It’s been 11 days since my Mom died.
I’m sitting on the plane with my husband at my right. The last time I was on a plane typing it was September 10th, the day after she died and I was typing her story… I was writing the details of her passing and of that day when I found out because having lost a parent before, I remembered that it’s a blur and that it will be forgotten because our bodies and our brains have a way of protecting themselves from physical and emotional pain. On that first flight, the day after she died, I felt like I needed to preserve every thought; every feeling. I didn’t want to forget or misplace a memory lest it be disloyal to her in any way.
And to say that the last week and days have been the hardest of my life is an understatement.
I floated through those first hours. I was merely being propelled by the prayers and thoughts of all of the wonderful people around me.
The 3 hour delay in the Cabo airport.
The flight from Cabo to Dallas.
The flight from Dallas to Springfield.
Arriving at the airport, in a location where normally my Mom and sister would have been waiting for me with arms outstretched: “Hi! Are you hungry? Let’s go eat!”. It was different this time.
This time, I got off the plane in Springfield, Missouri, not my hometown or home state, but where my Mom and sister call home. And I put one foot in front of the other literally and figuratively. I walked with my head down as I deplaned, past the family reunions and hugs and I grabbed my suitcase from the conveyor belt and I picked up my rental car. It was about 7:45 p.m. at night and it was warm and dark and I truly wonder how I got from point A to point B. Through grace, after the longest day, I finally arrived at my baby sister’s house.
When I saw her, I was numb. As I write this, it has only been 11 days and I don’t remember — did we cry? What did we do? I know we hugged. I think we both exhaled. I know we hugged more. These are the times when silence speaks more loudly and accurately than any words can.
We both knew. We both understood.
That night and for the next few nights, we slept in the same bed, our Mom’s teeny dog sandwiched between us. When she was a baby, I would take my baby sister out of her bed and pull her in with me so that I could snuggle her and of course protect her from intruders. But the truth was that I felt safer when she was near me. I thought of those times and how now, so many years later the warmth of having my baby sister beside me was exactly what I needed.
That night, we didn’t sleep. How could we? She died on Monday afternoon, I arrived on Tuesday night and Wednesday, we both knew, would be our hardest day…
You don’t sleep when your Mom dies.
Your heart races and you cannot get it to slow down. You can’t barter, beg or plead or pray hard enough to get your mind to relax because you’re in shock.
My sister told me that her body and her heart physically hurt.
The anxiety is overwhelming. It’s all-encompassing. It’s smothering. I have never, ever, felt like that in all of my life…
Somehow, though – as it always does, morning came.
We got up and got ready and drove the hour and 45 minutes to Cabool, Missouri in Texas County. My Mom lived in Hartville, Missouri but for some reason, and we’ll never know why, she drove beyond her destination on Monday, September 9th and her life ended in Cabool on Highway M.
As we drove my sister and I talked. When something tragic like this happens, it seems that those left with the shards of glass do whatever they can to put them together; it’s like putting together a 5,000 piece puzzle without getting the opportunity to look at the cover of the puzzle box to help guide you. You’re just trying piece after piece.
We knew it was an accident.
We knew she was the only one involved.
Why was she driving so far out?
What were her last thoughts?
Did she not feel ok?
Did she know?
Was she in pain?
Was she aware?
Was she thinking about us?
Was she scared?
Did this really just happen?
In those hours immediately following my sister and I feared the same thing: that she was alone and scared following the accident. That she died… terrified and conscious.
What we knew at this point was that my Mom had left her home deep in the woods that morning or early afternoon prepared to pick up her best friend, as she always does, in a neighboring town. They were going to hang out, go shopping and my Mom was going to get her weekly blood test. (Her kidneys have been failing since December 2012.) She never made it to pick up her best friend. For whatever reason, my Mom missed her turn on the country roads that she’s been driving for 14 years and ended up driving on a highway that she had no business driving on.
