Third grade will always be the year that changed it all. School was winding down and like all kids intent on finally making it to the end of another year my eye was on the prize: Summer vacation!
Third grade had been my favorite. We made puppets out of light bulbs and had pen pals from Iceland. But in May my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and by the beginning of June, after the operation didn’t work – she died. It was sudden and over before I even really knew what was going on. My nine-year old world changed from one thing to something else and instead of spending the summer in a rental cottage on Cape Cod we stayed nestled in our silent house feeling the loss that lingered in every corner.
Overnight our family was sent into the eye of the storm where my father had no clue what to do or how to be and my two sisters were just as lost as me. The summer became something uncomfortable and clung to our bodies, dragging us down in the heat.
What I remember isn’t always what happened. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I was a little boy who’d lost the person whose love would never be felt again. The summer, which had been my favorite time of year, was now forever colored by the huge loss that left our house lopsided and empty of the mother who made lemonade popsicles and drove us to Thompson’s Pond where the water was always clear and filled with tadpoles. Suddenly all the adults in the neighborhood were whispering around me and even at nine, I knew it was always about us. Poor, sad us.
The death of a parent shatters you and stamps down hard on memory leaving behind an annual residue that can be impossible to bear. Summer would never be a free, fun timeless stretch again. It would always be laden with the tattoo that summer is when my mother died. Without my mom I knew no one would rush to cover my summer bruises, make pink lemonade from a can, or lean in close for a good night peck on the cheek, the smell of OFF not repellant, but reassuring that nothing could sting you. Nothing but death.
That first summer was strange. I was pretty much in shock and the months slipped by as aunts and grandmothers took turns trying to take care of my sisters and I and my father shuffled through his own grief, doing his best to be present for us even as his eyes stayed hollow and wet. There were still cook-outs and trips to the pool but something was missing and it was so huge that nothing about summer’s fun could seep down and make me feel okay. Her absence was everywhere because not only was she gone – but the other mothers of summer were an ever-present swarm who lathered their kids with sunscreen, and packed lunches to snack on by the pool, and knew what to do for a bee sting. Motherless, we were cast adrift in our own solo ship and could only watch as all the mothers of summer waved as we floated by.
The one thing that got me through that summer was also something I hated. My dad had to enroll us kids in a new school so that we would all be in one place instead of three different schools. I remember learning this in early August after July had melted away in the fog of my numbness. This new school had a required summer reading list, which at first I looked at feeling angry at another awful thing my mom’s death had caused. But then something happened. I had a few weeks to read three books and though I can’t recall them all I remember one was “Robinson Crusoe” and I can still picture myself laying out on the living room couch totally wrapped up in the story of a man lost alone on an island, finding his way and surviving. Of course, now I can look back and see the metaphor of how Crusoe’s survival mirrored my own desperate need to be okay. But at nine all I needed was escape and that book and the others I had to read gave me a survival tool that I desperately needed. Reading.
Though every summer began with the memory of my loss the summers that followed got slightly easier. There was a summer camp I liked. And one that I didn’t. As my teenage years bloomed I didn’t notice as much that my mother wasn’t there to protect me from too much sun or keep me from swimming after I’d eaten lunch. But I knew she was missing and I knew that I was missing her. Now summers are okay again. I am a father and our own family has summer rituals that fill me with a solid footing in the month of June. Usually I remember when my mom died as the weather gets warmer. And sometimes I don’t. And both are okay as I live my life with her love deep inside me.
Books are still my comfort zone and to this day there is something about summer that forces me to always be lost in a good book, to set the world down while I escape into the fictional places that first made me feel safer, less alone and for a short time, okay to be me.
Alan Silberberg is a children’s author and cartoonist whose book MILO: STICKY NOTES & BRAIN FREEZE is a heart-felt, humorous story of learning to live with loss. Learn more about Alan and his writing here.