My mother has not been one to use e-mail that often. Recently I’ve been hearing from her more and more. She sent me a note a few weeks ago and what she said struck me—take care of yourselves and be careful not to do something stupid. At first it seemed like sage advice, something a mother might say to a son before he goes off to college. But then I realized that what my mother was doing was giving me counsel from one grieving parent to another. Is that what I am?
I had never thought about the loss of a foster child in the same terms as losing a child. My mother was doing just that—equating the loss of our foster son through reunification to the accidental loss of my brother who died young and tragically.
He was only twenty-four—it was motorcycle versus truck—it came suddenly with no warning—it came to me in a phone call. He wasn’t hurt or in a hospital. He was just gone. It was a blast of pain that came initially and then over and over for days and days. Being just two years older than him, it sent me reeling sometimes a little out of control. I remember feeling like I had lost my balance. I pulled up what little roots I had and moved across the country. I had no idea how much of that was me being young and impulsive and me being young and in a world of hurt.
I now know what it’s like for an older brother to lose his younger brother. I remember the pain and I can even now, after more than twenty years weep over him. What I could never do is understand how it felt to lose a son—a very different type of grief. After a couple of years, I came back home because it didn’t matter where I was, his loss was inescapable. When I returned, it seemed that my mother continued to be sad for so long. I sometimes wondered if it was part of her nature to be a little sad. I remember her telling me that losing a child is something you never get over. I didn’t know how to help her. I tried to move on myself. It was just too hard to continue grieving indefinitely. That was more than twenty years ago.
I love my mother for reaching out to me with counsel when everything seems so bleak these days. It is of course what mother’s do. It took me a little while to realize that it wasn’t some obligatory mother-son moment. She had lifted the veil on her own grief and loss. She let me see it for the very first time. You see, my son, what you are experiencing now, I have already been through. And it made me feel closer to her, and a little foolish and so very, very sad. I had no idea of the pain that she had suffered, not until now: the disbelief, the denial, the numbness, the heavy head and body, the emotional exhaustion, the anger and the fact that no one around you truly understands.
Her warning to take care and not do something stupid was exactly what I needed to hear. There have been times lately while driving, that the deep despair has been so thick that I didn’t remember driving at all—didn’t remember where I had been or where I was going and most importantly had no idea of how I had gotten there. It is an eerie, disturbing feeling, almost as if the last few moments had evaporated.
Then she said something that I didn’t understand at first—when you decide to have children your heart walks around without your body. Your body does what, huh? What kind of greeting-card-trifle was this? It took me a few days to digest. Then I understood—in my decision to have children, I unwittingly decided to allow a part of me to wonder off alone. Inevitably he would be out there all by himself without my fierce protective cover, without my in-a-moments-notice shield of wonder to keep him from whatever the world would throw at him. But I didn’t realize that instead of an eighteen year old young man marching off to college, my heart was a four-year old little boy trundling off to the unknown. My precious little boy would forever be walking around out there, beyond my reach, out of my sight, away from my grasp. I imagine this is the hardest thing that any parent is ever asked to do, and so much more of any foster parent.
In re-reading her e-mail, I remembered something that I had long forgotten—the wisdom of my mother. I don’t know when children necessarily come to appreciate that about their parents. They surely don’t in their teens and twenties. Maybe it’s something that you don’t realize until you’ve walked a few years in their shoes. I love my mother, I love that she knows my pain, and that she was finally able to share hers with me.