Though I was 19 before I knew that I wasn’t, in fact, her firstborn–something she confided in the small kitchen of her new home (after she left our father’s), a confession which was meant to be a cautionary tale of fertility (her own at the same age, but alas 3 years too late for me)–it was too late. I had already assumed her burdens, spoken and mostly unspoken, embodied, and here was yet another—a heartache she carried alone for so long—her firstborn daughter, delivered at a Home for Unwed Mothers, less than a year before she married my father, pregnant with me.
“He wouldn’t let me talk about her,” she said. “I just wanted to know that she was as okay.”
Do all firstborn daughters & onlies and even sons carry the weight of their mother’s grief?
Which is not to say, there weren’t other inheritances.
The light of my mother’s consciousness.
Her dedication to study.
Her devotion to home.
Her innate gentleness and good nature.
Her capacity to see a whole person even in those who had harmed her/us–at times to a fault.
Her loneliness. Her isolation. Her martyrdom.
I wake to the sounds of turkey, like the ones clucking across the ceramic spice containers that sit in my kitchen window. (Maybe those are roosters not turkeys? I always thought they were turkeys.)
The Salt is my favorite because there is a crack running through it. My mother was dedicated to reparation (and salt.) Countless testimonies withstand of her willingness to put things back together. There is the statue of Mary. The teapot. The picture frame. Her sobriety. Her life.
She often dismissed my need for precision in the kitchen.”I don’t know, Kelly, just put some in,” she’d say, about the salt or the celery, the butter or the onion. (A stuffed turkey, her favorite, was the first thing I learned to prepare, each her Christmas for her birthday.)
Never able to reach perfection herself, and having almost drowned in the attempt, my mother taught me to rely on softer measures of knowing… taste, smell, the signs and the synchronicities.
My mother’s spice set is stained with age. The square edges are chipped. They remain empty, but they are filled with the comfort of her imperfection.
The sweetness of being with the same man for 32 years is that he thinks to leave this morning’s tea in the fine china that I bought for my mother at the London Design Centre off of Haymarket in 1984 during my semester abroad.
She kept it in her china cabinet all those years because after all, she was a coffee drinker; and perhaps I’d always meant it for me… in the future… when I’d be without her… welcoming a connection to my past and to her gentleness and to the light of consciousness between us.
There was yet another precious gift enfolded into the summer of my mother’s passing–the opportunity to meet the older sister I never had.
My mother gave Susan to adoption 39 years earlier in the months before she met my father. When I turned 19, she told me about this in an effort to protect me from the challenges of unintended pregnancy.
Though my mother was a private woman, she later confided that she often wondered about her daughter, but that she had always been silenced by her husband, a respected physician in the community.
Once I knew about my big sister, however, I was on the lookout. I looked extra close at every Susan I ever met, but I never found her. After my parents divorced, I felt free to press my mother for more information, but she dodged my questions.
Soon afterward, my younger sister was faced with an unplanned pregnancy herself, and like my mother, she married a physician. 6 months later we found ourselves crowding into the waiting room at the hospital. When complications ensued, my mother dashed out of the Maternity Wing and headed down the hospital corridors. Though my father and she barely spoke at the time, he insisted I follow her.
When I found her near the exit, she cried out that she knew something like this would happen, and that it was all her fault.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, shocked by this uncharacteristic display of emotion, and still reeling from my father’s show of concern.
“Today is the day Susan was born,” she said, “I’ve always felt like something bad happened to her too.”
My nephew was delivered later that evening–healthy–on the same day as his aunt, whom we had never met.
In the years following, I pressed my mother for details, using the bits I extracted to begin an internet search, eventually discovering the agency that had placed Susan. When it came to signing the final release form, however, my mother stalled–for years. I remained patient, until the summer of 2000.
In June of that year, at the age of 57, my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and given less than two months to live. I picked up the phone and called the adoptive agency.
To my surprise, I was put through to the director who happened to be “in the field”–just thirty minutes from where my mother was hospitalized. She made the startling offer to go to see my mother and have her sign the release form.
I could hardly breathe when I hung up. I quickly put in a call to another of my sisters who lived closest to the hospital. “Can you go see Mom right now,” I said, “Tell her that the director of the adoption agency is on her way! She’s not going to be happy with me, but she has to sign.”
I couldn’t let my mother face death without knowing about her daughter–good or bad.
A few weeks later, Susan came to meet my mother and my siblings. Alas I was in my final weeks of pregnancy at the time and living 300 miles away, so I missed the reunion. A family photo was taken (with me on the phone) so that all 9 of my mom’s children could be together with her.
Though Susan hadn’t ever looked for her birth mother, she felt compelled to come thank her for the life she had been given. Her mother had asked to join her, but Susan requested that she wait until another time and brought along her husband and children instead. The children spent the visit getting to know their cousins.
