everything

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I’m just coming off of the never-ending stomach bug from hell. One evening, while the littlest was siphoning off the only fluid my body had managed to retain (I wish I was kidding), I started thinking about all the times my mom has helped me when I’ve been sick.

When I was little (and not-so-little) my mom would always station me in her bed so I could put on the TV if I was feeling up to it. She would place a bucket next to the bed, with a little bit of water in the bottom, knowing that I was horrendous at actually making it to the toilet to throw up. Mom would bring me ginger ale and ice in a glass, with a spoon, so I could stir out all of the bubbles. She would make me chicken noodle soup. These are still the things I like when I’m sick. My very patient hubby, Eric, still even lets me throw up in a bucket (I can hear my mom scolding me, exaggerating the vowels in my name).

I learned young where my mom learned her skills from, when once while my parents were away, I had to wake my Grammy in the middle of the night after a nose bleed had covered my bed sheets. Despite (probably) being quite tired, she was kind and patient, and helped change the sheets and stop the nose bleed.

My favourite ‘sick’ memory is from when I was in grade three. My mom and dad had been away on vacation, and my Grammy was staying at our house. On the day my parents got home I didn’t get to see them before leaving for school. I waited until I thought they’d be home, and then I faked sick.

Once we were home, my mom called my Grammy, as she often did. I was lying in our family room, in the sun spot created by our sliding doors. I was enjoying the warmth of the sun on my skin when I heard my mom say, “Ashley’s home sick. I thought that she just wanted to come home because I’ve been away, but she must really be sick…. she’s sleeping on the floor in the family room.” The thing is, up to that point, my mom never made me feel like she knew I was faking. She took the time to take care of me even though she had suspected it was that I missed her, not that I was sick. There was no lecture about faking sick. I couldn’t even tell if my mom was even slightly annoyed that I faked sick to come home. On that day, in that moment, my mom gave me exactly what I needed: her love and time.

Mom and Grammy, 2013

Mom and Grammy, 2013

There is still a lot of sadness for me when I think of these memories, depending on the day sometimes crippling sadness, sometimes just a few tears. This memory had me really thinking about all the hours I saw my mom talk to my Grammy on the phone. I have always spent a lot of time on the phone with my mom, but I had assumed that I would have many more years of that. I expected afternoons with tea and shopping trips, just like my mom and Grammy had enjoyed. I expected to chat with mom on the phone when one of the girls was home sick from school. I expected more.

I expected more, and even though I believe that I am missing out on so much, when I think of these simple memories, I also know it to be true that my mom gave me everything.

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I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

I am the girl with the dead mom.

My hand aches. My heart aches.

fly, baby

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I started my university career in 2002. It was a very quick transition from spending my summer in Honey Harbour working with 3 and 4 year olds at the Delawana Inn, to one night at my parent’s house, to my new apartment-style residence with new roommates.

The summer, like every summer through high school working at camp, was fun. Being at camp was like being with ‘my people’. If you’ve ever attended or worked at a camp, you’ll know exactly what I mean. My mom would drive up to visit me on my days off, my sister mailed me delicious cookies and other treats, and my friends sent me lots of snail mail.

Leaving camp that summer was hard, but the quick turnaround to university was even harder. I remember I cried on the way home from camp the day I left, my mom just driving, not needing to say anything. Change is just hard for me, and I was very nervous about moving away from home for school.

The day my mom and dad drove me to school, was a day later than everyone else. I was the last of my roommates to move in. I was petrified. While we were moving in, I met so many lovely folks, some of who are still among my dearest friends.

My dear friend Tara often jokes with me about that day. I stuck to my mom’s side, and when anyone asked me a question, I just looked at my mom with a deer in the headlights kind of expression. My mom did more talking that day than I did. I was quite shy back in the day – I know you might be shocked by this, but my residence don later described me that year as the quietest loud person he had ever met…. or maybe he said the loudest quiet person.

After we had unloaded my belongings, my parents took me out to eat, afterwards dropping me off in front of my residence. I don’t remember the exact words that were exchanged, but I remember I was so nervous, and I told my mom I was worried that I wouldn’t make any friends. What if nobody liked me? I can’t quite remember what my mom said to me, but I remember how she made me feel so loved, giving me the courage I needed to go back into my residence on my own. She told me to just be myself. She wanted me to fly.

One of the best things my mom ever did for me, was to love me for exactly who I was, without hesitation or expectation. She loved me because I existed. She loved sharing in the activities I loved, like dancing – spending hours upon hours curling my hair, sitting at the dance studio, and driving me to and from competitions. Through her support and unconditional love, she gave me the ability to develop confidence in myself. She made it okay if not everybody liked me, because she showed me that regardless of what another person might think, I was loveable.

