My mom had a hearty laugh and a gentle voice, both of which soothed and uplifted those around her. So when clinical depression snuffed out her sweet spirit, the world became muted. It was like going to an amusement park wearing earmuffs. Minus the cheers, giggles, and screams of delight, the air was vacant, odd, and lifeless. On April 2, 2013, the park grew dark, then went pitch black when Mom succumbed to the fight and took her own life.
I was at once stunned, sickened, and unsettled. How was I supposed to move forward from this tragedy? How could I live when I couldn't breathe? How could I feel whole with my insides hollowed out? How could I laugh in the absence of joy? I was completely lost in the world.
Before Mom's death, I always saw the proverbial silver lining in every situation. Sure, I had my down days like everyone else, but I was ripe with positivity. When Mom died by suicide, however, suddenly everything I ever knew, everything I ever was, anything I ever believed in, clung to, or hoped for was obliterated. As a result, happiness took a hiatus from my life.
I don't remember the first 18 months after she died. I couldn't tell you what I thought, did, or said, where I went, or what I wanted; I simply existed. As the months passed, my emotions weren't quite so erratic, fragile, and volatile. I no longer cried at the drop of a hat or whimpered at the mention of Mom's name. Nevertheless, I remained trapped in a sea of sorrow.
I longed to feel something beyond the dull ache of emptiness that had settled into my soul like a clogging mound of dust bunnies. I was like a little girl, terrified of what may lurk beneath the unknown waters, yet intrigued by the mesmerizing ripples in the lake. If I stuck my pinky toe in and let it linger, would I get bitten? Or worse yet, pulled under and eaten alive? Even if I survived the experiment of returning to the land of the living, could I draw enough oxygen to continue? If I managed to carve out a small space within my heart for joy to grow, would I be able to nurture and preserve it? Despite being applauded for my resolute strength, inside I felt weak, scared, and lonely.
Though my soul thirsted for levity, it eluded me. Something was prohibiting me from accessing joy and I suspected it was Mom's blessing. I desperately wanted to know not just that she was okay but also that she was okay with me being okay. I realize how ridiculously convoluted that sounds but grief is nothing if not complex.
I went to bed each night praying that I might subconsciously feel her presence. I woke up each morning hoping I'd find a sign from her that let me know she was still in my corner. Instead, months passed without my getting a heavenly head nod from Mom.
Then I got an e-mail from the director of the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop I was going to be attending in a few weeks. I'd been selected to perform a stand-up comedy routine at the workshop and to do it on April 2 -- exactly three years since Mom's passing. Goose bumps covered my arms; this was my chance to test those strange but captivating waters.
"Are you nervous?" one of the fellow attendees asked prior to the performance.
"A little," I said. "Mostly I'm excited."
Still, as my slot drew near my heart raced and I wiped the glisten of sweat from my chin. When my name was called, I inhaled deeply and stepped up to the mic, straining to catch a glimpse of the audience as I squinted in the bright spotlight.
I began my set and noticed that my formerly muted world now entertained sound. I heard bursts of laughter. I felt the reverberation of clapping. I caught wind of my husband's distinctive chuckle, and that was soothing.
Then, at the end of my performance, I uttered the following words: "My mom, who was one of my favorite people in the world, died exactly three years ago today. And I think the fact that I'm doing stand-up comedy for the first time ever today, of all days, is her way of saying to me, 'I know that you miss me and the joy we shared, but I want you to keep on laughing.'"
Professional comedienne Wendy Liebman, who emceed the show, came on stage, extended her arms for a hug, and whispered, "Was that really your first time? You're a natural!"
As I exited the stage, members of the audience stood and applauded, a few of them wiping away tears.
After the show, my friends embraced and congratulated me. They encouraged and supported me. They mothered and nurtured me. The experience left me beaming. Because for the first time in a long while, I had allowed pure joy to seep inside my soul.
Mom's hearty laugh and gentle voice didn't just lead me to the stage; it lead me back to love, life, and heart-healing laughter.
Read Christy Heitger-Ewing's award-winning book "Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat" (www.cabinglory.com). Visit her author website.