Mom is not in Heaven-an excerpt from Expose Yourself about secular grief and the afterlife.

I was thirty-four when I lost my mom. Those are hard words to write even now, over five years later. The truth is, I feel cheated. I feel cheated out of time I feel I should have had with her, and also the time my son should’ve had with her. My mom was almost forty when she had me, so generally speaking she was older than most moms of kids my age. The fact that I was likely going to have less time with her than most people doesn’t make it any easier. I’m still angry. I am aware that my anger is largely unjustified, but it’s still there. My mother went in for what was supposed to be a fairly straightforward surgery. After a week in medically induced unconsciousness, she never recovered. There is no one to be angry at, it just happened.

I held the hand of the priest along with my siblings as he performed the last rites over our mother. Despite my unbelief in God or an afterlife, I was still able to draw some comfort from this ritual. Partly because I knew that this was what my mom wanted, but also because I knew that my family was comforted by it. After the priest left, only my youngest brother and I stayed. I had wrongly assumed that once someone was removed from life support that it would be over fairly quickly. Twelve hours and several pots of thick coffee later, the heart monitor started to speed up, an indication that her heart was going to stop. I held on to one hand, while my brother had the other, until I started to see the heart rate normalize. My brother had to tell me that it was no longer registering our mother’s heartbeat, but because I was holding on so tight, it was actually registering my own heartbeat. She was gone. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to be gone with her.

My mother was my biggest supporter, my closest confidant, and easily my best friend. When I told her to stop chasing my son around her house with a bottle of holy water in a futile attempt at baptizing him, she was disappointed, but respectful. I finally succeeded by asking her if she really thought God would send him to hell because I chose to not put some stale water on him. She relented, and said, “Well, I guess not.” Of all the people I confessed my non-belief to, she was the kindest. She said she knew that the bible stories were fiction, but she still wanted to believe in God. She never told me I would go to hell or not get to heaven. She said I was a good person, and that was all that mattered. Her indoctrination into religion was strong, but not strong enough to override her sense of love and empathy.

My mom held on to the belief that she would see her parents in heaven. Just before she lost consciousness for the last time, I asked her one last favor. I asked her to fight, she nodded her head and closed her eyes. That was our final communication. I don’t know how much of her own will had to do with her final passing, but part of me still wonders if she let go thinking that her mom and dad were waiting for her. That she felt like she could go and see me and my brothers and sisters in an afterlife. Would she, if she could have, fought harder to stay if she thought it was the real end? This thought haunts me.

For about a week, I walked around in a dazed stupor. I could barely eat, I got down to the weight I was in eighth grade. The grief was unrelenting. Family and friends talked about her being in a better place and not in pain anymore. A harpist in real life, they laughed about her getting her heavenly harp with her wings. For a time, I tried to believe these ideas, but ultimately, I was unsuccessful. I simply couldn’t do it and please understand that I was in so much pain I really did try. I did not, however, let anyone know that I didn’t share their visions of heaven. I was almost jealous of the relief they felt in that belief, but I thought it would be cruel to tell them what I really thought.

Over the next few weeks, as the fog of grief began to fade slightly, I examined my thoughts about mortality. While my initial reaction was to want to go with her, I started to think about what she would’ve wanted for me. It didn’t take very long before I was able to realize she would’ve wanted me to live my life. I was in the process of writing my first book, and because she was one of my biggest cheerleaders, I knew I would have to finish it. She loved my son and would’ve wanted him to thrive. My husband loved my mother deeply and also understood that the best way to honor her would be to live the best lives we could. I had come to a crossroads at that point. I could crawl under my bed and give in to my almost debilitating grief, or I could live on. I chose to live on.

The hole she had left in my life was still there, however, and without the idea of an afterlife, I had to figure out how to come to grips with that. At first, there was her stuff. Her piano, her sunhat, jewelry, and the other physical things she left behind. Because my mother was oddly frugal, she would collect the free items from her hospital stays; shampoo, soap, and those awful little socks with the rubber on the bottom. I felt unable to let them go. Over the years, she had liked to send care packages in the mail with various things she thought we might like. On one occasion, she had accidentally included denture cleaning tablets in one of the boxes. After she died, I found them, laughed, but kept them. I couldn’t let go of the idea that to throw those things away, would be to lose her all over again.

While I grew accustomed to the sadness I felt every day, I finally got to a point where I could talk or think about her without bursting into tears. I’ve heard people say that grief gets easier. They’re fucking wrong. It does not. You build a kind of tolerance to it. It still hurts, you are just able to control the outward reactions to it. For me it has not diminished. The thought of her just not existing anymore was unbearable. Then one day it changed. Not the pain, the way I thought about her.

My husband and son were talking about my mom and laughing at one of the numerous corny jokes she used to tell. A weird thing happened. It was like she was still there. I had a sense of her in the room. I know obviously that she wasn’t, but something made me feel like she could’ve been. I let it go at the time, but that feeling would come again.

The next time I would sense my mom, I was in the dressing room of a department store. I had just gotten my boobs done and was trying on dresses. I have a very small waist and ample hips, and with my newly enhanced breasts I had gotten stuck in a dress I was trying on. I was unable to get it over my hips or my boobs. I was trapped. I started to laugh because, frankly, I didn’t know what to do. Then I caught sight of my ass in the mirror and realized that it was not my ass at all. It was Mom’s ass. She had a figure much like my own, with a tiny waist and wide hips that had facilitated myself and five siblings. I knew then that she was still there. At least the part of her that was in me. If I wanted to see my mom, all I had to do was look at my own butt. I laughed out loud when I understood how hilarious she would have thought this whole debacle was. Me, stuck in an expensive dress, and finding comfort in the big butt she gave me. I found my mom.

After that, I saw her everywhere. My eyes, my nose, the silly jokes we remembered. I saw her in my son, my brothers, and my sister’s ass. The healing started then, the real healing. I was able to dump the awful bottles of hospital shampoo, and the itchy socks. I admit that I held on to the denture tablets if only because it was so funny, and because she loved to torture me by removing her teeth at the worst possible times. I realized that she had left so much of herself behind that even if I couldn’t see or talk to her anymore, she was still there if I wanted to see her. I didn’t need to think of her as an angel in heaven. She was still here on earth.

I am very fortunate that my mom was a musician who had recorded several albums, one of which contains her voice. At times when I need her the most, I can hear her. I can also share her with other people. Even in death, she is still bringing joy to people she hasn’t even met. While the date of her death is ingrained in my mind, I choose to celebrate her birthday. I try to do something special in her honor to remember her and help to keep her memory alive, even if her body is not.

Life is not always flowers and sausages. Life sucks sometimes, but it’s the only one we’ve got. When we are faced with shitty situations like the death of a loved one, the things we don’t know about our world can be hard to face. That is why the idea of an afterlife exists at all. It exists because death is scary and loss hurts, and to not know what happens when we die is hard to deal with. So as humans, we made up an idea to make us feel better, but if you aren’t able to believe in it, it really doesn’t help much. I hope more than anything that I am wrong. I hope that my mom was able to be with her parents again, and that I would be able to see my mom again. There is just nothing to back up that hope. What I can do is live a life she would be proud of and to honor her memory where I can. While I don’t really think my mom is in heaven, I do know that at least part of her is still with me, even if I have to look at my own ass to see it.

Expose Yourself: How to Take Risks, Question Everything, and Find Yourself-Humor and Insights from my life as a Stripper

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