Death & Life & Babies & Grief & Soul Connections and, mostly, Love

Today would have been my mom's 65th birthday. It's her first birthday since she passed in a car accident, her first birthday as an Ancestor, her first birthday dead.

Today is the day I share with you all that I am pregnant with my second baby, almost exactly 10 years after my first.

This is the story of the overlap of two souls, of the grief & joy that haunt our fragile human lives, of the meaning I'm carving out of these two unexpected and overwhelmingly life-shifting experiences.

  My mom, my sister Lacey, me & baby Mycelia, and my grandmother Memere during my first pregnancy 10 years ago.

My mom, my sister Lacey, me & baby Mycelia, and my grandmother Memere during my first pregnancy 10 years ago.

On November 27th, 2015, the blackest of Black Fridays, my beautiful and beloved mama, Janis Hill, died in a car accident on her way home from work. She was my best friend and biggest supporter, the most loving, fun, and easy-going person I ever knew, and the best Grammy my daughter Mycelia could ask for.

This isn't one of those things when people elevate someone to the status of saint after they've died- my sister and I always knew we had the best mom. As my ex-boyfriend said, "That was the only memorial service I've ever been at where all the nice things everyone said was true." My ex, whom my mom checked in on via text every now and then, because she was the kind of person who made friends everywhere and never lost them.

There were 350 people at her Celebration of Life & Love, many of whom had driven in to my hometown of South Lake Tahoe from out of town on a snowy December day. I spoke, my nine-year-old daughter spoke, and my mom's husband led everyone in a jubilant clapping and cheering session, singing out our love to her and allowing us all to physically and vocally move the grief through our bodies in the company of other people who loved her just as much. It was my favorite part of the service, and I've included the audio file below. Dave's cheer starts at 31:10; Mycelia's & my part starts at 42:00. Listening back, my favorite part is the story I share about how mom would trick my dad into thinking she was spanking us when she really wasn't. 

(Aside: I wasn't sure if anyone would actually listen to this recording, but it's the next day and I've heard from a few who listened all the way through and were moved to tears. So I feel compelled to share that the strong Christian overtones shared by some people at my mom's service had not been relevant to her life for almost 20 years. We all had fond memories of the church she'd raised us in, and still love the pastor, so we chose to have the service there. My mom, sister, and myself love people and the world and maybe even something like God, but we long ago stopped believing that the only way to live a good life or maybe a good afterlife is to pledge allegiance to one man, one belief system, one myth among thousands. When someone dies, people turn hard to whatever comforts them, and many people chose to ignore my mom's gentle extraction from the faith when they spoke of her after her death.)

Ever since I was really little, I've been afraid that my mom would die in a car accident coming home from work.

She and my dad met and worked at Harrah's Lake Tahoe in the late 70's. After my sister Lacey and I were born in the early 80's, he worked day shift and she worked swing shift, so that one of them would always be home with us. She worked 6pm-2am, and I'd lay in bed worrying about her driving home in the snow at night. Sometimes I'd work myself into such a frenzy that I'd start sobbing. It was "anticipatory grief" without having any proof that it would ever actually happen (that phrase usually being applied to someone whose loved one is dying from an extended illness).

And yet, my premonition was right. At the time of her death my mom had 6 weeks of work left at Harrah's, after almost 40 years. I had almost completely stopped indulging my old fear. Almost.

During our last phone conversation, two days before her accident, after we solidified our Xmas plans, I said to her, "I can't wait until you're done with that job and don't have to make that drive anymore." She felt the same way. (Ever since she'd moved out of Tahoe and over the hill to Gardnerville, NV, I'd hated the long commute she had to make twice a day. A massive, steep mountain called Kingsbury Grade is the shortest route, and it's terrifying in the wintertime.)

Me and my sister and mom were all texting in our years-long ongoing text thread five minutes before she died. She was parked after having dropped off the co-worker she'd carpooled with. She was about 10 minutes from home. Her last text said we'd all talk on the phone after she got home and settled in. (My alcoholic father, who she'd left over 10 years before, wasn't doing well and Lacey and I wanted to talk about what to do about him. She had been supporting us as we dealt with his alcoholism for years. He ended up going into the hospital that same night, though we didn't know until the next morning. It was two weeks before he detoxed enough in the ICU for us to be able to tell him mom had died).

About 10 minutes after receiving her last text, when she had just died but I didn't know it, I suddenly thought about an audio recording I'd taken of her & my daughter laughing like maniacs the last time she'd stayed at my house, two months before. I brought it up on my phone and played it for Mycelia. We laughed and talked about the special dynamic they shared- ever since Mycie was a toddler their main thing had been doing whatever they could to make one another laugh.

