You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach on a Sunday night? The one that reminds you tomorrow is not like today and it might be a little hard to handle? January 28th is like that for me every year. But I’m not staring down a Monday, I’m anticipating the anniversary of the day my mother died. This day is hard for me and, admittedly, sad. So, if it’s hard and sad, why would I choose to honor it every year? Why do some of us choose to take a day and let the sadness and the history wash over us? I think the answer for me, at least in part, is not just to honor the loved one, but also to remember the path taken back from grief.
On January 29th, 2009, I was sitting in a statistics class not really paying attention. I was day-dreaming (even though it was a night class). My parents were heading to California to see my brother and sister-in-law and I was jealous. I wanted to go (insert childish foot stomp here). So, when my phone rang and I saw that it was my brother, I had two immediate emotions; embarrassment because my phone rang in the middle of class and annoyance because my brother was going to tell me how much fun they were having. I turned the phone off and let it go to voicemail. At our break, I called back, ready to hear about how they were preparing to go to dinner, have fun and enjoy a glass of wine. Assholes. Instead, my brother’s somewhat panicked voice answered- “Have you talked to Mom?” No, I replied. I hadn’t since the previous night. Which, as my wheels started to turn, was odd. She would normally have called from the airport in the morning and then again during her layover in Chicago. Why hadn’t she called? Why hadn’t I thought to call her? These two questions would become some of the basis of my guilt and frustration.
Over the next few hours, communicating back and forth across the country, calling friends and neighbors, trying hospitals, cab companies, and airline operators, I finally got a call from my dad. “Mom’s dead.” What. The. Fuck. How could that possibly be fucking true? I cried. I fell on the floor. I lost control. My then boyfriend, called my boss- “Sarah won’t be at work tomorrow.” He called the airlines- “We need tickets as early in the morning as you have them.” I called my friend- “Halbe? It’s Sarah. My mom died. What should I pack? What do I take home when my mom died?”
Somehow I got home. I threw up a few times on the trip home. I cried every few minutes. And then, I stopped. And I started to methodically make the calls that would take up 3 hours of my time on January 30th. “Uncle Ted? Uncle Keath? Uncle Jeff? Ann? Sean? Mrinal? etc etc…Mom died.” I started to forget how hard it was to say. I felt like you do when you eat too many sour patch kids…my tongue was numb from repeating this awful phrase. Then came the family, the friends, the calls, the flowers, the casseroles and the hugs. None of them helped. I just wanted my mom.
The next three weeks flew by like a blur- memorials, pictures, plane flights, car trips, dinners out staring at each other, tears, anger and more fucking hugs. I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw a tantrum. I wanted to punch something. I wanted to stay in bed with the blanket over my head. But, instead, I put on my big girl pants and marched right into the sea of well wishers to receive the love they brought. I hugged back but it was robotic. I was on autopilot.
It wasn’t until everyone had gone home and the flowers started to die, that things started to get really bad. I stopped showering. I stopped eating properly. I called in sick for work. I didn’t call anyone and rarely returned calls when people called me. I watched TV and cried. My, now husband, saved me. He gave me time and then gently pushed me back towards the world of the living. “You don’t have to stop being sad, but you have to be healthy. Let’s go on a walk.” I love him with every breath in my body.
And little by little I got healthy again. I stopped being sad every day. I saw a therapist who validated my grief and helped me push through it. I started living my life and loving it. I got engaged to this amazing man who used my mother’s ring to ask me to marry him. I got married. I changed jobs and changed houses. I had babies. And here I am, a whole person, missing a huge chunk of myself. As I heal, a scar remains where my mom left me. I cry sometimes, but not a lot. I tell stories about this amazing woman who gave me wings and I laugh. I remember the good…and the bad. But every now and then, I need to give myself more completely to this healing process, which is still ongoing.
I honor this day because I need to. I reflect on what I have, what I miss and what I cherish. I choose to sit and drink my coffee in the morning while thinking about all the mornings I did that with her. I choose to tell my kids stories about their Grandma Nina. I choose to cry if I feel sad, laugh if I feel happy and be upset when I, inevitably, get mad about the fact that she died. Do I limit myself to January 29th every year for those emotions and actions? No. But it is a good release for me. I choose to honor the day she left me for the same reason I choose to honor the day she was born- those moments have meaning for me.