My mom passed away December 9th, 2003 – an event I often avoid discussing. I was 10-years-old, my sister 12, our dad 47, and mom 46.
I remember crying a lot in school for the first few years. “On That Holy Mountain” by Joe Mattingly would be sung in mass, “Lord of the Dance”, “Amazing Grace” – all songs at her funeral. It was normally during mass at school that I remember having these emotional outbursts. My mom, in my understanding of her, was deeply religious and spiritual. God was her strength, Jesus her support, the Holy Spirit her will. These are some of my strongest memories of my mom – her reading the large white with gold trim bible on our purple corduroy couch, her counting down the beats in a liturgical dance rehearsal in our dark, “modern” Catholic church with the velvet-like red carpet.
I remember making new friends from my loss – and losing old friends in the process due to my ignorance and pride. I remember being labeled as “the girl whose mom died”. People tread carefully – “you don’t know what will make her cry, then she’ll be crying for her mom”. I remember being insensitive to other ailments – “at least it isn’t cancer”. Because cancer was the worst in my book. It took my mother away from me. What else could be worse?
I remember going to therapy for a few months. I remember the eclectic, antique style of the room and my therapist’s equally eccentric wardrobe and brown hair. I remember thinking her hair was sort of like my mom’s before she got sick and lost it all. I remember how angry that made me because when my mom was in remission for a short time, her hair grew back grey and she decided to embrace the color rather than dye it. I missed my mom’s brown hair. We made a “Mommy & Me” book, filled with pictures, little memories, and then I never saw her again.
I remember riding in the car on my way to school on a cold Iowa morning sitting in the front seat even though I wasn’t old enough yet. I remember my dad, with tears brimming his eyes, saying that if he didn’t have my sister and I, that he would be dead right then. He would have killed himself. He didn’t see the point to living except for us.
I remember being thirteen and being so, so angry. I remember feeling like I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my feelings – school, boys, friends, and family. Mom had died over two years ago, I shouldn’t still be mourning for her. It was time to move on. I felt so sad, abandoned, hurt, scared, and mostly angry. I wanted to kill myself I had said. My dad pulled me into his room and told me that he had heard I had said this from a family friend. He told me it was cowardly. Only cowards kill themselves. I remember feeling ashamed and more angered.
This anger grew to a twisted form of love and resentment. I was always a “Daddy’s Girl” – tom-boy to the core, loved dirt and sports – my father was my rock. People always remarked of how I was stubborn and looked like him. Even my mom would say I was “My father’s daughter”. When mom died, mom left. Dad was the one who was there. But dad began to date again. At first, it was exciting, the novelty of it all. Then, it was suffocating and lonely. Dad wasn’t home on Saturday night because he was on a date. We would hear about this lovely woman who dad reunited with at his high school reunion. Was she as lovely as mom, though? Could she dance like mom? Could she help me with my word searches like mom did? Most importantly, would she try to take mom’s place and would we let her?
We moved after a few years as to better accommodate Pam and our new little family. My sister and I were furious. One of mom’s dying wishes was that we stay in that house. How could dad have us move for his new relationship with another woman? Olivia only had one year before she left for college. She coped by never being home. I had three school years to live through. I was always angry. Dad and I would get in these horrible screaming matches. I moved out before graduating.
I rarely went home my first year of college. I was busy starting my field, playing in ensembles – one of them Joe Mattingly’s Newman Singers – and embracing the beginnings of “true adulthood”. I tried to move back home for the summer between my freshman and sophomore year to save money, but dad wasn’t having it. He still can’t look me in the eye and tells me a different answer as to why he wouldn’t let me back in when I ask him about it today. I went home less frequently after that.
My sophomore year was when I first was diagnosed with Major Depression. It was when I was on drug after drug to try to alleviate the sadness and anxiety. It was when I first started to self-harm. It was when I was partying every weekend thinking that friends and alcohol would take the pain away. It was when I went to a priest and confessed my thoughts of suicide only to be told I was damned for such an ideation. It was when my sister told me that mom had struggled hard with the idea of God and religion. It was when I then renounced my faith and felt something within me leave. It was when my dad told me the psychiatrist was a nut-job for diagnosing me with depression when I didn’t have depression. “Depression means you wanna kill yourself. You don’t wanna kill yourself, right?” he said. No, I responded. “See, you don’t have depression. You’re not suicidal. Good thing you’re not spending any money to see this therapist. They’re from the university, right?”
