Missing Ashes

It was 40 years after cancer killed my first mom, Karen, that I began to grieve her death.

I didn’t know the process had gotten underway. I thought I was only sad about the death of my second mom, Susan, who also died of cancer, right before severe COVID lockdowns got underway in 2020. And I suspected I was quietly mourning, as we all were, for the end of normal life before the epidemic.

I was ignorant. I still needed to learn that one loss is always connected to another — that time begins weaving the sorrow of our goodbyes when we are born, adding one to the other until, eventually, we too are gathered into the folds. And that our mistreatment of one pain distorts all the others, that a web of untended grief can and will arise to thwart our attempts at living if we choose to run from death.

When I recall my stepfather calling to tell me my second mom had passed, I can’t help but think of the shape and coldness of my phone. It was a stunning mismatch between the mundanity of the device and the weight of the information passing through it. It reminded me of another time I heard news through a metal brick that stopped my breathing: In 2002, my third mom, my dad’s third wife, rang me in New Orleans to tell me my brother Tim had been shot to death. We still don’t know who did it or why. I don’t know.

This particular sadness is tempting, like the call for swimming that arises from the cool surface of a lake on a hot summer night. I always want to dive into it, hopeful I might find some new fact or detail or insight that reveals some kind of truth and puts me at peace, but this story cannot be about the sordid details of my brother’s unsolved murder. I am here to learn: one loss is bound to another, and not just my losses — a city’s, state’s, nation’s, and world’s sufferings belong to me, just as mine belongs to them.

Life chose to teach me about grief when I was more isolated than ever, a moment when I was living alone in a Brooklyn apartment with six plants as my companions, when a disease seemed to be killing the city and nation, when people marched on the street in another attempt to kill off the racism that courses through American life. It was this moment when life said: There are people in our lives telling us — out of love, out of fear, out of hope — who we can grieve, what we can grieve, how much we can grieve. In America, we sacrifice our sorrow on the altar of shiny success, turning what might have been ephemeral grief into a hardened suffering that infuses daily life like rebar through concrete.

Did I want to be beholden to this American way of grieving, or, really, this stunning lack of grieving? Did I agree to this collective rejection of loss?

My second mom, Susan, married my dad, Thomas, a year after First Mom Karen died. A few months after that, Susan adopted me, along with my two brothers and sister. She was married once before. Not to her high school sweetheart, as Karen was to my dad, but to an eye doctor. I have no clear idea exactly when or how Susan and my dad came together, except that they worked at the same company. I also knew she could not biologically have children, and she desperately wanted them. And here she had a widower, four kids in tow, one of them not even four years old and already motherless. I can only guess my dad’s perspective now, given he also died of cancer in 2015, but I imagine he saw a woman who could take care of his children while he continued to work, work, and work to pay for our upbringing, for our many comforts, for huge homes, for a lifestyle that was galaxies distant from the one he endured as a boy growing up in a small apartment in Chicago with an irritable father whose own father died before he was even a teenager.

Did they love each other? I’m not sure, especially since they would divorce eight years later, bringing yet another form of death to my family. But I am certain each had something the other wanted. Dad got a wife and mother for his kids. My second mom got sons, a daughter, and a husband. Perhaps that is love. If it was, it wasn’t really the problem. At least I didn’t think it was, some 40 years later as my grief for Second Mom Susan’s death led me toward questions about First Mom Karen’s.

It was the speed at which they went about things. They raced through a family’s terrible loss, perhaps understandably succumbing to the enticing notion that grief can be defeated by ignoring it, by inundating it with new life, and they pulled four children along with them. When I spoke to my aunt — who lived with my family for a year when my first mom asked for her help — she told me my dad didn’t even want to hold a funeral for Karen. It wasn’t until relatives’ questions piled up that he asked my aunt to organize something. She put together a mass at a local church. My brother remembers knocking over the guitar of the musician who played at the gathering.

A mass.

I had gone to a mass for Susan, too. It wasn’t my belief system, but I was welcomed and taken care of, and it helped my stepdad and my second mom’s friends. We also had a funeral. I got to put Susan’s ashes into a tiny locker, one of many stacked atop each other in a Catholic cemetery outside Tampa, Florida. It helped, though it wasn’t a place I imagined being when Susan finally died; if it was just me laying to her rest, it would have been a lighter ritual without God, something closer to how we lived as a family of two people that survived the divorce between her and my dad that killed the structure of my family for a second time; it would have been a trip to a beach in California, a toss of ashes into the waves, a glass of wine, a walk, a goodbye and, when I was ready, a getting on with it.

But at least I got something when she died, as I did with my brother and dad. Those gifts of shared grieving cast a burning light on the lack of them when it came to the death of my first mom. Decades later, I wanted the same closure, or semi-closure, for her. I knew where to start: her grave. When I asked my aunt where she was buried, she said she was cremated. So where are the ashes? I asked.

I don’t know, she said. Your father never told me. Why? I asked. I don’t know, she said.

