I should have known when my feet turned the icy corner to my street and I saw the extra cars parked at my house. That probably could have been the moment, but my house was fourth from the corner, so I still had approximately forty-five seconds left of not knowing and I gladly took them.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned. Only a few nights before, when the four younger boys were asleep, my dad had asked me and my older brother, Michael, to join him at the kitchen table. There he carefully told us, in more words than I’m using now, that our mom was dying. After months of illness, hope, treatments, and struggle, it had come to this. My brother cried, I think, and asked relevant questions. I concentrated on tearing a random scrap of paper into the tiniest specks I could manage. When all the words had been spoken, I assured my dad that I had no questions and went upstairs to do my homework, leaving behind a miniature white snowdrift on the table.
So this was not out of the blue.
I got an unplanned ride home with my friend Angie that Thursday after school, and we left the building before my name was called over the intercom in an attempt to intercept me, to keep me busy in the office because they didn’t want me home just yet. I told Angie’s mom I would walk from her house, and that’s how I came to be rounding the corner on foot that afternoon.
I still remember what I was wearing as I walked away those forty-five seconds between thigh-high snowbanks piled on both sides of the sidewalk. My aunt’s white hand-me-down pants, with legs so wide I wouldn’t be caught dead in them before pegging them to within a centimeter of unhealthy ankle circulation (this was 1988, after all). An oversized, button-up shirt with splashes of pink and blue. Another aunt’s tan and brown ski jacket. I still had my heavy curtain of straight little-girl bangs that covered—and likely helped create—a nice crop of pimples that had recently sprung forth on my forehead.
On my feet were pink scrunchy socks and white Keds, which steadily moved me past the Kirschbaums’ house, past the Alispachs’, past the Johnsons’, past my grandma’s car parked on the street, up my front walk, up the ten steps of my porch, through the white front door, and right into the moment.
The grown-ups stop talking at once as the door swings open. They are huddled right there around the banister at the foot of the stairs: Dad, Grandma, Aunt Jill. Their red-rimmed eyes gaze down at me, surprised. Wary. A little lost. “Oh, Honey . . .” Grandma breathes. She and Jill glance at Dad, who takes a deep breath and steps toward me. Puts his arms around me. Tells me she died thirty minutes ago. They lead me to the living room couch.
And now I seem to be up near the ceiling, looking down at the top of my own head as Dad softly speaks more words, and Grandma wraps her arms around me and tells me I can cry. I have no access to tears. I stare straight ahead and they’re talking about the funeral—probably Monday, they say. I’m back in my body now, and I ask if I have to go. In the silence I sense them exchanging grown-up looks over my head. Well, yes, it will be good for you. The kids go to these things. Oh, they do? Okay then.
Aunt Jill took me out for ice cream a few minutes later, because the mortuary people were coming to get the body and neither one of us wanted to be there for that. I don’t remember our conversation in the car—though I do remember the vanilla soft serve—but Grandma later told me that Jill was so impressed by my composure. Well, here’s a little secret. Impressing people was something I did not hate. Here was a feat I could easily pull off, impressing people with my composure. So that’s what I did.
I went to school the very next morning. My dad said of course I didn’t have to, but I just couldn’t miss my first-ever middle school Valentine’s dance. As I fiddled with my locker combination, I glanced up in time to catch the looks of disbelief on the faces of my friends, who were staring at me from their tight group a few feet away. I wondered what they were talking about. Surely something more interesting than me.
Many months later I lay in the dark on my friend’s family room floor, surrounded by the disembodied whispers and giggles of sleepover guests. We had reached that time of the night when things got real. With all the lights out, voices were braver. Questions escaped.
“What’s it like to have your mom die?” The half-whisper came from my left, and I could hear heads on pillows turning my way as it hung in the air.
So I told for the first time the details of that day, and my voice came out steady and placid, the way an anchor reads the evening news. But as the words dispersed in the dark I felt a shiver begin in my core, and it spread to my limbs until my whole body was shaking so fiercely I feared the others would feel it through the floor. I cut the story short and trembled there, insulated in my sleeping bag, long after the talk turned to other things.
Months and years passed but I stayed right there—hiding in the safety of a shell that could cover the occasional quaking. When I reached my final semester of college and looked past the end of my path, I faced for the first time a blank, unscripted future. It felt nothing but flat.
I wandered to the basement of the student center and signed myself up for free therapy. Every week I would walk down those steps and sit silently, one eye on the exit, as a circle of strangers shared their souls. And week after week I’d clamp my mouth shut against feelings that were breaking loose, shaking their way out with such force I’d wrap my feet around the legs of my chair to keep it from clattering.
Then one day I opened my mouth. All heads turned to me. And my voice was not steady, my face not composed, but I told them how it was to have my mom die. My missing her filled up the room. And then I climbed those wide, worn stairs up from the basement and came out blinking in the clear blue light of an April afternoon. I stood and I ached, and the world seemed real.
I used to think not changing could be my choice. I thought that through sheer force of will I could march through storms, through tragedy—through that moment by my front door—and come away untouched. But twenty-seven years later, that moment has its fingers in my everything. It hovers behind my casual musings, such as Why have I always hated shopping? and When will I find my first gray hairs? It steals one of my heartbeats when I see my mother’s look-alike younger sister whisper something in her daughter’s ear that makes my cousin laugh out loud.
That moment left me hanging on my wedding day, when I had to peek my head out the dressing room door to find someone who could zip me up. It knocked the wind out of me on a recent December afternoon, when the first strains of Karen Carpenter’s “Christmas Waltz” tickled some hidden memory and flung me right back to the cinnamon warmth of my mother’s kitchen.
And three days after my first child was born, that moment wrung me out as the realizations crashed like waves: having my own daughter hadn’t brought her back; the years of longing were not over; becoming a mother didn’t mean I would ever stop needing mine. What it did mean was more joy that she couldn’t share, and so much more for me to lose.
I feel it every February eleventh, this sadness that is different, somehow, just because of a number on a calendar. This is when the snow stays, when my world stops. This is the day a twelve-year-old girl stuck out her chin, walked through her front door, and had her feet knocked out from under her.
I find my strength in the admission of it.