My mother died thirty years ago today. When I woke this morning I lay in bed thinking about that morning three decades ago, when I ran into her hospital room and found her dead. Too late to say goodbye, I clutched her body to mine and said it anyway. Goodbye, Mom. Goodbye, Mom. Goodbye.
I am always with you, is what’s written on the tombstone my family and I laid on the spot of ground in the woods in northern Minnesota where we scattered her ashes. Before she died, she told me that’s what she wanted it to say because she wanted us—my brother, sister and me—to know it was true. Nothing distressed my mother more in her dying than the fact that she was leaving her children motherless. The only thing that gave her comfort was believing that she’d loved us hard enough that we’d feel her with us forever.
“But I want you actually with me!” I remember protesting, weeping, begging. As if we could negotiate. As if lung cancer and I could make a deal.
Thirty years gone and my mother is always with me. Thirty years gone and I still ache for her every day. Thirty years gone and my sorrow has sweetened into gratitude. How lucky I am to have been her daughter. To still be. To feel her shimmering in my bones with every step.
In the next Dear Sugar Letter, I’ll be answering a letter from a young woman who is grieving the deaths of both of her parents. She asks me how to get through this and how to see the good things when there’s so much sorrow. I don’t know what I’ll say to her, but I never do until I begin. The letter will arrive in your inbox by the end of the month if you’re a subscriber. If you want to subscribe, do so here. (And if you subscribed, and have not received the Dear Sugar Letters, please check your spam folder and/or check that you didn’t subscribe with a typo in your email—and if none of that works, email me and I’ll help.)
I only have one announcement this month. In October—when those of us who can be vaccinated are vaccinated and we’re all free to roam and rove and ramble again—I’m teaching a weekend writing workshop with my dear friend, Roda Ahmed. Roda is the author of one of my favorite children’s books, Mae Among the Stars, about Dr. Mae Jemison, engineer, physician, astronaut, and the first Black woman to travel into space. Roda now lives in the United States, but she was born in Somalia and spent most of her childhood in Norway, after immigrating there with her family. Her novel, “The Preparation,” was the first book-length work of fiction written by an African woman in Norway. (It’s not yet been translated into English, I’m sad to say.) In addition to being a stellar writer, Roda is an amazing woman and a wonderful teacher. Our workshop is called “Wild Awakenings” and our mission is to inspire participants to write the stories they most long to tell. It’s at the Art of Living Retreat Center in Boone, North Carolina, October 1-3. If you’re interested in joining us, you can read more about it here.
Way back when my mom told me that she’d always be with me, it didn’t occur to me that the story I’d most long to tell would be about my love for her, my grief over her too-young death, my gratitude for her light in my life. I didn’t know that part of the way I’d make her present in her absence would be that I’d share her with others through my writing. That I’d make her alive in the hearts and minds of people she never met. She’s the one who taught me that our stories survive us. That they’re with us. And always will be.
PS: In honor of my mom, here’s a column from the Dear Sugar archives. It was originally published in The Rumpus in July 2011 and it appears in my book, Tiny Beautiful Things.
The Obliterated Place
It’s taken me many weeks to compose this letter and even still, I can’t do it right. The only way I can get it out is to make a list instead of write a letter. This is a hard subject and a list helps me contain it. You may change it to a regular letter if you wish to should you choose to publish it.
I don’t have a definite question for you. I’m a sad, angry man whose son died. I want him back. That’s all I ask for and it’s not a question.
I will start over from the beginning. I’m a 58 year-old man. Nearly four years ago, a drunk driver killed my son. The man was so inebriated he drove through a red light and hit my son at full speed. The dear boy I loved more than life itself was dead before the paramedics even got to him. He was twenty-two, my only child.
I’m a father while not being a father. Most days it feels like my grief is going to kill me, or maybe it already has. I’m a living dead dad.
Your column has helped me go on. I have faith in my version of God and I pray every day and the way I feel when I’m in my deepest prayer is the way I feel when I read your words.
I see a psychologist regularly and I’m not clinically depressed or on medication.
Suicide has occurred to me (this is what initially prompted me to make an appointment with my psychologist). Given the circumstance, ending my life is a reasonable thought, but I can’t do it because it would be a betrayal of my values and also of the values I instilled in my son.
I have good friends who are supportive of me, my brother and sister-in-law and two nieces are a loving and attentive family to me, and even my ex-wife and I have become close friends again since our son’s death—we’d been cold to one another since our divorce when our son was 15.
In addition, I have a rewarding job, good health, and a girlfriend whom I love and respect.
In short, I’m going on with things in a way that makes it appear like I’m adjusting to life without my son, but the fact is I’m living a private hell. Sometimes the pain is so great I simply lie in my bed and wail.
I can’t stop thinking about my son. About the things he would be doing now if he were alive and also the things I did with him when he was young, my good memories of him, my wish to go back in time and either relive happy memories or alter those that are less happy.
One thing I would change is when, at 17, my son informed me he was gay. I didn’t quite believe him or understand, so I inquired in a negative tone: but how can you not like girls? I quickly came to embrace him for who he was, but I regret my initial reaction to his homosexuality and I never apologized to him for it. I believe he knew I loved him. I believe he knew I wanted him to be happy, no matter what path his happiness might take. But Sugar, for this and other things, I am tormented anyway.
