Life Notes: A Daughter’s Reckoning
When the tragedy is something a mother can’t fix

Her voice on the phone was different. Strange. Tremulous.

A mother knows a daughter’s voice, and I felt something akin to panic even before I’d asked my usual, “So how’s everything?”

“Not good,” Jill said, and that’s when I had a little talk with God. “Please let it not be awful,” I begged in the silence that followed.

But it was. Jill was struggling with something huge. And I gleaned that it was actually not about Jill directly, but about her dearest friend, her first precious mother-to-mother friend. They both had daughters first, then sons about three years later. The kids had grown up almost as cousins. Their mothers had shared all those moments and milestones and messes of being new moms.

Then Jill’s unthinkable words: “L died last night.” The next sound I heard was my own horrified gasp. And then a torrent of my “Nos!”

Death was for old people – people my age, not my daughter’s. L had been sick on and off, but somehow I had never ever imagined this. I had never gotten a call like this one, in the middle of an ordinary day in my own ordinary life. I’m not proud that I couldn’t digest this, let alone help my daughter – the one who is best known for her competence and her coping skills.

Maybe mothers are supposed to know just how to react to sudden and terrible shocks. Not this mother, I’m sorry to admit. For weeks, I would find myself waking up in the middle of the night with the fuzzy reminder that something was very wrong, but groping to access what it was. And that’s when the terrible remembering was so awful – and real.

Some of us have the notion that once our kids are grown, they’re on their own. I learned this is wishful thinking – a kind of parental delusion. Our children are always our children, and their concerns will always be ours. Yes, I’ve tried to teach Jill and her sisters that bad things – awful things – happen to good people. And that loss is an equal opportunity invader.

Their father and I managed to teach our daughters how to ride their two-wheeler bikes, how to drive a car, how to make the transition from home to college and, with a little luck (or a lot), how to create homes of their own. But we have found that we are somehow unable to prepare them for the sudden death of a friend. For a loss that feels almost incapable of being absorbed. I haven’t learned that very well myself, even at my advanced age.

It’s been many weeks now.

This was an amazing woman with a heart we all agreed was all-encompassing, generous and full of love. She fell asleep one night and now is no longer here. Life hadn’t been easy or smooth for her, and somehow, that made the loss keener. There were legions of friends who loved L, quirks and all. They loved her for her quirks, in fact. So what that she wasn’t ever on time? That she was unpredictable as creative people often are. L was reminiscent, in fact, of the delightful Maria of “The Sound of Music.”

Her death felt ironic, unexplainable, unfair.

L was buried in a beautiful cemetery on a day when the sun refused to shine, and then unexpectedly, miraculously, it briefly smiled down on the mourners before it went into hiding again. Jill had helped to organize a memorial service, a labor of deepest pain – and so much love. Her father and I wept as this daughter shared tales of The Odd Couple: Jill, the super-organized, logical lawyer and L, whimsical, artist, writer, music-lover. And somehow, miraculously the fates had brought them together in a lovely bond.

The four all-grown-up children who had traveled from their various jobs and campuses for this reckoning, suddenly seeming so young and so suddenly old. I wished my arms could stretch wide enough to hold them all as they faced the daunting journey ahead.

October 2019
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