Through My Own Eyes

My mother died on March 1, 1981.  I turned five years old just four days before.  I will never forget what happened that night.

I woke up in the middle of the night.  The light in my grandmother’s bathroom was on.  My grandmother leaned into my face and said, “I have to go.  Your mommy’s sick.”  The next morning, my father and grandmother floated through the front door.  My dad sat on the living room sofa.  He said, “Your mommy’s in heaven now.  She’s with the angels.”  My grandmother said, “You can call me mommy now.”  I said, “No, you’re not my mommy.”  I walked in circles over and over and stomped my feet.

My memory of this night is stronger than any memory I have of my mother in life.  Yet this memory does not capture what happened that night to her, why she was suddenly gone. My lived experience that fateful night was in my grandmother’s apartment, as I waited for everyone to get home from wherever they were.  I sat awake most of the night mulling over the image of my mother in a sick bed, a thermometer hanging off her lips, because all I knew was what I had been told: “I have to go.  Your mommy’s sick.”  When my dad delivered the devastating news that my mother was “with the angels,” he sat alone and stared at the floor.  My grandmother offered to replace my mom in name, to normalize things.  But no one told me why my mother was dead.  Everyone assumed that the truth would be too hard for me to handle.

The memories of my earliest years are hazy and disjointed, like a dream I am desperately trying to remember.  In one memory, my mother saves me from a swimming pool where I sunk to the bottom after plummeting off a water slide.  She was dressed in long jeans.  She was angry at my father for putting me on the water slide alone.  In another memory, my mother and I stand next to a pond overrun with thick algae while my father saves our dog Shadie, who had jumped in and started to sink because the algae was strangling his legs.  In another, I was climbing all over my mother’s body in a booth in a restaurant while she giddily laughed and talked to someone – a friend, my father?  She accidentally burned my arm with her cigarette, and she held me and apologized and called me her baby.  In another, I sat in my mother’s lap in the front seat of our car while she and my father argued.  We pulled up to our house on Arthur Drive, and my mother and I went inside.  She slammed the door.  I sat by the front window while she walked to the back of the house and I watched my father pull away.

I once read that the way a mother shows her own children affection is directly linked to the experience she had as a child.  What she felt as an infant in her mother’s arms, what rocking, all-consuming cuddles she knew to expect (or not) in the nighttime when she cried out, she gives her own.  If the theory about a mother’s affection is right, I have all the evidence I need of the realness of the love my mother once had for me.  It was a physical love.  When my oldest daughter, who is almost twelve-years-old, was a newborn and I sat with her alone, I discovered what it must have felt like to be held by my mother.  My daughters — in their most intimate and earliest moments with me — helped me to find/shape/create (who knows?) a most profound memory of being a daughter, one who was taken care of, caressed, and gazed upon.

Some memories tell what really happened.  Others paint a hazy picture, an impression of people and places and experiences, an interpretation of the life we lived.  Still others are created because we are desperate to hold onto something, to fill in the gaps.

My story of loss is a public story now, which I have shared both in the debut episode of “Memory Motel” and in a TEDx Talk – my search for the truth is a public search.  My memories are only part of the story.  I’ve seen only a sliver of the truth through my own eyes.

2 thoughts on “Through My Own Eyes

  1. Rachel,

    My name is Nick Duhamel, a 19 year old from RI, and I am studying at Rhode Island College as a declared Social Work Major. When I was 7, I lost my mother to sarcoidosis, an auto immune disease that should have taken her at a much younger age than 32, so I consider myself very lucky to be on this earth. I
    was given information that was falsely interpreted, and it wasn’t until my 17th birthday that I started to hear the words “suicide”. To this day I have yet to find the truth of exactly how she died back on Valentine’s Day, 2004, but what I have done is learned to work throigh my grief, and start painting a beautiful mural with the strange colors I was given as a child.
    I am a survivor, no question there.
    Following the death of my mom I was introduced to FRIENDSWAY, RI only child bereavement center. Through the expressive arts, I learned how to be expressive with my tethered emotions, and untangle that knot that sat heavy in the depthts of my heart. I found a sense of community at FRIENDSWAY, and when I left just a year after joining, I took with me one of the most useful tools my tool belt has ever aquired, resiliency.
    I used that resiliency through years of abuse and neglect once my father married my step mother. I used it to never crumble before a challenge socially. And I used it during the dozen times I moved as a child, and finally by myself to a home I felt I could finally begin my life in. Since that final move, I have begun prospering socially, academically, and most importantly personally. Finally being able to apply myself, I am finally using my adversities to help motivate myself to help others, instead of just myself. One of my proudest achievements, and this is where you will laugh, is that I have become a facilitator at that very organization that helped me 11 years ago. I currently work with 9 year old through similar expressive arts techniques that were once used with me. I have a very high compatibility level with the children, because I have been in their shoes, sat on the other side of the table, and have lost someone close to me. As a male figure in the room, I give some of the boys who work better with men, a chance to be more comfortable and open up about how they are feeling. The director of FRIENDSWAY, Ryan Loiselle, has trully taken me under his wing and empowers me to be the best that I can be, and gives helpful tips and advice with no hesitation whenever I need it. What I can say at this point in my journey is this, without the gift of resiliency manifested through FRIENDSWAY and the support of other facilitators, and friends I would never have walked as far and as I have on my own path of life. I am proud of you for advocating for the continuing of changing the conversation surrounding grief. And perhaps one day our own paths will cross and we can work together on changing the conversation and helping restore resiliency in the lives of children all across the U.S and even the world.

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