LifeSpeaks Poetry, Founder and Therapist
Lost her mom at age 12
“If you can do it, make videos, record your voice,
write some letters to your children to open in the future.
I so wish I had that, but I just don’t.”
Your mother was sick for three years before she died. Can you talk about living with her cancer?
My dad was amazing. He just sat me down and drew a diagram of what was wrong; where the cancer was in her intestine and how the doctors were going to try to cut it out. We lived with it. I sometimes gave her shots. We actually traveled for some treatments. We made a couple of trips to New York, and my Dad made sure we saw plays and went shopping, so there were some happy memories being made. My sister and I were told everything possible was being done to make our mother better.
And yet, she was dying. Did she talk about dying, or leaving you?
She really didn’t. She felt if she talked about it, that might cause her to die sooner. She just couldn’t risk having those negative thoughts. So I don’t remember her talking to me about dying up until the day she died. She actually talked to me from the hospital that day and said doctors were working to make everything better. But she weighed 80 pounds. She just didn’t want to say goodbye.
You wish she had?
I do, I wish she had said goodbye.
Do you remember any conversations where she let down her guard?
The one memory I have is that she sat me down in the living room – and she had an awesome record collection. She put on the Simon and Garfunkel song A Bridge Over Troubled Water, and she said, “Do you hear that – ’Sail on silver girl’? You are my silver girl. I will always be sailing right behind you, like a bridge over troubled water.” That song is my song. Every year you do face the grief. When I do, I turn on that song, and I cry and I let it out.
Did she leave anything behind for you to open later? A note or tape?
Nothing. So I would say, if you can do it, make videos, record your voice, write some letters to your children to open in the future. I so wish I had that, but I just don’t. I so wish I knew more, and had known more about what she thought about dying, her spirituality something – a letter or a video tape where she kind of lays it out – just the advice I would like to get at the kitchen table… like here are the lessons I learned in life, or what to do when your marriage seems hard or at the birth of your child.
You grew up in Knoxville and your mother had roots there. Were there people around you to help when she died?
Just when my mom got sick I had been accepted to a junior professional modern dance group. I was in that group from the time I was 9 until I was 17 – rehearsals every day, very intense. So it was like a family. My mother had also taken dance classes at that studio, so the director of the dance company knew us well. After my mother died, she basically raised me. My sister, Cate, was into horseback riding, and she was basically raised by the people at the barn, mostly the woman who owned it, who was my mother’s best friend.
Your father remarried. Can you talk about your relationship with his new wife?
It was a rough time for me – I was fifteen when my dad re-married someone who was very, very different from my mother. She had two kids who were away at college, and my sister was at college – so I was the only one at home. I was still very much idolizing my mother. Wisely, my dad’s wife did not try to step in and mother me. I found other mother figures. And we got great counseling from therapists that helped us communicate. My dad also kept a consistent Thursday night dinner with me at the same Italian restaurant every week – just us. That allowed me to just have time with him, not censor myself, and feel connected to my mother. Most importantly, from the beginning, I could see how happy my dad was with his wife, and because of that, I grew to love her, too.
What about finding a life partner for yourself? How did losing your mother influence your dating?
I think I was seeing life, including the dating scene, through different eyes. I was looking for more than a guy who had a great job or was hot. I was looking for a real connection on a very deep level. I did party, but at those parties I was the one having intense conversations. I was not going to settle. And when I met my husband it was very clear. He is a writer, came from a family where people were really thinking about life. He had a core and character that was deep. Of course, I wish my mother could have met him. That is part of the grief. She would have loved him.
A mother who must leave her children too soon can feel like she is letting her kids down, and making life much harder. Do you feel that way about your mom dying?
As much as you might think you are putting them in a terrible place, the truth is you are also giving them a kind of empathy, compassion, self-awareness and gratitude that will allow them to see the whole world with different eyes – wide open eyes. Many people spend so much of their lives searching for what to do, or who to be. When you are handed this at a very young age, it’s like you are catapulted to a higher level. You start being who you are going to be and finding what you are capable of. I so miss my mother, but weird as it may sound, in a way I now see how her dying made me a unique, authentic person.
Jennie Chapman Linthorst is the author of