Sunday, February 13, 2005

the gift

"How could I ever prepare for an absence the size of you?"
~ poet unknown

Some losses are, to borrow a phrase from my grandfather, "no bigger than a minute." These small absences are insignificant in the scheme of things, and easy to measure. You work your tongue up into the gap in your mouth and probe the space your tooth once occupied. You plunge your hand into the pocket where your wallet should be. In those "no bigger than a minute" cases, the loss is really no larger than the space it inhabited.

But when the loss is the size and shape of love, it defies measurement.

My mother committed suicide when I was twenty-six. If a detail is needed, it's this: she suffered from manic depression. The whys and hows of her death don't alter the pain we suffered; they don't buffer our hearts or close the book. We've been walking this loss for seventeen years and we've yet to spy the end of it. It's so dense we can't punch our way through, so high we can't see the sun.

I've marked my grief by the milestones I pass. She wasn't there when my doctor told me I was infertile. She wasn't there when I went shopping alone for our soon-to-be-adopted son, and followed a mother and pregnant daughter from rack to rack, eavesdropping on a conversation that should have be mine. Nor was she there the day Zachary was born, or the day he took his first steps, or the day he became a brother to Tera. At each of those milestones, her absence thickened the room and dulled the light.

Every milestone hurt but for some reason the most recent had a disproportional sting. In September of last year, four boxes of books arrived on my front porch. I yanked open the first and pulled out a book--a book with my name on the cover. There's no explaining the thoughts and feelings that rush over you when you hold that first book in your hands, when you realize the task is truly finished. I'm not sure even a writer can put words to that moment. But even while I sat there holding that book, a shadow fell across the moment and stole a piece of my joy. She wasn't there to share this milestone.

I grieved anew for weeks. What would she think? What would she say? I knew of course, and yet I wanted to hear it straight from her. I thought again of the selfishness of her death, and how the ripple of that one moment has yet to strike a shore. My frustration was palpable. I couldn't remedy this lack. I couldn't take a single action that could pry the words I needed from my mother's lips.

Early one Sunday morning, still stinging, I went out to my office (a separate building behind our house) to search my files. I was teaching the 3-4 year olds at church that morning and needed a particular item for our craft. I had a notion that deep in the back of my files, I'd stored--for some unknown reason--an old report from college. For my required special needs course, I'd written a fictional account of my nonexistent, vision-impaired son, Alex. I'd had to create a diary of his daily activities for an imaginary week in our lives. The cover to this report was what I was after on this morning--it was transparent blue plastic, just what I needed for our Sunday school craft.

I smiled when I saw it. How had I remembered that? I flipped the report over and released the tabs, pulled the pages out and tossed them in the garbage. I didn't need the report. I didn't even know why I'd kept it all that time. But I was glad I'd kept the plastic cover.

Later that afternoon I went back out to my office to find a book and noticed the garbage needed emptying--especially with the added pages I'd thrown in that morning. Walking over to pick it up, I glanced down and saw that the report had separated itself into two halves, one flopping forward and one flopping back. And right in the center, tucked down deep, I saw just the edge of a half-sheet of paper. An inexplicable nudge made me reach down into that shadowy spot and pull out the page. Holding it up, I saw familiar, lovely handwriting, and read this:

Dad and I really thought you did a terrific job on your story. You sure write well. Love you much,

Her words held me like a hug. I cried, and reread her note over and over. And then I found a frame for it, and placed it near my desk where I can see it easily. I can't count the times my eyes have drifted to her words. God brought me a gift--a whisper across the years, a nod of approval, a touch from a hand I long to hold. He brought me what my mother couldn't, on her own.

I will never stop missing her. But I've realized something odd: I know my mother better today than the day we buried her. I suppose that's because I'm a mother myself now, so I understand the pride she felt for us and her gladly-made sacrifices. I recognize, now, those times when she gave her portion to us and lied about not being hungry. I understand the odd combination of love and anger and fear that filled her heart those nights she waited up to hear my key turn in the door. I know the questions she had about the future, and her place in it. I know her better, and if she were alive now, she'd be my friend.

I know my Father better, too.

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11 Comment:

At 2/13/2005 8:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous had this to say ...

