As we pass the 2nd anniversary of Mom’s passing, I’ve been sitting with a good friend who has recently lost her mother, discussing grief and the process of grieving.
In some ways, it’s not a simple thing, not an easy progression of steps, nor a checklist you can tick off one bit at a time and arrive at an end.
In other ways, it really is quite simple to understand the gauntlet once you’ve gone through it.
“I was fine at her memorial. I was smiling and talking to people. It didn’t look like her. It didn’t feel like she was gone.”
Yes. I remember that feeling of surreal unreality.
“I’ve cried every day since burying her. I still can’t go into the same stores that I used to shop.”
Me neither. I’d run, crying, out of a grocery store because the memories were just too much. It wasn’t even one that we visited together. It was the visceral memory of a childhood habit that gripped my heart and wouldn’t let go.
“I keep asking myself why I didn’t take her to X, why did I choose to do Y instead of Z? Why didn’t I ..”
I’ve second guessed every decision I made in the last twelve years. Constantly. I’m convinced that I was the worst daughter ever because the end, ultimate, result was that she died, never having recovered from her illness.
You could float on the sea of “if onlys” and “what ifs” that we create, in our grief, treading and retreading our memories.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.
But is it really? Is it really so much clearer now that events have irrevocably transpired?
A truth I’ve had to learn is that the other choice always seems like it would have been better only because I already know the outcome of the choices I did make. I have no idea what would have happened had I gone somewhere else for undergrad, if I had pursued a Masters or Doctorate. Maybe I would have had to drop out and be even less prepared to do the basics of supporting the family.
There’s a song by Little Texas that gets me EVERY time I hear it.
That knowledge doesn’t stop me feeling bone-deep regret for not pursuing a white collar profession where I could have earned enough to buy her health insurance outright (even though that would have taken years), or for being angry with her, not just her disease, as she became more ill and less mentally competent. I couldn’t take the step back at the time, it was easier to be angry than to accept and understand that I was losing her.
What might have been
In the aftermath, even after nominally accepting that I, mostly, did the best I could, and failed, I wonder what could have been done differently. And I wonder how much of my choices, and non-choices, affected this family.
Before carrying me to term, Mom had a few miscarriages.
What would have happened if I hadn’t been the one to make it?
What if my brother had a brother like he wanted?
Or what if he had grown up as an only child, with all the attention he clearly needed, without a “weak” (but meaner than a pit of crocs) little sister to take care of and be bitten for his efforts?
What if he hadn’t had me to practice his machinations and manipulations on?
What if he didn’t have a “follower” sibling with my personality and strong inclinations to academic achievement to contend with and push against in his attempts to lead me? Would he have actually reached to do something with his abilities instead of playing the comparison game and not even trying?
It’s part of the family lore that after a few days (or weeks, I forget) of getting to know me, my sibling picked me up and suggested they return to the hospital to trade me in for a better model. Unfortunately for him, hospitals didn’t accept returns at the time or I’m sure he would have just taken me himself. Kids feel that sort of thing all the time, but I wonder whether they all really would have been better off without me?
Without an extra mouth to feed, a second child to clothe, educate and worry about, would my parents have been less stressed, and more able to save? Did their circumstances dictate the outcome, or would their actions have been much the same?
Would my sibling have been the productive citizen and son that my parents prayed for? Would he have learned to use his copious people skills and talents towards a job or career, would he have felt the unbearable weight of responsibility that I grew up with, or would that still have eluded him?
Was it my fault, my existing, that played a key role in his failure to thrive? Is his failure to find a niche where he would excel attributable to my combative and competitive nature?
These are intertwined but I can’t help but realize that, like the butterfly flapping its wings, my very existence changed things.
Was it for the better?
I can’t know. I do know that as the surviving fetus, as the kid who did come along second, eventually, whatever ill my coming boded, I always felt a pressing weight. I knew fairly early on about Mom’s miscarriages. I know about the bigger than usual gap in years between my sibling and myself. Where other kids were two years apart like clockwork, we were about 3 years apart and, oh, the strength of will it must have taken for her not to smother me mid-scream in the first nine months I spent crying my lungs out.
It always seemed like I lost the genetic lottery: as the scrawny, untalented (no eye for art, terrible ear for music, only Doggle matches my astounding level of clumsiness), not terribly smart, really a bit of drifter with no dreams, youngest child, I only knew that I had to compensate and overcompensate to justify having made it.
The ghosts of those other babies, the ones my parents never met, haunted me a little. What could they have done with the gift of life? Would they have had the talent? Would they have inherited Mom’s gift with numbers, Dad’s ability to dream for the future? Would he or she, or they, have been the charmers, able to mingle and make friends everywhere they went? I certainly didn’t get any of that, so was that lost with them, leaving me with only remnants of determination and a strange love of containers to work with?
Sometimes it feels like all I have are questions, a sense of those nearly siblings’ unfulfilled potential, the uncomfortable prickles of something like guilt.
Without dwelling on the macabre, there are some studies that suggest that the influence of a sibling, past a certain point in life, is a stronger force in the development of an individual than even that of a parent. Anecdotally, I could see this. I learned from my parents, authoritatively, but I viscerally reacted to my sibling. At a much deeper level, I absorbed what I know of human nature from my interactions with him, by growing up next to him, and observing his experiences. By following my big brother. And I can’t know how my existence, my following, and my watching affected him. A bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, I guess.
Having made it this far, it feels like it’s my job to make good, to redeem the family name. I can’t change the past, I can only work toward the future.
I try not to think about
What might have been
‘Cause that was then
And we have taken different roads
We can’t go back again
There’s no use giving in
And there’s no way to know
What might have been