Before Mom died, so many times before Mom died, she urged me to seek counseling. She begged me to open up to friends. She encouraged me to put myself first.
In a letter she had written to a friend but never addressed, she said, “I fear she [me] has burned out. She is only 23.”
She never sent that letter. It sat in a journal she would have mailed me had she not died.
As more time passes, the more I realize how well my mom knew me and how well I knew her.
Reflection 1: Comprehending subtext
There are realizations that began to come out of hiding as I prepared to graduate and dived into job searches while waiting to hear back from Peace Corps. These were conversations born only from beginning to understand the pure insanity of the post-graduation world. I began to respect her in a new light because I could comprehend what she routinely sacrificed.
When I saw how much my landlady’s daughter kicked and screamed during temper tantrums, I called my mom that evening to apologize for being difficult to manage (for forever). She laughed and said I was the easy one. With time zones as our friends, she began calling when she couldn’t sleep. I never had all the answers, or even a fraction of the answers, she had to be seeking at the time. I realize now it’s not about having answers, it’s about being available to listen.
What I can’t tell her is how much I’ve discovered about our relationship and about her since moving to site. She died during PST. The entire ride at site has been solo, but not without memories of her that filter into the adventure.
I didn’t understand her at 17 or 18, but at 25, I do. One night, in the middle of what were regular squabbles between us, she said, “I wanted to go to college, too, but I didn’t.” I realize now that comment was much more about what her life had become and much, much less about the futures she wanted her kids to have. She got married when she was 19, and had her first kid (hello, world!) when she was 22. She regularly said, “Don’t get married, don’t have kids,” whenever she washed dishes or prepared dinner. Again, not designed to inflict confusion, anger or pain. It was a moment of honesty.
No one in this world has a level of honesty that can match my mother’s. The wording wasn’t always delicate and sometimes (oftentimes) commanded digging beneath the surface to uncover what she really meant, but neither devalues the merit, though that comes from the privilege of reflection. If I could, I’d call and let her know I get it now. Her friends insist she always knew, mothers can figure out these things, but that’s hardly comforting when you want, or need, to hear yourself say it. I want my mom to hear me say I’m sorry. She deserves that.
Lesson 1: Practicing Mom’s advice
I’m very, very slowly beginning to accept I can’t blame myself for how my mom died. In the same vein, I’m slowly beginning to accept I can’t be angry for missing a window to let her know what she meant to me because so many of those realizations have, in the ultimate catch-22 fashion, come at the expense of her death. This realization comes with the blessing of the brain of a 25-year-old on the other side of grief. It comes independent of the 19-year-old brain on fire with late-stage adolescence and first-stage confusion of a parent’s terminal-illness diagnosis.
She urged me to set up counseling appointments at my university. I tried. Twice. I quit. Twice. I wasn’t ready. It seemed stupid then and even now when I think about it, I know if I kept trudging through appointments, it would have ended as a waste of time for all parties. I wasn’t ready to accept my dad was sick. I didn’t even accept he was dying until the moment he actually died.
She begged me to open up to friends. Definitely didn’t do that in university. A bit of an awkward conversation to introduce. “Hi, I’m Sierra. My dad’s dying, my mom lost her job, and if it’s not obvious, I’m a bit of a train wreck.”
Since her death, I’ve started counseling. I maxed out on the six-sessions-per-issue Peace Corps permits, but I feel okay with that. I left those sessions equipped with tools to navigate who I am, to evaluate when I need to seek new routes, to determine what’s difficult to discuss and how to confront those topics. Success. (It comes with a ton of patience and practice.)
I’m still practicing how to open up to friends. I don’t do it easily. There’s a lot of history to wade through to understand why my parents became who they became and how that affects how I’ve developed and process information. No one has time for that. Sometimes I don’t even have time for it. The moments when I know I should write the most, I don’t. I sit and let whatever emotional wave it is crest over me, and when it’s done, then I sit down to write. I’m still navigating the fine line between experiencing and processing, and I’m still learning where to link the two.
I’m doing the things Mom wanted me to do, but I had to establish a level of comfort with it, first. If she could, she would smirk and mouth, “I told you so.”
Reflection 2: Make time matter
Mom shelved her dreams. She wanted to be a writer. She ended as a sales assistant for our local newspaper.
I don’t want the people I love to settle. Life’s too short to settle. We all do what we have to do to make ends meet, but when it’s possible to fuse making ends meet with goals, I want people to do that. I want passion to spill into the workplace or into side projects, because life becomes too boring, too overwhelming otherwise.
None of us are too busy to take care of ourselves. Unless you’re a full-time caretaker in a financially-strapped family struggling to pay bills and stretch Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare checks far enough to pay for medications and hospital visits, you are not too busy. The clearest lesson I have from Mom’s death is I have to take care of myself – and then tackle ways to connect passions with goals.
