Even across the span of 70 years, I clearly remember this night, May 28, 1951, when Dad came home to tell us Mom had died. Mom, Molly, Margaret Mary Plunkett Herrmann was everybody’s sweetheart, none more than our Dad’s. They were married just short of 16 years on that night when Mom went to work at Standard Pressed Steel in Jenkintown and never returned home. She was 41.
The story, as I recall it being told to us, was that Mom felt sick at work and told one of her co-workers she had to take a break in the rest room. When she didn’t return, her co-worker went to look for her and found her there, apparently already gone of an undetected heart issue.
Mom left behind a grieving young husband, Al, who at age 40, never fully recovered from her loss; 5 kids: Al (15), Mary (13), Jack (11), Margie (8) and Patty (4); a father Pete; 3 siblings: Jack, Elizabeth and Ed; numerous nieces and nephews and friends. The entire small town of McKinley and the close-knit parish of St. James were both rocked by the loss of such a vivacious young woman, beloved by so many.
When you were a child, I would sometimes tell you that you were teaching me how to be a mom. Then, when you were about 10, you stopped me with this: “Wait a minute! Does that mean Joe gets a better Mom than me?” Your thinking was always a step ahead of mine.
Throughout life, you challenged me, laughed with me, forgave me, and told me what you needed. I did the same. When you were about 16 and our relationship was strained by your need for independence and my need for parental control, we each read and then discussed the book Parent Effectiveness Training based on the concept of mutual respect. It helped us understand what we were not getting right. That’s how much you cared. Even at 16, you were engaged enough to read that book so that we could negotiate strategies to benefit us both.
In August of 2018 we (son Joe, husband Tom and I) decided on a plan to travel to New York to see Hamilton as a comforting distraction over the Christmas Holidays. Ron, as most folks know, left on Christmas morning and each year we honor that day in a special way. During that season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I read the book Hamilton by Ron Chernow, studied the music and, paying close attention to the lyrics, discovered how closely the lyrics followed the flow of the book.
Throughout my life I’ve been a student of music lyrics, so I was especially intrigued by the brilliant rhythmic use of language presented in the art form of rap.
I decided to memorize about ten lines of the opening song, Alexander Hamilton, and perform them for a gathering of my women friends later that year. In the beginning, they were a bit wary at first, but when I finished, they stood and applauded. I was hooked! Fast forward to 2020, the pandemic took hold. Just after that, I learned that the Philadelphia Protestant Home (PPH), where we live, was planning to have a virtual talent show (usually live) so I decided to learn the song in its entirety to perform for the show. We edited the official instrumental from the musical Hamilton to make this track. It was a gamble because they could have removed it from social media, but it looks like they approved of it, because they are leaving it up!
I asked Joe to take a phone video of me rapping Alexander Hamilton, which I would have been perfectly happy to post on Facebook and elsewhere. However, Joe, being a music producer with a studio, quickly developed a larger vision, believing that if we are going to put out a video, we should make the best presentation we can produce. And so, the video became our pandemic project.
Doing this work has brought an enormous amount of comfort to us. Joe, Tom and I have had so much fun! I believe it is a gift from Ron to us, as it is all wrapped up in strategies to help us manage our grief and loss as well as bringing us to a fuller life expression. It has made us sing and laugh, dance and visit historical sites. Finally, this is the ultimate expression of true, unbound, joyous patriotism!
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Such was the case in late 2016 when I was in the Medical Mission Sisters’ chapel. After the service, upon leaving the chapel, the tiniest little whiff of a nun, Sister Gertrude, was suddenly standing before me.
It descends slowly, uninvited sly and clammy like fog.
Without warning, her eyelids grow heavy and wet a stinging sensation in her throat shifts to her chest belly heaving. Legs immobilized, feet stick to the floor. A face across the table saying what?
Then the memories a smile, a laugh, that yearned-for familiar voice. Their sorrow, her child’s and her own.
They say that to be a mother is to have your heart walking around in someone else’s body.
What they say is true.
But wait! When that someone else dies what becomes of her heart that was carried in that dear body? Turns out, it was the most fragile of things. Who knew it was made of spun glass so delicate that when it fell, it shattered into exactly Seventeen thousand five hundred eight slivers.
No restoring that.
And so, she scooped them up and carries them around everywhere she goes. Every grieving mother has a stigmata on the palms of her hands.
In the days before Christmas, my sister, Patricia, who knows me inside and out, posted this for my benefit: “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break and all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go, love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. ” L.R. Knost
Our son, Ron, died on December 25, 2015, Christmas morning. Tuesday, December 26, 2017, was Day 1 of Year 3. That Christmas Eve and Christmas morning of 2015 run through my mind like an old newsreel. I am at once remembering everything I did, every conversation I had that Christmas Eve, while simultaneously imagining every step Ron was taking in planning to end his life. I contrast my Christmas Eve joy to his Christmas Eve sorrow, my Christmas morning happiness to his Christmas morning resignation of his fate and ultimately his death.
When your child dies, they take an almost unnatural place in the heart and the psyche of the parents. Perhaps the shock and pain of a sudden, tragic death exacerbates the intensity of the sorrow, which may seem to border on obsession at times. What is the way forward? Is true healing even possible? We love our other children and grandchildren very dearly. We love the place they hold in our lives. But the one whose death was so sudden and crushing has, at once, opened a hole in our hearts and our lives while, at the same time, taking up more spiritual, emotional and psychic space than the others. Continue reading “If healing comes, what will it be like?”
This is how long Ron has been gone: 1½ years, or 18 months, or 78 weeks or 548 days. In the early weeks after Ron died, people would occasionally ask if I could sense his presence with me. I would occasionally fudge my answer and say yes, mostly because people expected that I would and because others reported sensing messages from their loved ones who had passed. I was never actually sure of what the question meant and would answer in different ways according to different people or circumstances. But mostly it seemed true but not in the way people thought. Ron seemed to be with me because the separation was not real to me. The primal connection could not be abruptly severed. It was impossible to suddenly let him go. I have since learned that cells from the child remain inside the brain of the mother for always. Continue reading “Watching for Signs”