- Death & Loss of Life
My Fine Line between Grief and Remembrance
Text copyright © B. L. Bierley 2012
Grief, it’s a tricky subject for some of us. It was Andy Griffith’s recent death that reminded me of my own loss. I watched a lot of the Andy Griffith show when I was eighteen years old. The syndicated reruns were an every-day occurrence in the students' center when I was in junior college. It was also the year my mother died. She was fairly young when she passed—just two months shy of turning thirty-eight. My father was never a part of my life, so when Mama died my grief was significant.
I was extremely attached to my mother from childhood. For the first eight years of my life my mother and I were roommates. When she remarried, my world dynamically changed over the next four years. I moved around with my mother and stepdad until it became too difficult for me to tag along. My mother and I didn’t see one another often after I turned twelve. I only got to be with her during my spring breaks and summers from school. During the school year I stayed with my Aunt Nana and Uncle Maverick (who for the record became my legal parents on paper, and they still are my official folks to this day).
Of course, I was not left entirely alone when my mother passed away. I’m from the south. We Southerners usually look out for one another when someone dies. Neither my father nor my stepdad manned up to help me after my mother died. In my case it was my cousins, aunts and uncles who rallied their forces to support me and made sure I moved on, that I went to college, married eventually (twice) and had a family of my own. Aunt Nana and Uncle Maverick always treated me like one of their own. I thought of their girls as my sisters even before it became reality. But no matter their good intentions or well-meaning efforts I was still left without my beloved mother. So it’s logical to say I am familiar with grief.
My mother has been dead for almost twenty-three years. I am in the early shades of my forties—older and wiser than my mother ever became for me. Yet not a day goes by that I don’t remember my mother as one of my favorite people in the universe. I have to remind myself daily that she wasn’t perfect. Remembering that she had flaws was tantamount for me in my grief so that I didn’t get bogged down in desperation and depression over her now permanent absence from my life. Sure, there are little reminders daily that take me back to the moments in my life when my mother was still here. And it’s those fragments and memories that get me through life without her.
Everyone deals with grief in different ways. My journey has been long and imperfect. I don’t really think there is a perfect way to grieve. Nobody can know how they’re going to react when they lose someone. Nobody likes to hear that it will get better, even though it actually does. But whatever way we go about our process, it’s important to focus on the real details about your lost loved one. For me grief and remembrance go hand in hand. Grief is the worst period, the first painful evidence of loss. Remembrance is grief without the pain. So I would like to share with you, my loyal readers, a few of the things I remember and treasure about my mother as I knew her. Perhaps my example will help someone move out of grief to build their own remembrances of their loved one and therefore be able to cope with their own loss.
Something in the Air
Sometimes things about my mother will hit me out of the wild blue. This past Fourth of July, I was getting ready to go out with Cap and the kids to celebrate our country’s independence. As usual, in the process of showering and fixing up, I didn’t have an abundance of time on my hands. With less than thirty minutes before I needed to be ready, I was about to dry my hair. I needed to multi-task. I was applying makeup while doing my blow drying. I picked up my perfume to put some on so that my hair-drying process would help the perfume dry and set. It happened that it was a new fragrance I’d gotten from one of my best girlfriends as a gift. I didn’t think twice about spritzing some on knowing that my friend’s taste and mine were very similar. What happened next was unexpected.
The fragrance in the bottle was pleasant. But combined with my body chemistry it produced an extremely familiar smell that I recall from when I was fourteen. That was the summer that my mother, my stepdad and I spent in South Carolina. There was a shampoo that was out on the market that year that smelled like an exotic perfume. I can’t recall the name of it, but it smelled like gardenias and amber and a really cool mixture of heady aromas that I loved. That same scent was produced when my new perfume was administered to my skin. I was suddenly transported back to that summer, getting out of the shower in my mom and stepdad’s camper, and smelling the heat-humid fragrance of that shampoo. My mother used the same shampoo, of course. And I recall that particular scent whenever I think of that summer.
That was the summer I first fell in love (or at least what I thought was love at the time). The boy was a year older than me and had a “day license” which allowed him to drive his car legally during daylight hours. He was so mature and experienced, and I fantasized about getting into his car and riding off into the sunset with him. Would’ve been tragically romantic except the boy barely knew I was alive. I was that awkward kind of pretty in my gangly fourteen-year-old self—the kind of pretty that doesn’t come out at first glance. My personality was a necessary ingredient in my appeal to the opposite sex, so for this guy to eventually notice me would take longer than two months and a certain navy blue and white polka dot bathing suit!
That’s also one of the few times my mother ever gave me advice. I remember crying first because that boy with the cool car and the day license wouldn’t give me the time of day and then later because it was too late for me to actually build a relationship because we were leaving. I was so torqued up over the loss of my potential first love that I debated many acts of rebellion as we were packing up and getting ready to leave. My mother’s advice was simple: "Sometimes the things we want the most aren’t really the things we need." She also said that it hurt to face rejection and even worse to have to give up on something you’ve waited for, but that I shouldn’t let that make me feel any different about myself. Wise words.
