This week I have been thinking about my mom a lot.
I think of her frequently anyway, but my mom passed away on July 4, 1999...so the days leading up to the 4th of July each year bring her to mind more often.
I don't often talk about my mom's death. It was horrible and tragic...the things nightmares are made of.
No one is ever ready to lose their mother. No one. No one's loss is made less by the age their mother lives to or how she dies. I am not saying my loss was more devastating, but her death certainly was tragic.
She was burned in a fire. Some people who are burned in fires die quickly from smoke inhalation and that might bring some peace to their relatives, like when people say, "At least she didn't suffer." My mom suffered. Terribly. Her entire body was covered third degree burns. She was unrecognizable. And yet I recognized every inch of her body.
You see my mom left us. When we were little, she had issues that tore her insides apart and she had a horrible marriage to my father. And there came a day when I was in elementary school that the battle became too fierce and she had to walk away. For my entire life I hoped and prayed and wished on every star that she would come back to us--to my brother and I. I memorized everything I could about her to hold onto a connection with her.
We got to see her sometimes, on holidays or supervised visitation days or a random moment when I reached out to her and she was there....like when I was 17 we met for lunch at Ruby Tuesday's and went prom dress shopping. It might have been one of my favorite days.
But when I was 19, my grandma came to pick me up from work in the middle of a random June day. I knew something was terribly wrong. I knew it was my mom, I had felt it the whole day. Something was off in my heart and I was crying over nothing. When I saw my grandma she looked like she had seen a ghost. I asked her if my mom was dead and she said, "Not yet Gina, but you have to come now."
I can't even remember what happened next, I am pretty sure my Uncle Tom came to pick me up and we drove to Detroit and I walked into the burn unit for the first time. I don't remember anything other than the horrible anger that boiled over inside of me.
I was 19, 4 months sober and not at all ready to face the demons inside of me related to my relationship with my mom. I had read the 12 steps, I knew what was coming--the whole character defects, listing persons I had harmed and amends thing-- but I wasn't there yet.
And she was unrecognizable, laying there, charred. But I knew every inch of the body I had waited so long for. My heart and my brain could remember the arms that had held me, the hands that had nurtured me. You see, those days before my mom's addictions and issues took over, she loved me. She nurtured me, she cared for me and we were connected. It was in those moments that I instinctively knew what I would later learn in school. That memory is at a cellular level, that synapses' in my brain formed when I was a baby-- when my mother held me and cared for me those first few years, and that those memories don't go away. I would forever be tied to this woman who loved me first, and hurt me the worst.
But I was 19 and newly sober and all I could feel was the pain and the injustice. I watched her as she suffered that day. There is no amount of morphine that can make one "comfortable" when their body is in the state my mother's was in. I hated her for coming back to me like that. Coming back when no one could guarantee she would live...when it was the kinder and more loving thing to pray that she wouldn't.
I was at this place in my recovery, that I wanted to believe in God. But God allowed my mom to leave and God had allowed this to be our reunion. I might believe but I couldn't love a God like that.
My brother came to the hospital once. I wanted to help him--I could remember back to before I rebelled--to the days when I was a little girl who tried to make everything okay by being perfect. I wanted to be that big sister for him, the one who would play Sesame Street records really loud in the bedroom so he didn't hear my mom and dad fighting. I wanted to help him be okay, because maybe that would mean that I was okay. But I couldn't. All I could do was sit there, with her. And hope, for a look, a word, anything that would make what happened in my life okay, to make it make sense.
I was looking to my mom to make sense of it for me, and she couldn't--not then, not ever.
People came and went, days passed and people visiting told me what I needed: food, sleep, a break. The things people say when tragedy strikes. The things that seem foreign in those moments. I am so grateful for the people who loved me in those days... and for the people who gave me what I needed--even if that was space.
