Mourning Day: The Holiday Hallmark Missed

Today, at 7:15 am, the tree in our neighbor’s lawn is casting a dappled, water-like shadow on the house across the street. It’s the first time I’ve noticed it, this new addition to spring mornings. I can hear a woodpecker at work in a nearby tree. Ronan likes to sit next to me while I write, playing with his toys and chattering. Sometimes he helps me send emails. Other times he supervises my work from his bouncer. May 10. Four months since his Tay-Sachs diagnosis. Feels like four lifetimes. As another dragon mom said, “It’s amazing how, before, time flew by and you wondered where it went or what happened to it and now, time goes just as fast but feels so slow – if that makes sense! Which is a good thing, an exhausting thing, but good in a way that you feel like time slows down a bit, since tomorrow means something different than it did before diagnosis day.” And another: “I feel like I was robbed of time but yet I didn’t have long enough.” Exactly.

This Mother’s Day I tossed out all the old parenting books, all the old certainties, all the old myths, even my own battle hymn. For me and Ronan there’s only this singular path of motherhood-sonhood, and try as I might to be valiant and insightful, most of the time I think: what the hell is going on? Who are we together, with one of us knowing that the other will not survive, and maybe the other one just barely? On some days looking for sense doesn’t make any sense. We are both of us flailing around in the dark, tripping along, sometimes stumbling on a moment of peace, a section of even ground among the knobby tree roots we do our daily best to navigate around. I’m supposed to be guiding Ronan through this life and then out of it and into whatever comes next, but I’ve got very little to offer in terms of wisdom or assurance. I just strap him to my body and head out, each day, blind in every possible way: physically, emotionally, spiritually. Out on the arroyo path with Ronan in the front pack, I often close my eyes and keep trudging along, thinking it’s you and me, dude, and this is all there is.

Reading Alias Grace, yet another fascinating, weird, gorgeous novel by Margaret Atwood, this quote from a letter appears at the beginning of one section:

It is of the greatest regret that we do not have the knowledge whereby we might cure these unfortunate afflicted. A surgeon can cut open an abdomen and display the spleen. Muscles can be cut out and shown to young students. The human psyche cannot be dissected nor the brain’s workings put out on the table to display.  When a child, I have played games with a blindfold obscuring my vision. Now I am like that child. Blindfolded, groping my way, not knowing where I am going, or if I am in the proper direction. Someday, someone will remove the blindfold. Dr. Joseph Workman, Medical Superintendent, Provincial Lunatic Asylum, Toronto; Letter to “Henry,” a young and troubled enquirer, 1866. (Alias Grace, Random House, 1996).

I found this passage weirdly comforting in its hopefulness that the future will provide understanding. The blindfold will be chucked away. Clarity at last. And of course I appreciated the acknowledgment that the brain, that precious, essential organism, is still (even in 2011) very much unknown to us. As Ryann explained to me, the brains of children who are neglected in orphanages for the first year of life do not fire the right neurons, and the damage done during that crucial period is irreversible. They cannot attach to others. They are forever damaged in some significant way. There are still problems that cannot be fixed, issues without a solution.

And I thought about the movie Alive that I’ve been watching in very early morning installments on Hulu. Quick plot summary: a plane crashes in the Andes Mountains, stranding a ragged and shell-shocked group of rugby players and their families in a snow-packed, isolated landscape. Those who survive the initial horror die eventually of injuries inflicted during the crash, of starvation, of madness and sickness and sadness. They do things they never thought they’d do, both horrific and deeply humane. They wake up each morning blurry-eyed, stinking, and preparing to haul out any people who may have died during the night. They make birthday snowballs with a cigarette for a wish candle. One month passes and then another. Near the end of the film, an appropriately hawkish Ethan Hawke climbs to the top of the mountain on an expedition to find help. Staring out over the spectacularly jagged landscape, he encourages his less courageous companion to carry on by reminding him that everything they’ve done so far: surviving a crash, living in the shell of a plane in the middle of vicious snowstorms and with almost zero food and supplies, tossing the corpses of their friends into the snow, climbing this mountain at this moment, have all been in the realm of the impossible. “I’m proud to be a man on this day,” he says, euphoric, and in that moment he seems to know precisely what that means, to be a man, to be human, which is to be at the mercy of life/fate/chance, which is in turn the truth about life itself. My journey with Ronan feels impossible, too, and the journey after him, even more unfathomable. But I also never thought I’d be able to live for one second, let alone four months, with the knowledge that he will die within the next three years if not before. So already the impossible has become part of the every day, each day an epic haul, each moment doling out more tough lessons about what it means to be human.

