Son’s Grief Opens a Door

I got a belated birthday card from my mother for my 41st birthday. “To Our Wonderful Daughter,” was scripted on the front, in gold, above a bouquet of pastel flowers. Inside, on the right page, in the same Hallmark font: “Another year of the one-and-only you.”  On the left, was my mother’s black-scripted message: “Anne, I was only 22 when you were born. I didn’t want to have you, I had other things I wanted to do. But, here you are. Love, Mom”.
My mother had been waging guerilla warfare on me my whole life. As a result, I’d been battling depressions for decades. For the most part, I managed to keep myself upright. But each time she struck, it devastated me. I dropped the card on the hall table, went upstairs and threw myself face down on my bed.
I don’t know how long I’d been there when my twelve-year-old son Joseph came into my room.
“Mommy, are you okay?”  I sat up on the bed and shook my head just enough to acknowledge his question.
“Is it grandma?”  He had been with me when I’d gotten the mail and opened the card.
I nodded.  My mother’s mean spirit was nothing new. We’d been through this before.  He knew not to go on.  And when I turned away and stared ahead at the window in front of me, he left, closing the bedroom door softly behind him.
I focused on a bare, skeletal branch stretching across the windowpanes in front of me.   I was tired.  So tired of everything.  Tired of hating my mother.
Some minutes later, Joseph returned.
“Mommy, I think we have to put Whiskers to sleep,” his voice quivered.

Visit to the Vet

Whiskers was Joseph’s four-year-old gerbil.  Three months earlier, Whiskers had undergone surgery to move a tumor on his paw.  The vet had said if it reappeared, she advised against amputation because Whiskers’ quality of life would be dismal with only three paws.
It was ten minutes before six on Friday.  If it had to be done, I didn’t want to prolong the ordeal until Monday. We raced to the car with Whiskers. Beside me, in the passenger seat, Joseph was whimpering.
“Joseph, Whiskers has had a long and very good life.  You loved him and took very good care of him.”
Joseph closed his eyes, nodded and swallowed a sob.  “I know, Mommy.  But it’s still sad.  I’m going to miss him.”
“It is sad.  It’s very sad.  But he’s not going to know what’s happening.  He won’t feel anything, Joseph.  He’ll be sleepy, that’s all.  We’re all going to miss him.”
Even though I rarely saw Whiskers, whose home was a cage on Joseph’s bureau, at that moment I really did think I would miss the little rodent.  Usually I catch only half of Joseph’s incessant chatter.  But riding to the vet he sat frozen and silent.
With a sympathetic smile, the vet receptionist motioned us toward the waiting room. Joseph and I sat together in the empty room, Joseph holding Whiskers’s tank firmly on his lap. I put my arm around him and massaged his shoulder.  I thought about the gold-scripted words, “To Our Daughter.”  The receptionist came to usher us to the examining room.
The vet scooped the scurrying Whiskers out of his tank and cupped him in her hands.  She fingered his paw. Her manner was calm, her gentleness, lulling.  I hoped she’d look up at us and have another option.  But she didn’t.
“You’re right, Joseph.  Whiskers’ tumor is growing rapidly.  It’s getting awkward for him to move.”  Still stroking Whiskers, she stooped down a notch to be eye level with Joseph.

Sharing a Shoulder

“He’s had a very good and very long life,” the vet said. “He won’t feel any pain.  His life will be good until the very end, and he’ll be very happy in heaven.”

Joseph nodded.  His eyes focused on Whiskers.  The vet smiled sadly and left with Whiskers.  Joseph threw himself into me, burrowing his head in the bosom of my down jacket.  We held on to each other and cried.

After many Kleenexes, we ran to the car, where we began sobbing, again.  I put one arm on Joseph’s shoulder and stroked his hair with the other.  Then we held hands, me squeezing his and him squeezing mine.  With each clench I closed my eyes and tried not to picture my mother.
“Do you want to go get another gerbil, Joseph?”  I asked, thinking a new gerbil might lessen Joseph’s grief.
“Mommy, no,” he answered.  “I can’t just replace Whiskers.”  I smiled, moved by the depth of his feelings.
The house was dark when we pulled into the garage.  I turned off the ignition but neither of us of us got out of the car. Our crying began, again.
“Mommy, are you crying about Grandma?” Joseph asked in a soft, unwavering voice.
“Yes, Joseph.  I’m crying about Whiskers and Grandma and … Joseph, I’m crying about everything.”
He reached across the front seat and put his hand in mine.  “Mommy, we’re your family now, and we love you.”
His words deepened my sobs. I tightened the wrap of my hand around his.

The Magic of a Child’s Grief

I spent the evening monitoring Joseph’s mood, until finally after dinner, I trudged upstairs to brush my teeth and collapse into bed. I raised the toothpaste-dotted toothbrush to my teeth.
 “Mommy, I already know by heart two blessings for my bar mitzvah.  Do you want to hear them?”  Joseph asked, appearing in the bathroom doorway.  His lips turned up in a tentative smile.
“Uh huh,” I said, wondering how he had propelled himself on a Friday night – a Friday night of a traumatic day – to study for a bar mitzvah that was nine months away.
“Baruch ata adonai,” he began.  A beaming smile spread across the face of this son who just a few hours earlier had been my fellow mourner.  I leaned on the sink, conserving all my consciousness for absorbing him.
The glaring image of my mother in the foreground of my mind squeezed to the background and faded to a ghost. The mass of futility that had been suffocating me began to shrink.
I imagined Joseph the morning of his bar mitzvah, and I spanned his transformation from the newborn bag of reflexes I had carried home from the hospital, to the son who had come to my bathroom and sung poetry one sad Friday night.
Excerpted from Anne’s book, Mattie, Milo, and Me: A Memoir

Anne Abel

Anne Abel’s story about unwittingly rescuing an aggressive dog, Milo, won a Moth StorySLAM in New York City. She has won two additional Moth StorySLAMs in Chicago. Her credentials include an MFA from The New School for Social Research, an MBA from the University of Chicago, and a BS in chemical engineering from Tufts University. She has freelanced for Lilith; Philadelphia Daily News; The Jewish Exponent; Philadelphia Weekly, Main Line Life and Main Line Today, and formerly wrote a weekly column, “The Homefront,” for Main Line Welcomat. She also taught English and creative writing at the Community College of Philadelphia. Anne lives in New York City with her husband, Andy, and their three rescue dogs, Ryan, Megan, and Chase. She grew up outside Boston, MA. In January, 2016 Anne and Andy, moved from suburban Philadelphia with their three dogs to Chicago, where Andy was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. Anne had no idea what she was going to do in this city where the daytime high was nine degrees. When she met her new dog walker she asked, “What do you do when you aren’t walking dogs?” “I host a storytelling open mic in the back of a bar. You should come sometime and tell a story.” Anne went to the storytelling open mic just to listen. Unexpectedly, she found herself telling a story. For the next two years Anne became part of the storytelling circuit of Chicago, including The Moth. She won two Moth StorySLAMs in Chicago. Then she and her husband moved to New York City where she won a Moth StorySLAM for telling the story about Milo.

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