Mother’s Day loomed large on the calendar. There was no escaping it, there was a large poster outside our local pub advertising Mother’s Day lunches and front of store supermarket displays of gifts, cards and flowers were everywhere, even in my understated favourite, Waitrose. My inbox saw a steady influx of emails from Moonpig, Marks & Spencer, Boots and Asda, all reminding me that Mums up and down the country would be waking up on the 26th March to cards, flowers and breakfast in bed.
I’d been treated to breakfast in bed last year. As Mother’s Day had been at the beginning of March in 2016, even as early as February, Facebook had reminded me that Phoebe had told me that she was going to bring me a “trumpet” in bed for Mothers Day. She meant a “crumpet” and with Daddy’s help that is exactly what she brought me along with a gift of a pink glittery star-shaped bath bomb on a stick from Lush as a present. There were cards; one from Phoebe, I loved to see her name in her own writing and one from Ralph, to my wife on Mother’s Day. It had been special. All days were special with our beautiful girl, but that day was a milestone moment. In previous years Ralph had organised things and it had been low-key as he usually had to work on Mothering Sunday, but last year, aged 4 Phoebe had her own ideas about how she wanted to show me how much she loved me….. with crumpets.
As the day grew closer, my anguish intensified. I tried to tell myself, it’s just a day, but to no avail. I wondered how best to cope with it and I did what I usually do, I googled; “How to cope with Mother’s Day as a bereaved mother?”. I didn’t find very much but I did find one useful article “How to honour a bereaved Mother on Mother’s Day” which I shared on my Facebook page. From the very few articles I found, this one made the most sense to me. The suggestions to affirm her status as a mother, to celebrate her child and to give thoughtful gifts all resonated strongly. I also discovered that there is an International Bereaved Mother’s Day. It’s in May the Sunday following Mother’s Day in the US. That’s good I thought, bereaved mums are still mums and they shouldn’t be forgotten, I desperately didn’t want to be forgotten……
I read how other bereaved mums just wanted to ignore the day, but that wasn’t me. The worst possible outcome for me would be for the day to pass by without any acknowledgement of my being Phoebe’s mummy. Never one to be backwards at coming forwards, I waved my flag high. I have learnt that it can be difficult for those around you to know how to approach you, so I try to give people directions. But what if they went unnoticed?…. I knew Ralph would get me a card, but would anyone else? Was I being self-centred to even hope they would?
Well, whatever, at least I would be occupied. Some weeks earlier I’d agreed to scrutineer (input and collate the marks) at a dance competition. I hadn’t realised the significance of the date when I’d been asked but when I realised, I decided it would be no bad thing. Being busy would distract me, help get me through and eat up the quiet hours while Ralph was at work and in case my cries for help weren’t heard.
But my cries were heard. I was not forgotten!
Some weeks before, a mum of one of Phoebe’s friends had told me that her daughter had told her that she would make me a card as she thought that was what Phoebe would want her to do. I was touched. She asked what I was doing on Mother’s Day, I explained about the competition but she suggested I come round afterwards which I duly did, to be greeted by a new gnome faced planter for my growing collection and a windmill. From “Forever Phoebe ” they said and yes, Phoebe would have liked these, the planter’s cheeky face reminded me of the giant gnomes she was drawn to in Asda each year.
I couldn’t stay long, while deeply touched, my emotions, contained all day by keeping busy, began to rise and I needed to withdraw, else degenerate into a gibbering mess. The tears must out or else build up dangerously inside, but I didn’t want to lose it in front of a 5 year old girl.
More beautiful acknowledgements awaited me at home. I opened the door to be greeted by pink tulips, gifts and cards left in the porch. There was a hand drawn card and pictures from another of Phoebe’s friends and a Mother & Daughter Willow Tree figurine from her grown up cousin. I hadn’t particularly liked these before but I have wholeheartedly changed my mind; in the days running up to Mother’s Day, I changed my profile picture to a meme with a Willow Tree, “The Quilt” as the visual and ordered myself a small figure to mark the day to myself , “Joyful child ” it is called; a young girl kneeling in a pose which is reminiscent of my beautiful girl.
The words written in each card brought me comfort, just as the messages I received by text and messenger that day and some even in the run up before my blatant plea on social media, had done. Being told I was a lovely mummy and that I was in people’s thoughts meant so very much, I’m struggling to find adjectives sufficiently adequate to fully describe my feelings…..
I sat on the living room floor tears rolling down my cheeks. These tokens meant so much and I was so grateful but the pain was intense not just due to the absence of Phoebe but due to the absence of my mum….. I had read how another bereaved mum now coped with Mother’s Day by focusing on her own mum. But I haven’t spoken to my mum since 3 days after Phoebe died and subsequent contact overall with both my parents has been extremely limited and strained following a dreadful argument little more than 72 hours after Phoebe’s death.
