October 20, 2018

Searching for my broken heart

My mom died last summer. Although she was elderly, she was in pretty good shape, so her death, while not untimely, was unexpected.

We sat in the rabbi‘s office and shared stories to prepare for the memorial. Everybody laughed. Everybody cried. Everybody except for me. I felt nothing. After the meeting, I asked to speak to our rabbi alone. I told him something was wrong with me. I felt no emotion — no sadness, no loss, no heartbreak. He said I was in shock.

“I’m not in shock,” I said. “I feel fine.”

“It’s sort of like being in shock,” he explained. “Your subconscious is not ready to deal with the loss of your mom.”

I had trouble with this explanation. “I’m sorry, rabbi, but that doesn’t make sense. I should be devastated. I should be sobbing. I cried more when my dog died.”

“It’s normal,” he assured me. “Your broken heart is somewhere. Give it time; you’ll find it.”

I left feeling skeptical. In a daze, I went through the motions, playing the role of dutiful daughter. I took care of arrangements, hovered over my father, prepared food for visitors, wrote my speech. At the service, I spoke with confidence, laughing in the right places and not crying when I should have. The tears of people in front of me, some who didn’t even know my mother, failed to move me. All I wanted to do, what I needed to do, was take care of everyone else.

The Friday night after the memorial, we went to services. We said Mourners Kaddish and I tried to cry. Nope. People visited me, brought treats and gave comfort. It was nice, and I appreciated it, but still no tears. Yom Kippur came and went. Nothing. I took my mother’s things home with me — her nightgown, her cuddle pillow, some half-used cosmetics, the red scarf she wore every day because she always was cold. It held the faintest scent of her.

I prepared myself for the worst Thanksgiving of my life and my birthday the same weekend. The proverbial first “fill in the blank” without my mom. We ended up having a wonderful Thanksgiving. And my birthday, well, I don’t really remember it.

I stopped searching. Maybe I was the kind of person who would weather the death of a parent without feeling loss. Maybe I was so relieved not to be worrying about her anymore that the relief outweighed the sadness. Maybe I didn’t care as much as I thought I did. Oh, God, maybe I should go back to the rabbi or see a therapist.

I had a plant of my mom’s. It was ugly. I think it once had been two plants that she stuck into a pot of dirt without much thought. One piece was a wispy fern and the other a more hearty-leafed thing. I liked the pot, so I brought it home intending to plant something that flowered. But the ugly plant my mother created seemed healthy, so I left it alone. I did nothing to it, only a bit of water now and then. It thrived. Ugly as ever, it just kept living.

Then one day, my dogs made a plaything out of it. I went outside and found my mother’s ugly plant knocked over and ripped apart, the wispy fern shredded, the hearty leaves scattered across the grass. I stared at it for a moment or two, and my eyes filled with tears.

The tears ran down my cheeks like streams of melting snow. The sob that came out of me scared away the birds, and my heart broke apart. I frantically gathered what was left of my mom’s plant and tried to find one root that could be salvaged. I yelled at my sweet dogs who had torn up the plant because I had left it where they could. It was all my fault. My fault the plant was dead. My fault my mother was gone.

Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous. My mother was old. She had many health issues. But I’m a second-guesser, a “what if” kind of girl. What if I had done just one thing differently?

Now the tears come easily — when I see her handwriting; when I walk by Chico’s and think, “Mom would love that top”; when I see her little soap dish and remember how she washed her hands; when I bake the cookies we used to make together; when I scroll through pictures on my phone and her big smile lights up the screen.

Mother’s Day is coming. Another “first.” The first Mother’s Day of my life that is not about my mom. I cry just thinking about it.

JULIE MAYERSON BROWN is an author and freelance writer. To read more of her articles and her blog, visit juliemayersonbrown.com.