My Mom’s best friend called my sister because my Mom is punctual and she never showed up to pick her up. This was completely unlike her.
Taryn called the doctor’s office where her blood test appointment was supposed to take place. Several times.
She never showed up.
Also unlike her.
My Mom’s cell phone wasn’t on her; she had forgotten it at my sister’s house a couple of nights before.
She was unreachable.
On Wednesday, the focus of our trip to Cabool was to meet with the funeral director. My sister and my Mom’s husband of nearly 10 years sat against the wall as I sat next to the desk of the funeral director.
In a funeral home. A funeral. Death. Bad dream? It is, right?
We had decided on cremation the day before; per my Mom’s wishes and we were there to pick up her purse. Apparently the funeral director had it in his possession when her body was brought to his place of business.
The feeling of having a total stranger hand you your Mom’s purse. In a funeral home. After she died.
I don’t think I could even look at it. I don’t believe I held it. I believe Taryn did. My Mom’s purse was here… but she wasn’t.
The funeral director, Jim, walked us through what he understood of the accident.
Jim received a phone call at 1:41 p.m. from a friend who was driving on M Highway. “Jim, how soon can we have an emergency vehicle out here? There’s been an accident and I haven’t gotten back to the car yet…”
Jim’s friend didn’t live in that county and apparently he had either seen the accident happen, or came upon it shortly after it happened. I haven’t been able to call him yet… but I will. One day when I have words.
Jim’s friend then went back and stayed with my Mom, who, at that time was unresponsive. Dead.
As we were talking with the funeral director, the county coroner walked in and I had the opportunity to ask the questions that had been running through my head.
First and foremost, what happened?
My Mom was driving and apparently her right passenger-side tire veered off the road. In an attempt to correct herself and get her car back on to the road, she over-corrected and went into a slide. She then went up an embankment about 30 ft. from the road and her car struck a tree.
One moment, please.
This is not the story of someone else’s death. It’s her death. It’s how she left this earth.
I asked the corner, did she feel pain? Did she languish in the car? Scared? Alone?
The coroner, a tall, stoic Bible-belt cowboy-esque gentlemen said, “I’m a straight shooter and I’ll tell you the truth… I strongly believe that your Mom didn’t suffer.”
You see, my Mom… for some reason, wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. (My sister and I found this UNBELIEVABLE. Not only is our Mom a stickler for seatbelt-wearing who UNDERSTANDS how treacherous the country roads are, her car repeatedly dings until you fasten your seatbelt. So that would mean that my Mom had driven about an hour or so with the constant dinging of a seatbelt in her ear…)
According to the coroner and the funeral director, there was not a lot of blood at the scene or on my Mom… which probably means her heart stopped beating and pumping blood before her car struck the tree.
When my Mom over-corrected her car, the coroner thought that her body was jostled around which resulted in her neck breaking. This means her heart stopped pumping blood rather quickly. (Hence, the lack of blood on my Mom and the car after the accident.) She also received a fracture on her skull, a dislocated left wrist and a laceration on her head – we believe either above her eye or right below it.
The coroner strongly believed that my Mom never knew that she hit that tree. Instead, he thought that when her spirit left her body, her foot hit the accelerator and the car hit the tree.
Her body was found half in the driver seat and the passenger seat, with her head against the door.
I have to write down these memories because they’re mine now. They’re part of my story now. They may seem morbid or I may seem heartless, but when you lose someone you love in a tragic way, as I’ve said, you need to do everything you can to put the pieces back together and these details… they make up the puzzle. And while I don’t feel peace about knowing just how her body was laying; I need to know.
We appreciated the answers.. The coroner talked with us for at least 20-30 minutes as we digested every last detail. I asked him what she was wearing. He told us which capri pants and which shirt and I knew exactly what he was referring to; my sister did, too. We asked him how he found her body. We learned that the jaws of life were used.
