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Reflections on Not Having A Mom for Half of My Life

A crazy little milestone happened recently that will never come around again. I have lived half my life without my mom. She died of metastatic lung cancer when I was nineteen years old. Now, I am rounding the corner to having gone through both my twenties and thirties without her. It goes without saying, but she’s missed out on a lot.

And now that I’m on the cusp of my forties, I’ve come to realize just how young she was when she died. I mean, I knew that fifty-two was too young to die, but now I have friends and family of my generation who are her age and/or older, and I don’t consider any of these people old, not by a long shot. I mean, I could’ve met my mother now and considered her a friend, an equal.

But I’m not throwing some pity party here. In fact, I’ve come to realize that her death, in a lot of ways, probably shaped my life for the better as it has forced me to reflect on what it has meant to have her as a mother. Sure, that might sound all sorts of fucked up to say for some. But, I’m not saying I actually am glad my mom died; I’m saying that I’m doing well with the cards I’ve been dealt. It’s useless to see it any other way. I’d like to think she’d agree wholeheartedly if she could read this.

There’s no doubt I love(d) my mom. She was incomparable. I could go on and on about all the great things she’s done and how she was a unique bird, but that’s not what I’m doing here. This writing is going to be about me coming to terms with a post-mom world.

I’ve seen a lot of people die. I’ve lost both parents. My wife lost both of her parents. I’ve lost a great friend. But I’ve also held a lot of strangers hands as they passed away. Working in ICU, ER, and hospice will grant these opportunities regularly. My mom was the first person I actually saw die. I stood at her bedside next to my dad and sister as she left this plane of existence, and there was no mistaking the moment. After all the sobbing and awfulness immediately following her death, I went home. And I picked up my guitar and wrote a song for her in one of those magic songwriting moments when the whole thing just tumbles out in one sitting.

It’s still one of the best songs I’ve ever written, and that song is arguably the best thing I’ve ever done artistically. I have recordings of it, but none will ever recreate or match when I performed it at her funeral. I’ve performed in front of a lot of people over the years, but I’ve never had an experience like that, of course. But what stands out to me about that time I sang and played was that I truly reached inward and pulled out the emotion that was there.

I wasn’t doing it for anyone else, not even her. I didn’t even feel nervous. I just waited my turn, walked up, and laid bare my soul in that moment of her funeral. I tucked my scribbled lyrics into her hands and she was buried with them. I barely remember anything before or after. I don’t even necessarily remember playing the song. But I remember the feeling of being up there. In a strange sense of the word, it was perfect.

That song is called “I Hope You Are Still Listening,” and the lyrics are as follows:

This won't change, but it changes everything
I feel like I left you, but I know you're the one who's gone
I miss you
We all miss you
I saw you leave right before my eyes
What finally pulled you toward the sky?
Of this pain, you are undeserving
I never felt it but I could see it in your eyes
It's so hard to let you go 
I am who I am all because of you
I hope you are still listening
I saw you leave right before my eyes
What finally pulled you toward the sky?
I love you as my mother 
I need you as my friend
I will forever hold you
This will not be the end
I'll tell my kids about you
If you watch them, you will find
I'll love them as you loved me
This is not our last goodbye

Not bad for a nineteen year-old kid who literally just lost his mom, right?

And what’s more amazing to me is the fact that, double the lifetime later, the lyrics still hold up. I’m a dad now. I have two glorious little children and I am giving them the love and care that I was raised with. Honestly, I’m doing better than my mom did for me. Don’t worry; she’d agree with that statement. No need to go into details; all of our parents fuck up, and my mom was perhaps too eager to point out her own faults.

I remember doing the calculation, mostly because I was curious. I’m turning forty soon, and so I knew the “Half-My-Life-Without-A-Mom-iversary” was coming up soon, and my math brain wanted an exact date. So, I visited one of the many websites that is willing to calculate years on the calendar for you, and voila! I got my date.