I caller her a number of times after tucking Mycie into bed that night. The phone rang twice, made a weird noise, and the call dropped.

Somehow, by some grace, despite my lifelong fear, it didn't occur to me that maybe something was wrong. She was already over the mountain when she texted last, so close to home. She'd get in touch tomorrow and tell me that she'd dropped her phone in the toilet or something.

So I wasn't surprised when I woke up early the next morning, turned my phone on, and saw a voicemail from her husband Dave's phone. It would be her, explaining why she hadn't answered or called me last night.

But it wasn't. It was him. From 11pm the night before. 

There was an accident. Your mom... didn't make it.

  We always took a Four Generations photo when we were together, starting here a few days after Mycelia's birth.

We always took a Four Generations photo when we were together, starting here a few days after Mycelia's birth.

It's hard to explain what happened inside me the moment I heard those words. It wasn't an immediate, resounding NOOOO like people so often report, like I'd always imagined it would be. There was a feeling of, "And so it has happened, it has finally come to pass." An instant small acceptance, because I'd expected it for so long. As with the car accident Mycie and I were in when she was 3 (which I wrote about in Unexpected Healing: Past Trauma & Cellular Release), I went right into a very logical, get shit done, mental state before I fell apart and felt the full impact of what had happened.

And anyway, I couldn't start grieving, feeling, crying until I'd called Dave back and heard it again, live, made sure it wasn't a mistake, and found out exactly what happened.

He answered immediately. He hadn't slept at all. 

She'd been at a main intersection at about 6:30pm, on Mottsville Ln. about to cross Highway 88 there in Gardnerville. An intersection she driven through twice a day, five days a week, for years. An intersection that usually has stoplights in place. But that day, just a few hours earlier, unbeknownst to her, an accident had occurred there that took the stoplights out.

This next paragraph contains information obtained from speaking to the investigating officer and from newspaper reports (I've given enough key words in this post that you can google and read more about the accident if you want to. I wouldn't begrudge you it. I'm always curious about these things and, in fact, have obsessed even more about the details of other people's tragedies since this happened. I can't read these articles about her accident myself, because I know that a terrible picture of her car accompanies them, and I am not now and may never be ready to see that).

The official accident report has still not been released, over three months later. But to the best of my knowledge, this is what happened...

The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) and the police were on scene after the first accident (in which no one was killed), directing traffic. For reasons that the official report will reveal soon, they left when night fell, without having replaced the lights or leaving any emergency lighting in place at this major highway intersection the day after Thanksgiving. Instead, they left three foot tall stop signs in place.

In the hour since it had gotten dark, multiple people had called 911 to report the dangerous conditions, saying that the stop signs were not visible.

My mom had been in a fender bender a couple months before that somehow totaled the car she'd had for years. She'd gotten a new one, but had been afraid to drive it to work (unsure how it would handle the climb over the mountain in winter weather), and had been driving her husband Dave's car to work. But that day, she finally drove her new car. The car she'd been afraid to drive to work in. The car she died in.

As she approached the intersection in her new car and came to a stop (no doubt noticing that the lights were out but feeling familiar enough with the intersection that she wasn't worried), a young woman named Holly who was unfamiliar with the area was coming from her left, driving on Highway 88. Two cars were in the right-turning lane going the same direction as Holly, blocking the view of Holly's car from my mom's perspective as my mom pulled forward.

Holly was not speeding, intoxicated, or texting. She is just as much a victim of NDOT's negligence as my mom is. 

Her car T-boned my mom's, colliding directly into the driver's side door. Together the cars hurtled forward until they hit another car stopped at the stop sign opposite Holly's, opposite the sign Holly couldn't see because it was too low, unlit, and the two cars waiting to turn right going her direction were blocking them.

  The Four Generations some time in 2007.

The Four Generations some time in 2007.

They say my mom died instantly. It makes sense that she would have, the impact was so severe. The cops gave Dave everything she'd had with her that night, and Lacey and I found the heart shaped cheap metal earrings she'd been wearing. One of them was severely bent. 

It is very likely that she never saw it coming, and in that it was kind of the ideal death. But that hasn't stopped my mind from, when I am in my darkest places, obsessing over the moment of impact, playing it over and over again in my mind, wondering if it was painful or scary for her. Those have been my worst moments through all of this, especially because of my childhood fear.

But that morning, as Dave told me the few details he knew, my mind hadn't gone there yet. I wanted to know- did Lacey know yet? No, he wanted me to be the one to tell her. Did Memere know yet? Memere (pronounced Mimay; it's the French-Canadian word for Grandma) is my mom's mom. They talked on the phone every single day. She was a couple weeks away from turning 94. We were all going to get together to celebrate her birthday on December 12th, but instead we got together for my mom's memorial service that day.