He explained that given her poor health, her delicate condition, there is truly no way her body could have sustained the impact of that accident and that, by the grace of God, her life was taken quickly…
And while that may not settle the average heart, I think it has helped mine…
After our conversation with the coroner, we finished with the funeral director. Would we like to buy a book for people to sign at her memorial? Would we need “In Memorial” cards? Would we like to write an obituary?
No. No to ALL OF THIS. My brain was screaming and crying, “NO thank you, Funeral-director-Jim. I’d rather not do ANY OF THIS, thankyouverymuch. I’d rather open my eyes and find that this was all a terrible mistake; a nightmare. You’ve got someone else’s Mom’s body in your basement or back room; not mine.
So we bought the book. We agreed to the memorial cards. We figured we’d decide later about if we’d need urns or not.
Next, I found myself driving my sister and my Mom’s husband to the towing company so that we could retrieve whatever was in her car.
Initially, I had told myself that I did NOT want to see her car or where she died. But when the opportunity presented itself, I believe my sister and I were drawn. When we arrived, her car was still on the flatbed.
Hands to mouth.
The entire front end of my mother’s car was gone. Unrecognizable.
I climbed up onto the flatbed towing truck and the passenger door was completely crushed, but the driver’s side… remarkably opened. The front bumper of her car was haphazardly thrown into the front seats; an afterthought more than likely picked up from the scene of the accident and just disrespectfully thrown in the exact place where my Mom breathed her last breath.
There was glass everywhere – every window but the rear was shattered. I picked up and held the glass pieces. I put some in my pocket. I can’t explain it.
And then, there were her shoes. Her black flip-flops. Her travel mug. The library books that were going to be returned that day. Her checkbook. An Arby’s sauce packet on the floor. Her Bible.
All reminders that this was real. This was our Mom. This just happened.
It felt like a sacred place.
I can’t describe it.
I held on to her steering wheel.
I wanted to touch everything that she touched.
I wanted to hold what she was holding on to when she breathed her last breath.
I couldn’t let go of the steering wheel.
I would have held it forever…
We cleared her car. We stood in silence. We walked around the car. We studied the car. We paid close attention to the yellow paint that was vividly showing on the driver’s side wheel wells. The paint was just laid down and it looked as if she must have driven over it just seconds before she died. Or, had she been driving on the wrong side of the road for a while? Had she passed out? Had her body failed her? We studied the car. We looked at every wire, every metal grate, every dislocated mangled piece and part all trying to understand. I looked for blood. The coroner and the funeral director said there really wasn’t much… and I found some. Just two spots on the passenger side of the door, probably from where her sweet head landed… The blood dripped down to the door jam.
There was a lot of exhaling. Loud, audible, exhaling. There was so much silence.
A man who worked at the junkyard walked past us and said, “Well… that looks like a bad one…” in reference to my Mom’s car.
None of us spoke.
Yeah. A bad one.
I think we were there for about an hour. I don’t remember. I do know that I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to forever stay where my Mom took her last breath; where her soul left this world.
I took so many pictures of the car. I had to. I’ve looked at those pictures so many times over the past few days. Right before we left my sister pulled a chunk of what I presume was “The Tree” from what was left of the front of her car. She grabbed it and took it with us.
And then, we drove away. In silence.
That day we had talked with a funeral director.
Talked with the coroner.
Seen the car that our Mom died in.
Next, we drove the hour and 15 minutes to my Mom’s house.
Past Hartville, Missouri there are a series of country roads that lead you to the forested driveway of my Mom. For the past 14 years, my heart would beat faster when we’d get to this point on our trip. Though I never lived in Missouri, my Mom and sister moved there when I was 20, it was still where my Mom lived… and wherever our Mom is, well, that’s home.
In visits past, we’d pull up next to the house and OUT she’d come smiling HUGELY, welcoming us and telling us how happy she was to see us and helping us with our bags.
