Mom died in July 1960 at the age of 42 when I was 9 years old. My father remarried a year later. They said that it was a heart attack. Later in life, my oldest brother, Mike, and I would speculate for hours on end over glasses of wine about whether she had taken her own life. 

I think that she died of a broken heart. All I know was that I woke one morning to an eerily quiet house. I stayed in my bedroom feigning sleep very late that morning because I was so afraid. The coroner removed Mom’s body as I cringed in my bedroom. I didn’t see or hear any of this.

When I finally emerged, my two older brothers were nowhere to be found, and Dad wanted to talk to me. He told me he found Mom dead in her bed. The day before had been terrifying. My Mom was an alcoholic, and she was mean. I tried to disappear somewhere where I could hold my disappointment and fear. Things had been going so well since we had moved into this house. It had been months since Mom had taken a drink, but now she was at it again. 

And now she was dead. How was this possible? How does a man find his wife dead in her bed?

We buried Mom in a service in the church she despised and hadn’t attended any time in my life. My maternal grandmother came to bury her only child, and with one exception, that was the last I saw of her for years. 

I don’t know how he managed it, but my father sent me to Girl Scouts a couple of weeks after my mother’s death. I don’t remember if this camp experience was planned previous to Mom’s death, but I think it was something Dad thought should be done. He probably didn’t know what else to do with me. Perhaps he wanted me out of the way while he attended to adult things following her funeral. If he knew anything about me, he would know this camp experience would overwhelm me. I had never been away from home before.

The camp was somewhere in the mountains. I loved the mountains with everything in me, but I was numb with grief and misery for the entire week. Extremely shy and introverted, I was afraid of everything, and the exertion required to hike and interact with strangers was almost more than I could bear. 

We were Coloradans. We were Girl Scouts. We were supposed to hike, right? I was an active child, but every step of that hike on that day was so wearying I feared I would pass out on the trail. My heart pounded and I could not catch my breath. My chest felt like boulders were piled on it. The day was hot and sweat was running down my back.

God, could this just be over with?

I think other girls were having fun, but every activity was exhausting. I wet the bed and my sleeping bag stunk of piss. I was unable to care for my long, thick hair, and when I returned to Greeley, it was so matted, it had to be cut off. My long, curly hair had been integral to my identity.

Great. Now I can go back to school looking like a hay mower had passed over my head.

My Dad, my brothers, and I limped along in silent sorrow while a series of housekeepers came and went. Years later, when I read Sybil, the later discredited book about multiple personality disorders, the author said that the young girl went crazy because she was forced to kiss her dead mother. I was, too, but it did not drive me mad. It was distasteful, but not as distasteful as never speaking my mother’s name again. 

Is this how we deal with death? Do we pretend like Mom never existed?

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