Enter Mother’s Day.

In an effort to celebrate mothers (and fathers and administrative assistants and grandparents and Cupid, etc.) Hallmark may have a lot to answer for, I’m afraid. Who doesn’t feel like crap on these card corporation-sanctioned holidays? Valentine’s Day hurts people who receive no Valentines, and gone are the days when you decorated a box in grade school and class rules dictated that everybody at least got something from somebody else. Mother’s and Father’s Day for those who have lost their parents or don’t know their parents or feel alienated from their parents feel like long, arduous days where every vision of a family with a mother or father is a stab in the heart. And for those of us who are childless parents or soon to be childless or have experienced any form of reproductive loss? We keep our little dramas to ourselves, at least in public, fearing that we’ll spoil the party for everyone else and perhaps add to what we already feel must be a heavy dose of bad karma.

I woke up on Mother’s Day in the old lodge at Ojo Caliente, a hot springs mineral spa between Taos and Santa Fe with this marketing tag line: Soak Your Bones. There are facials and massages available, of course, but it’s the dips in various mineral pools that promise to cure particular ailments, or at the very least to make you feel better for the next few hours. (Is there a pool for the broken hearted? Nope.) Our room in the lodge looked exactly like I’ve always imagined the postwar hotel room in J.D. Salinger’s wrenching story A Perfect Day for Bananafish. Spoiler Alert! At the end of the story, the main character shoots himself on the edge of the bed in light that I imagined would look just like the light moving into our room on Sunday morning: vague-ishly beachy, a clear, yellow strong enough to brighten the rustic old furniture and the dusty carpet floors but not enough to warm them. Not exactly an auspicious beginning to my mom holiday. Kids sprinted across the gravel parking lot, yelling and giggling. Birds swooped and hollered, dipping low and then angling away. I spent the night sweating after one glass of red wine and a pork osso bucco dish that I ordered because I’d never tried it before and it sounded like something Tony Soprano would eat and I felt in a gangsterish, adventurous mood.

After breakfast Rick and I quietly sat in a mineral bath, both of us a bit glum. I got an overpriced facial that, while relaxing, wasn’t as relaxing as the price may have suggested. At the beginning of a yoga class in a warm yurt (!), when the teacher (standing, appropriately, in a circle of sunlight) asked if there were mothers in the room I turned and looked out the small window, pretending that I hadn’t heard her. Why? Because it might be my last mother’s day, at least with a child in the picture, and I did not want to explain that to a roomful of strangers taking an all levels yoga class at a resort facility in the middle of the desert. I scribbled a wish on a piece of paper and hung it on the “wish tree” but didn’t believe it would do much good. After all, it wasn’t a miracle tree, and if had been, I wouldn’t have believed it anyway. Later we watched people of all ages pad across the newly renovated pool area in velvety robes the color of sand. I spotted another amputee in the steam room and remarked to Rick that the man’s age and the stunning foot work of his prosthesis suggested that he was an Iraqi war vet. I envied his water leg, which enabled him to jump in the water, two legs and all, without having to find a trusted courier to take the leg back to a deck chair and cover it with a towel. His girlfriend, tan and toned, posed on the edge of the pool as he snapped photos of her, exclaiming “Gorgeous! I love it!”

