"How would you like your head to be cut open like a pumpkin?" my mother asked.
It was Halloween and the eve of her surgery. The tumor's swelling had slowed her speech, dulling her emotions and the clarity in her gray-blue eyes. We stood across from the nurses' station in the hospital looking at a display of freshly carved pumpkins. The squash orbs sat on a two-tiered cart, silver and cold to the touch. They grinned menacingly at my mother, who stood weak in her hospital gown and her navy velveteen slippers from home.
The pumpkin-carving contest had been for the neurosurgeons. It was intended to add a little holiday cheer to the ward and make light of their finesse with the knife. It wasn't funny. The bright orange only seemed to accentuate the white sameness of the walls and linoleum that echoed silent, wrenching fears. I will never forget that moment, staring at the scalpel-etched faces on those pumpkins, trying not to think of what ghoulish things might be found when they explored inside my mother's head the next day.
It was the beginning of the end of my mother's life. It was also the second swift strike of three that would take away the women who came before me, ending my life as I knew it.
In one sweep, my mentors, my stalwart believers, the keystones of my personal foundation left this earthly place. First, my maternal grandmother succumbed to a series of strokes. She died never imagining that within months, her vital daughter, my mother, would be in the midst of her own neurological nightmare. My mother applied my grandmother's same Swedish stoicism and stubbornness to her surprise battle with a brain tumor. Despite the strength of her will, however, my mother passed away to join her own.
By then, the fortitude of flesh and spirit possessed by my Scottish grandmother was fading. After my mother's death, I made the three-hour drive to lie next to her on her narrow bed and soak up the comfort of her presence. A stroke had weakened and confused her. She didn't comprehend that my mother had died. I yearned and searched for meaning in the nonsensical trail of conversation. It was to be our last visit; she died two days later.
They were gone.
There were no longer any women ahead of me in the evolutional chain of my own life. It seems like it is the women who set the tone for my family. I grew up with a strong sense of place, of belonging and of being loved. While growing up, we often drove to Canada to visit my Scottish granny. She was a hardy, practical sort who had always been more interested in ideas and working hard than fussing over cooking or clothes. I slept with my granny in her bedroom and it was there, lying in bed next to her with traffic whizzing by on the street beneath us, that I had some of my most special moments with her.
She told me stories about her youth in Scotland and how she came to leave the highlands. My favorite was the one that had her throwing the corset her mother had made her wear out the window of the train as soon as she was out of her mother's sight, on her way across the Atlantic. "I learn something new every day," she used to say. "Oh, the changes I have seen in my lifetime, it is remarkable." She was strong and smart and excited by life and she inspired me greatly. She was also the only person who could say my name, and by virtue of her brogue, make it sound pretty to me. Grandma had grown up in the country and she carried many of the farm ways with her into the town where she lived. She grew her own vegetables and flowers, baked her own cookies, canned her own fruit and made her own pickles. She quilted, sewed, knit and crocheted. During our extended summer visits, she patiently taught me how to do all of these things. When I was little she would sew matching dresses for my favorite doll and me. Her life had been a simple one with simple pleasures. She had not read or traveled much. She had no airs about her or time for those of others. Above all, she had a great sense of humor. She loved to laugh. Even after her first stroke, she still managed a smile, albeit a crooked one. Her joys were her family, friends, children and animals. She was pure and innocent and a teacher of the beauty and humor in the most simple of things.
And then there was my mother. She had left the Midwest and lived a more worldly life, yet that homespun innocence was at her core. She was curious and smart and generous. She spent her life thinking of others and giving of herself. She was the first one to be there for a friend who had a problem, or even for a stranger. She was the one who stopped for stray cats and dogs and tried to find their homes, taking them to our home if she couldn't. She loved a good laugh. She was pretty and soft-spoken and perceptive. She was a great listener and drew people to her. People felt safe in her easygoing embrace. Above all, she took joy in the small things that so many of us miss. She taught me to notice and appreciate delights as simple as the graceful curve on a leaf. My mother was my anchor and my compass. She grew to be not only my mother, but also my sister and best friend.
At thirty, I was thrust unexpectedly into a wilderness of grief. It was dark and cold. I was alone on the ground, unable to get up and find my footing. It was the loss of the ones from whom I normally sought guidance that had plunged me into this deep forest that I had never seen before. Gone was the comfort of warm aproned laps, willing ears and soft shoulders. I hadn't realized how much the roles of daughter and granddaughter and molded and defined my identity. I didn't know who I was without these roles to play. It felt like there had been life before and now there was none, and no trail back to it. I kept trying to pick myself up and make myself go forward, telling myself that this is what my mother and grandmothers would want me to do. Many of my attempts were bittersweet, offering healing on one level, but at the same time poking at my melancholy.
I tried working with children at a daycare, hoping that being around the beginning of lives would counteract the painful endings I had witnessed. It helped me to regain some sense of wonder, but it hurt in ways I hadn't expected. The morning ritual of mothers leaving their children to helpless cries of abandonment triggered my ache for my own mother.
I tried exercising outside in nature. I went for long walks around a lake where my mother and I had often gone. I passed many women my age pushing a stroller with their baby, their own mothers walking alongside. I tried to make myself keep walking, feeling the ache from the fact that such a picture would never be realized in my own life.
I read books by authors like Elie Wiesel, trying to learn how others had survived their own pain, seeking lessons to apply to the amelioration of my own. I went to lectures and concerts and art classes. Craving the company of women, I joined a women's grief group and together we tried to soothe each other's sorrow and find our way to the other side of the grief. I am now forty. I have survived ten years without my mother and grandmothers. I have examined and reflected on how they are each an integral part of me. It has taken this long for the hurt to subside enough to look at my life and their places in it with an objective eye. I see now what they gave me that serves me and what doesn't.
Perhaps my Swedish grandmother's stoicism was really repressed emotions that she never let herself express. My mother was never able to trust herself or see the beauty in herself that everyone else saw. I am also very hard on myself and realize that this is a legacy from my mother that doesn't help me in my life. My Scottish granny perhaps could have lightened up a little, taken life less seriously, put play ahead of work once in awhile.
I see now that I am a unique blend of the three women who came before me. Their losses have forced me to come to terms with life on my own. There are no longer the faces I once knew, lined by life and the wiser for it, to look into for answers. There is only my own. Being alone has forced me to find my own strength and resilience, to create my own buffer against the hardships of the world. I have had to reach deep into myself and have found places that I didn't even know existed.
While I would give anything to have them still here, perhaps it has been a hidden blessing. Now I know that innocence lost is not found again. I walked into the wilderness a girl, a daughter and granddaughter. In my thrashing through the thickness of the forest, the echoes of the voices of my mother and grandmothers have grown fainter, and for the first time, I am starting to hear my own. I don't feel like I am totally out of the wilderness, yet I do see occasional glimpses of dappled sunlight coming through the trees. I sense a metamorphosis deep within, and I am trying to listen to that voice that I am just starting to recognize. It whispers in my ear that when I do fully emerge, it will be as a woman. A woman who not only carries the wisdom of the women who came before her, but her own.
Bio: Laurie McConnachie lives and writes in her native Northwest. She has earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in art history and art education from Stanford University and has worked extensively in the art field. Fascinated by life and art, she continues to explore both through her writing. She was recently published in the last two issues of Verve, a Seattle magazine.