A friend once told me that not all our fears are meant to be faced. Perhaps some fears are best left alone, as they may exist for good reason. Some fears, on the other hand, demand to be faced. These are the ones that find their way to the surface and, like a tiger, make their presence known.
For while we can pretend, for a time, not to see an elephant in the living room; when a tiger waltzes in, we don’t get the luxury of ignoring it… if we want to survive, that is.
Such was my experience the day after my Mom passed away.
She died quite suddenly on a Monday morning. It was my brother Doug who phoned to tell me the news. By Monday evening, I was back in my hometown with my family. Tuesday morning, we went to the funeral home to get the logistics sorted. After that, some of us piled into Doug’s truck and we went to the grocery store to pick up the makings for lunch.
And that, strangely enough, is when things fell apart.
When Doug and another brother, Pat, returned to the truck from the store, they were carrying the food in plastic bags. And for some reason, I ignored the voice of reason in my head that said, “Don’t say anything. Don’t say anything. This is not the time to mention they should have taken re-usable bags.”
But of course, what did I say?
“You shouldn’t be using plastic bags.”
This, not surprisingly, was akin to poking an already wounded tiger – my brother Doug – in the bottom with a nice sharp stick.
Now prior to this, I had never fought with my brother, Doug, in my life. And trust me, I never will again. Doug is one of my greatest fans. He gets me like no one else. I can do no wrong. This time, however, I did do wrong – and he let me know it. Let’s just say the drive back to my Mom’s apartment was a very loud and fast one, with Doug and I screaming at each other the entire way about who has the worst environmental footprint. Thankfully, the rest of the family members in the truck had the wisdom to know not to intervene but rather just let this play out – and hope they lived to see another day.
Now, I would like to say that by the time Doug and I got back to my Mom’s apartment, we had cooled down. But no. In fact, I think we were even angrier at each other by that point. So I jumped out of the truck, stomped over to the building entrance and yanked open the door, smashing it against a bench. Then I ran up the stairs and into my Mom’s apartment, past the concerned faces of my other family members who didn’t know yet what had happened, and into the guest bedroom… my room. And then I did what I always do when I don’t know how to handle my feelings: I wrote.
Ten minutes later, I emerged from the room – at the same time Doug was coming out of the bathroom directly across the hall. And before I even had to time to think, I threw my arms around him.
“I am SO sorry!!” I wailed. “This isn’t about the plastic bags! I WANT MY MOM!”
And then the oddest thing happened… something that has never happened to me before. I began to sob uncontrollably on Doug’s shoulder. It was ugly. It was messy. It was embarrassing. And it turned out to be the smartest thing I could have done.
We moved back into the guest bedroom and sat, side by side, on the bed. And the best way to describe what happened next was that it felt like there was an alien inside me, trying to get out. By this point, I wasn’t just sobbing, I was heaving.
Doug wasn’t mad at me anymore; I think he thought I was possessed.
“Maryanne,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t do this!” I cried.
I turned to him and heard myself say, “Live the rest of my life without a Mom.”
And there it was: my fear of being motherless. That’s the alien that had been trying to get out.
That was the tiger.
“You don’t have our Mom anymore,” he said. “But you still have all of us. And we will always be there for you.”
I managed a smile. “I know.”
“And for the record,” he continued, “I usually do use re-useable bags. I just didn’t happen to have any in my truck today… and it was the last thing on my mind.”
I nodded. “It was completely inappropriate of me to say something, today of all days.”
As it turned out, my meltdown on Doug’s shoulder turned out to be very therapeutic, partly because it was such a physical release of the hurt, and partly because it brought to the surface a deeply rooted fear of abandonment. I cried after my Mom’s death like I never could after my husband, John’s – probably because I was absolutely terrified of facing the fact that I had been left behind.
But if I could turn back the clock and go back to John’s death, I would say to heck with the stoicism – and proceed to have the most spectacular meltdown imaginable. Because now I know that the sooner the hurt and fears are out, the sooner you can heal.
Although I can’t turn back time, I can handle the future better. And I am pleased to report I did just that when the day came, six weeks after my Mom’s death, I had to put my beloved old dog, Soda, down.
It was around 11 a.m. on a Thursday when I could tell where things were headed with Soda. She’d starting having seizures the day before and the prognosis did not look good. So I said to the vet, who looked to be about half my age, if that: “I am emotionally ready to let her go.”
The vet nodded slowly and gave me a funny look.
Half an hour later, whether I was ready or not, it was Soda’s time to go – and as I watched as the light went out in her beautiful eyes, I didn’t hold back. I was a wreck!
Right there on the floor in the back room of the vet clinic, I cried and cried and cried. And then I gave Soda one last kiss on the head and then, just like my Mom had – after putting down so many of our family pets over the years – I put on the dark glasses and sobbed my way out the door, bawling like a baby.
“Maryanne,” said a staff member, “we can’t let you drive home in this condition.”
“I WON’T DRIVE!” I cried. “I’M JUST GOING TO SIT IN MY CAR AND CRY AND DRINK WATER AND CALL MY FAMILY AND FRIENDS.”
I can still see the young vet with the old soul, peeking around the corner of the door to the back room, watching me with huge eyes.
“Emotionally-ready… hah!” she was probably thinking. “Nobody is ever ready for that moment, sweetheart. But at least you had the smarts to let it out.”
When I got in the car, who was the first person I called? Well, it would’ve been my Mom, of course – but since that was no longer possible, I called Doug. For another thing I’ve learned is that although we all do, eventually, get left behind by those we love, we are never left alone.