Nobody tells you how it really feels to lose your mother. Books have been written, movies made, songs written, but nobody can ever accurately describe how it will feel, how your life will change. You can read the books. You can hum the songs. Or even create your own poems. Yet you, too, cannot tell anybody how you feel.
The clever psychiatrists tell you about those seven (or is it six, maybe five?) steps of dealing with grief. What they don’t tell you is that life is not a series of neat little steps. They cannot predict that you will miss steps two and three, then twist an ankle when you get to five, and have to recalculate, make your way back to the beginning. They can write as many manuals as they can, give you as many prescriptions to stem the pain, but nobody can tell you how it will all end. Nobody can describe how your insides will feel like they are being ripped out of you, slowly, roughly, ripped, ripped, ripped till you feel you cannot go on. You can’t get out of bed. You just want to lie down.
The philosophical will tell you that time heals all wounds. What they won’t tell you is that the dry skin you see at the top hides a wound so deep nobody has ever dared to look too closely at it. That is because it is so deep, eating away at your heart, your soul, head sometimes, night and day. They cannot say how to cure that deep wound, because that would be admitting the truth – nobody knows how much time is needed to truly heal. Is it is a year? It certainly cannot be three years. I recently hit three years. Maybe five? Or is it 24? They will even tell you to “move on”, as though putting one foot in front of the other is as easy as all that after your mother dies. They will not tell you that it is okay to not want to move, on, up, sideways. Anywhere.
All I know is that this day, this third anniversary, feels exactly as painful as it did on 23 January 2012. Exactly the same. I am reliving the early morning call (she has been taken to hospital). She is not opening her eyes. She is gone. I clutch my stomach. Drop the phone. Scream. Howl. Nobody will hear me today. I am on my own. I will do this alone. That will be the only difference.
The ignorantly insensitive tell you, “Ah, she lived a full life. She was 76? Ah, she had eaten many Christmases.” They tell you to celebrate her life. But what does that all mean? Because she was 76, she was now irrelevant, excess? At what age was I supposed to stop needing her? What age would that have been? 67? 59? There is no script for the celebration you are meant to have. Her favourite hymns don’t help. Wearing her dress every Sunday won’t make the pain go away. Repeating her most important words does not make me smile. What nobody tells you is that it does not matter at what age your mother dies. She will always be your mother. You will always need her. It does not matter that she was on life support. Or that she was a dancer. You just want her because. And you do not want to celebrate her long life, because you still need her. You want her here. Today. To hold you like you are three days old, breast-feed you and tell you she will always be there. Nobody tells you that for many years afterwards, there will be days when, for no reason, you will curl up in a foetal position, weep, throw up, and weep some more, like your mother’s baby that you are.
Hollywood makes it look glamorous, admirable even. The choreographed sequences of “dealing with grief”, the triumphant heroine surviving against all odds, winter turning into spring and then summer. Nobody makes a movie about the permanent winter that stays in your soul. No movie prepares you for the times you feel you are going crazy. Mad. Nobody tells you that you will wake up in the middle of the night and dial her number because you forgot to remind her to take her medication. The days when you go shopping for her size 46DD bra, and buy a whole half a dozen of them, completely oblivious to the fact that she is not here to wear them. Then, as you remember, hours later, how you will howl like some animal you cannot name. Get up. Find scissors. Chop them all up and chuck them in the garbage. Or the time you travel back to London, a whole three years later, get on a train in that sleet and hail, find that shop with dresses she liked and buy two of them. Then you get back to your hotel room, pleased with yourself. Then you reach for your phone to tell her…
The author’s parents in an undated photograph
Nobody tells you about the way other passengers will request to be moved away from you on that plane because again you bought her favourite perfume at duty free. Then, as you fastened your seatbelt, you remembered and howled like that nameless animal. And Mrs-what’s-her-name asks to be moved away from your craziness because she does not know how long it will last on this 11-hour flight. Or when you go back to home town, you swear you saw her on the street, and you will walk behind her, run and overtake her, smile widely at the stranger in front of you. And she clutches her bag in fright, running away from crazy you. You may even go sit on her grave for hours, hoping she will come out and start walking. Isn’t that what her faith was about – the belief in miracles? You want some of that. Nobody tells you the sun will set. She will not come out. The gravediggers will talk about you and your craziness, laughing as they tell you to hurry up and get out of the cemetery. The next day you will come back again. And the following week. You will not tell your father or your children that you were there to visit your mother because you are too scared they will take you to the “healer”.
The religious will tell you to look to the one in the sky. That she knows what is best. You will believe this, and because your mother was a believer, too, you will go to her chosen place of organised religion. Faithfully. You will raise your voice. You will weep more. You will even acquire all the tools of religion, the hymnals, the reference book(s), the uniforms, participate in the rituals. Yet, you will slowly realise you are going in there to look for your mum. That all you keep searching for is her face among those women in red blouses. You want to see her on the programme, leading, preaching. Alive! But because she is not here, you realise that you blame the one in the sky; you question their wisdom, their project. You want to choke her, kick her all over the place, until she tells you why she took your mother, what the grand plan is, and when she will bring her back. Each time friends and family send you verses, chapters, songs, which they think are helpful, you cannot tell them that you really do not want those, because your mother was the one good at reading, interpreting, and making sense of them for you. You grin and bear the preachy types because you have no words to describe for them how this grief feels, how none of what they say is helping, because they are not you, and she was not their mother. You want to tell them, ‘Go bury your mum first, and then come open that book with authority!” But you don’t. You smile. You mutter encouraging assent to their messages and supplications. Then you realise that keeping that thing called faith is more difficult than anybody told you. And at that moment you do not want any evidence of things not seen. You just want your mother, whom you can touch, and feel.
You can lose as many relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues, or even lovers, dozens of them, before you lose your mother. You think you have become a veteran of funerals, of grief, that you have mastered those eight steps in the manual. You even develop new routines, a clutch of coping mechanisms. You see others lose their mothers, you empathise. You even think you have learnt a lot, just by looking. But nobody ever, ever prepares you for the real deal. Nobody tells you that the death of your mother will slice through your inner core much more than when you lost that brother, that sister, or that love of your life. Nobody can tell you, because she was not all those others. What can prepare you for the day you want to cook rice with peanut butter and you do not know how much water to use, how much peanut butter to make it in that special Mberengwa-Ndebele-MaSibanda way only she knew how? Her younger sister, even if she had only the one like mine, will suggest too much salt. Nobody can organise Christmas lunch the way your mother did. When you try it, the chicken comes out all wrong. The bread falls apart when you cut it. The jollity looks forced and contrived. Nobody tells you that after you bury your mum, you will go back to bed at noon on Christmas day because you do not know how to recreate the joy and infuse her spirit into it.
To my friend Tawanda Mutasah, you asked me these questions on that lovely summer evening in downtown Manhattan last year: “How do you cope? How long will this pain last? How do you hold all this trauma inside each day, and continue to walk around, work as if your mother is still here?” This, Tawanda, is my longwinded way of saying, sorry, honey, I do not know. I do not know because I do not know. I am not you. Your mother was not my mother. You are my friend. I love you deeply. I can tell you many things about anything else that we share. But today, three years later, I can say with confidence that nobody can ever tell you, because they do not know. Nobody tell you accurately what losing your mother feels like and how should you deal with it because the pain, the pain, is just too deep, too wide and too overwhelming to even begin to describe. They will never tell you because they do not understand. Only you do.