The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Grief comes in strange packages.

February 27th, 2008.

Today, I wept.

A package came for me yesterday. The mailman left a note that since I wasn’t here, it would be waiting for me at the Post Office. Today, I went to claim that package.

The package contained the cremated remains of my birth-mother, who died on Feb. 11, after 62 years of life. I left the house with no more sense than that I was on another of my many errands in a day. I arrived at the Post Office, and got out of my car with the early warning signs of foreboding beginning to slosh around in the back of my head. The day suddenly had a feel to it. I opened the door to the Post Office, and was faced with the realization that this was a bigger deal to me than I thought. I stepped up to the counter and addressed the man there knowing what I was asking for, because it was expected, and because the slip said the package came from a crematorium. But then again – I didn’t really know. He handed me the package, and after the paperwork was thoroughly signed, initialed, notarized, and Lord knows what else on his side of the counter, he expressed his sorrow for my loss. My loss of what? He knew nothing about me, had no idea whether this was even a loss for me, or a gain. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know, even as I write these words.

I drove home, went to my bedroom, and after heaving some folded laundry from the bedroom chair onto the bed, I settled in to inspect the package. I pulled out my pocket knife, and opened the package carefully, and deliberately. Inside, I found some paperwork taped to the box’s lid, some packing peanuts, and an inner box, square, black, and plastic. It was conspicuously labeled as a TEMPORARY storage for human remains. I pored over the paperwork, all of it writing that verified that all had been done nice and legal-like. No one seemed to want to be blamed if something, somewhere, went wrong. It startled me to note that she was 62 at the time of her death. I was born in 1962. This connection was, I knew immediately, utterly meaningless. Except, somehow…in the midst of my desperate search for meaning, it did mean something. What, exactly, it meant still escapes me, and probably always will. But I doubt that what it meant had anything to do with numbers. I commented inwardly about the packing peanuts. It seemed somehow profane to me to involve Styrofoam even in the packing of what was left of a human being. It came to my mind that despite our shared red hair and fair skin, there was rumour of a decent helping of Apache Indian in our blood. I mused for a moment on whether they had a ceremony for cleansing the package of the profanity of Styrofoam.

I opened the black plastic container, and there, in a heavy-duty plastic bag, was all that was left of my mother. I slid the bag into my hand, and somberly felt the weight of it. I turned the package over and over, studying the bits and pieces within, looking for something that would be recognizably human, looking for something to grieve over. The morbidity of my interest struck me, and yet continued. In the back of my head, the mantra repeated over and over, “This was my mother”. I thought about the last time I saw her.

I don’t actually remember that time consciously. I was an infant. My father, an Air Force Radar technician, was critically injured in a maintenance accident at the base in Ohio. The details are fuzzy, but apparently my mother, only 17 at the time, took me to her parents in Denver, and left me there, while my dad lay in a coma in a hospital in Columbus, Ohio. She didn’t go back to Ohio. In fact, no one would hear from her again in our family for another 6 years, and then only briefly. She just disappeared. My father awoke from a coma 3 months later to learn that his wife and son were gone, and performed a frantic search until he learned where I was, informed by a phone call from my grandparents. They told him that they had word my mother was returning to get me, and that based on their information, they judged that he would make a better father than she a mother. I thanked him for coming to my rescue by throwing up on his uniform on the way back east from Colorado. Planes weren’t apparently my bag.

We went to live with his grandparents. Great-Grandma and Grandpa Keller. You should know it came as a surprise to me to learn, around the time I was eight or nine years old, that the “great” didn’t mean what I thought it meant. I had always thought it meant “better than average”. They were always there for me. My dad met and married again, and our life continued. There couldn’t be a starker contrast between mothers. I entered the years that memory serves me only knowing one mother, not even fully understanding exactly what “step-mother” meant. Nor did I care. The woman I cannot bring myself to trivialize by calling “stepmother” took a child that was unknowingly grief-stricken, hyper, boyish in the extreme sense of the word – took that wild child and molded him into someone that people would call kind, that children would call father, that another woman could proudly call husband, and that she could call “son”. And she did it without killing the wildness that made that boy’s life joyous. It is she that I love when I say I love my mother.

