By Lisa Buell —

I got a truck full of manure delivered to me the first Mother’s Day after my daughter Madison died. I had been sleeping in, hoping the day would turn to night before I had to come out of my room. The vibration of the truck shook the old single pane windows of my home and saved me from another morning of sleep without rest. I threw on my robe and made my way out the door just in time to see the load of turds falling on top of themselves in my driveway.

“Sorry, I knocked but no one answered,” the truck driver said as the earthy aroma filled my nostrils.

“What is this?”

“I’m Bob from Antonelli’s, just delivering your 50/50.”

“Right, well, I didn’t order any 50/50, so….”

He pulled out the invoice. “Says here, Jean McCormick.”

“That’s my Mom.” And why the hell did she send me a truckload of shit?

“Well, happy Mother’s Day,” he said as he slowly pulled out of the driveway and onto the street. I watched until I couldn’t make out the back of his truck. I followed the taillights with my eyes for two blocks, just standing there, staring.

The sun was rising and the fog had yet to come in. Colorful puffy streaks of sunrise filled the sky. My eyes locked onto the pink ladies that were in bloom on the hillside, the soft morning light illuminated the Japanese maple, and the smell of sweet jasmine filled my head and pulled at my heart. Even the weeds in our yard looked pretty. How long had it been since I had seen the morning?

I turned away from the magic of the day and went back inside my darkened home. I had taken to leaving the shades drawn until after 11:00, and it felt like I was entering a mole’s den. Is this what you’ve become, some weird grieving vampire? Did you notice how beautiful it is outside…it’s spring, for chrisssake! I walked through the house, grabbed a mouthful of water from the faucet, and instinctively headed back towards the safety of my bedroom. I lay on my bed, my breath shallow, tears streaming down the sides of my cheeks. Am I still a mother even without my child?

I lay there, too exhausted to get under the blankets when my internal abuse began… You don’t even deserve to put your head on the pillow, JUST GET UP! You’re not honoring Madison by wasting the day away, wallowing in your own self-pity.

But I didn’t want to get up; I didn’t want to participate in life on this dreaded day. The voice that I counted on to coax me into the shower wasn’t there, my internal ally, the one who helped lure me towards the closet to pick out clothes instead of letting me crawl under the covers and give up completely. On especially good days, the voice even got me to brush my teeth, and occasionally, smile.

But sometimes, like today, my internal dialogue turned harsh and full of self-loathing. You couldn’t protect Madison from cancer, why are you here when she isn’t? This wasn’t the first day I wanted to die, and the pit in my stomach and lump in my throat told me it wouldn’t be the last.  The voice inside my head continued to berate me, each venomous whisper sending me deeper into darkness.

Today, I was feeling especially sorry for myself and really, I had every reason to. But I also knew I had a layer of gratitude beneath the rubble of loss; I just didn’t have the energy to excavate it. My list of “things to do when you don’t know what to do” sat untouched on my counter. The script called to me from the distance: “Go for a walk, call a friend, paint your toes, read a book, get some sun, journal, sew.” I had taken the day off; my massage clients had been understanding of the short notice. But now the hours ahead felt daunting.

I turned on my side and pulled the pillow over my head; I liked the muffled sound of my breath. I focused on the painting that hung on the far side of the room: a picture of two women, running naked on the beach, the beautiful blue ocean crashing behind them, their expressions of love and deep satisfaction mocking my entire existence. Would I ever be that free again?

I ran through the litany of helpful things that people said that ultimately ended up being hurtful.  I came up with several good retorts to “She’s in a better place.”

“Fuck off.” “I’m not sold on that idea.” “No, I actually think she was better off with us.” I finally could do something more than stare blankly back.

I counted the number of flowers on the patch of bedspread that I could see, tracing each petal to its peak. Watching my hand move through space, it didn’t feel attached to my arm.  How long have I been watching myself? How long will I be observing my own life? Why the hell did my mother get me manure? I was licking my wounds so hard I almost bled.

Nancy was away at work and had I been smarter, I would have done the same. I felt a flash of anger. Why couldn’t Nancy have taken the day off?  I wanted my spouse; we should be sharing this day together. But had we ever really been together since Madison died? It seemed impossible to save each other from the waters of grief when both of us were drowning.

People had said to me. “It’s harder for you than it is for Nancy. Madison was your baby, and you grew her.” Was it harder for me? Are there different degrees of horrible? Is devastation quantifiable?? Or can we all agree that the death of a child is unfathomable??