Oh, how I dreaded walking into her quiet home.
When we arrived, my Aunt, her sister, was already there. And for a moment my heart skipped a beat because when I saw her through the window with her head down at the kitchen sink she looked just like my Mom.
When we walked into the house, I couldn’t speak.
I made it about 4 feet and then I just stopped. I stood there paralyzed with my hand covering my mouth.
The phone rang, it was the preacher, wanting to talk about our memorial plans, but I couldn’t speak. He had to call back.
And I walked around and I looked at everything — and I did it again. I had to touch everything. I had to see her makeup left on the bathroom counter just as she had left it two days before. I had to see her notebook on the table and touch it. I had to see the fingerprints of her life. And I wanted to touch it all. I wanted to smell her nightgown that was hanging on the hook next to her shower. I wanted to sit in her closet and cry.
Oh, that day. I will never forget it.
I knew early on how I was going to handle my immediate grief; I was going to jump into the details and honor the wishes of my Mom. It’s those details and that planning that is both wildly overwhelming and brainlessly comforting. While my Mom was married, her husband is much older than she and these details are beyond him,so together with my sister… we started what you do.
We called social security. And life insurance. And auto insurance. And my sweet friend’s incredible husband found us a lawyer to talk with. And we decided a day for her memorial: Saturday, September 14.
My Mom updated her “will” folder every January and this past January was no different. In her folder were all of the details necessary in the event of her passing: phone numbers, her wishes, her words.
One of my favorites was this:
She was so cool.
And there’s more. But that’s ours.
On the 1.5 hour drive back to Springfield from my Mom’s my sister and I did what we eventually did for the next several days; we repeated the facts over and over and over again.
What came up time and again was that while we were SHOCKED by how she died, we were not sad that she was no longer in pain.
My Mom was ready.
My Mom was tired.
Her body was exhausted.
But again, if you would have told us that she would have died in a car accident… I would have never, EVER believed you.
We kept repeating, she’s in heaven. If you knew my Mom, you knew that she had FAITH beyond reason. She believed in heaven and she knew that was where she was going. She was SUCH a woman of wit and humor, but she was a woman of faith and everyone around her knew it.
Our hearts are broken, but our brains understand.
We’re just waiting for that time when both our hearts and our brains are on the same page.
That night, we went home and I cried. I cried and cried. In front of my brother-in-law, with my sister…
I cried because I missed her. Because I was in shock. Because of the truth of the situation and the gravity of it. Because the reality of the situation reared it’s ugly head introducing me to what I assumed what be days and weeks of tears. I cried because there we were, her two daughters, without a mother.
The next day, Thursday, Taryn and I ran errands. We made phone calls. We found pictures. We wrote her obituary and we wrote the words to be printed on her “In Memorial” cards and we chose a bible verse to be placed there, too.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue… Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also and he praises her: many women do noble things but you surpass them all.”
Proverbs 31: 25-26, 28-29
We cried and we clung.
And we smiled at my sister’s sweet babies who continued to make us smile.
We prepared for the memorial.
It just didn’t seem real.
On Friday morning, we made the trip to Cabool again. This time, to pick up the memorial cards and to pay the cremation fee.
The reality of writing a check to a funeral home is overwhelming. Breathless.
We met with the preacher the day before, too. He is a sweet, kind soul who loved our Mom. And he said, “You know, I could tell that Shirley wasn’t feeling too well the past couple of weeks… but you know, whenever I’d ask her, ‘How are you doing today, Shirley?’ She’d say, with a smile – ‘Pretty good’ — even when all you had to do is look at her to know that wasn’t true.”
My Mom left a note in her “will” folder that she wanted a particular blue grass singer to sing at her funeral and the preacher arranged it. We talked about verses and I told him that I wanted everyone to know that the memorial is to be a CELEBRATION of her life. Not a sob fest. He understood.
We talked about verses and he mentioned, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…”
And that now, she’s at rest.