They had been away on holiday when Phoebe died. I know the news would have been devastating, the journey exhausting and that they too would have been in shock. I think perhaps they struggled and were overwhelmed when they arrived by the sheer number of friends at our house. I think maybe they felt it should just be family but I needed everyone, I didn’t want anyone to leave and I drew comfort from the crowd. This may have been hard for them to cope with. But in deep shock and traumatized it wasn’t my intention to exclude them and I absolutely needed them there, even if it appeared otherwise. I kept looking round to see where they were, I kept asking for them but they never seemed to be there. I think maybe they shrunk back struggling to go with my flow and find their place. Perhaps they felt that in the melee they weren’t getting the support they needed. Finally I know also that when I was told they were going home earlier than agreed that I completely lost it and that my anger was ferocious, but I had just lost my baby…. I have gone over the events in my mind over and over looking for answers and trying to excuse their response, their words and actions, but I always come back to that fact, I had just lost my girl…. Surely that should have afforded me some allowances if not right then in the intensity of the moment, in the days, weeks and months which have followed?
I don’t talk about it much, but when I have others have been confused as to why they didn’t try to absorb my anger, but this buffer, this kind of cushion wasn’t there for me. When I yelled “If you go now, that will be it”, I didn’t think they would go. What I meant was, “please, please don’t go!” But they left and it is now almost 7 months down the line since I last saw them. They didn’t come to the celebration of Phoebe’s life. I agonised over what the right & moral thing to do was talking it through with a 3rd party counsellor but the message came that they didn’t feel they needed to be there, that they had said their goodbyes. I want to believe that they think they were doing the right thing and I suppose it released me from the pressure of needing to make the right decision but with the passing of time my disappointment has grown.
I try not to think about it, dealing with Phoebe’s painful absence is challenge enough. I have managed to squish my raw and bruised feelings deep down inside me, but Mother’s Day cruelly brought them back to the surface. Mother’s Day with neither daughter nor mother…
In trying to describe how I feel I have an image in my mind’s eye, of a tree ravaged by a storm. Trees are symbolic of life and the family and I feel as if first, my branches were lopped or sheared off by a vicious, swirling wind which came out of nowhere. Then, just when I thought that the wind dropped and I could survey the damage, it whipped up again, uprooting me leaving me toppled and smashed like the tree which blocked the road just round the corner from our house as a result of the high winds which also lifted up Phoebe’s trampoline and slide and scattered her spades and buckets across the garden.
As I mused further on my tree analogy, I thought of the practise of pollarding. I am no tree surgeon or gardener but it is my understanding that pollarding is like pruning and is carried out to stimulate growth. I’m not sure I needed cutting back though, or reshaping or redirecting. This is personal growth that anyone could do without!
I even wonder how much growth is possible, will I ever in any way “recover” and find a way to re root myself into more solid ground while this painful rift between myself and my parents continues to widen. As has become my habit, I surfed to see if anyone wiser than me had been quoted on the subject. I found 2 quotes which struck me as relevant and which made me think
“Roots can live without branches, although truncated; branches cannot live without roots” David Novak, Jewish Theologian & Ethicist.
“Just as a tree without roots is dead, a people without history or cultural roots becomes a dead people” Malcolm X.
Are they right? Do I need to try to fix this rift in order to be able to regain some kind of secure footing from which perhaps some new growth can begin? My gran lived into her 90’s and while I know only too painfully about the fragility of life, what if I follow in her footsteps? I don’t know if I could spend the equivalent of my life again feeling like I’m on shaky ground.
Should I perhaps have sent a Mother’s Day card as a form of olive branch? “You only have one mother” I had heard another bereaved mum say. I probably didn’t give Mother’s Day enough importance in the past, I was often late. But this wasn’t the time to try to counter this, I felt too vulnerable. I may appear strong from the outside but in all honesty I’m only just keeping it together, things are so delicately balanced and it doesn’t take a lot to throw be off and send me crashing to the ground
The Hatter reached out though, with Alice’s help….
For my birthday just a month after Phoebe died, I received the Tim Burton version of Alice Through the Looking Glass on DVD as a gift. It took me a little while to consider watching it, I knew it would have been up Phoebe’s street and I kept thinking of our wonderful day trip to Llandudno where Alice Liddell, Lewis Caroll’s inspiration for Alice holidayed and where we took so many pictures of Phoebe with the statues of the different characters.
Anyway I wasn’t familiar with the plot but when I watched it, the sense of rejection felt by Tarrant Hightopp by his father and the subsequent separation from his family resonated curiously strongly with me, ever drawn to a literary parallel.
For years the Hatter thought that his father was disappointed with him and that there was nothing he could do to fix things. He believed that his family died tragically at the mercy of the Red Queen, Iracebeth and her Jabberwocky on Horenvendush day. But then one day after a storm he found it, hidden by leaves, the tiny blue paper hat that he had made as a child and thought his father had thrown away. If the hat was there then this cast a new light on things, his father must have kept it, it must have meant something to him after all and more importantly it meant that his family must be alive. He needed to find them, to rescue them and make it right. If only he could convince Alice to help him.