Now, I’m not openly stating that date for two reasons. First, simply, that would tie up enough information to calculate my birthday, which isn’t the wisest thing to post all over the internet. It’s not the end of the world, but still, best not to put that all over the place. Second, and more importantly, as soon as I got the exact date, I gave it a good old shrug of the shoulders, because the date doesn’t mean shit. It really doesn’t.

Grieving sucks. It just sucks. We like to compartmentalize it into stages for the sake of comfort, but really the stages of grief are just a way of saying, “What you’re going through is okay.” And while that sounds like a good plan, it’s not, really. Validation of self-destructive actions while grieving is just awful and disrespectful of the person lost, and validation comes in many forms. In America, validation of poor behavior in the name of grief typically comes in the form of “Let’s just not talk about it and see what happens.” Grief easily turns the corner to self-destruction if not checked by those who are still alive and love the person grieving. That includes self-love. Everyone is responsible.

And that’s why it sucks so goddamn much that Americans are so uncomfortable talking about death. Luckily, and strangely, and much to the chagrin of the easily horrified nearby, by sister and I share a great love for gallows humor. One of our favorite back and forth jokes (that I started, being the bastard little brother I am), is to comment on any social media post that mentions something emotional regarding the death of our mother (or father, for that matter). My favorite thing to do is to wait until a few friends of my sister have commented with the typical “Hugs” or “Thinking about you,” and then disrupt the entire thing with a resounding, “WAIT, MOM’S DEAD?!”

While this might sound to be a joke in poor taste (because it is), I find it to be one of the more important parts of actual grieving. You see, my mom had a sharp sense of humor and she would make people laugh left and right. When she died, I felt enormously alone and lost. I used her death and my grief to do a lot of shit I really shouldn’t have done, like fail out of college and establish a regular drinking habit, both of which she would never have wanted to see me suffer through.

If she was/is able to watch me, as implied by the lyrics of my song, then she would have been so sad and disappointed. However, I know she would’ve cackled at the “Wait, mom’s dead” joke, because she was unrestricted in her humor, and she wanted her kids to be happy, no matter what. It was beyond her. That’s what both she and dad told us over and over. “We don’t care if you kids turn out to be gas station attendants, just as long as you’re happy.”

And man, I wasn’t happy in my twenties. Not to say that I didn’t do a lot of great things and experience a lot of happiness, but I just missed the mark too often because I wasn’t focusing my aim. I was ignoring the shit I needed to deal with. I could easily file my actions into a stage of grief, feel justified, and continue to ignore it all. But I was mostly miserable.

But then, with the careful aid of a happy marriage to a truly wonderful woman and a lot of the foundational tools given to me by both of my parents, I set to work. I used my brain, heart, and soul to start pulling myself up. I took responsibility and no longer wallowed. In fact, I thrived. And really, most of this good work finally started happening in the last seven years after my wife became pregnant with our daughter.

In my early twenties, I’d shrug off marriage and parenthood, claiming that it wasn’t particularly essential. But honestly, I was shrugging it off because I didn’t think I’d be very good at either. My relationship with my wife went through a lot of ups and downs during our long dating phase. But we stuck with things, rolled with the punches, got back up when we were knocked flat, and truly enjoyed and worked at the love underlying everything in our relationship, both good and bad.

Going through all the tough conversations with her in order to bring our relationship to the strong point it now enjoys was essential to my perspective as a father and as a human being. It’s not the easy street that makes life enjoyable. It’s carving through all the tough parts to sculpt something worthwhile—something you can’t experience without work. And man, that’s definitely a large part of parenthood. If you’re expecting anything less than one of the hardest things you’ve ever been through, then you’re not thinking about the fact that you’re going to be raising human beings and giving a great part of yourself to them always.

It’s no mistake that I’m becoming a better person because I’m a dad. I give fatherhood the appropriate credit for my best shifts in perspective. If you’re doing it right, parenthood is a systemic dose of empathy and celebration of others. I mean, you get to help little humans get up on their own feet, both literally and figuratively. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Parenthood is an amazing and awe-inspiring opportunity and honor.