Now, when you’re fourteen and your mother tells you things like this, your first instinct is to scoff and say she doesn’t understand. You always think when you’re young that parents can’t see what you see. But in hindsight of that memory I realize that she did know. My mother was rejected by her first husband. She was left alone with a new baby, too. She nearly starved to death waiting for him to return. Eventually it was her daddy who saved the day. For me, I wasn’t mature enough to know I could trust her back then. But I see now how brilliant she was in trying to let me know that when things aren’t easy it’s just the world’s way of telling us that we can do just fine without them.
Those memories flooded my brain when I put on that perfume on that day. The weird thing is that since that first application, the perfume hasn’t smelled that way again. I eerily believe it was my mother’s way of sending me a signal that she’s still around—watching and making sure I don’t forget her.
For the record, I didn’t ever get to know that reckless boy with his hatchback and his bad-boy good looks. But eventually I did get over him. And my mother was absolutely right. Now that DaVelma is nearing that time of her life when she’ll begin dating, I only hope I can impress upon her the same wisdom that I was late in recognizing from my own mother.
My Mother was a Giraffe
My mother was the baby of her family. So her position in the hierarchy of said family was unique. She was often more like the children than the adults with her take on things. She was fearless, like a child who doesn’t know there’s anything to be afraid of yet. She drank wine in a family of mostly teetotalers. She was an avid reader, which might not seem weird to the average onlooker—but in a family that rarely read anything more stimulating than a menu or the occasional Reader’s Digest that’s a very odd quality. She also was the first person in her family to get divorced. My mother loved Coca Colas, she didn’t drink coffee, and her favorite flavor was cherry. These little details are important to me. I try to keep them in my mind so that I don’t forget her as the years add up since her death.
One very important thing about her was that she loved was giraffes. I keep a mental picture in my head of the wooden giraffes that were her only contribution to the decoration of her home. These animals are unique in the Animal Kingdom hierarchy, too. They’re not afraid of many things—in fact most lions won’t mess with adult giraffes because of their ability to kick back with those powerful hind legs and stop the attack in progress pretty effectively.
Giraffes are not what you’d call attractive either. Their necks are too long, their faces are goofy and they have knobby knees, not to mention they have yellow fur spotted with brown patches that is easily recognizable. Sure that pattern is good cover if you’re trying to blend into Acacia trees, but as far as animals are concerned they’re rarely confused for other plant eaters like gazelles or gnus or whatever other ungulate you want to compare! They stand out! But for the most part giraffes appear loveable and mild.
My mother was a giraffe. She wasn’t what you’d call pretty. She was awkward and she didn’t have a hand for fixing hair or applying makeup. She kept her hair cut extremely short and she preferred her natural look. The only “girlie” things I can recall about her was her love of shoes and the way she kept her toenails painted year round. Otherwise, she was a classic tomboy.
Mama was very loveable, though, just like her giraffes. She was gentle and natural, again like giraffes. My mother didn’t look like other classic women of her generation. In fact people who see old pictures I have of her around my house often ask if she was gay. No, she was an original. She just never let her outward appearance dictate what her inner worth was to the world. It’s one of the things I will always admire about my mother.
Growing up, my friends thought that my mother didn’t love me because she left me with family for much of my adolescent life. But that wasn’t true. My mother loved me just like any mother giraffe. Giraffe mothers keep their calves with them only while the young ones are vulnerable or in some cases until they have their next calf. Since my mama never had any more children, I was well loved in childhood. And I think my mother recognized my early maturity and independent spirit. She often treated me like a friend rather than a child after I reached a certain age. In hindsight this might have been a subconscious way that the universe prepared me for the loss before I was prepared to have to let go.
I guess in a way I am a giraffe, too. I don’t form social bonds easily, just like giraffes, but I mingle well with others in small, varying groups. I’m not predatory or competitive. I like to do my thing and go about my way without worrying about what’s going on around me. I do converse easily with strangers, but that isn’t necessarily a desirable quality to have. And it’s obvious that my father was a giraffe, too. Male giraffes don’t hang around to be good fathers either—just like mine.
The Teenaged Years—Before Her Sainthood Kicked In
I don’t want to come off like someone who thinks their mother can do no wrong. Oh, no. My mother wasn’t perfect by a long shot. I won’t get into her worst transgressions because I was taught it isn’t nice to speak ill of the dead. But I will tell you that she was a little selfish. She believed in doing what was best for her without concern for what it would mean to the rest of us. My mother was a heavy smoker from age fifteen. Now, I didn’t know her in her teens (obviously), but I did know her during mine. And the thing that rings forth as the most damning characteristic of my mother’s worst qualities was her refusal to give up something that was bad for her. Again, I’m talking about smoking.
