I’m positively in love with my home state and try to make it back as often as I can, especially in the summer when I long to escape the Oklahoma heat. The summer before my mother died was no different, Kel was unable to get away from work so it was just Noelle and I who boarded that early morning flight. Braving the trip without Kel would turn out to be a mistake, I needed his strength to survive a two week stay with my Mother. It was beyond painful to stay in that house which died the same day my father did. Every second spent there was a reminder of how much we’d lost and continued to hemorrhage with the passing of time.
Our visit wasn’t going well, the depression was absolutely consuming her, but I was too close to see the disease. All I could see was shell of the woman who raised me, yet no longer knew me. All of my confusion and anger shot out like steam from a kettle and I spewed out dozens of unfair questions and accusations. As I went through the transformation into motherhood I had to decide what kind mother I would be in light of the example I’d been given. I longed to have a relationship with the woman who’d given me life, bathed me in the sink and read me a thousand books. Yet, I knew in my heart she was no longer available to me, even though she was sitting right across the room. If I’d known this was the last time we’d ever speak face to face, I would have done everything different, hindsight is a clear, cruel gift at times.
The next morning I boarded a plane and flew home, happy to leave that house behind once again, determined never to stay there again. A few days later, on Father’s Day my brother called and told me that Mom had attempted suicide by overdose. When I talked to her later that day she blamed it all on me, on my words, my lack of support. We cancelled our Father’s Day Dinner and spent the evening at a low end rib joint here in town. I poked at my smoked turkey and canned beans, trying to muster up the energy to celebrate Kel in spite of the nauseating emotions of grief, fear and anger.
As my pregnancy progressed, so did her depression and in spite of the events of Father’s Day I continued to hope, begging God to break through her crust and heal her. One night in October my husband twisted my arm to stay up late and watch a movie. We laid on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and against all pregnancy odds I stayed awake until the closing credits. Just before we climbed into bed I heard phone from the other room. I mumbled at Kel to grab it, and just before he did he called out “It’s your brother!”
I glanced at the clock, it was too late for a routine phone call, my throat tightened, something, someone wasn’t right. I saw Kel lean against the dresser for his brief exchange with my brother. When he hung up, he looked at me with a heavy gaze. I couldn’t tell you his exact words, but it went something like this: “Your mom died, she killed herself, she walked out in front of a train… at the same tracks as your sister’s accident.”
I climbed onto the bathroom counter and curled into a ball, no small feat in my third trimester. I didn’t cry and I didn’t scream, I just stared at Kel as we looked at each other with a mutual, “Oh God, Now what?” We knew that we needed prayer and so we called our friends Jenni and Tiffany, who cried before I was able to. They started prayer chains and helped us through travel plans. Plane tickets were astronomical and bereavement discounts were a joke. The most practical choice would be to load up our mini van and drive through the night. We ran laundry and drifted around the house in shocked trances. Around 1 AM there was a soft knock at the door and it was friends from church delivering a travel basket with healthy snacks and gift cards. I remember being so strangely calm that I gave them a few grocery bags of fresh food, so it wouldn’t go to waste in our absence. I know that I couldn’t rest until a thousand things were set in motion and so instead of crumble, I focused on meaningless minutia.
When I allowed me mind to feel all I would think was: “How could she do that?” I had no
idea she was that determined, that ballsy. I was terrified they would make me identify her remains and that my mind would never recover from it. Finally at 3 AM we carried our 1 year old Noelle to the van and started down the longest and darkest journey of my life. Our baby girl bounced in her car seat for the first 5 hours, thrilled about the surprise late night car party.
Our phones constantly lit up with blessings, assurance and text messages, bringing a steady stream of light to our darkness. So many people stayed awake that night simply to remind us that they were on this journey with us. That road trip lasted a grueling 21 hours and I can’t say I’ve ever been as tired as I was when we finally arrived at my Aunt and Uncle’s House.
We awoke, still in our nightmare and headed to the funeral home to arrange all the details that accompany death. We were greeted with the aroma of chocolate chip cookies instead of the usual lilly and chemical smell funeral homes typically provide. My family waited for me in the parlor and parking lot. I melted into the arms of all those who I’d longed to embrace from the moment the phone call had arrived.