I hate the man who killed my son. For his crime, he was incarcerated 18 months, then released. He wrote me a letter of apology, but I ripped it into pieces and threw it in the garbage after barely scanning it.
My son’s former boyfriend has stayed in touch with my ex-wife and me and we care for him a great deal. Recently, he invited us to a party, where he informed us we would meet his new boyfriend—his first serious one since our son. We both lied and said we had other engagements, but the real reason we declined is that neither one of us could bear meeting his new partner.
I fear you will choose not to answer my letter because you haven’t lost a child.
I fear if you choose to answer my letter people will make critical comments about you, saying you don’t have the right to speak to this matter because you have not lost a child.
I pray you will never lose a child.
I will understand if you choose not to answer my letter. Most people, kind as they are, don’t know what to say to me so why should you? I certainly didn’t know what to say to people such as me before my son died, so I don’t blame others for their discomfort.
I’m writing to you because the way you’ve written about your grief over your mother dying so young has been meaningful to me. I’m convinced that if anyone can shed light into my dark hell, it will be you.
What can you say to me?
How do I go on?
How do I become human again?
Living Dead Dad
Dear Living Dead Dad,
I don’t know how you go on without your son. I only know that you do. And you have. And you will.
Your shattering sorrowlight of a letter is proof of that.
You don’t need me to tell you how to be human again. You are there, in all of your humanity, shining unimpeachably before every person reading these words right now.
I am so sorry for your loss. I am so sorry for your loss. Iamsosorryforyourloss.
You could stitch together a quilt with all the times that that has been and will be said to you. You could make a river of consolation words. But they won’t bring your son back. They won’t keep that man from getting into his car and careening through that red light at the precise moment your son was in his path.
You’ll never get that.
I hope you remember that when you peel back the rage and you peel back the idle thoughts of suicide and you peel back all the things you imagined your son would be but wasn’t and you peel back the man who got into the car and drove when he shouldn’t have and you peel back the man who the man your son loved now loves and you peel back all the good times you had and you peel back all the things you wish you’d done differently, at the center of that there is your pure father love that is stronger than anything.
No one can touch that love or alter it or take it away from you. Your love for your son belongs only to you. It will live in you until the day you die.
Small things such as this have saved me: how much I love my mother—even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours. You are not grieving your son’s death because his death was ugly and unfair. You’re grieving it because you loved him truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of his death.
Allowing such small things into your consciousness will not keep you from your suffering, but it will help you survive the next day.
I keep imagining you lying on your bed and wailing. I keep thinking that hard as it is to do it’s time for you to go silent and lift your head from the bed and listen to what’s there in the wake of your wail.
It’s your life. The one you must make in the obliterated place that’s now your world, where everything you used to be is simultaneously erased and omnipresent, where you are forevermore a living dead dad.
Your boy is dead, but he will continue to live within you. Your love and grief will be unending, but it will also shift in shape. There are things about your son’s life and your own that you can’t understand now. There are things you will understand in one year, and in ten years, and twenty.
The word obliterate comes from the Latin obliterare. Ob means against; literare means letter or script.A literal translation is being against the letters. It was impossible for you to write me a letter, so you made me a list instead. It is impossible for you to go on as you were before, so you must go on as you never have.
It’s wrong that this is required of you. It’s wrong that your son died. It will always be wrong.
The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there.
You have the power to withstand this sorrow. We all do, though we all claim not to. We say, “I couldn’t go on,” instead of saying we hope we won’t have to. That’s what you’re saying in your letter to me, Living Dead Dad. You’ve made it so long without your sweet boy and now you can’t take it anymore. But you can. You must.
More will be revealed. Your son hasn’t yet taught you everything he has to teach you. He taught you how to love like you’ve never loved before. He taught you how to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. Perhaps the next thing he has to teach you is acceptance. And the thing after that, forgiveness.
Forgiveness bellows from the bottom of the canoe. There are doubts, dangers, unfathomable travesties. There are stories you’ll learn if you’re strong enough to travel there. One of them might cure you.
When my son was six he said, “We don’t know how many years we have for our lives. People die at all ages.” He said it without anguish or remorse, without fear or desire. It has been healing to me to accept in a very simple way that my mother’s life was 45 years long, that there was nothing beyond that. There was only my expectation that there would be—my mother at 89, my mother at 63, my mother at 46. Those things don’t exist. They never did.
Think: my son’s life was 22 years long. Breathe in.
Think: my son’s life was 22 years long. Breathe out.
There is no 23.
You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by offering comfort to others who can’t go on. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.
Letting go of expectation when it comes to one’s children is close to impossible. The entire premise of our love for them has to do with creating, fostering and nurturing people who will outlive us. To us, they are not so much who they are as who they will become.
The entire premise of your healing demands that you do let go of expectation. You must come to understand and accept that your son will always be only the man he actually was: the 22 year-old who made it as far as that red light. The one who loved you deeply. The one who long ago forgave you for asking why he didn’t like girls. The one who would want you to welcome his boyfriend’s new boyfriend into your life. The one who would want you to find joy and peace. The one who would want you to be the man he didn’t get to be.
To be anything else dishonors him.
The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me is: your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother. It has been the greatest salve to my sorrow. The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place. I’d give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.
Your grief has taught you too, Living Dead Dad. Your son was your greatest gift in his life and he is your greatest gift in his death too. Receive it. Let your dead boy be your most profound revelation. Create something of him.
Make it beautiful.