I didn’t know my Momma that well before Daddy died. Or maybe I never really paid close attention.
Born in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, the second of three girls, Momma grew up with a Cajun accent, loving spicy foods and her daddy, the first of two men she loved selflessly, the first of two men who proved quite difficult to love. Photographed in picture-perfect family vacations, matching dresses, shoes, and hats, Momma was reared by traditional Southern Baptist parents who were faithful to church every week, tithed regularly, and exercised frugality for the well-being of their family.
I based my early perception of Momma on biased opinions of how she developed in my mind. I saw her following her mother’s example of keeping a neat house filled with the smells of three meals a day, lemon-scented cleaner, and starch-spray from ironing and perfectly creasing each pair of Daddy’s jeans. I saw a woman who behaved as taught, in calm, gentle submission to a man much more independent than she would ever be.
Looking back, I realize the hints to Momma’s true character were all there. It’s like a mystery movie where, once the credits roll, I desire to watch it again, seeing the subtle pieces throughout that led to the shocking ending, which wouldn’t have been so shocking if I paid more attention. I began to listen more to the stories I heard concerning who she was as a child: a tomboy who licked salt blocks with her cousins, fed cows with her father, and played football with the neighborhood boys. One day, after missing a catch and having her glasses smashed, my grandmother sat her down.
“You are a girl, and it is time you start acting like one!” she told my then eight-year-old mother.
But she kept playing.
I paid more attention to the simple facts: how she raised two daughters, shot a deer with a 22 rifle while keeping tiny, pristine fingernails painted a soft pink, how she pulled a travel trailer to Colorado and back, through the mountains and passes, how she lost a seven-year-old child to a breath-stealing, lung-suffocating disease, and how, twenty-four years later, she nursed the morphine-induced body of her husband, convincing him he could barely walk, let alone run a two-mile race, and how she watched her husband die, powerless to intervene.
So I guess Daddy’s death marked the end credits of a movie. It caused me not only to rewind what I know of Momma, but also to pay more attention to the film I watch now, since the cast has changed a bit.
It started the day after Daddy died. Following our visit to the funeral home to plan the details of the service, I was laying on Momma’s bed sobbing in her lap.
“This is your first real experience with death, isn’t it?” She asked through broken words herself. I nodded, unable to make any coherent sounds. “And it’s your Daddy, too…”
The break in her sentence allowed her sympathy to wash over me, further opening up the wound that I knew not how to medicate. I felt myself drowning and fighting to keep my head above water.
“Momma, it’s so hard,” I breathed. “It’s so hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Pause. Short, voracious breaths and silent sobs. Her words, although touched with grief, lighted on my head with an unexplainable steadiness.
“Jami, you have to cry,” she said. “You have to grieve. You can’t ignore it…it’ll only make it worse. Just cry. Just cry.”
So I did. And I began watching her because she seemed to know how. Although a married twenty-two year old, I clung to my mother like a small child. I remained within touching distance of her, no matter what we did those next few days. I lay my head in her lap as she sat next to the hospital bed that held Daddy the last thirty-six hours of his life. Friends and family made their way into the house, down the hallway, and through the door to my parents’ room, surrounding us after they received the phone call. I held her hand later that day when we combed through photos, confined to selecting fifty pictures for a ten minute slideshow meant to represent Daddy’s fifty-nine years of life. And so of course, at the visitation, a two-hour period of zombie-like hugs and nods and hugs and sad smiles, I continued to follow Momma around in a confused state. That’s when I began to know her.
Bravery. That was maybe the first thing I saw. Bravery may seem to describe a hardened countenance, intolerant of fears or emotion, but that wasn’t my mother. No, she was brave. She had the courage to cry. She had the courage to feel and to grieve. She wore the black and gold dress Daddy bought her for a cruise scheduled two weeks after his death, a cruise some friends had given them free tickets for after learning of Daddy’s diagnosis, a cruise that would now never happen. I followed her around and examined her face as she hugged person after person after person – another widowed friend, one of Daddy’s junior high basketball players, the middle-aged superintendent who was Daddy’s boss. And she cried. She spoke of how much she missed him, how jealous she was of where he was now, how thankful that all these friends were here, had made such a long drive. She kept walking. She kept hugging people. She kept her eyes open, her head back, her smile sometimes fading, but always reappearing. Tears and smiles and hugs. It was a tension I began to recognize, and that she seemed to be handling so well.
I once heard a pastor tell a story where he described the tension between the grief and the joy that comes from the hope we have. A few years earlier he conducted a wedding where he had to inform the guests at the start of the ceremony of the sudden death of the bride’s grandmother the night before. Later, as he sat, drained and empty, during the reception, he happened to see the mother and father of the bride together. They were holding each other close, dancing and crying. Wet cheeks pressed together, hands locked, feet slowly, gracefully shuffling. This was the picture of the tension. This was the balance between grief and joy.
This was what I saw in my mother that night.
“You girls will do well to be more like your mother,” Daddy told us more than once.
So I watch her, word by word, movement by movement. She’s not perfect, but I recognize a given grace in my Momma’s voice. A meek voice, yet full of a subtle, unsuspecting strength in a one hundred and twenty pound, middle-aged woman’s body. A body filled with pain, grief, joy, and hope. She’s living the best way she knows how. She’s tough. And I admire her.
“Jami Lee,” Daddy told me once. “Your mother’s tough. She is. You may not know it, but she’s the toughest woman I’ve ever met.”
I know it now, Daddy.
(Excerpts taken from my manuscript of a memoir on grieving. I’d love to know if you connect with any of these words and would like to read more as I continue pursuing publication of my book, Lord-willing. My prayer is to use the means of storytelling to connect with others in their grief and share how I experienced God’s grace through my own story of grief.)