Reflection 3: Communities stretch across borders…
About a month ago, my sitemate, Alice, and I visited Zelalem, the high school bookkeeper, for a pre-Fasika fast lunch. Zelalem originally from Amhara, left behind everything she knew when she moved to Gurage Zone, her husband’s home, after they married in the 1980s.
When he died, she was left to raise two daughters on her own. She could have become angry. No one would have blamed her. Ethiopians don’t become angry, not over matters beyond their control, and death is a factor beyond everyone’s control. Instead, she attends church twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, to pray for strength to get through the day and comfort to carry her through the night.
During our visit at Zelalem’s house, Zelalem asked if I could bring her back a pair of comfort shoes because “my feet are too big,” and she feels sores form on her soles. Yeah, no problem. Reasonable request. (Her insistence she would pay the cost certainly helps, too.)
“In return,” she said, “I will present your mother with a Gurage jebenna!”
Zelalem has never met my mother. She will never meet my mother. Yet despite this simple fact, she wanted to extend a piece of the community where I live to the community from where I came. She wanted to do it in the most respectful way, too, through appreciation for our mothers.
Reflection 4: ..and communities come from within, too.
In the first year after Mom’s death, I streamlined the topic, not wanting to open it and any discomfort among others that evolves from discussing dead parents. The result was some afternoons and nights where my brain channeled every fiber of attention to Mom, regardless of whether I wanted it that way. In those moments, I either called one of two people I thought could lend an ear, but even then, I only did that a handful of times. A weak network and pounds of pride when you’re in a relatively new group of people will keep you from opening up.
By the time Dad died, my group had been in country together for 17 months. That made it a little easier to vocalize what was going on, and responsibilities like coordinating camp’s TOT weekend had to be routed out to other members of the leadership team, so the latter component kicked me into telling others.
It’s easy to let grief derail any sense of reality, and it’s way too easy to feel lonely. I’ve spent too much time the last two years questioning whether anyone would ever answer the phone or respond to a text when I know plenty of people would have done either if I had only reached out.
There’s Josh, who called before my flight took off the first time. He did it again with Dad. All the time in between, he’s called and texted regularly to share site updates, med school application updates (!!!), to invite me to his site and insist I stay as long as needed. He’s kept me involved in holiday events when I’ve dabbled between wanting to celebrate holidays with a bang and wanting to stay secluded. Alongside Kendra, he coordinated a group card that made its way to my aunt’s house the day before I returned to Ethiopia. That card is the staple feature of my bedroom wall. It brings comfort each morning.
There’s Kendra, Tayler and Ellery. It’s a bit sacrilegious to lump the three into one paragraph, but they’re three of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet. They each epitomize strength and humanity, and they each demonstrate, through sharing snippets of their own lives with me, an understanding that we don’t cease to be people in light of someone’s death. We continue to function as individuals, we continue to care about our friends, we continue to want what’s best for those whom we love and we continue to want to support them. They didn’t lock me out, they let me in, and they’ve kept me in, and there are no words to express how special that feels.
There’s Michael, who has stuck through the wildest two years with me and hasn’t distanced himself, for some bizarre reason. He called from Ethiopia when I went to Florida last summer when Dad died. He doesn’t press conversation, he reminds he’s available when I need an ear to be available, and then off I go. One of the first things I did when I got back to Ethiopia in August was call him on the verge of screaming and tears. I wouldn’t wish a phone call like that on anyone, and since, I’ve started practicing processing my thoughts before calling anyone. It works. I think.
There’s Aaron and Ryan, who don’t take turns checking in, though sometimes it feels that way because their check-in schedules seem so coordinated (maybe that’s just how it goes in Peace Corps).
There’s James, who cracked open a conversation last fall during dinner that still leaves me stunned because at the time, we knew each other, but we didn’t know each other. I didn’t realize relative strangers would be willing to bait a “How are you, really?” conversation, let alone sit to listen to the answer. That softens a calloused heart.
There are many, many others who have taken the time during the last two years to check in. I condensed the list and condensed it to G10 (while knowing there are plenty of others in my group who deserve a paragraph of love, too), but there were a handful of G8 extenders who opened their houses and phones, too. I wouldn’t have known any of this existed, though, had I not started following Mom’s advice to open up to others.
Dad said we can’t rely on friends, we can only rely on work. He meant the benefits a job provides – health care, a paycheck – he meant a tangible return, the way an accountant would view the world. He didn’t think friends would come to help when push comes to shove, the way Mom believed. They’re both a little right and a little wrong.
Sometimes I wonder if Mom would recognize me if she were the one picking up from the airport when home leave begins. I’m not arrogant enough to say I’m the person she wanted to see me become, but I’m comfortable enough in how I understand her to trust she’d be proud of who I’ve become.