Instead of these cheery, flower-laden holidays, what about a day where everyone just cries and mourns and laughs and wails? Memorial Day doesn’t cut it. A memorial sounds too strictly ritualistic, too organized. Could we all just please have a big fat day of mourning? Mourning Day. The cards could be blank or sentimental. They could use flowers and bunnies or dark humor. They might sing or have pop-up features. The tradition would be to sit around and cry over pictures of our loved ones and laugh and tell stories to anyone who would listen and drink coffee and tea and cheap wine. Everywhere you went on Mourning Day strangers would tell you about the people they’d lost. You would hear their stories and share your own. You would exchange cards or hugs or baseball cards or cheap little mourning day cards with cartoons on them. You wouldn’t have to hug or be touchy-feely, you could just talk and laugh and remember and you wouldn’t have to make plan to talk or to see one another again — just that one exchange, those few moments. No intimacy, just deep connection, just looking out across the big void that grief creates between an individual and the rest of the world and seeing someone you recognize on the other side. No flower bouquets or brunch reservations or swanky barbecues or golfing trips or pampering weekends. Anything but this gloss, this overly simplistic sense of the “happy” that lacks layers and therefore meaning.

Mother’s Day reminds me of Mommy Groups/Get Togethers/Clubs, where the vibe has always felt to me so similar – overly peppy and slightly competitive – as to be dishonest.

I have never felt entirely comfortable in such groups, and although I guess I’m a de facto member of the “mommy bloggers” phenomenon, that doesn’t seem to fit either. (There’s a great essay on the cover of Open Salon today about Mommy Bloggers.) Maybe because in most but not all cases, the children seem to be treated as projects, and even when the writers are talking about so-called parenting “fails” there’s a smugness that creeps in.

When I went to my first breastfeeding support group, Ronan was a six-pound dude dressed in a tie-dyed onesie, screaming his head off unless he was eating (constantly) or sleeping (rarely.) I was at a total loss about what to do with him. The other babies were laughing, looking at one another, gumming toys and books and attempting to crawl or just, you know, cuddling with their moms and looking blissful and angelic. My mother was pawing through the overpriced nursing bras in the “Momma Boutique” in the next room. My father was at the Whole Foods down the street buying an emergency power bar because I was so emaciated from breastfeeding that I had to eat every 20 minutes. A very nice woman tried to help me use the sling I’d been given as a carrier until Ronan, red-faced and shrieking, forced her to say, “he just looks too miserable for this today.” I can imagine what I looked like.

What amazed me in this moms group was the way the other moms seemed to have it all figured out; they talked confidently about which daycare was aware of the latest trends in child development, which nanny would look after the kids AND clean the house for a low price, which coffee shop had the best decaf, which vacation hot spots were the most kid friendly. I asked them if they were reading any good books, and did they feel, nine months in, like they had their brains back? No, I was told, but it was good that I was here because if I kept it up it would mean that Ronan would never have a single ounce of formula. As if that would have been the worst thing in the world, but at the time it felt like a big deal. Meanwhile, when I  took Ronan to see the GI doctor, she told me that because of the massive social pressure to breastfeed, “women lie about their breastfeeding habits. Everyone struggles, and very few people can do it exclusively.” Had that pack of cheery, organized moms with their snacks at the ready and their boppy pillows and fancy breastfeeding shirts lied to me? Maybe. I never went back.

Now, of course, I have my dragon mamas, a group I’m proud to be a part of. These moms know how to keep it real, and none of them pretend like they know it all, which is a relief. They’re raw and they ask for help and they cry and rage in public. These are my people for sure.

So Hallmark spreads lies, and the rest of us are complicit, either in our eagerness to participate or in our sadness that all the hoopla doesn’t apply to us. And let’s face it, while the rest of us are having brunch or doing yoga in a yurt or feeling sorry for ourselves and pondering our losses as our eyes scan rows of glittery greeting cards, women all over the world are dying of childbirth, malnutrition, and botched abortions.

When Ryann was visiting we went to Chimayo, my favorite magical place in New Mexico. I put a pair of Ronan’s old baby shoes in Santa Nino’s chapel. His statue hung heavy with new crucifixes recently looped over his arms and neck after the Easter pilgrimage. New pictures were pinned to his dress. Lining the walls were baby shoes I’d never seen before. I bought a Santo Nino medal and a vial that I filled with holy dirt. I hung all three on a chain with my Buddha from Marie. As I said to Ryann over tamales at Leona’s near the church, “if only the dirt actually worked.” We cried a little bit and then finished our food. Then and now I want to thin the veil between here and what is after here, between what we know and what we can never know but still long to understand. No mommy group for that; no holiday card.