And reflecting on this is what makes it such an awkward shock that I haven’t had my mom around for half my life. But what’s amazing about this is that her lessons and life are still with me. They’ve come through in my parenting to this day. My mom hasn’t really died as a mother; that’s something that has definitely lived on in both her children. It would have been damned fine to have her meet her grandchildren, though. But as the song she requested to be played at her funeral goes, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

…but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”

It’s that second line that brings it home. Easily one of my favorite songs of all time, and it’s thanks to my mom’s (perhaps morbid to some) request. I remember not listening to the Rolling Stones much and avoiding the song entirely when she mentioned the request. But I vividly recall driving around alone the day after her death and putting that song on.

As soon as the choir started singing in the song’s opening, I wept. I ugly sobbed, somehow still controlling the car. Then I breathed. I even smiled. Then, by the fourth time the chorus rolled around I was belting the lyrics out right along with Mick Jagger. I was suddenly thankful to have had the mom I did, even though it was for such a short time. I lost that feeling somewhere in my twenties but I did get it back, and it has stayed with me. I’ll never let it go again.

Celebrating my mom is essential. Grieving the morbid anniversaries is not. I don’t feel particularly grief-stricken each year when the day of her death rolls around, as that day has nothing to do with her value as a person. I calculated the day that began these reflections, the “half my life without a mom” day, simply to satisfy a curiosity. That date rolled around and I told my wife about it. “Is there anything you need to do for it?” she asked. I shrugged, totally unsure. I knew that the day would’ve passed without any acknowledgment if I hadn’t done the calculations, so I just dove in as a father and a husband and tried my best to have a good day.

And it definitely turned out to be an amazing day. I took the lead when it came to initiating an epic squirt gun fight in the backyard. My wife took the lead when it came to taking our kids out to a park specifically so my daughter could try her hand again at riding a bike without training wheels.

She was putting her feet on the pedals that evening, but something wasn’t quite clicking. The bike was staying up and coasting, which was awesome. But as soon as those feet started pushing the pedals, she’d second guess herself and plant both feet back on the ground.

“Put your hand on her back and run alongside her,” suggested my wife.

I was more than happy to. And that was all it took. That one hand, that vote of confidence. A hand on the back that was doing nothing but saying, “Your dad is right here,” and she was off. Her face glowed with pride. She could barely be removed from her bike for the rest of the evening. SHE GOT IT. Six years old, and my daughter is off and riding a bike on two wheels. I’m a proud papa.

And that’s what the day became. Not another day of mourning for a mom lost, but a day to celebrate my daughter learning to ride a bike. That, and a reminder of how far I’ve come with my mom’s hand still on my back, even though she’s not around.

I hope you are still listening, Mom. You are missed. I tell my kids about you and I love them like you loved me.

I love you, too.

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My Son is From the Chicken Star

What is a chicken star? Ask my four-year-old son. Well, he was three when he spilled the beans about his place of origin, actually. It was a strange and magical moment that continues well into the present day.

Here’s what I know about preschoolers: They are imaginative in the most fluid way possible. Watching both of my kids play during their respective preschool ages has been nothing short of mythical. They can/could both bounce in, around, through, and out of any subject, character, situation, or story without missing a beat. The imagination just streams out of children that age almost too fast. They often lose track of their own storylines which forces them to improvise new ones. This, of course, doesn’t slow the action in any way whatsoever. But if you ask them about the game they were playing earlier in the day, the details get sketchy, but understandably so.

This is why my wife and I believe our son is from The Chicken Star. It’s a story he began telling one evening and he hasn’t changed a detail since that night, flowing along with the tale whenever asked about it, as well as at random intervals.

He was probably about three and a half at the time. It was winter, and we had just left a restaurant we frequent. I was carrying him to the car in one arm and it was nice and dark out. The winter always brings the loveliest view of the stars, and maybe someone commented on the particularly clear evening, maybe not, but one thing was for sure: My son noticed.