I grew up in the south where tobacco was a rite of passage. Boys began dipping their daddy’s snuff before they could drive. The women smoked in secret because it wasn’t lady-like to do it in front of guys until the mid-sixties brought out the sexual revolution. Once I became a teenager, I tried it with my friends. It didn’t appeal to me at the time. So when my mother was diagnosed with a particularly violent strain of lung cancer, I was assured that she was done with cigarettes. But I was mistaken.
When I was seventeen, my mother was having aggressive radiation treatments and taking medications to try and save her life. And the entire time she was secretly still smoking. She was not your average smoker. In her heyday her habit was at least two and a half packs a day. She was a chain smoker. I was driving her home from her radiation therapy one afternoon in late November when she rolled down the window of my truck and lit a cigarette.
I was flabbergasted. Here was my mama, who regularly told me what to do and how to act, doing the worst possible thing for her body. She did it right in front of me without a care for how it would affect me. She was still as rebellious as when she married at sixteen or when she left home with a new husband to see the world and work all over the United States. How was a girl of seventeen supposed to handle seeing her role model behaving so badly? I will leave you to speculate now on what I said or how I acted for the next six months. I will tell you it wasn’t pretty.
My point here is that my mother wasn’t a saint in life or after her death. But I respect one thing in this portion of my tale. She lived her life on her own terms. She chose how to live and how to die. She lost her battle with her cancer exactly one year to the day after she was diagnosed. That’s a fact. But she left with only one real regret—that she wouldn’t be alive to do any more living. I hope when I leave this world that’s the only regret I leave behind.
Who is That Woman?
The more time that passes since my mother died, the more I find myself seeing her in my life. Not the actual physical person, but glimpses of her. She’s still here in my world. I see her sometimes when I pass by a mirror and don’t look closely except in my periphery. I’d almost swear sometimes that she was the person reflected there instead of me. The older I get, the more like my mother I am becoming in some respects. Aunt Nana says that I am starting to look more like her as I age, which is peculiar to me since I am now three years older than my mother ever got to be. I just chalk that up to the fact that I have always looked much younger than my years.
I like to think I’m a better mother to my kids than mine was to me. I try to maintain a healthier lifestyle. I did eventually take up smoking for a time as a recreational activity, but I eventually quit because it was becoming more regular than recreational. I quit smoking simply because I don’t want to jeopardize my chances to know my future grandchildren. That’s a something I think my mother might have regretted if she’d been able to think forwardly at the time of her passing. Mama would have loved my beautiful kids! So in order to let them know who she was, I make sure everyone shares stories about my mom with my children. But as a mother, I try to be a much better example. I talk to DaVelma about life and choices and don’t just let her guess the consequences of her actions. I share my knowledge and try to give her the tools to make better choices than my mother and I ever did.
It’s surprising that both of my children are a lot like my mother in less objectionable ways. DaVelma is much too much like my mother sometimes. She’s often fearless to the point of being reckless. She is outspoken and unapologetic on occasion. DaVelma isn’t one to follow all the fashion trends to the letter. She wore cowboy boots long before they became fashionable again. She’s not afraid of getting dirty. She is her own person, and even when it’s annoying I still can’t fault her for it. She comes by it honestly!
Ziggy is less like my mother than DaVelma but with two exceptions. He’s got my mother’s hair! My mother was plagued with a hair phenomenon known in the south as “cowlicks”. These are areas in the hair where the natural growth of the follicles makes the hair stand at odd angles to the rest of the tresses. Ziggy’s hair is exactly like my mother’s was. Every cowlick on his head is exactly like the ones my mother fought with on her own head. It was partly why she kept her hair so short! I smile a secret smile whenever I wet a comb and try to tame down Ziggy’s hair. My mother would have been sympathetic to her adorable grandson’s hair issues. I know they would have bonded!
My mother’s other shared quirk with Ziggy is that Ziggy loves root beer. He would drink an entire twelve pack of them a day if you’d let him. My mother loved Coca Cola like that—it was the only thing she drank all day every day. Now you might say root beer is not Coca Cola, but Ziggy's attraction to them is the same as my mother’s was to her beloved beverage.
Why I’ll Miss Her Every Day
I could give you a thousand of these little memories and stories of my mother. But this isn’t a memoir. But I think it’s important to allow ourselves to miss someone. Not the pining, refusing to eat, can’t go on sort of missing them, but the kind of missing them where it’s okay to look back at them in little snippets of joy. I like to think I’m okay when I consider the way my mother might have reacted to a situation or a development in my life. And I can smile when I think of how she would love us all today. I think Ziggy and my mother would have been very close. She would have been a kindred spirit being the baby of her family the way he is the baby of our nuclear group and my side of the family now. I think DaVelma would have with equal parts both frustrated her grandmother and at the same time made her grandmother love her so fiercely it would make me jealous.
I think my mother would respect me as an adult for doing what I want and making my life what I dream of rather than taking the easy, conservative road. I also believe, with my entire heart, that she would have been my biggest fan. So whenever I have those moments where I wish she could see something in my life, I don’t feel sad. I just smile and say hello to her memory.