I remember getting that call, I was at my nearly 3 year-old daughter Addison’s dance class when my phone rang and my mother-in-law told me there had been a plane crash at the same airport my husband was flying at. I was told to come home right away because they thought it was Mitch but were not yet 100% sure. I remember grabbing her from class, putting her in her car seat and driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic, which was ultimately caused by my husbands crash. I remember every fiber in my being wanting to get off the freeway and run to the airport, but a little voice in the back of my mind kept saying, “not with Addy in the car.” I kept looking back at my beautiful girl, seeing her playing with her feet innocently, and wondering how I could ever raise her, and her 13 month old baby brother all by myself. My mind thought the worst and my heart beat out of my chest. Time literally stood still and shock took over my body at a cellular level. I walked in the house to find my mother-in-law hysterical and I asked my best friend to please just take my kids next door so they didn’t have to see what was unfolding. It is a memory that to this day pains me to recall, makes me nauseous, and brings me to tears.
For whatever reason I felt nothing. I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. I was stoic, cold, and held myself with complete composure and even moments of grace. This was not intentional, this was simply survival in circumstances no person should ever be asked to survive.
Being a mother is the single best thing that ever happened to me. My children are my life, and nearly everything I’ve done since the death of my husband has been because of my children. Being a mother is also a difficult job full of scary moments, endless questions, and a minefield of insecurities. Regardless of your relationship status (married, single, widowed, etc) being a mother is hard work. Now throw in mourning the death of a man you loved dearly and it becomes a nearly impossible job. People ask me all the time where I found the strength, how I turned the corner, and how I kept it all together as a mother in those early days of loss.
My answer is – I wasn’t winning any awards for mother of the year.
That’s not to say I was a bad mother, but loss is a tremendous blow and the life of a widow is like riding a tsunami wave of epic size and scale. There is no normalcy in a widow’s life, especially in those early days of loss. I love my children from the depths of my soul, but for nearly a year after the loss of my husband I found it next to impossible to show it. I was cold, I was distant, I was dead inside. I hugged my kids, I tucked them in, I sang to them, I gave them baths, I feed them good food, but I all but turned off my emotions and distanced myself from them every chance I got. Exercise was my refuge and the only chance I had to feel somewhat normal and survive another day. Luckily (if you call it luck) for me, my children where very young (1 and 3) so my emotional distance was probably not noticed, but I knew it was happening, and I felt absolutely useless to change it. I remember crying myself to sleep on numerous occasions because I could not believe I was left here on this earth to raise two babies, alone. I call it SOLO parenting because there is no break. There is no other party to take them for the weekend, to share thoughts, fears, and dreams with. There is no refuge from the storm, there is nobody to snuggle next to after a hard day, and there is no escape from the emotional hell of life as a widow and solo parent.
The hard moments started that very first night. I tucked them in as if nothing had happened to their Dad. At such a young age, his presence was not missed right away, but I knew the next day I would have to tell them what had happened. I remember feeling so numb tucking them in. I am a big believer in structure so I did my best to stay with their routines, but it was not easy by any means. Reading their book, singing them a song, cuddling – it was the closest thing to torture I think I have every endured. My heart ached at such a deep level – I can even begin to put it into words. I think I secretly resented that I had to take care of them when all I wanted to do was selfishly curl up in a ball and cry. Yet, taking care of them probably saved me and gave me a focus other than myself for even a few short moments.
The next day I wrote out a short script to read to my daughter. I was not sure I could put it into words without something to follow along and read. I was afraid I’d say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and be the wrong mother. I told her that “daddy broke his body and he won’t be able to come home.” Children are very literally so when I uttered those words her response was simply, “can we get him a Band-Aid?” Once I confirmed that we could not, she let out a scream, cried for a few moments and then ran off to play. I remember sitting there in a pile of mush, my heart torn to pieces, and my emotions running the gamut of extreme sadness, terrible anger, and complete dismay. Nothing in this world will ever be as painful for me as that moment. Nothing for me to fix, nothing for me to do, nothing but reality, and a new lifetime of questions and pain.
I went through the motions for days, weeks, months, and even a year. My kids went back to pre-school that next Monday, they continued with their activities, we stayed as structured and safe as possible. My numbness continued and I even had a family member tell me I should hug them more often. I couldn’t. I just didn’t have it in me. I loved them deeply and without question, in-fact, I would have given my own life for them, but I was broken and above all else I needed time to allow my devastated heart to slowly come back together. Over a period of about a year I started to be the mother I had always wanted to be for them. The love returned, the patience increased, and the day-to-day drama lessoned.
There were many mommy time outs in the process, and there were as many moments of alone time as I could grasp. You know what??? That’s okay. My kids survived. My kids even thrived. My kids knew and continue to know that I love them from the bottom of my heart. I can’t go back and change that first year. I did what I had to do to survive. I won’t apologize and I won’t regret. There were people in my life that let me know they disapproved of my process. Those people were not walking my path and regardless of how close you may be to someone who is grieving, or to the person they lost, you can not fully understand their emotions, their journey – it is as individualized as a fingerprint.
I’m here to tell those who are suffering through that first year that you are not alone. You are living with horrific circumstances and it’s not fair and it’s not right. You may feel like you are letting everyone else down, but in reality you are surviving the best way you know how. Forgive yourself for the moments of impatience. Forgive yourself if you don’t have a deep capacity for love. Forgive yourself if all you can do is make sure your home is safe and reasonibily healthy. Your new normal will set in, you will figure this out, and you will survive. The love will return, the desire to thrive will return, and while your life will never be the same, both you and your children will laugh again.
You were left here on this earth for a reason, and in time, just like me, you will figure it out. Mother of the year comes at different times and in different ways.