“Your family died” she says “No one can bring them back. It’s impossible”. but fearful she would lose him, she steps up “Hatter is my truest friend, if he’s in need, I will help him no matter what” and she embarks on the bravest of quests travelling back in time to find out what had become of them.
She returns to the day of the argument hoping she can convince the Hatter to turn back and return to his family and warn them, thereby changing the cause of history and saving her dear friend fading in the present; “If you don’t go back now and reconcile you’ll be sorry” she says. “It’s forever for me but it doesn’t have to be forever for you”.
These words rang around my ears. Is this what I needed to do? Will I be sorry? Unlike what happened to Phoebe, where I had no control and her loss is forever, here I have a choice and I am choosing not to reach out but will not reconciling with my parents just slowly eat away at me? It does worry me.
Of course as this is a moral tale for children, Alice succeeds in the end, his family were alive, not killed but imprisoned by the bitter Red Queen and they rescue them. The Hatter was delighted to be reunited with his family but it struck me that while his father praised his efforts, he didn’t apologise. The Hatter seemed delighted to finally have his father’s approval, but Zanik Hightopp didn’t say sorry to his son, he didn’t say I should have never have let you leave in the first place. For me the simple word “sorry” would have meant so much more. It certainly did to Iracebeth, the Red Queen, who did not eat the tarts as a child and whose sister did not own up and as a result sealed her sisters tragic fate. It’s too complicated to explain the whole tale, but the moment when she finally apologised to her sister struck a chord with me. ” If it’s not too late, please forgive me ” said Mirana the White Queen ” But that’s all I ever wanted to hear” said Iracebeth.
I feel the same. At the moment I feel I need to hear or see that word before any reconciliation could take place. What is it that they say, “sorry seems to be the hardest word”. Well that must be true because it is not forthcoming. I have received a letter and a couple of cards but no “sorry”. Perhaps they believe they have nothing to apologise for, that it is I who is stubbornly in the wrong and the driver of this silence and they have tried. Maybe they feel that it is not a parent’s place to apologise. I don’t know, I feel like I don’t know them anymore but I do believe that as parents we can get it wrong, and if we do we should fess up, show humility to our children. I certainly apologised to Phoebe if I felt I got it wrong, like the time I yelled at her disproportionately loudly when she helped herself to my red nail polish and spilled it on our new bedroom carpet. “Mummy is very, very sorry” I explained “I shouldn’t have shouted” and I asked for her forgiveness.
So there you have it, the loss of my parents on top of the loss of Phoebe exacerbates the pain, leaves me feeling cut off and alone. I squish it away, but Mother’s day put it in sharp relief. But I just can’t reach out to my parents on Mothers Day or on any other day at the moment. It isn’t about being stubborn and it’s not about anger or punishment, it’s about self-preservation. I have to look forwards not backwards for now. I have discovered that this helps me to cope. However strong I may seem outwardly, my roots are shallow and I’m on shifting sands. I have to be kinder to myself and I need to be in a position where I am less needy of their approval. I am not the Hatter, this is not a moral tale with a guaranteed happy ending. When I’m ready, stronger, it might be too late, but that’s a risk I have to take, I can’t risk a knock right now, down the line I might be better able to deal with disappointment should it transpire.
Writing about Mother’s Day and the rift which now exists between myself and my parents has been hard as this subject is a particularly delicate one and the risk is great. However having talked to and read the words of, many other bereaved parents, I have learnt that strained relations with family following the loss of a child are not unusual or unique to me so with this in mind I decided to go ahead. Writing about my feelings is not only a useful process for me but if it resonates with others, makes even one person feel less alone in their experience of grief, then I have done a good thing even if in doing so there is a risk of driving a further wedge between myself and my family.
I have friends though and I intend to invest in and nurture these friendships, let them know how important they are to me and how much I appreciate them. They say that friends are the family we choose for ourselves and amongst my friends I am lucky enough to have my own Alices; special friends who have gone and continue to go, above and beyond and whom will help me re root and hopefully grow.
Some bereaved parents don’t seem to have this, I have read that as the months pass that there is a sense that everyone gradually fades away. At 7 months, things are certainly quieter, but not silent; I receive a steady flow of messages still every week reminding me that I am not forgotten, that support is still there. I am incredibly grateful.
I know that it’s still early days and it is likely that I won’t be on as many people’s radars next Mother’s Day or beyond, but I know my Alices will remember, my husband will remember and I will always remember……
I will always have the memory of at least one special Mother’s Day when I felt loved by our girl beyond measure and one day I hope it will give me comfort. I bought myself my own Bubble Bar from Lush the Friday before Mother’s Day. I walked around the shop thinking which one would Phoebe would have chosen for me this year. I thought maybe the giraffe or the flamingos on a stick but I settled for a lavender-scented one in the hope of a restful bath and made it last over 3. I may make buying a bubble bar an annual tradition, it made me feel close to her. Maybe I will gradually fill the house with a whole collection of Willow Tree figurines over time and one year, maybe one Mother’s Day should I be lucky enough to still be here, I may even be sufficiently brave to treat myself to crumpets…