There were days in which the doctors said she was getting better, that there might be hope. And then there was the night. It was 4th of July, one of our families favorite holidays--the night my mom and dad always made fun no matter how much they struggled with one another. My friends were going to watch fireworks, I should go with them, I knew that. I needed to get out, I needed a break. "She's doing well today", I told myself. My boyfriend organized to drive me out to spend the day with my girlfriends. I needed that. I also needed a drink, but they were amazing and encouraging and I drank coke instead. We left the cell phones in the car. I don't know why, we didn't even think about it.
When we got in the car and started driving both of our phones started going crazy. His and mine. My voicemail said 14 messages. That can't be good. He turned the car around and we went straight to the twins house. Jason knew, he knew that I needed their parents. As we started listening to messages it became clear--my mom was gone.We needed to stop by the hospital to ID her body and pick up her things. My brain tried to register what was coming. I'm 19. I just wanted a conversation with her, a moment to make things make sense. No conversation was coming, just a funeral.
No more suffering. That's what they would say, but how could they be sure?
My Uncle Frank was sure. This dear man who sat with me many times over those 29 days and let me say the most ugly things I could say about my mother and about God. Who spoke with no judgement, only sincerity and wisdom and truth. At one moment early on I said, "This is just what my mother deserves" and he looked at my with tears in his eyes, a heart broken for my pain and said with only love, "Oh Regina, if only we all got what we deserved." And the stone around my heart started to chip away. No theology, no doctrine, no plan of salvation, just words spoken in love at the right moment.
On another day, we spoke about Heaven and Hell. I had questions about my mother, about me. I was trying to shape this picture of God, "as I understand Him" from my Big Book. Certainly people like me and my mom would go to hell. Certainly. We had done horrible things, hurt others terribly. I was 19 and less than a year from a suicide attempt--certainly that was one of those unforgivable sins that even Christians are afraid to talk about.
But he sat with me, and he answered my questions, again with no judgement. Just love and relationship. This man was no stranger, he had cared for my heart since I was born. He had prayed for me and treated me with kindness for 19 years. He had waited for the day when I would ask him these questions--waited for me to wrestle with God. He told me that nothing that I had done, or nothing my mother had done was bad enough for God to stop loving us. I cried. I wasn't ready, not yet... something changed in my heart that day, more of the hardness around it fell away, but I wasn't ready to have that for myself yet-- but I wanted it for my mother. Her days appeared to be short and in one of the few moments of relative clarity she had, she listened while my Uncle Frank asked her if she wanted a relationship with Jesus. If she would acknowledge her sinfulness and her need for a savior. That was the best day ever. With a slight groan and a single tear, I believe that my mom answered that question and found peace amongst the turmoil. He prayed with her, with me. I believed that my mother found what she needed that day. The day I was able to forgive the pain her absence caused and the day she was set free.
Losing a mom is hard. Some days here in Zimbabwe the reality hits me. I work with orphans, yesterday I was reading a document and it had the definition of orphan, "Someone who has lost one or both parents." This wave washed over me. I am an orphan.
I can remember such beautiful things about my mom. I can remember her making me laugh, I can remember her painting Sesame Street characters all over my bedroom. I can remember the most amazing Halloween costumes and fun games we would play. My mother was a good woman. My mother also battled addictions, addictions that caused her to do terrible things. I know this because I have had the same battles. I am grateful for recovery, for without it I never would have survived my mother's funeral. When I think of my mother it makes me more grateful for recovery, because I am forever reminded of what it is like to live without it. I read my mother's journal-- I know that she would have given anything to be free from her addictions.None of those things bring comfort to me when I think of her now--the only thing that brings comfort is knowing that God never stops pursuing us, and that no matter when that time comes for us to receive His grace He is always ready to forgive.
My journey to Jesus sped up when my mom was burned in that fire. In 29 days everything changed... my mom came back to me, I had time to cry and yell at her, I had time to forgive her, I had time to love her. I had time to say good-bye. In those 29 days I have no doubt that my mother suffered, but those days were a gift from God. The feelings of abandonment as a child shaped my life forever, but that reconciliation has changed my heart. Without those 29 I might spend the rest of my life wondering where my mom is.
I had to write this today because it was time for me to get it out. This was for me.