by Shelley Anne Friend
February 14, 1970, Valentine’s Day, was the worst day of my 14-year-old life. My father and I had driven from Beaumont, Texas, where we had recently moved, to be closer to a hospital for my mother, back to Liberty, Texas, where we lived most of my life. We attended the wedding of a dear family friend’s daughter. On the way back to Beaumont, my dad told me my mother was going to die, and soon. She lived another three months and we never talked about it again. She was 41-years-old.
I knew she had cardiomyopathy, a virus that found its way to her heart, and that she was tired all the time. I also realized she had been sick for ten years, and yet was able to survive the birth of my sister…but I didn’t think she would die, and not that soon, but she did.
As the oldest, my father wanted me to know, so I could be there to support my younger brother (12) and sister (9.) How is a 14-year-old supposed to handle the loss of a mother and take care of her siblings? Well, that’s just what I did. With the love of my grandparents, I jumped into survival mode. And, I became even bossier than I already was, and tried to fix all their problems, which, as you can imagine, was a disaster.
“Conveniently” (insert snarky tone of voice and scowl here,) my father had already met his second wife and married her exactly three months after my mother died. She was closer to my age than his age (repetitive snarky voice and scowl.) He rationalized marrying so soon so we would have a new family. She had a cute little boy, and they had my baby brother, whom we adored. He was the blessing that came out of that union.
They cleared out all furniture, pictures and treasures that would remind us of our mother. We needed to grieve, not to pretend our mother never existed. I’m not sure why, but they said they thought it would be easier that way…well, it was not. We all three suffered much more than if we had worked through the pain of it in counseling right away.
Lucky for me, I graduated from high school first and moved to Austin, where I met my husband the first day of class, our freshman year. I blossomed at UT where I earned my degrees, and loved working at the state capitol for almost ten years. Most of my career was spent teaching speech communication on the college and university level and doing communication and leadership consulting. We have two smart, loving and kind adult daughters, who are married to two wonderful men, who love them, and each other, dearly. And, now we have three grandchildren who are “practically perfect in every way!”
My brother “acted out” so they sent him to the military academy, which turned out to be his blessing. After high school, he joined the marines where he said boot camp was easier than dealing with some of the stresses of our family. The marines gave him focus and direction. The military helped him complete his education, including receiving a Ph.D. in psychology. He now has two adult children, whom we also adore.
My younger sister bore the brunt of it all. Her blessing was that because she was given the task of taking care of our baby brother, they became extremely close. And, she succeeded in college and graduate school, and has been in public education most of her career. She has been married to a wonderful man, has two precious adult daughters and a very creative and loving son-in-law. And, they have one adorable 9-year old grandson. Her precious mother-in-law has filled in the vital maternal role for her, thankfully.
So, how does a 14-year-old cope with the loss of a mother? Our grandparents stepped in and were wonderful, as were our very dear friends. We were so very close to our grandparents because we filled a need for them, just as they did for us. Also, I had a lot of therapy. I screamed and cried and held everyone accountable for the mistakes I believed they made during this difficult time, all in therapy, not to their faces. But, it helped.
And, progressively, I learned to look at some of my own mistakes, too. I faced some of my “issues” and am still learning coping strategies. I had a lot of friends and family members (many of whom are Iron Butterflies and may write their brave stories) who kept me sane and made me feel loved. And, because I majored in communication, I continued to learn about myself with feedback from my family, friends, students and colleagues.
Most importantly, I know my mother has always been “with me.” She was, undoubtedly, an Iron Butterfly. She taught us her values, morals, and faith. She, heroically, faced her own death, as a young mother, and left me with a strong sense of self, and she taught me how to love, unconditionally, for which I am eternally grateful. She will live in our hearts and those of our children and grandchildren because we are keeping her legacy alive by sharing her stories.
Even though it’s been fifty years, I’m still learning how to live without my mother. For me, the loss never really goes away. And, that’s how I want it. I never want “her” to go away because I need the reminder of her wisdom, guidance, love and humor every day.
Also, I have come to believe we all grieve differently. My siblings have dealt with our loss in their own ways, as have I. This week I made a big decision. Instead of leaving all the treasures I’ve kept over the years in a big box, I’m opening them up. I’m going to read every card and letter and look and touch every picture. I’m going to take time to reflect on the purpose of her life and how I can honor her by living my life the way she envisioned it for me. My mother’s memories and her stories are what keep me flying forward.
Shelley grew up in Liberty, Texas and now lives in Austin. Fortunately, she had supportive grandparents, siblings, family, friends and, acquaintances, as well as neighbors, teachers and faith to help her grow and thrive after the loss of her mother, at age 14.
She received her degrees in Public Policy and Communication from The University of Texas and The University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She worked in government and has taught Organizational, Intercultural, Interpersonal and Group Communication, Leadership and Public Speaking on the university and college level for many years. She studied Intercultural Communication as part of the Fulbright Program in Bulgaria. Then, she and a colleague taught Intercultural Communication and Cooperative Learning to participants from all over the world in the Fulbright International Summer Institute, also in Bulgaria. She taught speech communication and leadership on the university and college level for most of her career as well as served as a communication consultant for many organizations.
She married her college sweetheart, Travis Kessler, and they have two smart, strong, beautiful, successful and loving daughters, who married two creative, supportive, strong and loving men. Their first grandson, Thomas, makes the world a better place through the twinkle in his eye and his innate curiosity about anything related to animals. He will start first grade in the fall, 2020. They have precious granddaughter, Emilia, who is almost two. She is a bubbly bundle of beauty and joy and has her great grandmother’s sense of humor. Finally, Thomas has a one-year old baby brother, Charlie, who is sweet, easy-going and strong.