She led by example, teaching me to trust in those who did care for me, and teaching me to be kind and respect those who I didn’t click with, for one reason or another – or at least to continue to aim for those ideals.

Mom on my wedding day, 2008

Mom on my wedding day, 2008

When I think of moving to university and starting, for the first time, my real life away from home, I think of these lessons. I think of how my mom heard my anxieties and fears about leaving, and gave me the love, encouragement, and little push that I needed. I remember that she trusted and believed in me – she believed that I would succeed at school, she believed that I would develop long-lasting, supportive friendships, and she believed that I could do it all on my own. She believed I could fly.

Thank you, mama. I think I’m flying.

 

 

The everyday

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A year of firsts – the first time for everything to happen without my mom and uncle. We still have a lot of big firsts to get through, Easter, Mother’s Day, birthdays, and what would have been my parent’s 44th anniversary. A lot of people reach out on those big days, and for that I am so thankful. They are hard days, and I’m sure they will be for a long time. But, for me, what hurts more than those big days are all the other days in between.

The hard times are when we’re in the car and Maddy says something hilarious, and I pick up my phone to text my mom. When the clock hits 3:30 and I have a moment of excitement that my mom will be home from work soon and I can call her to talk about nothing… and everything. Every morning when I wake up to face another day without my mom, and every night when I climb into bed with the knowledge that I survived another day. The helplessness of seeing so many others with the one thing I desperately want, but having no power to make it my reality.

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The tough moments are when we run into issues with our house and I want to ask Uncle Rob what he would do. Drinking a Pepsi and thinking about how Uncle Rob and I always fought on the same side of the Pepsi vs Coke debate, making jokes about our superior taste buds. Emailing photos and videos of the girls to extended family, the absence of my Uncle’s email address on my screen so glaringly obvious.

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The enormity of forever.

I am constantly balancing two worlds – while my body is physically present, my mind frequently wanders in and out of that physical world, thinking of my mom and uncle more times than I suspect many realize. It’s a daily battle with grief, managing feelings of sadness, anger, shame, and loneliness, while working to not get bitter or resentful. It’s processing a feeling, only to have it resurface again and again.

When I have the energy, I fight to make connections with those who are willing to connect, even though I am often simultaneously feeling anger towards them for a number of irrational reasons. I am actively forgiving those who don’t get it and who unintentionally create additional hurt. I am determined to not allow my grief to shape me into a person that I don’t want to be. I am working towards forgiving and being kind to myself.

The hard in-between-the-big-days days are a balancing act of facing my feelings head on, openly admitting them through a variety of activities to take the pressure off, and giving myself a break. Protecting my heart and saying no when I need to, while also challenging myself and saying yes when I think I can. Searching for beauty, while wrestling with the fear that seeing beauty somehow diminishes my loss. Reminding myself to trust that my soul knows what it needs to survive this loss, and blocking out what the world thinks I need or what I should or shouldn’t do.

The everyday is Eric’s soft voice at the end of the day telling me he’s sorry…. because there is nothing else to say.

 

The three things you can learn from my preschooler

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My three and a half year old preschooler said three of the best things tonight. Three things that we could all use a reminder of, and three things that make me think that preschoolers have got it way more together than us adults.

1. Saying good night to her wee sister, Ella, Maddy said, “I love you just the way I am.” Sure, she got a bit mixed up, but we know that Maddy was saying that she loves her sister just the way she is. Isn’t that the way it should always be? Loving one another for exactly who they are? For all of their amazing qualities and all of their messy parts?

2. When we were doing our nightly “highs and lows” during our bedtime routine (our favourite and least favourite parts of the day), I shared with Maddy that my least favourite part of the day was when someone said something to me that hurt my feelings. Maddy immediately said to me, “You should have told him/her not to say that, that it hurts your feelings.” Yes, babe, that’s exactly what I should have done.

How much easier life would be if we all were able to communicate with such simplicity. Something we should all strive for – being open and honest with one another when we are hurt, and being open to the constructive criticism when someone shares with us that something we have said or done has been hurtful.

3. Also during bedtime routine, we talked about Great-Grammy, Grammy, and Uncle Rob, and how much we miss them in heaven. Maddy told me that they must all wear their clothes all of the time so that when they are allowed to come back home they will be ready right away.

After I reminded Maddy that they will never be able to come back home (goodness, I’m looking forward to age six when she will understand the permanence of death), we were talking about how we can feel sad and also still be okay. And, more importantly, that we can feel sad and be okay even when the world wants us to just be happy. We talked about how we can be okay sooner if we honour our feelings than if we ignore our feelings. Then Maddy said to me, “I can like a movie while I watch it, and still like it when it’s over. So, we can still love Grammy when she’s in heaven. We can look at pictures to be happy again.” Yes. This. Thanks, kiddo, for simplifying for so many why mourning is okay.