Two months later, Susan and her mother were on the road at 6:00 am to arrive in time for the private family ceremony at the graveyard.
The following year, just after the anniversary of my mother’s passing, I received this letter from the director of the adoptive agency,
Forgive me for taking so long to thank you for the lovely note and article about your mom. You have already celebrated your son Aidan’s first birthday.
How blessed you were to be at your mother’s bedside with Aidan when the Lord called her home.
I am glad that Susan and her adoptive mother met all the beautiful members of your family. You are truly an inspiration.
May your mother’s love and gentleness remain with you always.
Over the years, we lost touch with Susan. I imagine I scared her off when I said that I was thrilled to relinquish the role of “oldest sister” to her 8 younger siblings. Wherever she finds herself, she’ll turn 50 first, and for that, I owe her a debt of gratitude.
I think of her every year on our nephew’s birthday.
(Note: One of the most precious gifts from my mother’s passing was this letter written to me by my brother-in-law, who was also my mother’s bedside doctor–and who has since become my sister’s “ex.”
The letter came on the heels of a long-distance phone conversation that I had with my sister Robin about “alternative modalities” where I questioned whether we even believed that my mother’s survival was a possibility.
I share this here because it is such a beautiful testimony of the healing that takes place in the lives of those touched by loss and love.)
a letter from Dr. Kenneth Cramer
February, 18, 2001
Thought I would take a minute to share some things with you, from my heart. After Robin spoke with you the other day, she asked me several questions about “Why didn’t we…” for your mother this past summer. These questions made me ponder the whole situation, and I have some regrets, but my predominant memories are those of love, dedication, sacrifice, redemption, healing, and the list goes on. Let me explain a little:
love, dedication, sacrifice–as evidenced by everyone who put their lives on hold to love, care for, cherish and serve your mother during her final days
redemption–of a man who abused your mom during their marriage, and thus was estranged from the Salasin girls, until he stepped up to the plate and stayed by your mom’s side–when she needed him and wanted him! The smile on her face, the efforts she would make to see Dan, when he returned home after being gone for awhile. These images are etched in my mind in a powerful way.
healing–as your mom’s siblings realized that their silly indifferences with one another were nothing when put into proper perspective
Kelly, let me add to the list because some things were not as obvious, or as visible, but were no less powerful or effective in the midst of this crisis. You see, such a loving demonstration of commitment could not be mustered up instantaneously, nor sustained, without a strong foundation and a strong support system.
Even though much of your support was from afar, it was still so necessary for your younger sisters and brother. They looked to you for strength and stability.
And more importantly, it was you who helped establish a firm foundation amongst your siblings as your parents divorced; new families were created; and crisis after crisis occurred.
Believe me Kelly, I know… I’ve been a witness to it all since December 1982, and your impact on your family has been undeniable!
As I look back at the final weeks with your mother, I see you mother’s heart, which was once emptied/robbed, as one overflowing with love, which was given to her abundantly over the summer of 2000.
She died not along, not unloved, not broken, not bitter, not with unfinished business. I doubt it to be coincidence that your mom passed away, only after seeing you and baby Aidan, face to face.
Kel, I did want to let you know how touched I am by the notes you have written regarding my caring for your mother during her dying days…as a son-in-law first, and doctor far second. It was a privilege for me!
It’s amazing how close your mother was to my heart, because I was not aware of this prior to the summer. We certainly didn’t have long, heart felt conversations, nor obvious emotional/affectionate experiences, but her acceptance and love for me through the years (undeserved at times) was truly a blessing.
When she died, my grief was multifaceted:
I grieved my loss, and I grieved that my wife lost a mother–a mother that she never had a chance to fully enjoy, and a mom whom she would never get to restore a health relationship with.
I grieved the loss that you girls and little and big Dan had to suffer.
I grieved that your one remaining parent was so unaware or unwilling or ??? to be the dad he was and is called to be.
And I grieved certain aspects of your mom’s life… some of the disappointments, heartaches and tribulations that she unfortunately endured. This is why I still have tears in my eyes when I hear Stevie Nicks sing the Landslide song. This song speaks to me as I hear of a women afraid of changes, who built her life around your dad. Yet time made her bolder, her children got older, and she got older too. With this boldness, she said “Enough is enough,” and the life of your family was forever changed. The subsequent pain and consequences for your mom elicits this grief in my heart.
In the end, medicine had nothing to offer. Prayers for healing (be it His will) and for comfort and peace were plentiful. Holistic therapies were abundant! Up to 30+ capsules a day of herbs/vitamins/supplements, fresh veggies, juice, smoothies etc.
Most important however, was the full-fledged love and commitment that your mom received. This by far was the most therapeutic.
I now see your mom’s illness as not one to be healed but rather one to heal. It did that in so many ways! And it continues to do so!
I am thankfulthat Robin has you, thankful for your openness; thankful for your love and concern for us; and thankful for how you challenge me to be more open also.