I was at my sister’s house, in Connecticut. I was on the phone with my niece, back in Michigan, who happened to be driving by my parent’s house at that very moment and noticed an ambulance in the driveway. My parents were not the most “well” people so the possibility of death didn’t really occur to me – to either of us, I think, right away. I think we both thought one of my parents was just being taken to the hospital for some reason. Hospitalizations were not all that uncommon for them. The details after this moment get hazy in my memory. I think, my niece told me she would go check things out and call me back. And… I think, it was my niece who called me back to tell me the news. And… I don’t even remember whether I said goodbye to her or not before I put the phone down.
Like a lot of monumentally important life experiences that we all (or most of us) go through, finding out your mother has died feels both exactly what you expected it to feel like and then nothing at all like what you expected. I remember a physiological response – my heart racing, feeling hot all over and a bit dizzy – as if I’d been punched really hard in the gut. I remember a swimming feeling in my head. So many thoughts swirling so fast. I remember saying, out loud, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry.”
I said “I’m sorry” over and over because I had made the choice not to speak to my mother or see her about three years before. And this, Dear Reader, was the stupidest thing I have ever done. And, honestly, that is really saying something considering the very many outrageously stupid things I have done in my life.
I suppose there are mothers out there who have done things so unforgivable that their children are justified in turning their backs on them. My mother was not one of these mothers. Not by a long shot. The complicated choice I made to not speak to her was not made easily and it certainly felt justifiable at the time but now, in retrospect, was obviously short-sighted and immature and probably quite cruel. Definitely. Quite cruel.
And in that moment, of finding out she was gone, all at once, everything was gone. There would never be reconciliation. There would never be another chance to say I’m sorry to anyone who could actually forgive me. There would never be another hug from her, another smile, another card written in her gorgeous handwriting. The finality of death is impossible to grasp until it grasps you, hard and unforgiving, by the throat.
The next day or two was a fumble of getting back to Michigan and seeing my father (the reason I stopped talking to my mother) and going through her things and getting everything ready for her wake. Somewhere in that fumble, there were conversations and even mild arguments about how she should be dressed, what she should “wear” to her own funeral. This argument, this conversation about how she should be dressed felt precious to me, felt important. What a senseless consideration, on one hand. How on earth did it matter? And yet, how intensely important, how telling of how well we knew her or did not know her, to know what she’d like to be dressed in. I can’t fully explain it. This question felt like a little star in my head, like a little pinprick in my heart. It needed attention.
So, I declared June 26th Dress Day. Every June 26th, I buy a nice dress that, should I die that particular year, my famiy knows THAT’S the dress I want to be buried in. Completely sick, right? Morbid? Perhaps. But, it feels so abundantly necessary to me. And, I’m not sure I can articulate why exactly.
It felt sad to me, I guess, that we spent so much time and energy talking about what my mother should wear to her funeral. I wanted to talk about HER. I wanted to lie on her bed and snuggle her teddy bears. I wanted us all to be holding each other and crying on each other’s shoulders and talking, talking, talking deeply, meaningfully. I didn’t want to talk about her clothes.
It also felt sad to me that my mother had the exact same clothes in her closet that she was wearing three years before. Dresses that she had worn for ten or fifteen years. Lots of everyday things. Nothing super snazzy. Nothing particularly elegant. Nothing fancy. I know my mother liked fancy. She made due with everyday because that’s what she had to make due with. But, she enjoyed fancy quite a bit. And here was her closet – with no fancy in it. She deserved fancy – a least a little. We all do.
So, Dress Day isn’t just about buying the dress I want to be buried in. Indeed, it’s not at all about that truly – because the Universe and I have a deal about me living an incredibly long life so I know the next fifty or so dresses are just practice runs. Dress Day is about honoring my desire and my mother’s desire for fancy.
Here’s what I wish. I wish that every year on my Mother’s birthday, I would’ve taken her shopping for a beautiful, frivolously expensive dress that made her feel gorgeous and fancy. We would’ve spent the day walking in and out of stores and talking. We would’ve stopped for lunch at some point and maybe some chocolate in the afternoon. It would’ve been a lovely day. And she would’ve gone home with a little piece of fancy that was all hers. To wear to fancy luncheons. To wear on fancy date nights. To wear while she cooked and cleaned the house, if she just wanted to feel fancy that day. We both would’ve looked forward all year to this day. Dress Day.
Instead, my Dress Day is a way to spend the day with my mother while she’s no longer physically with me. Of course, I think about my mother often. And, I feel she is with me often. But on Dress Day, I have permission to hold her especially close, to take time feeling the influence she’s had on my life, my thoughts, my beliefs, my being. I make sure to take a lot of time to thank her. So far, I’ve spent every Dress Day, but the first, physically alone. I think that is as it should be because then, it’s just me and Ramona.
When I declared Dress Day, at the Villa in Frankfort, where my family gathered to drink and eat – but mostly drink – after my mother’s funeral, one of our dear family friend’s disapproved strongly of this idea. Here’s some advice, Dear Reader: please let people grieve however they want to grieve, as long as it’s no skin off of your back. I mean, if someone’s version of grieving is directly HURTING you, then, perhaps you should disapprove. Otherwise, please keep your opinions firmly to yourself.
Everyone needs to grieve in their own way, in their own time. And speaking of time, Almost NOTHING is more offensive than telling someone who is grieving a deep loss that it’s time to “get over it.” Or to ask them if they are “over it yet”? I made the mistake of once asking a friend who had lost their father two years before how long it took him to “get over it”? I asked this about eight months after my mother died when every day still felt sad and hard and I couldn’t imagine continuing to feel like that forever. He said, thankfully, “I don’t think you ever ‘get over it’.” He was right. The constant sadness goes away. But… the deepness of the sadness never does. It’s always right there. When my mother comes to my mind, the intensity of the sadness is always the same—always the same as when I got the phone call that she was gone. If I give myself a moment to really feel it, it is breathtaking – as in, it literally takes my breath away.
I don’t think it’s healthy to pretend that I don’t feel this. Or, when these feelings come, to push them away completely. Sure, there have been times that they come up at inconvenient times and I have to turn my mind away from them – while I’m teaching, at a joyous occasion with my kids, in a work meeting – but I know I have to let myself feel it or else that pain, that grief turns into behavior – like compulsive overeating and self-pity – that I would very much rather avoid.
Dress Day is a salve, not a cure, but a good medicine for the pain of having lost my mother. I hope that everyone who has lost – especially mothers and fathers – has found their own method, their own system or ongoing event to honor their loved ones and their own grief. Nothing makes it all better. But, honoring our loss and feelings, does help.
Happy Dress Day!
& Vaya Con Dios, says Ramona.
p.s. If you happen to be someone who is as stupid as I was (and, let’s face it, probably still am) and you are not speaking to someone who is incredibly important to you, please reconsider your decision. Please spend some time deeply considering whether you want to hold onto your hate or your hurt badly enough to feel as much regret as I promise you WILL feel if you lose this person before you have a chance to reconcile. Then, if you decide it’s not worth it, start making things better TODAY. Not tomorrow. Today. Every day that person is here, in this world, is a gift to you. Every day you are here is a gift. And, maybe you’ll decide it IS worth holding on to your hate and your hurt. If so, I hope you are right. And I hope you have some really good angels to see you through because whether you are right or wrong, there is great pain, I know. Namaste.