I asked my brother: Where are our mom’s ashes?

I don’t know, he said.

I asked my third mom.

I don’t know.

I asked my sister. I don’t know. I asked my uncle. I don’t know.

Out of what I can only assume was my dad’s grief, fear, and love, he seemed to want to kill our family’s sadness before it could grow and live out its normal span. Maybe he felt too much pressure to care for his children, was worried that all would be lost in a quagmire of mourning and he’d end up failing to be the provider of material things he seemed to value being above all else. Maybe he really thought his kids would just be happy and excited to get a “New Mom,” wouldn’t have to worry about being alone or unloved or untended, even for a moment. Maybe he thought he could protect us from loss, from anything unhappy.

Maybe he was just being American, pretending like the past doesn’t exist, rejecting all those spoilsports who want to weep about unfairness and dead things and yesterdays, rather than appreciate red-brick homes and sunny tomorrows and vacations and clothes and cars and TVs and microwaves and educations and careers and football and restaurants and everything else in the win-at-all-costs United States of America, a place that happily eats the planet so its stretch of dirt can try to become a version of Heaven on Earth — because surely, surely this time around, surely with this cultural experiment, surely we humans wearing red, white, and blue would be the ones to finally figure out how to escape suffering once and for all.

For a long time, I had dismissed my right to even ponder my first mom’s death. I was so young, I often whispered to myself, I’m pretty sure I didn’t really suffer. My siblings had it far worse, I would say. They’re the ones with the right to grieve. They’re the ones we should worry about. They were old enough to really feel it, to remember it.

That changed with Susan’s death. I’m not sure why. I really don’t know. But I had this feeling: My second mom wasn’t moving on. She was sticking around, close to me. But I had been sad, I reasoned. I had put her box of ashes in the tiny locker at the cemetery. Surely this grief should be fading?

I shared some of this with a woman I was seeing, an incredible listener. She suggested I try speaking to a shaman. I wasn’t for or against that particular set of beliefs, so I figured I might as well try.

Conversations with this healer led me to have conversations — or imagined conversations, though they seem the same to me now — with my recently passed second mom. Here’s how I spoke with the dead: I sat at my kitchen table from Ikea, lit a candle I got at the Key Foods down the block, looked at family pictures on my iPhone, and wrote down my intentions for the ritual on a piece of paper I burned in my stainless steel sink. I closed my eyes and asked my second mom to join me.

To my surprise, she heard me. At first, I demanded she leave me be, told her to let me go about my life, firmly asked her to butt out. I was defensive. I don’t know why. That didn’t work, and when I explained what I did, the shaman suggested I try something different: ask her what she wanted of me.

When I did, I heard her say: I want you to be safe. That meant she felt like I still wasn’t. That meant I was still behaving, thinking in a way that made her feel she still needed to protect me, protect that baby boy who lost his mother so many years ago. Even in death, she still worried I would be alone, unprotected, unloved, abandoned, wounded by forces outside my control. She surrounded me, fending off any threat, as her steadfast and reliable love always had.

But life cannot be lived inside a barrier — wearing armor stops knives and kisses alike. It is a type of stasis. Yet to emerge from this particular cocoon of care my second mom had woven around me, to convince her I would be just fine, I somehow understood I needed to do what I never had done: mourn the death of my first mom.

I had no ashes. No grave. But I had the intent to put myself at peace so my second mom could be at peace, too. So just as I spoke to Susan, I spoke to Karen. From a seat at my kitchen table in Brooklyn, I invited her in. Greeted her. Talked with her as the child I was and the man I am. Of the words she said without speaking, what stood out were these: I never abandoned you. I was sick. The sickness took me away from you. I loved you. I love you.

It was enough. The communication freed me of outlooks I never knew I had. I finally understood that this unprocessed grief — locked in by well-intentioned love from parents, myself, and others who wanted to protect me from inexplicable loss — had been yanking me around, turning me into a wounded, fearful child trying to acquire attention and affection through sympathy. It had blocked me from accepting the invisible, structural losses that arose from my parents’ divorce. It kept me from understanding that the reason my dad could not speak about this divorce was because it would mean speaking about everything behind it — about the death of his high school sweetheart, about decisions he made in response to that trauma, about what I used to call his flaws but now understand to be his beautiful humanness.

In claiming this grief, I claimed my life. All of my stories seemed connected in ways they never were. A clean line ran from my first family with my birth mother that was sundered by her death, my second family of my second mom and me that arose from a divorce, my third family, and all the other families to come.

I swore I would never let anything or anyone — including my own fear and fatigue and hope — get in the way of my grief again. Sadness, I learned, is an art and practice that joy requires. It is oxygen to carbon dioxide, sunlight to night. We must stop rejecting this truth, intentionally forgetting it through the pathological American altar of blind cheer. Until we remember, we will continue stumbling forward, a broken child looking for love as the cries of haunting sorrow grow louder.

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