Losing My Mother

When my brother called on Thursday afternoon, I figured he wanted to talk about my mother’s dementia. But he was breathless and panicky. It’s Mom, he blurted, something’s wrong. The neighbors say she won’t answer the door.

By the time the EMS arrived, so had a minister. My brother refused to let anyone do anything more until a priest had been called. Trust me. He was not being a jerk about this. She was Irish Catholic from Belfast and would have been fussy about this final ritual.

By the time her death was confirmed, I had packed my bags and called my kids with details about the funeral. Then I drove for what seemed like the millionth time across the state of Michigan to Detroit. Every mile yielded a memory. My daughter and I reminisced until she grew silent with sleep.

Left alone with my thoughts, I was plunged into grief and cried until I reached Ann Arbor. No one would ever accuse me of being reserved. Still, I was surprised by how hard my mother’s death hit me.

Over the years, I’ve escaped the summer heat of Chicago on the beaches of western Michigan. There, you see signs warning swimmers of riptides. These currents can pull a swimmer suddenly into very deep waters. That’s what my grief felt like.

Cousins flew in from various parts of the country and Canada. It was a true Irish wake. For three days we mourned and laughed as we shared memories. When the grief stirred, I swam to the safety of my children before it pulled me under.

My mother was born to a large family in Northern Ireland. The eldest, she was educated in a convent school, but had to divide her time between books and family duties. Her father was a horse dealer. He bred and sold what were considered to be Ireland’s finest ponies. Truth be told, he sold King Albert a pony for Princess Elizabeth’s 16th birthday.

It’s hard to imagine surviving my mother’s life. After World War II, Northern Ireland had been bombed into oblivion. Belfast was home to the shipyards that built the British fleet. As such, it was a merciless target for German bombers.

When the war ended, inertia set in. With no job, few prospects, and an abundance of ambition, my mother grew restless. At the age of 22 she set out for America, all alone. Think about that. Women didn’t do that sort of thing in the 1940’s.

What would unfold for my mother is the stuff of Mad Men. She landed in Detroit, where she sewed upholstery at the Fisher Body Plant. There, she met my father. He was a guy from West Virginia determined to get ahead. They married and started a family. By the age of 40 he had earned a giant promotion. Soon after, he succumbed to a massive heart attack.

Alone and with little support, she rebuilt her life. She eventually remarried and left behind a leafy suburban lifestyle for the rough and tumble of Detroit’s east side. Adrift and isolated, she enrolled in community college and earned a degree. In a life struck through by tragedy, she kept finding her way to shore somehow.

During the funeral service, the heft of our loss bonded my siblings beyond our rivalries. We held hands and hugged whenever we felt like it.

Near the end of the service, the organist struck up the Ave Maria. To our utter shock and wonder, the priest stepped forward and belted it out with the vibrato of an operatic tenor. Had it not been a funeral, we’d all have cried, “Bravo!”

Later, at the graveside, a soft rain fell. Final prayers were said. People bobbed about aimlessly. Then, at the request of my sister in-law, my cousin from Ireland sang a farewell hymn in Gaelic. His voice lifted gently, tapping headstones as it went. The undertaker’s eyes glistened.

I cannot say how long it will take me to get over the loss of my mother. Perhaps as long as it takes me to finally learn how much I owe the grace of my existence to others.