Don't be bothered, no. Don't be bothered by the fears I'll try to bottle them like my mothers perfume She wore it only on Sunday Kept it safe in her room in a chest with a key We found it anyway. ~Over The Rhine
At six and a half years old, I found myself uprooted in the aftermath of my parents divorce. The custody arrangement had been decided. My brother and I would spend most of the year in Kansas with our mom, and six to eight weeks of each summer in Pennsylvania with our father. Accompanied by suitcases larger than ourselves and equally sized lumps in our throats, we gathered in the airport, our parents interacting awkwardly, fumbling for words and feigning politeness. The air felt dense and heavy like a thick blanket over all of us, a new sensation, which I now know was grief.
As I was told to say goodbye to my mother for 8 weeks, a tightness expanded into my chest moving into my arms and my throat, I tried to erase it with hugs and kisses and waves as we stepped through the door to get on the plane. The hot tears pushed their way up as I walked down the funny moving walkway, leaving behind everything familiar and getting on a plane with someone I barely knew anymore.
In those days, your family and friends could walk you all the way to your gate and see you off. After getting buckled in I would glue myself to the tiny window, crying bitterly, scanning the building to pick out her familiar figure. Look for the white shirt. There she is, the one waving. There was not enough waving to make it okay.
During that first summer, I spent my days at an in home daycare. The owner and director was an irritable and burdened woman named Fran, who in my estimation was no fun at all. I avoided her at all costs.
What was fun, though, was my newly invented game of turnpike. I would drive one of those little play cars around (the kind where your feet stick out of the bottom reminiscent of Fred Flintstone) and make circles around the back-patio turned play-room. After each lap I would stop and “punch my turnpike ticket”. What I was really doing was sticking my thumbnail into a sheet of brand new drywall which happened to be exposed from renovations. I had no idea that this might not be a good idea. It left the most satisfying little mark to stamp my nail in the wall. And I loved that word “turnpike”. It sounded so fancy and sophisticated. Our daily life in Kansas didn’t involve toll roads the way it did since arriving in PA and I was quite fascinated by them.
Turnpike distracted me from an enormous burden of desperation. I was desperate for my mother. I needed her like I needed air, and she wasn’t there. The ache of grief spun through me like burning lava, but I was careful to keep it bottled up tightly.
The adults around me felt uncomfortable with my grief so they urged me to shut down my feelings, to ignore my grief, to stop my tears and play happy. You’ll talk to her on the phone, you’ll see her again soon. Stop crying now, don’t make yourself sick.
So it felt good to get lost playing turnpike at my new daycare. It felt good to take my mind away from the loneliness and shock I harbored. Of course the fun ended when Fran discovered one hundred or more child sized thumbnail holes stamps in her newly installed drywall.
And this I remember:
The adults were more charged up about that effing drywall than they’d ever let me be about my mother.
Did you experience grief and loss as a child? Or are you needing support as the parent of a grieving child? Processing those stories can bring healing for everyone involved.
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