Flowers and Ash
“Can I have a carnation?” I asked. The look of confusion on the lady’s face was absolutely priceless. It amused me.
She was flustered. “Are you... a mother?”
Eighteen-year-old me smiled and pressed my palm to my chest. “Oh, it’s not for me. It’s for my dad."
She held one in her hand, unsure about what to do. This was clearly new territory. “But these are for the mothers,” she said.
I nodded. “Right. I know. But see, my mom died three weeks ago, and I’d like to get a carnation for my dad.”
Understanding dawned on her face, and she shoved a flower into my hands. “Of course," she said. “Here.”
I was OK that day, that first Mother’s Day. Later that gray afternoon, as we scattered my mother’s ashes in the surf at the beach where she was baptized as a college student, I was less so. Afterward, I walked back to the car with fine sand and bits of ash under my fingernails. “That’s my mother,” I thought, my hair whipping across my face.
Fast-forward a year, maybe two. I was at my college church. The pastor asked all the mothers to stand. Then the oldest mother, the youngest mother. The newest mother. The mother with the most kids. And my heart pounded inside my chest. I looked around for the two women I considered my mentors. Both had been in Bible study beforehand, but neither were there during the service. I started to panic.
During the prayer honoring mothers, I couldn’t take it any longer. I bolted from my pew and ran for the nearest bathroom, where I lost it completely. Leah Ann, a mother in the church with two elementary-aged children, found me standing in front of the sinks, my face in my hands, sobbing all my make-up off. She didn’t say a word, but she wrapped her arms around me and held me until my sobs subsided. I couldn’t bear to go back in, so she sat with me on a bench in the hallway until the service was over.
Let’s be honest. Mother’s Day at church is often weird.
My mother, Mary Alice “Bitsy” Dowdell Treadwell, died on April 25, 1997, from breast cancer that had spread to her brain, her liver, and her lungs. In the middle of a Texas thunderstorm, she took her last breath and passed into the eternal communion of saints. This world did its best, but it could no longer hold her.
It's crazy to me — to think that she’s been gone for twenty years. My grief can nearly purchase alcohol.
I had a hard time leading up to the anniversary this year, being such a milestone number. The anticipation is always worse than the actual day. The dread that precedes it as that date looms near is often a heavier burden than getting through that day itself. In the week leading up to it, I found myself waking in the middle of the night, sweating, my heart racing, worrying that the date had passed and I had managed to forget it.
It’s a weird feeling to be relieved that you haven’t missed the anniversary of the day your mother died. “Whew,” I thought. “I didn’t forget it.” As if it were Christmas and I was looking forward to it. What bullshit.
I wake up on April 25 each year never knowing how I will be. Strangely, I was OK on the actual day this year. Joshua told me “Happy Bitsy Day” before he left for work. He must’ve said something to the kids because they were absolute angels, which, let’s be honest, never happens. Friends texted and messaged, checking in periodically, asking how I was.
And then because life marches on without regard to how we feel about it, I got a text from my father that his wife of four years had, that very day, been diagnosed with breast cancer. So I did what any motherless daughter in my position would do: I laughed at the irony. And then I said I really few choice bad words. And then I tried to cry, but I couldn’t.
Grief is a weird, living thing. It changes, ebbs, and flows, like a tidal shadow — always coming and going, but always right there, attached.
So, to my pastor friends? I want to say something to you. A bit of advice, if you’ll indulge me:
If you are celebrating moms on Mother’s Day, great! It is good and right to do so. However, please understand that Mother’s Day holds an incredible amount of pain for many, many people. If you are going to celebrate moms on Sunday then you need to acknowledge that pain — from the pulpit — on Mother’s Day. Because there are people sitting in your seats and in your pews who are dying on the inside that day. See them. Let them know they are not alone. Many won’t even come because the pain will be too damn raw and too damn hard. Others will spend your sermon crying in the bathroom. I hope you have someone who will go in after them.
There are childless mothers, mothers who have buried their children, mothers who are estranged from their children, and mothers who have aborted their children; there are mothers who bear so much grief. In the same way, there are motherless children, children abused by their mothers, and children given up by their mothers; there are children who bear so much trauma. All of these people are sitting in your worship services. That doesn’t even cover the half of it.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Figure out how to do both of those at the same time. I know it’s possible because I live in that tension all the time.
I’ve given birth to two perfect, beautiful children. For me, Mother’s Day has been partially redeemed. But for many, it has not, and it may never be. A few years ago, a longtime friend who is on Facebook wrote me and asked if losing a parent ever stops hurting. This is what I wrote back:
"Time heals the rawness, and you stop feeling like your wound is constantly being scraped out, but truthfully? No. Sometimes it gets better, but sometimes it doesn't. You learn to function; you even learn to thrive. But, yes, it always hurts, which is a strange comfort."
There's lots more I could say, but I'd be diving into advice territory again, and the last thing you need when you're grieving is advice. I’ve done enough of that here already. Grief is a big monster. I am in your corner. But especially this Mother’s Day, I say this to you: If you want to share your pain with me, I will help you hold it — like Atlas — and will do my best to make it not so damn heavy.