Remembering My Mother: On Grief, Les Mis, and the Strange Poetry of Life

For all of its randomness, life has poetry sometimes.

On this day in history, June 5, 2004 my mom died. The next day, June 6th, was my 16th birthday.

On these day(s) in history 184 years ago is when the rebellion famously featured in Les Mis occurred, otherwise known as the June Rebellion. Or as we call it around the Les Mis corners of the internet, Barricade Day(s), where we celebrate Hugo’s revolutionaries, their real life counterparts, and the ideals that drove them.

And I feel like if there was a game where people said “what’s one thing you think of when you think of Katie?” a whole lot of people would probably say “Les Mis” and if able to add anything further, “and those revolutionaries who die on the barricades.” Maybe the fact that two of the most pivotal days in my life-when it began, and then really, when everything I’d ever known, ended-fall on the same two days as the real historical rebellion made famous by Victor Hugo’s novel is just another one of those random chances of life. Or maybe sometimes things happen for a reason. Or maybe it’s a bit of both, and you create your own reason out of chance. Either way, the fact that these days were important in the real events fictionalized in Les Mis and my own life resonated with me, and I’ll get back to that parallel in a moment.

If there’s one thing I’ve realized 12 years down the line from losing my mom, it’s that grief isn’t linear. It comes and it goes, and it’s not over a year later or five years later or whenever society dictates and draws some arbitrary line. Yes here they say, mulling it over as they draw the line in chalk. This seems like enough time. I remember looking for self-help books in Barnes and Noble not too long after my mom died, sitting on the floor and sifting through them, only to find nothing useful. One of them was called “The Grief Handbook” if my memory serves, as if you can put down that messy human experience in a bulleted list. Humanity’s weird like that; death is something we all inevitably experience, and yet we don’t really want to talk about it. We don’t want to talk about what loss feels like, and sometimes the silence is deafening.

Having what was without argument the worst day of my life happen the literal day before my birthday had its affects for years, and still does, echoing across time in different ways. Before, I looked forward to my birthday with a whole lot of enthusiasm-I remember once, on my 13th birthday I proudly proclaimed that I could listen to Beyonce because I was 13! I’m not sure what the excitement behind that was, I had in fact been listening to Destiny’s Child the day before, but I think my joy was infectious-after, I skirted around it, wishing I could celebrate but feeling a very profound hole left in the day, the shock of my mom’s death always permeating the day, and in some sense that won’t ever change. But later I tried my best to fill the day with friends and fun, and the more I did that, the more it stuck. The more I felt I was allowed to celebrate my birthday, the more I took real joy in it.

So as I sat on the floor of my house yesterday, just after the last of my friends left my pirate-themed birthday party, the hilarious echoes of them singing “A Pirate’s Life” instead of happy birthday over the candles on my margarita cake still playing in my head. I read over the cards, getting a little teary, and feeling a smile stretch across my face. I couldn’t help but remember around this time 12 years ago, as family members sang happy birthday to me less than 24 hours after my mom’s death even as I wished they wouldn’t because I was thinking how will I ever be happy again?

But that’s the thing; I am happy now. I’m happy because in the wake of all that grief, of all that loss, I’ve built something. I’ve built a life. I’m surrounded by people who care about and appreciate me simply because I’m me. Even if I knew the next day would be hard, that I would be sad as I always am, I still felt that chest-bursting sort of happy. And that’s the funny thing about grief; it changes. As time has passed I’ve learned to miss my mom rather than just grieve her. I didn’t stand in front of this gaping hole that was losing both my parents before 16, staring at it and wondering what it meant. I lived, instead of just surviving in their memory. I could finally remember them as they were when they lived, and not just the fact that they’d died. And there was a marked difference in that and how I interacted with my grief. They were not simply shadows that existed in my worst, traumatic memories. They were real, they’d laughed and cried and made mistakes like the rest of us. They’d lived. And they’d loved me more than words can really articulate. And often, I find remind myself of that helps. The past is inevitably a part of me because it shaped who I am, but there’s no doubt that they’d want me looking toward the future.

And that brings me back to Les Mis.

I can definitely lay my finger on Les Mis as one of the things that helped me make this change. There have been plenty of fictional things that I found cathartic, that helped me through various stages (Phantom of the Opera is the biggest one, after Les Mis), but this one wasn’t just where I found refuge; it did a great deal in teaching me who I was. It showed me, for certain, the sort of things I wanted to stand for. It gave me courage to be the person who’d been standing at the edge of the ocean but only wading out so far. I had all the framework set up, but I had to dive in. Taking part in Les Mis fandom made me a better writer, and I’ve made a good number of irreplaceable friendships because of it, even with people who live across the world. Really, it was like coming home. And something about all of that combined with everything before it, did a lot to teach me how to live, rather than just survive.

So as I sat on the floor sorting through my birthday gifts yesterday, I thought again about the 5th and 6th of June and Les Mis and my mom, thinking of one of my favorite lines in the novel, from Enjolras’ speech on the barricade, where he says they are “entering a tomb all flooded with the dawn” and then “here day embraces night and says you shall die and be born again with me.” When I realized the days of my mom’s death and my birthday were on the same two days as the June Rebellion, I thought about those lines, and I couldn’t help but apply them to my own life. Because when I lost my mom, it did feel like a part of me died. It did feel like I fell into some kind of tomb. But then somewhere along the way, day embraced that night, and the pinpricks of light that always rested there got bigger and shone brighter until one day it really was all flooded with the dawn. It didn’t mean that my grief was gone; it won’t really ever be. But it did mean that the life got knocked back into me. She was gone, but the life she and my dad gave me was not, and something about considering those two days, the anniversary of death and the anniversary of life resting so closely together, intertwined with those pivotal days in Les Mis inspired by real history, sunk into my soul and stayed there. It made me feel as if somehow that devastated 15-year-old girl was meant to come across Les Mis and everything it is in her early 20s, on the cusp of truly starting anew. Even if no Mysterious Forces of the universe pushed me toward it, it still felt real. It felt like one of those moments of poetry life sometimes offers us.

The tomb all flooded with the dawn in Les Mis is heart-achingly bittersweet; the young men on the barricades die, they won’t get to see the future they’re dreaming about, but they know it will come. And it did, in large part, come. France saw their last king in 1848, and though there was an empire thrown in there for a while after the second republic fell, the third republic finally took its place in 1870. They died, but others picked up the torch from them. My own dawn is bittersweet too; my parents aren’t here with me to see it in the flesh, but their memory pushes me forward into it nonetheless. And I think that’s the thing about grief; there’s always pieces of it with you, but at some point, you have to allow yourself to be happy.

In any case, here’s to you mom. 12 years have passed, but when I look in the mirror, my smile looks like yours, and somehow I think you’d be proud of that.

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