Hello Shannon:
What an incredible story you've just shared.And that quote at the beginning.WOW.Just how I felt when my mom passed in 2001(Jan.5th).She was 74.It was not easier because I was 40 years old either.When I'd heard the news I was here in Oregon and my mom had passed in my hometown of Sacramento,CA.A sound came out of me that sounded almost unearthly to my own ears.Like a wail.Came all the way from my toes I think.My mom passed away from congestive heart failure and emphysema.She had also battled schizophrenia over a portion of her lifetime.I cried as I read your blog Shannon.That quote at the beginning pretty well sums up my feelings over many if not most of the losses I've experienced in my 43 years on this earth.I have copied down that quote.Think I'll start collecting quotes.God bless you Shannon.Oh,and your mom was right Shannon.You do write well!:-)

At 2/13/2005 9:47 PM, Anonymous Kim had this to say ...

You just made me cry, Shanny. That is so beautiful that God brought your mama's note to your attention before it was thrown away. I have this huge lump in my throat and wish I could hug you.
Love you.

At 2/14/2005 7:05 AM, Blogger shannon had this to say ...

Thank you, Sharon and Kim.

When I found that note, I knew exactly who had arranged for me to find it. It was just too strange for that report to flop over the way it did--and for me to even notice. The Lord is so good to me . . . to us.

At 2/14/2005 10:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous had this to say ...


I have the same emptiness in my life when I have milestones. My marraige, divorce, infertility, hysterectomy, becoming a homeowner and recently, buying my first new car. We had different parents, we both lost our Mothers and I know that God blessed me by bringing you and Megan and Tarri into my life as my sisters (I already had 3 brothers!). I wouldn't know Him like I do because after my Mom died I didn't have any faith in Him. Just remember, she is still watching you, protecting you and giving you her share of dinner.

I love you,

At 2/14/2005 5:03 PM, Blogger Ken had this to say ...

Shannon -

There is so much that I want to say to you. I never knew your mom well. But, I do remember a very nice lady who'd stick her head in and say "hello" as you continued to beat me at backgammon on those cold, Northwest winter nights.

Over and over you beat me. And we sipped hot tea and talked. Occassionally, you'd let me have a game. But, I learned a lot about humility during those times. And about friendship.

Anyway, I wish that I'd taken more time to get to know your mom. Unrealistic, I suppose. We were high school friends, and we were supposed to be into ourselves, I guess.

Still, I've learned more about your mom in the last several years, all through the thoughts and questions and the words that you write.

I want so badly to be able to say something brilliant and warm that will answer all of the questions that you have and to provide you with some level of comfort. And I can't.

I was so touched to read your words this evening, and know that her own words found their way back to you. There is comfort there that only God could have brought to you, by giving you some contact with your mom. What a gift. What a wonderful, beautiful gift.

Thank you for sharing. Thank you for your openness. Thank you for being you.

Happy Valentine's Day...


At 2/14/2005 6:52 PM, Blogger Tammy had this to say ...

The signature of God, that's what you held in that half-sheet of paper. Isn't it amazing how He shows up when we least expect it?

My heart swelled as I read your post. I thought of my own family 2000 miles away.

You're in my prayers. God bless you.

At 2/16/2005 10:28 PM, Blogger shannon had this to say ...

Sharon and Nancy, I'm sorry you both can relate to my loss. I wish it wasn't so. But I'm glad to know we understand each other. :) And Nance--you are a blessing to me. I couldn't ask for a better youngest sister (even if you DO try to make me laugh during Wednesday night service. Ha!)

Ken, it's a special gift to me to know that you remember my mother, if only a little. I love that Andy knew her, too. There's no substitute for shared history.

Kim, I'll take that hug when I see you Sunday. I love you too! :)

Tammy, I love what you wrote about the signature of God. What a beautiful thought! Thanks for your post. :)

At 6/17/2005 10:26 AM, Anonymous OldGuy had this to say ...

Another wonderful story Shannon. It's amazing the way life, or God, works isn't it.

Several years ago my wife was having a very bad day and happened to wander into our local library. We live in a fairly large city so there were thousands of books there. As she was walking down the shelves she knocked a book down and a religious bookmark with her name on it fell out.

It made her day and she's kept it ever since.

BTW, I haven't read them all your stories yet but I'm getting there :)

At 4/30/2006 6:14 PM, Anonymous Susan had this to say ...

Dear Shannon, my mother died 18 months ago after a short illness. I'm 43 and I still miss her. My own 'box of books' moment will arrive soon as I am to graduate from my BA(Hons) Degree here in the UK in the next few months. I will miss both my Mum and my Dad on that day.

God Bless,

At 11/01/2006 2:13 AM, Blogger Janice (5 Minutes for Mom) had this to say ...

i'm speechless. that was so beautiful.

At 2/04/2008 6:41 AM, Blogger Heart of Wisdom had this to say ...

Trackback: This post was featured at Heart of Wisdoms Spiritual Sunday links.



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