Today begins a four part series of guest posts from Sarah. When I published my post, Have We Made Attachment an Idol, she wrote a comment so insightful and beautiful that I asked her to develop it into a guest post. That post was so rich that I asked her to expand it, and before we knew it, we had a four part series. I am very honored that she is entrusting her story to me – it is tender, raw, and hopeful.
The school bell rang and I skipped home alone under the warm September sun. Our apartment was dim and quiet when I arrived and I found my mom lying in bed, her grown niece, Caroline at her side. They looked as if they had been crying. They told me that we were moving to Caroline’s house that night.
My cheeks flushed a deep crimson. This was my fault.
I had recently spent an evening playing in the park near our apartment – the sun had dipped low, throwing dusky shadows around a deep navy sky. The streetlights flickered on and instead of heading home to my mom I slid quietly into a circle of older kids. They were smoking and swearing and I knew I was out of my league but I stayed on – determined to worry my mom. A mom whose once strong arms held me safe – I knew she was now lying like a hostage on our couch – constant pain and nausea held her captive. She was too sick to rescue me from the trouble I was about to get into. As navy faded into soft black the toughest girl took issue with my 7-year old self and reached over and ripped open the buttons on the shoulder of my sailboat T-shirt humbling my little girl rebellion and sending me home to my mom.
I must have balked at the idea, told them we couldn’t just up and move. That I had just started Grade 2, that my new running shoes, my painting, my gym bag were all still in my classroom. A few minutes later I was emptying my cubby and telling my new Grade 2 teacher that I wouldn’t be back.
Mom and I moved in with Caroline, her husband Will, and their two sons. Our familiar inner-city life uprooted to a 2-car, 3-bedroom pretty suburban surrounding. A few weeks passed and life changed again. An ambulance was parked in the driveway and my mom was being wheeled out on a stretcher. Her sad brown eyes caught my gaze and she weakly raised her right hand in a gentle goodbye. In our old life our goodbyes were made of tight hugs and warm kisses. Now I was standing back, away from her, the space between us growing larger. I don’t remember saying anything. Perhaps I just stood there frozen.
My mom never came home. She died alone in the hospital just days after my 8th birthday. My aunties later told me that she had stubbornly refused palliative care, that she forced the doctors to continue to administer chemotherapy right until the end. That she could not bear to leave me orphaned in the world.
Will and Caroline tried to transition me into the fabric of their family, for a while suggesting that I begin to call Caroline ‘mom’ or ‘mom-2’. That word got stuck in my throat. It was years before I could use it with any ease. My best friend and closest ally became my neighbor’s stacked bookshelf and the local library. I piled the books onto my bedside table and spent every waking minute escaping into a new world. When I had to be with others I shielded myself from their sympathy and their questions, I was determined to be ‘fine’.
At night when the house was quiet I swallowed ‘fine’ and let the storms of tears and sobs soak my pillowcase. I also filled every peaceful silence with incessant questions, perhaps in an effort not to be as invisible, as untethered as I felt. I kept up an awkward dance with my new family – occasionally letting them in and attempting to belong but most of the time keeping them at arm’s length – crying alone, fighting violently with my new brothers, hot-headedly refusing to wear the dresses my new mom wished upon her new daughter.
I was not the only one who was suffering. My new family suffered in my presence. They did not know how to help me cope with the death of my mom – the sudden and forever loss of all that was precious to me. They did know how to put a shelter around me, a warm meal in front of me, a family by my side. They also knew how to make me look like every other suburban 8-year old girl – they bought me a fancy new bike and signed me up for figure skating lessons and Brownies.
From the outside it looked as though we were all adjusting quite nicely – we were a good suburban family of five. My new parents were hard working, stable, and responsible. I was getting good grades, earning Brownie badges and learning how to do a camel spin.
In reality I was normal and typical and fine. But I was also a little girl carrying around some pretty significant grief, trauma and loss baggage, who (thanks to my dear friend, denial) took years to realize and even longer to begin to unpack.
Please leave comments of encouragement for Sarah – as you can imagine, this is coming from a deep place in her soul. The glimpse she is giving us into her experience of being orphaned is invaluable.
Encourage one another,