What I Want You to Know About Feeling Connected to Your Mom

My dad loved The Big Chill and its soundtrack of 60’s and 70’s soul and rock music, which frequently filled up the walls of our house. The movie, which must seem so ancient to you, is about a group of old college friends who reunite after one of their friends dies. The opening funeral scene sets the tone for the movie, a perfect balance of levity and seriousness with a heavy dose of nostalgia. The characters sit in a small church, distraught and heartbroken over the loss of their friend. The pastor announces that one of the college friends will be playing the deceased’s favorite song. She stands up and approaches the organ reverently, then sits down and begins to play the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The people sitting in the pews can’t help but smile as they think of their dead friend’s dark and ironic sense of humor. The song continues to play as pallbearers haul the coffin out of the church and place it into the hearse, and as the loved ones embrace and head on their way to the reception.

The song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a staple of classic rock radio. I’m sure it probably played at least four or five times a day on KRKX when that was a classic rock station in my teens. Still, I’ll never forget the time it played on a chilly February morning in 2002. My family and I had loaded up into the family Suburban on the way to my dad’s funeral. I was driving and had left the radio on, although none of us were probably in much of a mood for music. About midway through the three mile drive, as we were waiting at a traffic light, the song came on. It felt like our dad was sending us a message. Telling us he was with us. Forcing reluctant smiles to appear on our faces like the characters from The Big Chill. Letting us know that, somehow, our lives must go on without him.

That’s what it felt like, anyway. To be honest, these days I’m skeptical of all such encounters, including this one. I know some people profess to experiencing uncanny things like this regularly. In my group grief counseling, for instance, one of the participants said that she had experienced several events that were not easily explainable, some involving her spouse’s phone, which caused her to feel a connection to her lost spouse.

I don’t mean to discount the importance of such encounters for the people who experience them, but I think coincidence and our need to feel connection with the departed can account for most of what gets chalked up to the paranormal. If the Rolling Stones hadn’t come on the radio, there’s a pretty good chance another song my dad liked would have. It was his favorite radio station after all, and we all took many trips with him while the classics played. I think we all want not only to feel close to our loved ones again but also to know with certainty that they are out there somewhere watching over us. But, as they say, you can’t always get what you want.

On a day shortly after your mom died, we were sitting around the house trying to make sense of what had just happened. We were shellshocked and fumbling for words that would somehow bring comfort to the immense pain we all felt. At one point your Poppy opined that anytime we look at up and see a cloud in the sky or a star at night, that’s your mom reminding us of her presence. A few days later, at your mom’s virtual memorial service, your Grammy echoed those words when she courageously spoke to the audience about what it meant to lose her first child. In the following days, I began to receive pictures from several people who had attended the service of cloudy skies that reminded them of Jaime, both beautiful white billows and rich, cream-colored sunsets.

It was a lovely thought, and I was glad that people had something concrete to help them feel closer to your mom, and to experience a moment of connectedness with her. Honestly, though, it didn’t quite work for me, not at first. Stars and clouds felt too broad to be a sign of direct connection. They are almost always there for the eyes to see. This wasn’t a song on an FM station; it was radio chatter from a device that never switched off.

As I’ve lived in the grief of losing your mom for longer, though, I’ve come to realize that clouds and stars are the perfect metaphor for how I experience my ongoing connection to her.

  • I walk in and out of the doors she used to pass through with us into our house, and every room here holds a thousand memories.
  • I sleep in the same bed where she and I used to sleep, though I’ve started sleeping on her side of it.
  • I use the utensils, plates, and glasses that we got at our wedding, the ones she picked out for our registry.
  • I pack your lunch in the lunchbox she bought you for kindergarten. I put it in the “big kid” backpack she was so proud to pick out for you for your new school.
  • I wear ties she bought me for Christmas or Father’s Day, shoes I sought her advice before ordering, sweaters she picked out for family pictures.
  • When I clean, I use the vacuum I bought her as a first anniversary present: a gift that would have insulted almost any other woman but that, thankfully, ended up being one of your neat freak mom’s favorite things I ever bought her.
  • She is there in every song: the old ones we heard at a concert or in the car on a road trip, and the new ones I wish I could share with her now.

I experience lasting connection with your mom not as a song or a movie, but as a radio that never turns off. It is always transmitting. Sometimes I hear it so loudly I can hardly do anything but cry in the noise. Other times, it fades into the background.

Yes, just like clouds and stars in the sky, she is always here, ever close to my heart and my mind, yet always too far away.

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