I am a very proud mommy tonight. More than anything I’m thankful to have had so many people in my life who loved me just right, so that I have been able to love Maddy just right.

I hope that Grammy, Mom and Uncle Rob are looking down on us tonight and wrapping Maddy and Ella up in that same love.

Last chance for everything

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I’m into a new phase. I’m past that early acute grief. It took over two months for the shock to wear off…. for my brain and my heart to know that my mom and uncle were dead. In that time, every day I was constantly bombarded with, “Mom and Uncle Rob are dead? Mom and Uncle Rob are dead!” I was constantly wondering how this could happen, why it would happen. Though, of course, no good answers ever came to me.

Those early months felt like a dark, weighted cloud was sitting on me, pushing me down. I was split in two. A part of me wanted to feel joy again, to get past the pain. An equally strong part of me never wanted to feel any happiness again, wanted to stay in that pain. Staying in that pain felt almost like a way to make this not real. Like I would wake up one day to find out this had all been a terrible nightmare.

The weight of that dark cloud made it feel like grief was happening to me. I felt so out of control. As the weight slowly lifted, I was able to see that allowing the weight to lift didn’t make this any less horrible, sad, or tragic. It didn’t make me miss my mom or uncle any less. It didn’t mean that I loved them any less. It did give me some breathing room. I no longer feel like grief is happening to me. Now I feel like an active participant in my grief. I’ve established a small sense of control in what still feels like a chaotic and unsafe world. I feel like I’ve gained control over my grief work, setting aside time each day to work through whatever my mind and heart needs me to.

Right now I have two ways of being: deeply sad, angry, or anxious, or, distracted from sadness, anger, or anxiety. I am able to take interest in things, but it’s active and tiring, and I have to pace myself. I still don’t feel real happiness or pure joy. I smile and I laugh, but it’s smiles and laughter that are fragile, the pain just under the surface and threatening to break through at any moment.

The lifting of the weight has started to bring my memory back. For three months the accident acted as a broken sieve, holding back memories that I desperately craved. I wondered if my memories would ever return, despite the assurance from my grief counsellor that they would. It felt like my memories were just another thing that the universe was taking without my permission. Perhaps our bodies are designed that way to protect us from the massive pain that we surely couldn’t endure all at once. In particular, my mind craved the memory of the last time I had seen my mom and uncle, just a week before the accident. Despite my efforts, that visit had become a blur and no details were within my reach. The details are starting to come back. Though not complete, I remember a lot about that last visit now.

It was Thanksgiving. Madeleine and I spent the afternoon sitting on the floor of my parents family room, making beaded necklaces and bracelets. The last gift Maddy would give my mom. After Maddy lost interest, she asked my mom to help her find specific beads, whatever her favourite of the moment, all of the butterflies or all of the hearts. My mom joked with me that she’d be finding beads under her furniture for months (without doubt, after every visit I would get a text from my mom about her decorative marbles Maddy loved to play with, and all of the bizarre places my mom was finding them).

mom and maddy

Eric and my brother, Scotty, took Loki to the dog park. While they were out, Madeleine kept repeating to everyone, with incredible enthusiasm, “Welcome home!” Mom and I convinced Maddy that she should run to the door to say that to daddy and Uncle Scott when they got home. Alas, she forgot by the time they walked through the door.

We all sat together for dinner, dad taking one of his “table pictures”. Prior to the accident, my dad’s insistence on having the same photo at every family gathering was annoying. Today, I’m so happy we have that last photo together. I only wish my oldest sister and family were with us that weekend. After dinner, as usual, my family sat around the table chatting, nibbling on dessert and enjoying some drinks.

fam jam

Eric and I decided it was time for us to leave. Maddy had had enough and it was starting to show. We started pulling our things together. I kept getting side tracked, and by the time we were walking out the door, I hadn’t even really said a proper goodbye, yelling to everyone that we were leaving because Maddy was grumpalicious (and I was halfway to grumpy pants). As I walked out the door, my Uncle Rob called to me. I remember turning to him and letting out a huge, “Ugh!” I then apologized and said Maddy was freaking out and I needed to leave. His response, so clear in my head now, “I just wanted to give you a hug goodbye.” I went back in and gave him a hug and kiss. I can’t remember if I hugged my mom. As I walked to the door, my Uncle said he’d email me to set up a weekend to visit, hopefully in two weeks if we were free. That visit still sits in my brain… the visit that never happened.