Last year I went to the requisite Mom’s Day brunch, drank a mimosa, and took a nap. This year my mom gave me a locket engraved with Ronan’s name and birthdate. Inside is a picture of him, and because I’ve been ensconced in Victorian London while reading every Mary Shelley biography I can find, I did as loved ones once did to remember their beloveds: I snipped a piece of Ronan’s hair and tucked it inside the locket next to his picture. I’ll wear it forever.

We will all mourn someone or something in our lifetime. Each day is a walk in the dark – for all of us. We need new parenting narratives, new language about the experience of raising children, and new holidays. My vote is for May 10: Mourning Day.

7 responses to “Mourning Day: The Holiday Hallmark Missed

  1. Yesterday, in addition to being mother’s day, was the 2nd anniversary of my sister Tonya’s death. Count me in to start the subversive marking machine on Mourning Day. ❤

  2. You can count me in the Mourning Day group also. I want the tears, the wails and the laughter and smiles that do come with the overwhelming sadness in the remembering and sharing. On Mother’s Day, I, and many friends, posted photos of our mothers (and others who have been as such) on FB (many of these women have now passed away). This was a beautiful time linking us together in cyberspace of mourning for our losses and celebration of what they meant to us. Thank YOU for your words.

  3. Kristi Benson

    I was thinking of you quite a bit on Mother’s Day, not even wanting to imagine the impossible situation this particular day of expectations creates. I just finished your remarkable and brutally honest memoir on Saturday, so you were distinctly on my mind.
    I, too, would love an official, public day of mourning. Where it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to talk about your loved one and how much you miss them even if it has been 15 years since they passed. We each have our own annual Mourning Days. For me, my brother’s birth date and death date are it. But it’s a very private holiday – one I barely mention now to my husband and kids. And there is always a shadow over every other glorious holiday because we have loved ones who are no longer with us. After the first couple of years, the perceived expectation is that you will keep that to yourself and not “spoil” the holiday for everyone else.
    I want Mourning Day to be an excused day off school, a day where everything shuts down. Where it’s okay to go to that dark place just one day a year.
    Thank you Emily for putting to words what others have no words for.

  4. Blank cards for mourning day? Never. they should be bright and festive. The greetings are written in Poetic profanity a language only those in mourning understqand. Offensive? The offense is what is commemorated.

  5. I never like any day that has too many or any expectations. I think every and any day could be a creation of whatever you choose it to be. I think we should be able to celebrate who we are at any day or any moment, without any expectations of presents, flowers, or even recognition from anyone but ourselves.
    I have to admit I thought about you a lot on m…. Day; wondering how your heart was feeling and how you were coping. Love c

  6. Alma Luz Villanueva

    One Dia de Las Madres, I was so pissed at my grown kids I went backpacking to my ‘sacred lake’ in the Sierras (where I lived for five years…snow, bears, rattlers, coyotes, they killed all wolves). My companion was my wolf-dog, Zeke, and my Buck Knife in case I had to kill…I wept all the way, the beautiful trail to the lake…the climb down the boulders to the lake, a pair of eagles came to greet me, circling in the sun (that made me feel better, as always). When I reached my favorite camp spot, I yelled, “FUCK YOU,” then I literally jumped into the lake…silky, smooth snow melt. I began to laugh and swam my sadness out…then I opened the brandy, poured a shot, sitting on what I call ‘The Mother Rock,’ where I spread out to sleep, not in the enclosed ‘camp spot.’ All night stars and lake are one deep world, and I was happy, so fuck it all…without grief, no joy…without anger, no peace. Mothering is a hard job and I was someone’s ‘daily mom’ for 40 years…but in THE BALANCE, more joy than sorrow, and I reserve the right to yell, “FUCK YOU!” And weep, mourn, bitch, moan…until I’m ready to laugh again, when I’m good and ready. I think of the pressure required to create a diamond… I think you’re growing a diamond, Emily.

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