We’re Gonna Have to Build Our Own Raft

It appears I’m in that stage of grieving wherein I wear all of my mother’s jewelry. (I think it’s Grief Level 6. We’re also moving into Grief Level 7, which is when we begin cleaning out her house and start co-opting pieces of her furniture for own homes. More on that later). You know that scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Clark gets locked in the attic and ends up wearing all of his dead relative’s clothing? Level 6 is like that, but with yellow gold instead of terrycloth turbans.

As I type this, I’m wearing not one, but two pairs of my mother’s earrings. I’m also wearing a ring of hers–a simple gold band with teeny tiny diamonds–and a butterfly necklace she used to wear all the time when I was little. On my wrist is a gold(ish) bracelet my dad had purchased when he was stationed in Thailand. We buried her in her wedding band, but I’ve already worn her engagement ring. It just happens to fit perfectly on my right hand. It’s just…they’re talismans. I know it, I totally know it, and I’m okay with it right now.

I miss her. A lot.

We’ve already had her burial, the quick scheduling of which came as both a relief and a shock. Because she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, we’d been told that we’d have to wait about six months to, er, get her in. We anticipated a cold, snowy January morning spent graveside, but at the night of her viewing, her funeral director greeted me with, “Hey! Good news! Arlington had an opening for next week!” (I wanted to reply, “It’s a cemetery: don’t they have lots of openings?” but felt like he might not laugh). So we spent Mom’s burial service sweltering behind our masks in the 86-degree sun (Real Feel: 104!). We held no reception afterward for the family: The Covid, you know. It’s messed with some things. A few of us straggled off to an Irish pub in Arlington and melted into the macadam outside with our slippery pints of Guinness in order to cobble together some semblance of a wake. The owner welcomed us and mentioned the skyrocketing cases of Covid-19 in the area. Sláinte, Mom.

Saoirse found me sitting crosslegged on the floor of my closet this evening, sobbing wet, feels-like-I-just-dove-into-the-ocean-why-is-the-inside-of-my-sinuses-salty tears. She’s been amazing these past few weeks, volunteering to go with me to my mom’s whenever I get brave enough to tackle a room in her house and start cleaning out her belongings. We’d met up with my Aunt Mary and Uncle Tim, and we’d started sorting through Mom’s clothes and shoes for donation (Mom had many, many shoes). She had dresses with tags still attached, broken-in sandals she’s packed for vacations with us, sweaters that had been worn to nice dinners, to Thanksgiving, to babysit the kids. I found one of her favorite necklaces, a Celtic cross we thought we’d lost at one of her radiation appointments, which a caregiver had probably found and placed away for safekeeping. I wore it home.

But back to the story at hand: I’d gone in to my own closet to hang up a shirt of my mom’s I can’t bear to part with just yet: a pink and blue plaid button-front, soft from wear and still smelling like her. That’s when Saoirse found me. It was the smell that got me.

So, you know, it’s going well.

When I’m busy, it’s more manageable, but to be honest, I often can’t face the busy. Some days it’s all I can do to face the dishes. Quinlan gently approached me one day–it was the first day I’d been to Mom’s to start cleaning stuff out, and I was wrecked when I got home and doing a poor job of hiding it. She hugged me, but added a little admonishment: “Mom, I know you’re sad, but Grammy’s happy now. She’s all better and happy and running with Luca [our beloved old dog], and soon–” Quinlan glanced at our ancient cat, who was staggering through the kitchen on her arthritis-ridden skeleton legs– “and soon she’ll be running with both Luca and Widget.”

So there you go.

I’ve received so many loving messages from many of you, and I thank you for them (and if I don’t reply right away? It’s because most days I just don’t feel like chatting, and on others, when I do scrape up the memory of what it’s like to be appropriately social, the only response to “How are you?” is “I’M WEARING ALL OF MY MOTHER’S JEWELRY.”). I know from experience that the swells of hurt will ebb so that the waves, eventually, won’t hit as often. But I also know from experience that once you’ve found yourself in this particular Grief Ocean, there’s no swimming to shore.

I’ve been in this ocean for twelve years now–I know how this goes. It’s just that now? My life raft has disappeared, too.

The bottom line of all of this is: I’m a ball of fun right now, and if you are throwing parties, you should totally invite me to all them. I have a couple of Mom-related things I want to post in the upcoming weeks, as I feel up to it, and, of course get back into some sort of Regular Programming (Quinlan has gently reminded me I have a manuscript to finish and to not “use time” on my “blogging“–I wish you could see the derision she has for us internet dinosaurs). I have lots of notes I want to write, too: you’ve been incredible friends and family and caregivers–so many of you–and I want to thank you for that. If I have been quiet, I’ll be in touch.

(It’s hard to write when I’m wearing all this jewelry.)

In the meantime, if you have questions for me about…well, about what these past months have really looked like, please email me through my contact page. I know a few of you reading this have family members walking the GBM road–we had so many questions about what to expect when it was Mom’s turn. If I can help in any way, please let me. If I don’t reach out to you first–or am slow to respond because I’m still at my mom’s cleaning closets (she also had many, many coats), get in touch. Please.

Grief is the pits. I told Saoirse today that I do believe this little bit of time we have on Earth is part of a greater continuum–and one that involves each other, somehow–but it just doesn’t reconcile the feeling of having somebody like my mom–and by extension, my dad all over again–get erased out of our daily life. Just…*poof*. Regardless of if you’re expecting it to happen or not, the disappearance is jarring beyond any comfort level. I still make a move toward my phone every evening around 5:30–it’s when I’d give her a last good-night call this past year or so. (Poof.) I have to remind myself that I’m still here and lucky to love my kids and David (who does do the dishes) and the relatives that text or call and the friends who still want to hang out with my weepy behind and the writing that wants to be done.

Poof. But right now we are here, and I will do all of the things I’m supposed to do (the cleaning out, the loving, even the dishes).

And while doing so I’ll be wearing the most fabulous hand-me-down Irish Catholic jewelry a girl could inherit.




  1. Barbara Conrey | 19th Aug 20

    As always, God love you! I think of you so often, and I know this is a road you must travel on your own, but also with your children and the wonderful David, but when you come up for air, even a wee little sniff, send me a text and we will toast to your mom and life and what happens next. Much love to you.

  2. Gloria Gritz (Sarah’s mom) | 19th Aug 20

    Thank you so much, Leah, for sharing this painful journey with those of us who are still in the early stages. My beloved sister is coming here next week, flying in the time of covid, because she wants to see a Great Lake and Mount Rushmore before it’s too late. I am so honored to get this time with her, the sister of my heart, the one I shared a room with me growing up who knew all my secrets as we whispered together after lights out and loved me anyway. My heart is with you, dear girl, for I remember what it is like to feel like an orphan even when we are totally grown with families of our own.

    • Leah Ferguson | 21st Sep 20

      You’ve been on my mind–I’m so grateful she had this trip with you. Was it wonderful? How are you both holding up?

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