Nancy and I each had our own ways of grieving: I overshopped, overate, oversexed myself; combined antidepressants with lots of martinis and made all of Madison’s clothes into quilts while Nancy was either at work or on the couch with a chronic case of carpel-tunnel syndrome from channel-surfing into the wee hours of morning. It wasn’t pretty and it’s nothing I’m proud of; we were both just trying to make it through. But neither of us could have loved our daughter more and each of us would have given our own lives to save our daughter’s.

I suddenly felt sorry for all the bereaved fathers and realized why many of them rarely came to the grief support groups. Their children were a part of them, but didn’t come from them, so in a way they were second-class citizens in the bereavement circle.

I looked at the clock by the side of the bed. It was eleven in the morning. I decided it was time for drastic measures; I pulled myself out of bed and headed for the kitchen.

Vanilla Cream Frosting

Stick of butter, softened,

Three cups powdered sugar,

Tsp vanilla,

Dash of salt,

Splash of milk,

I beat the mixture by hand, anticipating the sticky sweetness on my tongue. The frosting was even better than I had imagined; my ears tingled, my mouth sang, my throat felt thick with all the times I felt love. With the rush of sugar, the pressure in my chest went away. My shoulders finally relaxed. My vision became sharper and I could feel my bare feet on the linoleum. The morning had passed; I could finally feel the ground beneath my feet.

High on sugar, suddenly anything was possible. My own personal crack, it softened all the hard edges and fooled me into feeling fine. I levitated towards the phone and called my mother. I didn’t want to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day, but I was a good girl and it’s what was expected. The phone rang four times; I held my breath, hoping she wouldn’t pick up.

“Happy Mother’s Day, Mama.”

“You too, sweetie, how are you doing?” She still thinks I’m a mom.

“I’m okay, you know…it’s kinda hard, but I’m fine.” Yeah, right.

“Did you get the delivery?” You mean this pile of shit in my yard? “Yes, thank you.”

“I just thought it would be nice for you.”

“Mmmm, yeah, well, I appreciate it. ” She thought a truckload of manure would be nice? She is way too young for Alzheimer’s!

“All right Sweetie, I’ve got to get back to work now.”

“Okay, bye Mom…Love you.”

“Love you too, Babe.”

Still feeling perky from the sugar infusion, I stepped into the shower, threw on some comfortable sweats, and put my hair in a pony-tail-fashion. Crisis averted. I still felt a little stiff from laying around all morning, so I decided to go for a walk. I got sidetracked looking for my sunglasses; I wasn’t about to go anywhere without my sunglasses.

I ended up in the oversized rocking chair with Madison’s quilt pulled up to my chin. Uh-oh, come on Leese, get outside, just grab a hat and get outside. But I couldn’t move.

I had tried to convince myself that Mother’s Day was just another holiday to overcome. We had gotten through Thanksgiving, relying on the gratitude we had that Maddy had come into our life. Last Thanksgiving, she had discovered mashed potatoes, which for a toddler on chemotherapy was quite a gift. We pushed through our first Christmas without her. I broke down and strung a few lights, draped some beads on the Ficus and set Maddy’s Christmas stocking, that her Jewish grandmother had spent hours needlepointing in front of the unlit fireplace. We went to my mother’s house for Christmas with the hope that our family would say Madison’s name, conjure her spirit up with a shared memory or even better, a story about Madison we had yet to hear, and thankfully, many stories were told.

Mother’s Day was inherently different from any other holiday, one that hurt too much for me to acknowledge.  Here I was, a mother without a child. I clutched Madison’s quilt tighter.

The windows rattled again and I leapt to open the door. It was another truck, this one filled stem to stern with flats of flowers; bright oranges, reds, pinks. A standing fuchsia hugged the inside of the truck, a bright purple bougainvillea stood majestically towards the cab; a flash of Madison flooded through me.

Tears came to my eyes as I realized I could make something beautiful out of all the crap. I so wanted to take care of something other than myself. Maybe this would be the start. I walked outside, shielded the sun from my eyes and whispered a silent thank you to my mother… and my daughter. 

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Lisa Buell

Lisa Buell

Lisa Buell is a writer, activist, mother of three and parent of two. She works with Children’s Hospice and Palliative Care Coalition, Partnership for Parents, as a parent advocate bringing a parent’s perspective to the development of palliative care programs and policies. A published author, Lisa is writing her first book, entitled “Call Button,” a collection of essays about the continuation of life in the face of treatment, navigating the waters of grief, celebrating communities and the clinicians who care.

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