Saturday, May 12, 2012


       Mother's Day? I never became a mother and I don't have a mother anymore to whom I can send a card. So for me, Mother's Day has become just another day on the calendar, a holiday I can ignore.
       But when I got an email earlier this week from my high school boyfriend who told me that his mother had just died, I was reminded how painful that first motherless Mother's Day had been for me.
        My friend's email was not a particularly sad one. His mom had been sick and her death was not unexpected. He knew I had fond memories of his "somewhat boisterous parental units" and appreciated his mother's wicked wit, a trait he happily inherited. He knew I would appreciate his description of the Irish-like wake his family had held for her (after the funeral, they had placed a brandy and water and a flower at the head of the open bar in her honor). He wrote wistfully of his parents' last dance together at his daughter's wedding in October. He seemed okay.
      But I couldn't help but think how hard this Mother's Day was going to be for him.
      To send him some words of comfort, I dug out an article that I had written in 2005, six months after my mother had died. I was then working as the book editor at the St. Petersburg Times, so naturally, the piece is full of book references. I thought it would make him smile.
      In re-reading, I began to think that there may be others in need of comfort on their Motherless Day tomorrow. It will be my 7th. 

By Margo Hammond

     Grief is an island. The isolated kind in the middle of a vast ocean where ships and crew are marooned and all communication is cut off. 

     Books can help.

     I learned that this year from personal experience. When my mother died in January, I found myself feeling suddenly thrown off course. It was as if some navigational point, some star by which I always had made my way through the world, had blinked off and I literally couldn't find my bearings. One evening, when friends invited me for dinner, I found myself driving aimlessly up and down streets in search of their house, a place that I used to find easily. Another day, while visiting another city, I took the bus along a familiar route and couldn't find my stop.
     I felt constantly dizzy. One day I came to work with two different shoes on - not just two different colors of the same type of shoe. Two entirely different shoes.

My mom -- LaVerne Hammond (in blue) -- with fellow newspaper columnists (St. Petersburg Times photo)
     Intellectually I knew that, at 92, my mother had had a good run. She had led a long and fruitful life. But emotionally, I found myself mourning an 8-year-old writer. At age 84, my mother had published her first piece of writing, which eventually led to a monthly column in the St. Petersburg Times' Seniority section. I had helped her get started on this late-blooming career, one she had abandoned more than 60 years before to raise me and my three sisters. While she was in hospice, I had filed her last column on the morning of January 3. She died that night. The column was a letter that she had written to her first great-grandchild whom she knew she would never see grow up. Her writing career had lasted 8 years. 
      I felt I had lost not only a mother but a colleague.
     For solace, I turned to books. As a book editor, I knew there was a cottage industry of grief books. I had read Joan Didion's sensational The Year of Magical Thinking, which describes so achingly well the crazy state to which grief can drive someone. After my mother's death, I suddenly could relate, yet our griefs obviously were very different. She was grieving over the loss of a lifetime partner who had died suddenly. I was a middle-aged orphan.
     I looked for others' words that might cut closer to the bone of grief I was chewing on. The Grim Reader, an anthology offered by Maura Spiegel and Richard Tristman in 1997, included poems, essays and excerpts from fiction about death. Most of the entries, however, were rather general: Freud on transience; Brecht on his mortality; John Ashbery on the fear of death; Mark Twain on old age. Only Grace Paley's sudden recollection of her mother when she heard the song Oh, I Long to See My Mother in the Doorway on the radio seemed to apply to my case.
     In Katherine Ashenburg's The Mourner's Dance, published in 2002, I found a chapter that hit home. In "Sad Clothes," she noted how, in virtually every human society, mourners traditionally alter their physical appearance. They cut off their hair or leave it grow long. They don special clothing. "My poor sad face & garb must tell its tale," Queen Victoria said in 1864. Two different shoes?
     One book offered me practical advice. In 2005's Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart, Stephen Levine urged me to "soften the belly" where, he said, my grief, along with my fear, disappointment, anger and guilt, were stored. "The healing process is done by sitting quietly, closing your eyes and just letting your attention come into the sensations of the body. ... Soften the belly to unc
over the heart."
     One of the books I found was a moving and understated novel about loss called Grief. It is the story of a professor who tries to move on after the death of his mother in Florida for whom he was the prime caretaker. He goes to teach in Washington, D.C., where he struggles with the guilt of survival so common to his generation ravaged by AIDS but which in his case is compounded by the fact that he never told his mother that he was gay. The novel by Andrew Holleran explores people's ongoing need for intimacy, the loss of which we feel most acutely when we become orphans. "When your parents die, you know, your audience is gone," a friend tells the narrator, urging him to find a life partner. "But I think somebody has to care about you - someone has to think you matter."
     John Fanestil's Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death: Lessons on Living From People Preparing to Die was the odd choice I suppose, but it helped me make some sense of the last days of my mother's life. She spent them in a hospice unit surrounded by family and friends watching her die (she had been told her kidneys had failed her and there was nothing to be done). The woman Fanestil, a Methodist pastor, ruminates on, a 26-year-old who had died at the beginning of the 19th century, also had time to prepare for her death. The account of that preparation was recorded by a friend. Like my mother, Mrs. Hunter - her full name, Fanestil uncovered, was Mary Clulow Hunter - was a religious woman and her final journey was a spiritual one, not filled with fear but with hopeful expectation. "The kind of lives we lead help give shape to the deaths we die," Fanestil concluded, giving me new insight into those last moments with my mom, "and the kinds of deaths we seek help define the way we live."
     The two books that helped me most were given to me by others who had experienced grief. Perhaps it was the kindness behind the gift that gave them their potency. Or perhaps it was because the givers understood the strange land that is grief. At any rate, they both are like talismans that I return to again and again when the wave of grief returns.
     The first was from a psychiatrist friend who told me that the book had helped her after the death of her mother: How to Survive the Loss of a Parent: A Guide for Adults. Unlike the other books I had read, this one seemed aimed specifically at me: an adult who had lost a parent. Written by bereavement counselor Lois F. Akner, the book followed the experiences of a dozen clients who joined her six-week workshop. Although most of the mourners' situations differed greatly from mine, one overall theme emerged that helped me greatly: the loss of parent is like no other.
     The other was given to me by a colleague, someone I barely know, but who told me it had helped her when a close friend died. Each page of the book, A Time to Grieve: Meditations for Healing After the Death of a Loved One, by Carol Staudacher, presents a statement, culled from interviews of grieving people. As you read the book, if the statement doesn't apply to you ("I can't forget the thing I said to hurt him. I did it on purpose, and I never told him I was sorry."), you turn the page. When the statement does hit home ("The world seems so empty now, as if there is no one in it."), you read on, first a quote ("Sometimes when one person is missing, the whole world seems depopulated": Lamartine), then an expanded comment from the author, who is a grief counselor, and finally a meditation that you can say aloud.
     It is a book you can read over and over as the grief process changes your priorities and issues. It is a book I imagine giving away some day - to someone else who feels trapped on an island with no way off.