How did I find the strength to even breathe, much less walk, talk or live, after the death of my 15-year-old son from suicide two years ago? My mother is the short and long answer.
My beautiful, blue-eyed, blond-haired son, bright, athletic, loving, popular, took his own life, and my life as I knew it went with him. I was blindsided. The intense grief and anguish were unbearable and still are at times. But that is another story. This story is about my mother who, although she died two years before my son, was and is my strongest pillar.
She was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1924 and, from one perspective, was one of the lucky ones during the Depression. Her father was an assistant district attorney, so she grew up with food on the table, decent clothes and a warm apartment to live in.
She married my father, a heart surgeon, shortly after World War II. They moved to Pittsburgh in 1958 and raised six children in Fox Chapel, ending up with 15 grandchildren by the time they celebrated their 60th anniversary a few weeks before she died at 86.
As a mother and spouse, she was remarkable. Given my father’s long, stressful hours at Allegheny General Hospital, she was in charge of everything — finances, school schedules, housework, discipline. She was also involved in volunteer activities for the hospital and American Heart Association and served on the board of La Roche College.
She managed to attend her children’s many activities with enthusiasm and still make time to sit with my father when he got home long after the dinner hour. She would listen intently to his day’s events, and she rarely complained of his long hours or her many responsibilities.
My mother also had a zany side. As kids we frequently referred to her as Mrs. Magoo, for she was often unaware of the dust she kicked up behind her. Once she drove off from a parking lot with someone else’s truck she mistook for her own. We also called her Mrs. Isaac Newton, because of her propensity to drop things (always proving the law of gravity).
Often doubled over in fits of laughter at the dinner table, she had a great sense of humor and was infamous for having quiet laugh attacks during Sunday mass. She loved to read and was addicted to her daily crossword puzzles. I loved all these things about my mother and sought to emulate her as a young woman.
But after experiencing the loss of my son, I found myself leaning on a different kind of person whom my mother had quietly exemplified. While she experienced great joy in her life, she had also lived through and recovered from tremendous grief.
When my mother was a young girl, her mother died of colon cancer. Her mother was her father’s second wife, as his first wife had also died. She often mentioned how as a child she hated Mother’s Day, because her Catholic school made the children whose mothers had died wear a white flower on their lapels when everyone else wore red.
Then after high school her closest childhood girlfriend died of polio. Next, her father died shortly after she graduated from college, and she had to move in with her brother’s family. She came to adore her brother, who essentially became a second father to her, but he died at age 50 of a brain aneurysm. And years later came the premature death from kidney cancer of her dear son, my brother, a heart surgeon with a wonderful family he left behind at age 52.
As Tom Brokaw said in his most recent book, “The conceit of a long and happy life is that bad things happen to other people”. My mother understood this, and now tragically so do I. My mother never complained about these devastating losses. She accepted them with grace.
She was bright, pragmatic, empathetic with a healthy dose of humor. She relied on her own sense of self-worth and believed deeply in God’s love. And through my mother's example I have slowly been able to come to terms with the death of my son.
The 17th century English architect Christopher Wren, who designed the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, has an inscription on his tomb that reads "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice." It means, “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
Fortunately, as I looked at the monument my mother built around her of love, compassion, wisdom and forgiveness, I found my pillar of strength.
Frances Magovern O’Connor of Hampton, a lawyer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The PG Portfolio welcomes essay submissions tied to Western Pennsylvania. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.