I spiraled out of control from there for a while. Cutting my shoulders increased. I got a cat to try to help against the advice from the psychiatrist. I found a new psychiatrist. This psychiatrist found me a therapist. This therapist found me a new psychiatrist. This psychiatrist put me in the hospital the first time I visited her.
My dad, visiting with Pam, subtly put his hands up my short-sleeved shirt. Upon feeling the scabs on my shoulders, said to me, “This is all you’re here for? Here for these little scratches.” I hid in my room the rest of the day.
I prepared for the 10-year anniversary of my mom’s death. Olivia and I posted to Facebook asking for friends and family to send letters of their memories of our mom to us. I cried reading some of the letters. Gained some knowledge of her that I didn’t know before. I don’t remember much of them and have only kept one of them from her dear friend Nancy – the mother of one of her most treasured students.
I remember sitting in my therapist’s office as we attempt our first EMDR guided visualization to help with my anxiety. She dimmed the lights and started asking me questions about my imaginary safe place. I began seeing a waterfall and a large boulder – it was a memory from a beautiful hike I had done as a child in the Smokey Mountains. Then, my mom walked up, wearing her “Gatlinburg, Tennessee” shirt our whole family (extended included) purchased and a baseball cap covering what little hair she had, with her arms outstretched ready to embrace me. I began to sob uncontrollably and my therapist was left to deescalate the situation.
I remember going with my best friend from high school, Diego, to The Den in Downtown Iowa City and purchasing my first piece. It was a beautiful mahogany dugout with a silver metal slider and a metal bat that looks like a cigarette. It’s still my go-to piece.
I remember shortly before moving to California having a frank discussion with my dad about my reasons for moving. He had found my dugout and reacted much differently than I had expected. I told him that Olivia, her now husband Darren, and I all smoke. He was thrilled to say the least that we got into it without his encouragement. He disclosed that he still smokes, all his brothers still do, and that my mom loved smoking as well. She had almost entirely stopped once we were born, but every so often would ask dad, “Where’s baseball?” The dugout. My first and favorite piece was my mother’s favorite piece.
“I don’t talk about my mom much. She died when I was 10. It was so long ago, I don’t even feel like I have many memories of her. I’m more of my father’s daughter anyway.”
This is what my mantra has been for at least the last 5 years. I don’t like to talk about my mom. Leaving it alone means it doesn’t hurt. It was years ago, I should be over it anyway. No one wants to talk about it anyway. It’s an uncomfortable topic. People don’t know how to handle it.
Going home for my sister’s wedding was much more emotional than I had ever anticipated it being. Little things on my mom kept popping up, big things too. “Together in Spirit: Jeannine Marie Theresa Murrell Symmonds”, read the program and said my dad over the mic. “We see so much of your mom in Olivia – and in you too, Vic.” “Drinking a Coors Light tonight for Aunt Nini!”
I searched for hours in my parent’s basement for the two teddy bears made out of our mom’s flannel. Dad helped a bit and also wanted me to go through some of mom’s clothes. I pulled out a half-flannel thing. It’s grey short-sleeves and hoodie combined with a navy, green, and yellow flannel vest – “I remember her wearing this”.
“Yeah, your mom loved her flannel. Always tried to get me to wear it too, even when it was hot out.” Stunned, I told dad how Lauren always makes fun of me for wearing flannel all the time – especially out on hikes.
“Well, you are your mother’s daughter too, you know.”
That sentence has been resonating in my head for the last week. It’s rocked me to my core. I took a bunch of my mom’s journals from home back to California and have been reading them. I’m reminded of who I am, who I was as a child, and getting to know who she was. She reminds me of my love for piano – so I went out and bought a brand new fully-weighted 88-keys keyboard last week. I’ve also been reading a book one of my coworkers gave me months ago – “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman. I have never read something so relatable and so difficult. It’s taking me a great deal of time, but after having only read halfway through the second chapter, I’ve already learned a great deal.
I’m reconciling with my mother’s death. I’m learning how cyclical mourning is and that it never really ends. I’m reconciling with my past and looking closely at my history. Have I been seeking that nurturing guardian since her passing? Did I really buy that flannel from Goodwill that I only wear at home just because I thought it was somewhat fashionable or because it reminded me of her? How much of my tom-boyishness came from feeling like I needed to escape my femininity since I lost that beacon at an early age?
I am reconciling with being my mother’s daughter.