Tag Archives: grieving

June 3

“68 days,” Siri answered the first time I asked,
“How many days until June 3?”
3 days before my birthday,

the day she was diagnosed —
dry heaves in the parking lot
as the helicopter lifted.

Morning sun raked the bed, her eyes searching mine
“Happy birthday to you,” she warbled.
That’s when everyone realized — I was 21.

She’d had 3 of us almost exactly 3 years apart­.
I wasn’t showing during the holidays, she’d smile,
not pregnant in the summer heat.

50 days a patient — a rare brain tumor.
3 surgeries — 2 went past dark.
Blood on the boots of her weary surgeon.

Shaved, stitched, punctured —
she knew.
3 days shy of her birthday,

she never made it to 48.
3 summers later I marry & follow her
blueprint — 3 babies, 3 years apart.

Vessel of her love, I pour — her into them.
27 years later: it’s June 3
& I’m wife & mother of 3.

I’m 3 days shy of 48.
Tomorrow I’ll be older than ever
she was.

IMG_2860June 3 is a really big deal for me — the day I summit the solitary mountain that has long dominated my personal landscape. My mom’s death is easily my greatest tragedy and my biggest gift. Over the last few months, I’ve pondered my mom’s last days — sometimes soberly inhabiting them in “real time.” Today I take in her final vista. It’s a huge moment. I wanted to do something meaningful to acknowledge this milestone, and this poem satisfies that need in me. 

I’m indebted to another motherless daughter, Lynda, a gentle poet who asked for a favor and then returned it almost immediately with some lovely advice on patching up this beginner effort. I won’t put her full name here lest someone searching for legitimate poetry stumble upon this mess.

In its various versions, this poem naturally occupied 27 lines, then 48, then 27. I found that so curious. In its final form, there’s one line for every year we’ve lived without her.



Her Speech

The speech.

I keep thinking about it.

I’m a writer and what I’m arguably best at is speechwriting. So I keep thinking about Hillary’s election night acceptance speech.

It had references to that glass ceiling. The Javits Center was picked because it had one. But the glass ceiling line wouldn’t have been the line that people remembered.

She would’ve talked about her mom Dorothy, the unique circumstance of her mother’s suffragette birthday, and how badly she wished her mom could see this.  And her voice would have cracked and we would’ve all cried. Chelsea definitely would have cried.

She would’ve named the women who inspired her. The women who paved the way. And there would have been the usual cast of characters. But she would’ve named at least one woman none of us even knew about but who we all would then know about and learn about.

She would’ve said the blah, blah, blah campaign stuff. And while it’s all critically important to us, our minds would have gone elsewhere while she was weaving through those bullet points.

But then she would have changed her tone. And she would have talked about the division in this country. All the brutal, horrible things that were said during this campaign. And she would have SWORN to try her very hardest every single day to unite us and be the very best president any of us has ever had.

And those of us who believe in her would know that she really MEANT it. This lady works HARD and she’s smart as hell.

She might have even mentioned some folks by name — like the coal miners in West Virginia who overwhelmingly voted against her. And she would have told them, PLEDGED to them, that she wanted to be THEIR president and THEIR champion. That they would NOT be forgotten in her administration. And that she would be coming soon to talk with them. Before the inauguration even.

We would’ve seen how EAGER she was to get in there and to dazzle us with all she’d learned. And she’d say something, some reference to her schooling or her former classmates, that would remind us of Hermione. And we would LOVE her SO MUCH because she’s our real-life Hermione.

Her closing would have moved the hearts of everyone, including the women watching who hadn’t voted for her but who woke up their daughters to see history being made.

It would have ended with ALL of us ladies feeling so PROUD that a WOMAN finally got this job and so EXCITED for her to knock it out of the fucking park and show the world (and our daughters) that, HELL YES, a woman could and should be the ultimate boss.

That speech is written.

Hillary practiced it.

On election night, somebody packed a paper copy of it into a briefcase or box as a stunned hotel suite was vacated.

The aide who has it will keep his or her copy someplace special. Maybe, Wednesday afternoon, he or she wrote on it, in pen, certifying that it came from that hotel suite. And the curled-up corner on the cover page will add to its authenticity.

People will look at it someday — in someone’s private library or maybe in a museum case — and think, “She held this in her hands that night.”

This 69-year-old woman. This battle-weary warrior who dragged her ass around the globe and around this nation for something far greater than just power. This lady…

And that just breaks my heart in two for her and for all of us.

And it’s why it’s 9:16 AM on Saturday morning and I’m still in bed crying.

Advice to Newly Motherless Daughters… and Anyone Who Grieves

Two years ago, a good friend and admired colleague suffered the unexpected death of his wife – a vibrant, intelligent woman in her 50s. I was devastated for his entire family, but my thoughts turned to his 18-year-old daughter. I, too, lost my mom when I was in college. And, while I’d never met my colleague’s daughter, I felt compelled to share with her my learnings and advice. My friend recently asked my permission to share a copy of my note with yet  another young woman who was grieving the recent loss of a mother. In the interest of helping others more broadly, I decided to post the letter here. With the exception of the recipient’s name, little is changed.

