Relearning My ABCs

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Shortly before midnight on the night of my 50th birthday, I started to cry and could not stop. My mother had died four months earlier. She was everything I wanted to be as a mother but I could not be, not now, not ever. I had waited too long to have children trying to do the right things in the right order. My mother never had the grandchildren she longed for. In a way, her death was a relief, allowing me to stop feeling guilty. My own pain and regret had lingered for years, fueled by last minute hopes of adoption or a miracle pregnancy. Turning 50, I realized, was the point of no return. I was forever childless and now motherless. This was not the life I had imagined.

My “Plan A” was a fairy tale debunked. At 34, my husband left me for another woman. The house that once held dreams of children and grandchildren turned into a prison, locked up tight to hide from the random crime and endless city noise. The promise of a promotion at work died with the budget cuts. My closest friends moved to New Jersey to raise their children. I was alone, left behind.

It is hard to let go of our dreams. We plan them, work hard for them, expect fulfillment of them. Then life disappoints us, and we find ourselves lost, hurt, and confused. William S. Burroughs said, “Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.” It took many heartfelt conversations before my friends could cut through my angry refusal to let go of my dreams.

It was time for “Plan B” they said. After my divorce, I was so sure I would remarry quickly and start my family. However, my social life was a string of broken relationships, disappointment, and heartache. Anger and mistrust smoldered within me, and I did not realize I was scaring men away. My family, now living on the eastern shore of Virginia, urged me to move there. Feeling blindsided by the unfairness of life, I decided to try it. I hoped that a rural, isolated area of the country would grant me some solace—a quiet life filled with birdsong and gardens, a place to heal.

So I moved there and spent time with my family, renewing relationships and planning another future. I went to see the specialists at the Jones Institute in Norfolk, Virginia. After gaining the promise of help from my family, I decided I would have a baby on my own. Everyone was excited and eager.

A couple of weeks after each artificial insemination, my mother would ask how I was feeling. We both hoped the answer would be nauseous. No one had trouble having children in my family. They called themselves Fertile Myrtles. They had children into their late thirties and early forties, even back then. Yet, thirteen tries later, countless trips to the Jones Institute and more money than I had to spend, I was not pregnant. Instead, I went into early menopause. “Plan B” fell apart. Family was everything in my family. The realization that I would not have one of my own was devastating. My mother hugged me, trying to soothe me, but I could not be consoled. She reminded me that we had each other and we did, for a while.

When I walked through the entrance of the ICU, tears streamed down my face. A nurse suggested I take some deep breaths. I tried, but my breathing was more gasping than breathing, and small whimpers still escaped from my lips. I pulled out my face powder and tried to cover my swollen eyes. I soon gave up. I entered my mother’s cubicle, kissed her cheek and sat down holding her hand. She was hot and uncomfortable, lifting her hospital gown, trying to cool off. My father was sitting across the bed, gently covering her when she exposed herself. Her breathing was rapid and labored. The oxygen tubes sat in her nostrils, ineffective.

“I am here, Mama,” I said. “Everyone is here, Mama. We’re all here.” I did not realize I was repeating myself until my mother turned to me, annoyed, and said, “Yes, I know you are here. I can see you are here.” Then she stopped and looked more closely at my face. A split second of eye contact, and I was crying again. Her eyes widened, and looking back and forth from my father to me, she asked, “Am I dying?”

I couldn’t say yes, and I couldn’t say no. She raised her hands to her face and called out to God. Was that pain and fear I saw in her eyes, or was she reflecting the emotions she saw in me? The nurse came in then. It was 8 p.m. and only one person could stay in the room with her. My father stayed. I left the room hearing my mother call out that she loved me. I said, “I love you too, Mama,” but I could not turn back to look at her. I felt horribly guilty that I had caused her the pain and fright of knowing she was dying.

Grief is cumulative, one loss piling on top another until the weight becomes unbearable, first upon the soul, then ultimately, the body. In the months before my Mom died, she had become so frail, so sad, so defeated. She still cried at the loss of her own mother, so many years before, but that grief was old and distant. More recent and more painful, she had lost three of her sisters, her favorite niece, and her best friend. Loss had numbed her, stolen the brightness from her eyes and the dance in her step.

At her funeral, I saw the pain of loss reflected in the eyes of those who attended. I shared with the daughters of those three sisters, favorite niece, and best friend the profound sadness that comes with losing one’s mother. I attended those other funerals and I thought I understood. I did not. The loss of a mother’s love is irreplaceable.

I am at a crossroads now, struggling to rewrite my future, my “Plan C”. I have no crayon drawings on the refrigerator nor baby pictures on my cell phone. I will not be a proud parent on graduation day or hold the prestigious honor of being Mother of the Bride. There will be no grandchildren to spoil. What do I do now? I have jewelry from my mother and grandmother to pass down. I have words of wisdom but no one to hear them. I worry about dying alone.

“We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” I do not know who uttered those wise words, but I will try to take them to heart. The life I thought I would have is not to be, but like so many others, I find comfort in the fact that human beings are adaptable. There are lessons to be learned and wisdom to be gained. Bergen Evans said, “Wisdom is meaningless until our own experience has given it meaning.”

Perhaps it is the time to nurture myself as I would have nurtured my children. I can applaud my own achievements and forgive my shortcomings. I create life in my gardens, caring for tender seeds until they reach maturity. I rescue stray cats and adopt them. I have their pictures on my cell phone. I can write— expressing my thoughts, celebrating my triumphs, and sharing my tribulations with whomever—if anyone chances to read my words. Most importantly, I can give and receive love, abundantly, without hesitation, for I have plenty to spare.

So as I set the stage for “Plan C”, I keep in mind Robert Burns’ quote about the best-laid plans of mice and men. Some days I make big plans. Most days I just plan dinner. I hope for sweet dreams. I hope for a peaceful life. I hope to grow old. I know that life probably will disappoint me again. I will pencil in “Plan C” secure in the knowledge that I have at least 23 more back up plans. I remember my A, B, Cs.

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