I told him that I’d like to speak and he said that would be fine.
I don’t know how to explain it.
All of my life I’ve been my Mom’s right-hand. She could ALWAYS count on me; and I liked that. If you know me, you know that I like to be counted on. I like responsibility. I like to follow through.
And I felt like this, this was my “last job” for her. It was my last task and I wanted to do good by her. I wanted to ensure that her legacy was as AMAZING as she is. I wasn’t nervous, I just knew in my heart that I needed to speak.
So, after our meeting with the preacher (becuase they’re “preachers” in Missouri, not pastors), we left for Springfield. Another 1.5 hour drive. Another time for Taryn and I to process. In hindsight, I’m so thankful for those opportunities to just slow down and absorb.
That Friday night, I drove to the airport and I picked up my husband at the airport. It felt like I hadn’t seen him for months and seeing him, hugging him… oh… it made me feel brave and for a moment, like I could cast off my “You’re the strong one” hat that I made myself wear (that no one forced upon me!) and just cry. One of the many reasons I love him…
After I picked him up, we went to Taco Bell where I proceeded to cry. I cry everywhere. Look out. Taco Bell. The bank.
We went back to my sister’s house and I finished up the words I wanted to share at the memorial.
I think I slept that night.
On Saturday morning, September 14th, my college roommate, my best friend from WIsconsin, met us at my sister’s house and we drove the 1.5 hours to Hartville. I would have shown up 5 minutes before the Memorial was to start but my sister wanted to be there early. And I wanted to be with my sister. That’s the funny thing about grief, we all process it so differently. What’s important to some, may not be to another. But we all have to cope the way we know how. Seeing my aunts and uncles walk in; all resembling my Mom, was overwhelming. I lost my Mom; they lost their sister.
When my cousin walked in, my Mom’s godson, I coudln’t hug him lest I LOSE it. He loved her like I did.
And then, it was time. The church was full and the family, my sister and her husband, myself and Craig and my Mom’s husband all walked in together. I looked at the floor. I remember thinking, “This is the anti-wedding. The last thing I want is all-eyes-on-us.” If we could have snuck in through a side door, I would have been thrilled.
We sat in the front row.
My Mom’s photo, a beautiful one, was displayed in the center of gorgeous flower arrangements and plants that she would have loved.
The preacher welcomed the friends and family.
Then he read her obituary.
And then it was my turn. I walked up there. And I looked at everyone.
And I took a minute. I collected myself. And then I spoke.
And this is what I said.
You can never actually prepare for a moment like this, but I’m going to do my best to honor our Mom’s legacy.
First, I know that she would want me to thank each and everyone of you for coming today. From near and very, very far – I’m sure she wishes she could be here to give each of you a hug. So, on behalf of myself and Carl and my sister – I thank you.
It is a privilege to stand here today and talk about my Mom. She had prepared us for today. We knew that our Mom wasn’t going to live for 90 years and she knew that, too. So, what she chose to do, is what she always did, she made the best of the situation.
In her 59 short years, she lived the life that she had intended. Sure, she had ups and downs, and she was plagued by health conditions from the time she was 19 on, but just yesterday when Junior came over and we were talking about this service, he said, “No one ever knew… No one ever knew the pain that Shirley was going through… or the the severity of her health issues because she kept a smile on her face and just put one foot in front of the other and pressed on.
And that’s our Mom.
That little woman was stronger than a prizefighter. She had a laugh that was true and authentic. I will miss her voice and most of her advice. I will miss her sense of humor and her quick wit, her ability to find beauty in anything, to find purpose in the most random or seemingly unimportant objects. I will forever be proud of her servant’s heart that inspired her to help anyone she could. She was constantly learning and trying new things – from soap making, to just recently, learning how to quilt. She could do anything. She knew what a 9/16 box end wrench was. She was handy and surrounded herself with the things she loved and she loved Missouri. She loved the woods, her church, her house and her garden.