And yet I sat in a chair in my bedroom, holding the cremated remains of my birth-mother, thinking to myself, “This is my mother”. And I wept. As I slid that bag with the scorched numbered tag tied to it that entered the flames with her deceased body, I pulled the plastic to me, and wept. I wept bitterly for maybe a minute. And then it was done. She had given me life, and one year of her time. I had within me one minute of grief, searing, gut-wrenching anguish. And then it was gone. I found myself wondering if that was enough, if perhaps I was being disrespectful by not weeping longer. My mind was held in an odd juxtaposition of inspecting itself in grief. I could not understand the tears, but even less so their power, compared against their brevity. This woman had left me as an infant. I had entered adulthood with nothing more than a single photo of her, and that on a slide that I had to hold to the light to view. My grandmother had written a letter, sent it to my parents, when I was in second grade, explaining a bit of family history, and some details I could use to search for her in my adulthood. But by mutual agreement, they had all decided not to give it to me until I was of age. I spent years, on and off, searching for her, and then, out of the blue one day I found a sign of her on the Internet, a sign which, if one is willing to think that way, could only be called an intentional sign left by someone who wanted to be found by only one person, who would be coming along armed with unique knowledge. I knew this about her; she had red hair, yet behind her Scottish heritage was woven Native American blood as well. She signed a comment on someone’s web page with the tag-name “redarrow”. I found that comment, and it blossomed into an email relationship which continued until her death.

In this final year of her life, I had made promises to come see her, and to help her with a new computer to make it easier for her to communicate with the outside world. I did neither. In the beginning, she failed me. In the end, I failed her. I don’t care that some would argue I owed her nothing, that my sense of failure is misplaced. My grief is not for her, but for myself. I weep for the things I didn’t do, for the relationship I didn’t have, for the mysteries of my heritage that will continue to haunt me if I let them. I weep for the lake that, by previous arrangement, will at the right time receive her ashes. I weep because I love and call another woman “Mom”. And I understand, through my grief, the pain I feel around me.

In our home, only one of the 6 children currently living with us are related to us by blood. Two are adopted, the others are foster children. There have been others, as well. I hear their stories, yet I hear them express sadness for the loss of their family, and I wonder why they would ever want to go back. Some don’t go back, but it is almost never their choice. It has made little sense to me why a child would want to go back to the nightmares their birth-families often represent, until this very afternoon. But as I held the box containing all that was left of a woman who utterly failed me as a mother, my tears suggest to me that somehow, I must understand now.

 

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3 Responses to “Grief comes in strange packages.”

  1. I read this and found myself thinking of my father’s death. Ours was a complex, in many ways painful relationship, and yet a part of me always hoped that someday it would be simple between us–that I could love him and trust him not to turn that love against me. I didn’t cry for a year after he died–and then one day I saw a man walking across the Fred Meyer parking lot, and for just a second I thought, “There’s Dad,” and then I started to cry, not for the loss of who he was–our relationship was too complex and contradictory for that–but for the loss of the possibility that it would ever be simple and “right” between us. When he died, all hope of mending our shattered relationship died, too. And I mourned that.

  2. Jody Durham says:

    Oh my God, Glenn…. our stories have so many parallels. As always, beautifully done. Holding back tears (I’m at work for goodness sake)… and holding back so many emotions this has stirred in me. My condolences for your losses… both that of your mother and more recently, your brother… your mention of which brought me to this particular reading today. You’re an amazing man, Glenn. And I thank you for being open enough to share a bit of yourself with us such a moving way. Your friend and “Brother of the ‘Phin” ~ Jody

  3. Betty Sue Keller says:

    Enjoyed and glad you took the time to write and the time to send.

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