Yes, Memere knew. Unlike me and Lacey, lucky in our ignorant bliss the night before (me hanging with my daughter and finishing reading a novel in the bath, Lacey out at dinner with her boyfriend and friends), Dave and Memere and my Uncle Charlie (my mom's brother who lives with Memere) knew something was wrong. Dave knew that his wife hadn't come home when she should have, and Memere knew that her daughter hadn't called at her usual time.

They started calling each other around 8. And of course they called my mom many times- going through her phone weeks later and seeing their texts and hearing their voicemails was beyond heartbreaking. Then Dave called hospitals and the police. They told him nothing, though the police certainly knew by then. The accident was big news in that sleepy town. 

Finally, at about 10:30, a knock at the door. 

Dave says he knew right away what it meant. Two officers stood there. When they left half an hour later, he knew that mom had been pronounced dead at the scene and was on her way to the coroner, and he had a small cache of her personal items they'd taken out of the vehicle.

Memere called as the cops were leaving, and he told her. All three of them were up all night in shock and grief, after hours of anguish. Going through all that was always part of my fear fantasy as a child- the waiting, worrying, knowing something was wrong. I hate it so much that they lived through that. And I am so selfishly grateful that I was spared it. I think it would have made the whole thing much, much harder for me.

When he hung up with Memere Dave called and left the voicemail. (In case you're wondering, I am not at all miffed that he told me via voicemail. I much preferred hearing the whole truth right away, rather than "There was an accident... call me." And I understand that he was deep in shock at the moment and was focused on conveying this information to me as soon as possible).

The first two hours after I heard were so hard, because Lacey didn't know yet, and she was sleeping in. I called a hundred times. I couldn't relax or fully drop into my feelings until my sister knew.

Which is not to say that I wasn't already grieving by then; I was a mess. My boyfriend Owen and Mycie were with me, and Mycie and I were crying together on the couch while I tried (and failed) to eat the food Owen had brought.

I finally got Lacey. She'd seen all my missed calls and assumed something had happened with dad (which it also had, but we didn't know it yet). I knew that would happen, so I told her immediately in the most direct way I could- Mom died in a car accident last night. She thanked me later for telling her that way, for not dragging it out, even by a few microseconds.

Unlike my reaction, she immediately started wailing, and interspersed with her questions over the next 10 minutes she kept saying, "I can't feel my body, I can't feel my body."

A friend called soon after that and asked through tears, "Is it true?" I said, "Didn't Lacey tell you?" "No," she said, "I saw it on Facebook."

A friend of my mom's had already posted and had tagged her in his post. He apologized later that day and said he hadn't understood that it was tagging her, thought that only close friends of theirs could see it; I believe him and have no hard feelings about it.

But it did immediately put me in a place where I needed to craft a Facebook post so that our important people would hear it from us first. By then I'd called all the family and close friends, and felt ready to make the public announcement.

Even though it was only a few hours after finding out, it felt good to immediately connect with so many people who loved her and for Lacey and Dave and I to receive such a strong outpouring of love and support. Times like that, I really love social media. It helped me so much in those initial weeks of shock and overwhelming grief.

  Oh, hey, it's us again.

Oh, hey, it's us again.

I wanna go back now to early November 2015, 2-3 weeks before my mom died. It was the New Moon in Scorpio, and Owen and I spent the day together. We'd been together 2.5 years and had talked a few times about having a baby, but always ended up deciding not to. We have my daughter, and just sort of thought we'd save our time and money and energy for the three of us.

But somehow, by the end of that day, we'd had a spontaneous series of conversations that ended with us deciding to start building a life together that could support a child in a couple of years. I went to a New Moon ritual that night hosted by the ladies of Holy Sponge, and everything that came up for me there supported this decision. The themes of that dark, powerful night for me were ancestry, death, and motherhood. I spoke those words aloud a number of times.

Over the next few days Owen and I revisited this new baby idea, and it solidified. We would have a child.

I wasn't sure if I should tell my mom or not. I told her everything, but I knew there was literally nothing she wanted more than for me to give her another grandbaby (Lacey decided long ago that motherhood wasn't her path), and I didn't want to get her hopes up in case it somehow didn't happen. After her imminent retirement she and Dave were going to move here to Grass Valley/Nevada City to be closer to us. We were all sooooo excited about this, and the prospect of a new baby would make it even more exciting for everyone. If I told her, I couldn't let her down.

I told her. I called her and told her. And she was just as happy as I knew she would be. I didn't know that it would be one of our last conversations, but I knew it was one of our happiest. 

And it means so, so much to me that she carried that happy news with her the last two weeks of her life. 

  This is my mom's face a few hours after Mycelia was born in 2006. This is how happy my having babies made her.

