad things would happen if I were left alone in my bedroom overnight without the television on.
I would scream if left in the darkness. Maybe they thought that, if left to my own devices, I would tire and fall asleep, but the fear kept me quivering and awake. Once, my mother stood in my bedroom door silhouetted by the hallway light as I cried and begged her to comfort me. She answered, unequivocally, that she would not, because I was a big girl and I could sleep in my own room. The dreadful thought that I was disappointing her, that she was ashamed of my behavior, only made me cry harder.
We weren’t a particularly religious family — we never went to church or anything like that — but I knew there was a God, that he had something to do with the gold cross my daddy wore and Santa Claus, and he could protect me if I played my cards right. This was the beginning of my ritualized behavior: I believed that if I said my prayers at night exactly the same way, in exactly the same order every single night with my hands clasped dutifully in front of my chest that God, like some combination of watch dog and genie, would keep me safe from whatever frightened me and also grant me wishes. If I forgot some line in my prayer speech (it was probably a few minutes long), I would have to stop and do it over again, because if I didn’t stick to the script, it wouldn’t work and any number of ghosts, goblins, or aliens would come attack me in the darkness. I went to one of those jewelry vending machines in the grocery store, stuck in my fifty cents, and got a cheap nickel-plated crucifix to put on my teddy bear. From then on I worshiped him like a fuzzy false idol, convinced that he was ordained BY GOD to protect me while I slept.
I still have that teddy bear, by the way. His name is Joefas, and now he guards my daughter while she sleeps, sans religious armor of any kind.
Looking back, I think this was the period of time that planted the seeds of mental illness that I continue to struggle with today. The beginnings of my irrational anxiety. The genesis of obsessive-compulsive, ritualistic behavior. The foundation for my fear of abandonment. All of those threads can be traced back, not necessary to Cheri and Nick’s deaths, but to what I experienced directly afterwards. Due to my sieve-like memory, I can only speculate on what extenuating factors precipitated my descent into minor madness. My less-than-Leave-it-to-Beaver upbringing, some kind long-buried abuse, or perhaps, just the small, seemingly insignificant watermarks of everyday tragedy, built up over time. Were my irrational fears, my gruesome visions of dead friends, all symptomatic of some other long-forgotten trauma? I don’t know, and I don’t especially want to go digging for those answers. All I know is that while the Terrible Thing is one of the only things I remember, it isn’t the only thing that changed me. The rest, since it wasn’t reported on and can’t be searched on the internet, will just have to remain a mystery. Truthfully, I think I prefer it that way.
Memories are funny things. Inherently fallible, malleable, and extremely subject to influence, but even knowing this, we are convinced of their truth. Even those moments that seem to define us, to shape who we eventually become, are potentially corrupted. There are a great deal of things that I simply do not remember: not a single birthday party, Christmas, or happy schoolyard memory exists clearly in my mind. Instead, I have memories of photographs of these moments. My dad was an avid family photographer and I recall going through the credenza in the downstairs hallway and seeing pictures of the costume party we had for my birthday (Mom was a clown, Dad was a werewolf) or the Christmas when I was literally buried in gifts (imagine, 9 year old me grinning widely, a floating head emerging from an insane number of colored packages). But I don’t remember any of those events from the view of the camera behind my own eyes. They were happy times, and I’m grateful we had them. I wish I could remember those things instead of the awful times. The bad and the ugly.
Early this morning while my daughter was asleep, I found myself tripping down that manhole of memory. My mind was on my child, the absolute picture of beauty and all that is good in the world, and what would I do, how could I live, if anything were to happen to her? Bad things have been known to happen to children, regardless of how much love or care or protection their parents try to give them. There are very, very few vivid memories of my childhood that survived into my adulthood, and one of them is witnessing this dreadful truth first hand. Knowing how imperfect memories can be, I did something today that I’ve never done before: I took to Google to dig up some facts that might corroborate the film in my head. I searched, “1994 Antioch California Souza Murders” and there it was: “SOUZA V. THE CITY OF ANTIOCH, Plaintiff’s husband, Joel Souza, shot and killed their children on July 11, 1993…”
I had the year wrong. I had tried to calculate it based on my recollection: I always thought that I was seven years old the morning that I came downstairs to see swarms of policemen buzzing around my cul de sac. But in July of 1993, I was only 6. I was 6 years old when, on a lazy summer morning, I walked into a day that would fuck me up good, for many years to come. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that this is not to say that I am a victim of what occurred that day. I am so blessedly and completely removed from the horror of those deaths — it was not my children, my niece and nephew, my brother, my son, or any other family member that died. But they were my friends, and their deaths touched me.)
This is what I’ve retained: I came downstairs and saw from the front windows a flurry of activity quite unlike the average Sunday morning at Hunter Peak Court in Antioch, California. My mom and dad were reading the Sunday paper on the living room couch, and they didn’t seem to know about what was happening outside. I ran up to the window and spied my friend’s mom, Jennifer, standing on the sidewalk in front of our house. Two doors down, my friends Cheri and Nick lived with their mom and dad in the biggest house on the street. They had a great backyard — huge swing set. Even as a little kid, I didn’t have a lot of friends and Cheri was special to me. I was worried about seeing her mom, so clearly distraught, standing on the sidewalk outside my house with policemen and other neighbors milling about.
I asked my parents if I could run outside for the newspaper — you know, the one they were already reading. Once on my front porch, I strained to get a better look. Through the open door of their home, I could see police officers inside Cheri’s house. I went back inside and told my mom and dad that something was wrong.
After that, my memory gets hazy. Reading this lawsuit from the California Court of Appeal (trigger warning: reading that will severely depress you), I learn that the stand-off between Joel Souza, Cheri and Nick’s dad, and the police had been going on for many hours by the time I woke up that morning. I think I remember my mom going outside to speak with Jennifer. I think I remember a lot of the moms from my street gathering around her, trying to comfort her. I know that, at some point, my parents decided I had seen enough and barricaded me in their bedroom at the back of the house. They unplugged the television so I couldn’t watch the news coverage of what was unfolding just a few hundred yards from our home. They called my friend Ashley’s mom and asked her to come pick me up and keep me at their house for a while, but when she got to our street, it was closed off — the police weren’t letting anyone in. I think I was still in my parents bedroom when the shots rang out. I remember thinking it sounded like three firecrackers popping, one after another. I didn’t see the EMTs bring my friends out on stretchers, but I saw it later on the news. My dad said that, “they were still working on them” when they brought them out of the house. The FACTS section of the lawsuit does not corroborate this: it says that the SWAT team entered the bedroom where Joel had barricaded himself and his children to find all three of them shot dead.
It doesn’t matter, really. They still died.
Eventually, my parents were able to get me out of our neighborhood. That’s how I eventually managed to see news coverage of the event on TV: my parents had unplugged the set to prevent me from watching, but at my friend’s house, she had a set in her bedroom. I watched it there. I can still see in my mind’s eye the television screen that held the moving pictures of the worst day in my young life. But of course, memory is highly subject to influence. Who knows what I actually saw and what I imagined to have seen based on the adult conversations going on over my head, planting pictures in my mind that would eventually coalesce into memories. Either way, I knew then with childish certainty that it was a terrible thing that happened, and that it would shape me in ways that I still don’t entirely understand.