Ron, the most amazing funeral director in the world, guided us through the details. He was young and compassionate and although we were planning a terribly unexpected funeral, the planning flowed from us easily. We chose the white casket, “The Old Rugged Cross” and James 1:12: “Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” The one detail I couldn’t figure out was the flower arrangements. I wanted her funeral to feel like fall, perhaps mums or sunflowers? Fall had been her favorite season, in better days she raved about the vibrant leaves and fresh apples. I couldn’t escape the questions, how could she take her life in her favorite season, with a grandson on the way and a wedding to plan? How could I have missed it? I was wracked with guilt, why was I so hard on her? Always placing healthy mom expectations on a woman who was so clearly sick and hurting.
I coerced myself into a trip the mall to buy something appropriate for all the formalities. Who plans for a funeral dress when buying maternity clothes? I also needed to grab something for my daughter to wear. You have no idea how macabre it is to select a funeral dress for a 1 year old whose grandma just killed herself. There was something about having a perfect plan for our clothes that provided a retail therapy, a false element of control.
The next few days flashed by in a haze, I was soley sustained on adrenaline, a sense of duty and cans of V8 V-Fusion. It took all my strength to honor my mother and get her body into the ground, to tie up details and be strong. I knew there was a house to sell and a lifetime of “stuff” to sort through. I could do anything, and go anywhere but her house, the place she ran from to end it all. I hated that house and had dreams of standing in the front yard in my pajamas while it burned to the ground.
We had planned two visitation shifts at my parents church and I walked through the doors knowing I would be viewing her body for the first time. More than anything I wanted to jump into my car and drive home to the safety of our home. Perhaps this was just an awful dream I would soon wake up from, or more accurately, a nightmare. Maybe I would jolt awake any minute, sweaty and shocked in our bed back home in Oklahoma. Denial is the first stage of grief, and it was all so unbelievable, that denial was a sweet companion.
The woman in the casket looked like my Mother, but only barely. Her body had suffered from impact, and everything was all wrong. It’s a picture I don’t like calling into memory. I didn’t linger there in front of her casket didn’t touch or caress her cold hands more than once. I fingered her wedding ring and then prepared to receive mourners and friends a good length away from the casket. I endured 4 hours of visitation and stood on aching feet to greet visitors and receiving condolences and confusion with all who knew and mourned my mother.
The morning of her funeral arose grey and threatened rain. We gathered at the church to share our common pain, to give an outlet for the mangled mess of our emotions. Just before the service they closed the casket and we said goodbye to her face for the last time. The music started and we followed her body into the church, I wept through her favorite hymns and managed to sing “The old Rugged Cross” through the tears — when I was 9 she made me promise I would sing this hymn at her funeral. Mom’s friend Kathy spoke the perfect words on her behalf: “I love you, forgive me, move on with your lives”.
Pastor Tom read Revelation 21:4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” This brought comfort because we deeply believed God was keeping that promise to my Mother that very moment. He urged us not to feel guilty or responsible, that we couldn’t have prevented her end. He assured my family and I that it was alright to feel a dark sense of relief that her suffering and our worry was over. I’m forever grateful to Pastor Tom for honoring my mother with the perfect balance of wisdom and love. His task that day was not an easy one.
My husband, brother and uncles bore her body to the hearse which would take her to her final resting place, in the earth beside my Father. Family and old friends gathered for lunch and Noelle flitted from table to table bringing fresh life to a hard funeral. My mother’s tiny granddaughter was a sweet reminder, that on the darkest days, God gives new hope.
We drove to Georgetown Cemetery and laid her body into the ground on that cold autumn day which never delivered the forecasted rain. After they lowered her into the ground, I walked away, still shrouded in a fog of shock. I rubbed my cold knees as Kel wound our van through the cemetery maze. Driving away, all formalities behind us, brought a paralyzing fear. I would have to return to my normal life with so much pain to sift through. How on earth would I navigate through this new life, heart and sanity in tact? I was now one of those people children of suicide, this new chapter was forever a part of my story.
I longed to do an “I dream of Jeannie” blink and bring our family instantly back to the safety of our home. Far away from the cold reality of this cemetery plot. It was late in October and the holiday season, normally my favorite, loomed ominously on the calendar. There would be Halloween Costumes and Turkey, Christmas shopping and New Year’s toasts just before our son made his arrival. To be honest I had no idea how I would get through any of it, I just allowed my spirit to groan to God in faith that he would lead me day by painful, grace-filled day.