The evening of August 18 is a bit of a blur. I know I walked into our house a little past midnight after a four hour drive from Arlington, VA to the North Carolina home I grew up in. Our street was flooded with familiar cars. I rushed in the side door and saw a crowd of friends gathered in our kitchen, quiet with heads down and tears flowing. Everyone looked up. I zeroed in on my dad and ran to him.
Minutes later my brother rushed in. My dad and brother had a moment together. Then the three of us huddled up, only while being surrounded by a wall of friends symbolically but ever-presently reminding us we were not alone.
A little while later friends headed to their cars for what I imagine might have been a somber drive home. That night we had our first “team meeting” as a team of just three. Our minds were mush. Our eyes were clouded by tears. Our words were honest and raw. Our souls were weary after being absolutely socked. That night set the tone for so much of what was to come. We all tossed and turned in our sleep as we each claimed a couch or pile of pillows on the floor in our living room. We stayed together.
The next day friends showed up early with food, toilet paper and Kleenex. They made sure we were fed, and cared for. Still the three of us huddled together, while all kinds of friends and family shuffled in and out of our house. My dad, brother and I became a weary, yet tenacious unit. We made decisions you never expect to make, said things I never thought I’d say at just twenty-five years old. We picked out a casket, an outfit and chose songs to be sung and prayers to be read. We all went shopping together for clothes to wear to my mom’s funeral. I couldn’t even offer a polite smile back when the Fitting Room attendant smiled and said to me with a wink, “Can’t go wrong with a little black dress.”
We went to my mom’s visitation. Family gathered and prayed together before guests and friends came through. Soon we learned of a line that took two hours to make it’s way to the room we were in. We stood, shook hands, hugged. Shared tears and knowing looks of “how could this be?” We talked about her and heard stories about her. About three hours in, my dad, brother and I needed a quick break. My uncle stepped in and held the line while we took an intermission. After a quick drink and bathroom break, we looked each other over. “Hands in,” my dad said. With a fist bump, we headed back out.
We didn’t know what to say to each other but knew enough to not venture too far from one another. At the funeral the next day, we stayed close and sent my mom to heaven with hymns and immense, immeasurable love. The church was full and empty at the same time. So many people but lacking the one we wanted most.
Leaving the cemetery was the hardest part. All I wanted to do was get my new perfectly pressed, Little Black Dress covered in the dirt that my mom rest in. I just wanted to collapse on the coffin and yell and cry and scream and fight. I wanted to sit there and never leave. Instead, I moved away in what felt like the hardest step I’ve ever taken. I slowly turned my head and walked to the black limousine with swollen eyes and a quivering bottom lip.
The next day we crashed. This was when I first learned of the sheer exhaustion of grief. I slept and slept. I cried and cried.
Then people left. There were planes to catch and highways that couldn’t wait. One by one, sound by sound, our world got quieter while their lives resumed. We eventually returned to our towns and began to pick up where we abruptly left off. My brother headed down south to resume college classes and I headed back north to the city. My dad and the cat held down the fort at the house that never felt so big.
We started Family Conference Calls, dialing in each night around 10:30 to check-in with each other, to talk about everything and nothing, to hear a familiar voice. We were as close and as familiar as we could get to her so we stayed tight, although far.
We went to family weekend at USC.
We ran races.
We talked about hard things. We questioned a lot. We talked about the how the Cubs were SO CLOSE and how she’d never know the glory of the newest Adele album (maybe that was just me). We asked for strength to make it through just that one day and no more. Thoughts of time measured by more than a day were overwhelming.
We leaned on others. We tried to find our new dynamic as a unit of three without the organizer, never-ending-question-asker, the baker, the cook, the snuggler, the runner, the lover of everyone, the ever-includer.
We’ve fumbled. (Read about Thanksgiving if you need proof.) But we’ve also nearly made it a whole year together. A whole year without the woman I’ve always admired. The woman who reminded me who I am and what I’m made of. The woman that brings us to this blog on a regular basis.
The woman whose love and actions are still working and weaving us all together, a firm reminder that nobody is completely gone in death.
I need to tattoo that on my hand and permanently wrap my heart in that truth: Nobody is ever completely gone in death.
Maya Angelou said it best: “A great soul serves everyone all the time. A great soul never dies. It brings us together again and again.”
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