Dear Jane,

You don’t know me but I’ve worked with and admire your dad.

My mom, Betsy Paterson May

My mom, Betsy Paterson May

My mom died suddenly between my third and fourth year of college. I was 21. She was three days shy of 48. She died of complications related to a rare benign brain tumor. She was healthy her whole life. She was sick (surgeries) for about a month and a half.

When she died, she was the person I loved most in the world and the person from whom I received the most love. Like your mom, she was a rare and exceptional woman. I see my mom in pictures of yours. This summer I turn 42 and will have spent half my life without her.

Hope Edelman wrote a book called “Motherless Daughters.” It came out about three or four years after my mom died. I was given no less than four copies and, while it was an interesting read, I didn’t find it particularly helpful. Then she released this one [book was enclosed] – letters that “Motherless Daughters” had written her. And it remains the only helpful thing I ever read about joining the “Dead Mom Club.” So here’s a copy.

Here are some things I learned on my own that may be helpful to you:

  • It’s her. If you think something is your mom (a song, a butterfly, a coincidence), especially over the next few months, you are right. So don’t even question those things. It’s her.
  • Why? There is no answer to the question “Why?” It took me about a year to figure that out. Someone told me in the last year that “Why?” is a human question, not a spiritual question. I thought that was interesting and maybe you too will ponder that one day. Regardless, you will never, ever, ever be able to make sense of why this happened. Maybe it will be helpful to know that now because things become a lot more peaceful when you stop asking that question.
  • Write. You come from writers. If you don’t have a journal, get one and try writing about this. The first entry is the hardest. I found that when I wrote things down about my mom – things I would miss about her, things I wish could be different, things I wish the doctors had done, a dream I’d had about her, whatever – the buzz in my head about that particular topic would be quieted. Something about writing it down allowed me to turn that subject off in my head. It gave me great peace and it also gave me something to do at night besides sobbing when I had a roommate in the freakin’ dorm room with me. I filled two books with grief. What therapy that was. And it made me a better writer. Big time.
  • Be gentle to yourself. You have internal bleeding right now, honey. For the next year, offload needy friends, reduce the volunteer stuff, take on only a bare minimum of responsibilities. Seriously. For a year.
  • Get a therapist. This summer – about three months from now – when people stop asking you daily or weekly how you are and start to go about their lives and when all your good friends have cried with you and heard your most horrid tales of anguish, get a grief counselor or join a grief group or just talk to someone with fresh ears once a week. After two consecutive weeks of visits with that person/group where you don’t cry, you’re done with that. But as long as you are crying weekly in someone’s presence, keep going and keep crying. I learned I needed therapy when I had an anxiety attack – out of nowhere – at about three months in. Save yourself that mess and get pre-emptive help. I saw a crappy free college therapist for three months, and it was really good for me. I ditched him when he couldn’t make me cry anymore. This was the first and only time I ever used a therapist. It did me a world of good.
  • She’s there. After you cry and beg for a sign from her and hope that she will make a book fall off a shelf or turn a lightbulb on and off… after you plead for her to show you anything to demonstrate that she’s still there with you, you’ll end up bawling. And after you do, resignation and exhaustion will wash over you. That’s her, honey. She’s holding you then. That’s her. And she’ll give you peace after your tempest. So just exhale and know that she’s got her arms wrapped around you and she’s kissing your lovely cheek and wiping off your tears with the back of her finger.
  • You will be happy again. The Greeks have a great word – palimpsest. It refers to a piece of parchment (a manuscript page from a scroll or book) from which the text has been scraped off or erased in order that the precious paper could be used again. For the next nine months to a year, every experience you have will be written on the same parchment that documented your mother’s tragic death. So previously joyous experiences will not be joyous. And you will question, through false smiles in social settings, if you will ever experience true joy again. Please know that you will. You absolutely will. You will be soaringly happy again. But it takes time. Time is a wonderful gift. Nine months after my mom died, I was so relieved and even shocked to experience a taste of joy again – on clean parchment. Not on palimpsest. It occurred to me then that it takes nine months to bring someone into the world. Maybe it takes nine months to let them out of it.
  • She will inhabit you. After you stop wanting to call her. After you stop wanting to tell her about the childhood friend you ran into. After you almost don’t even think to miss her because you’re so used to not having her there, you gradually will realize that she inhabits you. You will see her face in the mirror. You won’t miss that she didn’t “meet” your husband or see your kids because you will have a very certain knowledge that she inhabits you. Her love never, ever leaves you, and she is part of everything you do – not watching from above, but watching from within. She’s in you, honey. The love, her love, never leaves. That deep, deep wonderful love will be with you forever. She will be a part of your life forever and ever. Sincerely. My mother is with me all day, every day. She is in me. She knows my husband, she treasures my kids, she sees everything I do, she is proud of me still. She’s in me. I don’t even miss her these days. I just adore her.
  • Don’t sweat the thank-you notes. People will understand if you don’t write them. Your mom just died.

If you ever want to talk to someone, absolutely call me. It would be an honor to speak with or correspond with you. I am so deeply sorry this happened to your lovely, exquisite mom.

(As always, I welcome comments… about this post or on this topic.)