A little, chubby finger shot up toward the night sky and locked in on a bright star to the west. His face soared and brightened. The words rocketed out of his mouth.

“THAT’S MY CHICKEN STAR!”

Naturally, some questions followed, but we didn’t need to ask any because he suddenly went on a garrulous roll. Strapped into his car seat and kicking, smiling, and looking out the window, our son who typically shouts to be heard captivated us all with his origin story. Here are the basics:

He lived on the Chicken Star before he came to Earth to be born from his mama. His sister was there, too, but he let her go first when it was time to go and that is why she is his older sister. The Chicken Star is filled with chicken people who only speak in “bawks,” but he understands them, he can speak Bawk. He also provided some bawks from the backseat as form of proof.

On the Chicken Star he has a best friend named Baby Winky who still lives there and Baby Winky lives in an egg but can come out whenever he wants so he can play and dance. Baby Winky can still talk to him while he’s here on Earth, but no one else can hear him. He misses his Chicken Star, but it’s nice to see it and we will all go there some day as a family and he can introduce us all to his friends.

This doesn’t cover half of it. He added so much detail and world-building that he talked about it for the entire twenty-minute car ride home, the whole time we were getting ready for bed, and had to be stopped when it was time to say goodnight.

My wife and I thought it was hilarious and really quite cool. Storytelling is a beautiful art, no matter how silly. Seeing our son just dive headlong into a story simply after seeing a bright star in the sky was fun and charming. We figured that would be the end of it when we said goodnight, and we were happy our son felt happy about his space yarn.

But it kept marching on the next day. We kept hearing about the Chicken Star. We kept hearing about Baby Winky. The details remained consistent, which is unusual for made up preschool tales. He wanted to talk more about it, and we wanted to listen. The story raged on over playtime and dinner conversations. The world became richer and more in-depth, and he told the tale with a bright, sweet enthusiasm.

To say my son is a physical kid is a little bit of an understatement. He will dive into anything and give it a good shot at the very least, often times leading to minor injuries. He wants to do things often and he wants to be strong and tough and be good at sports. And he often wouldn’t stop for stories. He has always had a love for books and listening to tales, but outwardly, he’s typically a wild man who doesn’t focus long enough to engage in dramatic play. But a lot of that changed after that night.

He’s still physical and wild, but Baby Winky has stayed with us, as has the Chicken Star. He will bring it all up randomly, as well as with other shorter tales, jokes, and ideas he comes up with. It’s funny, because we know it’s a part of him that has always been there, we just thought it was less so until that Chicken Star story exploded out of his brain that night. Since then, since seeing our enthusiasm for listening to him, he has accelerated in the storytelling department. It’s wonderful to watch.

When he was a little less than two, we were a bit concerned that he wasn’t quite on schedule for talking. He communicated and could follow any direction given to him, but he wouldn’t really get on with the words. His sister, on the other hand, has always been a big time talker. She basically came out of the womb greeting everyone with a warm hello. She would help her little brother make the connections all the time and say what he needed to say. And he was more than happy to have the help.

Well, one day she got croup, which led to laryngitis. She couldn’t even really speak above a whisper. And on that same day, her little brother who barely could muster out one word at a time suddenly busted out with complete ideas, sentences, and questions. Silence struck down his representative, so he spoke up. It was hilarious. And we cheered him on. Ever since, he has had no trouble expressing his mind.

And up until the evening of the Chicken Star, he’d keep it simple with wants and needs for the most part. His sister was the one to take the charge with the imaginative storylines and dramatic lead. But then, after we all cheered him on because of how great his Chicken Star story was/is, he’s lost any reservations for making up any little thing he can, all in the name of fun. It’s to the point where he’s difficult to stop at times. I love it.

We will always remember this about our son. Both of our children, really, but especially our son. As we watch him grow up and face challenges, we will help by giving encouragement, enthusiasm and our listening ears. He can do anything he wants to put his mind to, really.

I mean, he made it across the galaxy to be here, after all.