“Mommy, my stomach hurts,” the little voice came from the small dark shape standing next to my bed. My eyes blearily searched for the glowing numbers on the clock.
Isn’t it always the middle of the night when our children get sick?
Abby is my eighth child. By child number eight it is second nature to respond to small cries in the middle of the night. Within seconds I was wide awake. My hand reached out to touch her forehead. It was cool to the touch. I quickly rose from the bed and guided her little body out to the hallway and towards the bathroom.
“Do you feel like you are going to puke?”
She nodded, and then a second later, shook her head no.
My mind ran the litany of possibilities. What had we eaten that day? Had we been anywhere recently where she would have picked up some germs? Had we been around anyone who had been ill? By the time we reached the bathroom and I was reaching underneath the sink for the plastic bin we used for throwing up, I suddenly remembered that Abby had fallen asleep without me taking her to the bathroom.
“Do you have to pee? You forgot to go last night.”
Abby’s brow furrowed, confused and still half-asleep.
I nudged her towards the toilet and she obligingly pulled down her pants and went. Profusely. She looked up at me with wide eyes.
“My stomach doesn’t hurt anymore!”
At four years of age, with not much life’s experience behind her, Abby hadn’t recognized the obvious urgency to go to the bathroom for what it was, and had mistaken it for a stomach-ache. Within minutes I’d tucked her back in bed and she was fast asleep.
This past Friday I was in the grocery store when I felt a now-familiar lump forming in my throat. Was I going to embarrass myself and start crying in the grocery store? A little panicked, I looked up and down the aisles searching for something. For someone. I realized I was looking for one of my siblings. My daughter. My niece. I desperately needed a hug right then, from someone who had shared in those days of my mother’s dying.
You see, every time I enter our small-town grocery store I pass a display of bulk-packaged chocolate stars on Styrofoam trays that are labeled with a sign, “$3.99/lb.” Last year my mother had wanted to give her oldest grandchildren a gift, despite her limited budget. She’d seen the bulk candy display and thought it was a pretty good price for assorted chocolates. When she brought the 6 trays of various confections up to the checkout, the cashier weighed them and announced the total.
My mother was horrified when she realized the price she’d seen below the packages had meant per pound.
But she bought them anyway because she’d had her heart set on giving those adult grandchildren a special gift and the assorted chocolates had somehow become the perfect gift in her eyes in the ensuing moments between choosing the trays and getting to the checkout.
She would later show me the receipt, still in shock over the high cost of that bulk candy. I commiserated with her at the time and reassured her that the grandchildren would love the bags of candy she was going to put together for them. I didn’t point out that Brach’s bagged chocolate stars were much cheaper. It was with love that my mother divided the bulk candy into brown paper bags, tied them shut with a red ribbon, and labeled each bag with a handwritten tag. On Christmas Day she proudly presented the bags to the older grandchildren. Days later, she’d even tracked down my daughter Rachel because she’d forgotten to take her bag with her.
I thought I was doing well, bypassing that display of candy in the store. I’d been avoiding that section by purchasing my oranges and apples out of town, knowing that soon the holidays would be over and the display removed, and I could breathe a sigh of relief.
So why was I standing in a totally unrelated aisle of the store, gulping back tears?
My sister Angie called me yesterday, and asked if I’d a hard time grocery shopping lately. I wasn’t sure what she meant (Because of the holidays? Because of the crowds? Because our minds go blank with all there is to do?) Until she explained she’d felt like crying in the store, and then I knew.
It is easy to see why the display of chocolates makes me sad. It makes sense that a television program about losing a mother would bring tears. When someone asks about our mother and we have to talk past a lump in our throat, it is understandable.
But to be shoveling snow in the bitter cold and feel an unexplained sadness overwhelm you? To be sitting on the couch watching a comedy and be laughing, only to realize the tears of laughter had suddenly become tears of sadness? To stand in front of the loaves of bread at the grocery store and wonder if you can make it through the check-out process without shedding tears?
“What is wrong with me?” our sibling asks out loud; about their abject sadness, their wanting to sit on the couch and hug the pillow their mother had made, not wanting to go to a party they would have looked forward to the year before, about feeling like crying in a grocery store for no apparent reason.
Not having experienced this before, even after our father’s death 24 years ago, we wonder what it is that we are feeling. We aren’t sure, and we work at it like a loose tooth. We nudge the conflicting feelings back and forth in our mind. Is this normal? Am I depressed? Am I okay? Why am I having trouble being intimate with my partner? Why don’t I want to go to my mother’s empty house? Or, why do I want to go there again, and again, and again? Why am I reading the words from her journals? Using her address book? Poring over family pictures?
Surprised, it suddenly dawns on us:
I’m an orphan. And I’m sad.