A Broken Heart, For Mama

How long does it take to heal, dammit?

This past summer hung heavy, like a terry cloth towel on the line in the rain. Unlike most carefree summers of the past, July had a seriousness to it that I just couldn't shake. As a public school teacher, I cherish my summer freedom as much as my high school students do. July and August are usually a time for recuperation, rejuvenation and jubilation. But this summer I wasn't ever able to let that happen.

Last fall, I lost my mother in the midst of juggling my last semester of graduate school, my full-time teaching job and a handful of other projects. She had become sick, but it all happened so quickly. A spitfire until she became ill, my mother died quietly of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease at the not-so-old age of seventy. She had been hiding the severity of her illness from her children, so her death came as a bit of a shock. I didn't have time to mourn. Really, I didn't make time to mourn. I felt waves of sadness, but I had so many things to manage that even when I was alone with my thoughts, I did not focus on the loss. My job allots five "bereavement" days, which are generous in comparison to so many other places of employment. The days I took off from work passed in a blur. It seems fitting in our society: take your days, get over it, and return to work as normal. Back at work, I did the best I could. It was easiest to pretend all was okay in order to get through each day, even though my insides were a disaster.

Born and raised in the Bronx, my mother had lived most of her adult life in New Jersey, until she retired to the mountains in 'Middle Of Nowhere,' Colorado. Since I live in New Jersey, I found it difficult to visit with her more than once a year. We kept in touch on the phone and through lovely, long letters via snail mail. Yet shamefully, sometimes I'd let the space in between our phone conversations lapse into weeks at a time. My mother's wishes were to be cremated immediately. There would be no funeral, no viewing. Not being able to see her one last time, to see a body, made my mama's death all the more unbelievable to me. Even now, I have moments where I think, "Oh, I'd better call Mom; it's been too long since we've caught up."

In our fast-paced society with packed-tight schedules, it's tough to fit in a good cry in between work, school, volunteer activities, the gym, eating and sleeping. It was easy to bury myself in layers of distraction to keep me numb. At times, I realized that I felt emotionless. I had to get through my grad school project, and I still had to teach high school students during the day. It was easier just to deal with details. Sometimes, I noticed a tenseness throughout my entire body. Even though there wasn't a body to deal with, my siblings and I wanted to do something, to pay respect to the beautiful soul we all knew. We did the best we could and planned a service, then held a repast for the family. All the while, I looked forward to the ceremony because I thought it would help me process the grief. Yet after the service, I only felt a relief that the planning was done and the gathering was complete. Her passing still was not real to me. There has been no magical moment where I felt better. Dealing with mom's passing has been quite a different experience than losing my father. I was only eleven when pops passed and that loss shaped my understanding of the world. It certainly gave me a hard exterior at a young age. I definitely thought I'd be more prepared when we lost mom. There's no way around it -- losing somebody you love sucks. Loss is the worst thing we humans have to go through, in my opinion.

On the home front, things weren't working out between my partner and I. We were best friends, which made our decision more difficult, but sharing a living space wasn't healthy for either of us. So, we decided to split up. By July 1, it was just Billie, my Black Mouth Cur, and I alone in the apartment. I recall sitting on my couch, glancing around my recently emptied abode, wanting to tell mama. The only person that might help me make sense of things wasn't alive. My breakup may sound clean and simple, but it was not an easy loss to process. The reality crashed down on me. I couldn't talk things out with my mother. Strange how one loss can kick in the reality of the other. Sitting on the couch, I completely lost it: I mourned my mother and finally shed the many tears she deserved.

Everyone should have their heart broken at least once in their lifetime. (Although two major heartbreaks in one year IS pushing it.) Heartbreak should be part of the human experience, I think, because it causes us to reassess, reexamine and reevaluate our relationships, which is turn helps us go through some sort of healing process and learn from our experiences. Damn all those people who kept saying, "Time heals," because it's too true. The breakup helped me come to realize my mama's death, which consequently revved my mental illness into action.

My summertime off usually includes a trip overseas sometime during July. Yet I didn't have any interest in planning a trip this summer. I hardly wanted to see my friends. Daily motivation to get out of bed was nonexistent. When I was in the thick of the pain, time didn't exist. Each day stretched on like the tick-tock of a slowly moving clock.

By this time, my depression weighed on me heavily and every task felt like I was moving through molasses. However, late in the summer, Project Nica appeared in my radar. I learned about a trip to Nicaragua that involved volunteering to aid women coffee farmers. It's difficult to explain the spark of hope I felt at the thought of helping someone else. All I knew was that I was stuck deep in the mire, and I needed help. It seemed that a volunteer trip for a cause that I am passionate about might breathe new life into me again. By empowering these women in Nicaragua I could also empower myself.

Unfortunately, volunteering in Nicaragua didn't fix me. The trip was amazing but I am still left with my thoughts and feelings and a hole in my heart. I am still grieving my mother. Her loss has brought up many other losses I've experienced in my lifetime. Accepting the roller coaster ride of sadness and mood swings has been tough. It is difficult for me to allow myself to have a "good cry." Why isn't it easy for me to practice self-care? I'm trying to care for myself by sleeping enough, exercising, eating clean(ish) and supplementing with nutrients. I even started seeing a therapist, and at the advice of a friend, taken restorative yoga classes. I've finally been talking more about my feelings but I worry that my friends are already sick of hearing it. A song or thought might set me off and bring me to tears. The grieving process takes time (and it is different for everyone) and that has been a tricky fact to accept. I kept looking for the magic pill, an easy answer, but I hate admitting the truth: a quick-fix doesn't exist. Mostly, I am trying to get by one day at a time.

Over a year has passed, and I am still grappling with the finality of my mother's death. Questions bounce around in my head: How did the life of such an amazing person burn out like that? Why did she want to fade away? When in her prime, she was a five-foot firecracker of a woman -- a force to be reckoned with. Why did she choose to move so far away from her family? Her marriage to my stepfather brought us three more siblings, making us a crazy bunch of seven kids in total. I still wrestle with all of these unanswered questions. My brother's friends called her Mama Flo because she fed and looked out for the wayward kids in the neighborhood. She was a Girl Scout leader for many years, a CCD teacher, and was involved in so many projects helping so many people -- so it baffled all of us when she up and moved clear across the country to Colorado to live out her days in peace with her husband.

I suppose my questions about my mother will never be answered and I will have to accept that. Maybe I won't ever fully heal from this loss, but I want to believe what people say is true, that time heals. I hope with each passing day, my heart will hurt less. Ultimately, I guess it's okay to have a broken heart and I can only hope that it will make me a better person. So mama, this is for you: I am grateful to have known you. I miss you. I will always love you.