For privacy, I’ll call her “My New Friend.” We met in a grief-counseling session.
It’s not been a year since I lost my mother, so when I received another letter from the hospice team that helped me through the most overwhelming year of my life, I decided to show up to the support group they recommended. I thought, if nothing else, I’ll get a story out of it.
“One of the worst times is around six months after your loss,” the counselor said. “It’s when people stop asking how you’re doing and you’re left alone with your grief.” Bingo.
My friends think I’m over it because I pretend I’m over it. Our conversations on the phone don’t include the subject of grief. They include things like, “Oh, did you see Hillary on ‘Jon Stewart’ last night?” Or, “Can you believe what’s happened to Queen Anne Avenue? So tragic! So typical!”
But neither of us brings up our mothers. In one way, it feels as if we are trying to deny our own mortality; in another, it’s a relief to talk about anything else. But that doesn’t mean grief doesn’t build up until it spills out unexpectedly.
For instance, that new ad where iPhones are marketed to toddlers still in their car seats made me cry out, “It’s the end of innocence!” Though, in reality, of course, it’s only the end of — sniff-sniff — mine.
I knew there was something seriously wrong when our 90-degree weather didn’t cheer me up. Generally, such warmth lifts any blues right out of me.
I knew it again when I learned of my new book publication, and I was, like, “Yeah, whatever” — like a mother about to give birth to her ninth child.
Why? Because my mother would have baked a lasagna and bragged to all her friends. (My father is more concerned about the money this title will or will not make. The answer, believe me, is no lasagna.)
And I knew it because nothing feels quite right — there’s always a snag.
When it was my turn to “share my loss” at the session, I decide to tell a story about my mother, how she was never one to mince words. How, when I was excited about taking my first pre-ballet class — I must have been 5 or 6 — she said she signed me up so she could have 45 minutes to herself once a week.
And she wasn’t shy about saying so — not to me, not to my teacher and not to any of the other moms who tried to sit next to her.
Right up through Ballet I, when 45 minutes stretched to an hour, I could see her sitting across the street on the wooden bench in front of the A&P, smoking her cigarette and staring up at the sky as if it saved her from having to decide what to do with the rest of her life.
She smoked all the time. I remember she said smoking was the only way to feel sophisticated, as if smoking could prove you had class.
Once, I overheard her say to my father — after he told her how she stank like an ashtray — that without her cigarettes, “I feel less like myself.”
I don’t know why I thought to tell this particular story to a group of strangers, but everyone ooh and aahed. They thought I was just hilarious.
Next, My New Friend spoke. Her story moved us beyond oohing and aahing. Actually, it paralyzed us.
When she was finished, she thanked us for listening and passed out homemade cookies — sugar cookies. You would think we were her own family.
Why does it seem like it’s the one who has lost the most who remembers to give to everyone else? Just what did My New Friend lose?
Part two of “My New Friend” to follow next month.
MARY LOU SANELLI’s latest book is “Among Friends.” Visit her website: www.marylousanelli.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.