She was an incredible Mom. We were lucky in that we talked freely and I can stand here confidently saying that she knew how much Taryn and I loved her. And, we knew how much she loved us. And our children. That’s such a gift.
While we’re sad and sometimes overtaken by grief, we rest very assuredly in the fact that she’s no longer in pain. She’s no longer tied to this body that was duct-taped together. We didn’t lose her, we know right where she is. She’s in heaven looking down on us today and smiling and wishing she was here to hug each and everyone of you.
In the papers that she left for us to read upon her death, she said this:
“Please don’t’ worry about me when I am gone. I will be with you again in heaven and I will be in A1 health. I will be waiting for you all and if I can, I will you know I am fine, but if I can’t, know that I am.”
She’s fine. She’s home.
Thank you for coming today.
The memorial service was just what she wanted. I know she loved it. “If you wonder where Shirley is right now, well then, you just didn’t know her.”
The ladies of the church provided a perfect meal; complete with chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes and gravy, ham, every side dish you could imagine and a ridiculous amount of desserts. My Mom would have loved every bit of it – and tasted it all, too.
It was comforting talking with people who loved her, too. Everyone had a story. A story that I hadn’t heard. And that’s how we heal, isn’t it? We tell stories and we bond and we hug and we remember and we wrap up our memories and keep them in the safest place: our heart.
After the memorial, we drove to my Mom’s house and as we pulled up, her siblings were sitting around the campfire… and some were in the house. And we chatted and smiled and cried and remembered and cried and laughed.
My Mom was there.
She was there with us.
They got to see what she LOVED. They got to see why she moved from Ohio to the middle of nowhere at 47 years of age. There was no road. No electricity. No spring. No nothing. She made it her own little piece of heaven.
I’m so pleased people got to see that… I think she was, too.
On Sunday, we slept. We rested. We tried to pretend that we were normal and it felt good. On Sunday night, Craig and I went out to dinner with my sister and her family and my Mom wasn’t there… and it felt… different… but we laughed and we remembered and we were a family.
Our new normal.
The days that have followed have been… hard. We’ve met with our attorney, we’ve gone to the bank a few times, we cleaned her house and burned her journals, we smiled at photos and we cried because there are moments when this is all more than we can handle. More than I can handle.
The details will take time. We will sell the house and acres. We will handle it. We are heartbroken, of course, but we will be ok.
Today, Friday September 20th I’m vacillating between shock and sadness and peace. I’ve been typing this for about 2 hours now and while I’m ready to go home and see my girls and start my life, I’m terrified.
Just this morning there was some flight drama that threatened that we might not get home today to Lila and Vivienne and while I heard Craig telling his Mom about it on the phone (she’s watching our girls), I thought to myself… I have no one to call. Only a Mom cares about delayed flights. Only my Mom cares about every detail of my daily life.
Your Mom is the first person to love you.
And while I know that she raised me to be strong and courageous, I have to admit, I’m scared. I’m scared of what the future holds. I’m sad that I can never hear her voice again. I’m sad that I’m 34 and both of my parents are dead. Dead. And I’m sad that my sister is 25 and her Mom is no longer a phone call away. And I don’t want to create a new normal. I want the OLD normal… but then whenver I say that, I catch myself, because you see, I don’t want the old normal. The old normal included a mom who was chronically ill, a mom who had a central line and who was hooked up to an IV 12 hours a day. It would be selfish of me to wish her back here in that condition. And I know that.
So, instead, I’ll look forward to the day when I’m reunited with her.
I am beyond thankful for the 34 years that I had with that wacky, witty, funny, beautiful, kind lady. I am thankful for her sacrifices and her love; for her support and for most importantly for making my sister and I who we are today.
We’re strong, because of her.
And although we are heartbroken, we will be ok.
September 30, 2013 :: Slivers of Sunlight :: Post here.