While we were driving home, I called my mom. Madeleine was in total panic that we’d left a bag of chocolate at the house. Maddy wanted us to turn the car around, but Grammy assured her that she would save it for our next visit. She promised she wouldn’t let Grandpa eat it. I told my mom that Madeleine was crying because she forgot to say “welcome home” to daddy and Uncle Scott. My mom responded, “Better hope she doesn’t remember that we didn’t make purple play doh!” Every visit home, Madeleine would tell my mom what colour play doh she wanted to make, and they would make it. Maddy began to equate a visit at Grammy’s house with helping Grammy make play doh, and helping Grammy make everyone banana strawberry smoothies. A week earlier, we had called to let Grammy know that we felt like purple play doh next week. Madeleine never brought up the purple play doh. I don’t remember how that phone call ended. I like to believe that I told my mom I loved her, like I often did when we would hang up. I can’t be sure though.

We got home that night tired, and a bit grumpy, but it felt like every other visit. It didn’t feel like the last one. There were no signs that this was it, that I would never see my mom or uncle alive again. I didn’t know that the next time I would see them, they wouldn’t really look like themselves, they wouldn’t be smiling and laughing. They wouldn’t tell me that they wanted to give me a hug goodbye. I didn’t know that that was my last chance for everything.

Big, scary feelings

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We use the term big feelings in our house to talk about strong, overwhelming, or scary feelings. When Maddy is having a tough time we acknowledge her big feelings, label them as best we can, and try to help her manage them. We talk about how everyone has big feelings, even adults. We work hard to have her understand that big feelings are okay to have, that we can learn to work with our big feelings instead of against them, and most importantly, that she can trust us to help her with her big feelings for however long she needs us to.

Since the accident, I am the the one having non-stop big feelings. Grief is overwhelming, consuming, and can be downright scary. Right now, I am messy and broken. I have felt messy and broken before in my life… but not this kind of messy and broken. This is new territory for me. I sometimes feel like a shell of my former self, just trying to get through the day, or sometimes the moment. Grief is unpredictable. Emotions wash over you at unexpected times… sometimes contradictory emotions that feel difficult to reconcile. Grief can be irrational, and even though you can identify the lack of rationality in your thoughts, you can’t control the feelings that surface, you can only work with them so that you can continue to heal.

It’s scary to not recognize yourself, to not know who you are anymore. Who am I now that I don’t have a mother? How does my family fit together without the glue? Where do I fit in the world now? I will always miss my mom and uncle, and the world will always be a different place after this experience. I woke up as one person on October 18, and fell asleep as a completely changed person. I am traumatized, grief-stricken, forever changed. I have become, and for the rest of my life will be, a motherless daughter.

Sometimes I feel shame as a grieving parent. I feel guilty that the girls have to live in a house so full of sadness, and anger; that their mom is irritable, sluggish, and pained. I feel guilty thinking that my mom and uncle would want the girls to live in a happy home. Even though I can recognize my mom as an imperfect, but wonderful mother; I feel as though my imperfections, so apparent while I’m grieving, are failing my family. I can tell myself that my mom and uncle deserve to be grieved, and that they would understand, but guilt is a sticky emotion.

I have worked through this idea of being an imperfect parent before, finally accepting that showing your children that you’re human is of huge service to them… because they too are human, and need to accept themselves as the beautiful, unique people that they are. Our family anthem is pretty much Secrets by Mary Lambert. But, I have never felt as imperfect as I do right now. I am not present with my girls in the way that I’d like to be. I am doing my best, but it feels like it’s not enough.

Tonight, while we were driving in the car, I began to cry. After some time, from the backseat we hear Maddy say, “What’s that sound?” There was a pause. Eric responded, “Mommy is crying. She’s feeling really sad thinking about Grammy and Uncle Rob. It’s okay to cry when we’re sad.” Another pause. Then my sweet child said, “Mommy, I want to hold your hand. I want to help you calm down.”

The next time I feel shame creeping into my thoughts, I will think of this moment, of those words. Despite what I want, my girls will one day feel messy and broken. Maybe it won’t be the result of the early loss of their mother, but it will be something. Life gives everyone their knocks, and one day, hopefully a long time from now, it will be Maddy and Ella’s turn. When it’s their turn, I want them to be able to be loving and kind to themselves. I want them to feel as comfortable as they can with those big feelings. I want them to allow themselves to show their messy selves to the world.

Grieving will not just expose the girls to sadness and anger, it will expose them to an imperfect mother who keeps putting one foot in front of the other. A mother who works through big, scary feelings, who shares her big feelings with people she can trust, and who asks for help when she needs it. I hope that it will one day show them that despite all the heartbreak, we can heal into a new version of ourself. Life might break us sometimes, and we might accumulate more life experience than we may have ever wanted, but we can be our authentic, real, imperfect selves.

My sweet Madeleine, Grammy and Uncle Rob would be so proud of the thoughtful, kind, and caring little girl you are becoming. I am so very proud to be your mommy.