This is my mom's face a few hours after Mycelia was born in 2006. This is how happy my having babies made her.

The first few days after my mom's death I felt strongly that her passing was even more reason for us to have a baby, to bring more life into and create more love within the world.

But soon after that it shifted for me- my mom moving here was such a big part of why I felt that I was capable of having another child. I had so little support the first time around; it would be a totally different experience with a loving caregiver who wanted nothing more than to be involved and helping.

It made me so sad to think of experiencing all that joy and not having her here to share it with.

Owen understood, and supported me in taking as much time as I needed to settle into this new reality and decide how we would move forward.

So, when I ovulated around the Winter Solstice, my first ovulation since my mom's passing, we used a condom.

And I got pregnant. 

I saw the positive result on the pregnancy test on January 3rd, and sobbed my eyeballs raw for 20 minutes, saying "oh my god oh my god oh my god" out loud. It felt like just as much as a shock as getting the news that my mom had died, but tinged with joy and awe instead of devastation and despair.

It, of course, feels so meaningfully connected to my mom. I thanked her over and over, and I remember pleading with her, "Please let me keep it."

I had a miscarriage 7 years ago, and my mom's death made it so real to me that loss happens. I was afraid that I'd lose the baby and that if that happened I'd of course find it significant in a heartbreaking way- it wasn't meant to be after all, this baby isn't spiritually connected to my mom and her passing, I am not supposed to have happiness in my life again.

Fortunately/unfortunately, the strong nausea, frequent vomiting, and extremely tender breasts told me throughout the first trimester that the baby was sticking around.

We finally heard the heartbeat two days ago, right as I hit the second trimester, and I am so happy to finally be sharing this news with everyone. It's real, I really am going to have a baby. I wanted it, then I didn't want it, but always I really did, and even though we "took precautions" we got pregnant, immediately after my mom's death.

Her soul left, this soul entered.

Try as I might in this post, I can never put into words the emotions I've felt these last three months. I could write forever and ever about how it feels to lose my mama, and about how it feels to be having a baby again almost exactly ten years after my first (babe is due three weeks after Mycelia turns ten), but no writing can capture the breadth of these totally unexpected turns my life has taken.

I feel grateful, joyful, terrified, excited, devastated, overwhelmed, worried, and full of love. I can't believe I'm going through all of this without my mom being a phone call away, and yet I wouldn't be going through it at all- not in this specific way at this specific time- if she hadn't died.

I feel like this baby is her parting gift to me, to her other daughter, to her granddaughter, to her mother, to everyone. I feel her so much in all of it. Some days I feel like I haven't really lost anything at all, because we shared so much love and she gave me such a solid foundation in this life.

And it's not just a bullshit saying- those things truly can't be lost. They're mine forever, and they are just as real now as they were when she was embodied here on Earth next to me. I haven't lost her love at all.

But some days I do feel like I've lost everything. It seems unfathomable to me that the most important person for most of my life is gone, that my oldest fear came true. Until very recently I secretly believed that it was still possible that this was all a mistake, that she'd be calling me soon with some crazy story of where she'd been all this time. We texted every single day, and I still look to my phone expecting to see her name there.

The hardest part now that the shock has worn off is, of course, how badly I want to be able to call her and share each little step on my pregnancy journey with her. I completely fell apart in the car after hearing the heartbeat at the midwives two days ago, because that heartbeat made this pregnancy real, and I was finally confronted with a future of infinite moments where my impulse will be to tell my mom some funny or exciting or scary news about her grandchild and I won't be able to.

And yet. I don't doubt for a second that she's part of this. I'm learning to navigate our new relationship. With me here, in this body she gave me, this body she birthed. With her there. With this new baby who, hey, is maybe part of her spirit in some way, in my body, waiting to be birthed.

If you've read my unassisted birth story, Matrilineal Love, you know that I was stuck in my labor (with only Mycelia's dad present) until my mom and Memere showed up. And then the thought that the woman who gave birth to me was standing next to me, and the woman who gave birth to her was standing next to her, and envisioning that line extending backward indefinitely in time, gave me the strength I needed to finally push my own daughter out.

  Uncle Charlie, Papa Owen, me & new babe, Memere, Lace, and Mycie, taken today as we got together to celebrate my mom's birthday

Uncle Charlie, Papa Owen, me & new babe, Memere, Lace, and Mycie, taken today as we got together to celebrate my mom's birthday

I told her many times that if I had another one, I'd want her there at the birth from the very beginning. No one brought me more comfort just by their mere presence, and I felt safe whenever she was with me.

I don't know how I'm going to do this without her, all of it, any of it, but I am. I have so many people still and so much love.

And I have her too, I'll always have her.

Happy Birthday Mama. You're gonna have another grandbaby! We love you. Thank you.