When You’re Tackled Out of Nowhere By Grief


My mom died just a little over five years ago.  It was one of those terrible situations to find yourself in, where you want a person to live but at the same time you know they’ve been miserable for so long that passing is the better option.

When she died, I flew down from New York to help my dad plan the funeral.  My sister-in-law was due to have her second baby at any time, so the decision was made for my brother to stay with her and not come to Texas.  I can’t even imagine how hard of a decision that was for him to make. I always wonder if he was able to get closure around my mom’s death.

In the days surrounding my mom’s funeral service, I jumped into high gear. I didn’t want my dad to have to worry about anything, and I strove to take care of all the little details that would cause him stress.  My best-friend/cousin Jeana and I put together programs and photographs, cooked meals, sorted through my mom’s things, and worked really hard to ensure my dad held together.

The service felt so surreal. The church was packed with people who knew, loved, and respected my mother and her many accomplishments.  We had dressed her in in a lovely blue dress that she had worn to my wedding years before.  And since the cancer had done a number on her hair, we adorned her head with a pretty brown bob wig that Jeana and I had bought her just a couple of weeks earlier.

In the years since her death, I visit her grave when I’m in Texas, and chat with her a bit.  I jog the two miles from my dad’s house to the Heard cemetery, and sit among the long line of my family’s gravestones, hoping to avoid hidden fire ant dens.  I only cried at her funeral, and then, only when I saw others cry for her. I assumed at the time that I had already grieved, that I was fine.


My father recently remarried on a mild November day, in the same church that he had married my mother just over 40 years before. In an ironic switch, this time my brother was able to attend, while I couldn’t get away from work and obligations to make the trip from Indiana to Texas.

My father’s new wife is a lovely woman, a person I don’t yet know well, but am still entirely happy to have her as part of the family.  She made my dad happy again and gave him hope for a future once more.  That makes me supremely happy.  Coinciding with his marriage has been my dad’s gradual transition into retirement from over 40 years of managing the Flying J Ranch. He and Fiona moved into the house on my dad’s place that he has been building, meticulously, for almost as many years.  Out of the house that I grew up in, that my mother cooked meal after meal in, with the yard that she valiantly tried to raise rosebushes in, with the front porch boasting an amazing view of the hills and decorated with potted ferns grown out of Emma Heard Nelson’s cuttings.


I’m now finding myself overwhelmingly, soul-splittingly crushed with grief.

I never saw it coming.

I always wanted my dad to remarry and encouraged him to consider the possibility. I had pushed and pushed for him to finish his house and move in, especially to honor my mother, who had dreamed of that house for their entire marriage and yet never got to live in. I badgered and pestered my dad to retire, telling him it was time that he have the chance to mend his own fences, putz around on his own property, and put an end to bulldozing, tractor driving, controlled burning, and all the crazy stuff he does on a ranch that doesn’t belong to him.

So it caught me completely by surprise when all of these changes began to come about and I was taken over by sorrow, not joy.  After dancing around the subject for months, I’m finally willing to look more closely at where my grief is coming from.


I lost my human mother, and now it feels as though I’m losing another mother, and with it, my sense of home.

The land that raised me, that owned me in a sense even though I didn’t own it, is no longer mine. It’s been slipping away for years.  We’ve been loosening our grasp on each other since I left for college twenty years ago. I’ve always lived so far away that coming back to the ranch I grew up on became a less and less frequent event.

I always resonate with Wendell Berry’s poems because he knows what it means to be tied to the land and to the animals that live on that land. The bulk of my childhood memories are bound up in that 6,000 acre piece of land in the Texas hill country.

I remember swimming in the river below a field while my father drove a hay baler. I remember all the pasture roads trampled down as I learned to ride by hanging on for dear life to my dad’s feisty mare. I remember birthing calves in the pens with my dad at three in the morning. I remember every field and wood that my dad took me to hunt, where I used the little single shot rifle he bought me. I remember every bump gate and cattle guard, all the best swimming holes, all the amazing vistas that required 4 wheel drives to get to…

And on that huge piece of land, a little ranch house that I lived in for 18 years. A simple hunting cabin that was added onto several times until it grew into a house. It used to drive me crazy as a kid; all the rooms were lined up in a linear fashion and so everyone had to walk through my room to get anywhere. But now, the thought of that house sitting empty, yet still carrying all the memories of my mother, is enough to bring me to tears, and if I’m honest, a little panicky hyperventilation.

The house where my mother cooked the most amazing Thanksgiving meals. The house where I would sneak into the living room and watch old episodes of Cheers in the middle of the night with my dad. The house that my mom worked so hard to keep clean and presentable even with my dad tracking in muddy boots from the cowpen, or greased-covered clothes from fixing a broken down ranch vehicle.  The house, surrounded by cattle pens and tractor barns, grain bins,  and a mechanic shop…


I think that part of my grief arises from the fact that I’ll never be able to pass any of this down to my own boys.  And I worry that I’m giving them a damn shabby childhood compared to the one I had. We moved so many times in the last 13 years that it’s hard to know where home is. And while Indiana suburbs are nice, they are benign and safe and unadventurous and tame. My childhood was none of these.  Truth be told, I’m lucky to have escaped alive from a  few events that happened back then.

It feels so unfair that I have never been able to really share with my kids the things that were always so important to me growing up. Even when I try, they are treated by others as “city” boys, patronized and shamed for not knowing the “country” way of life.

Now, I literally have less and less from my childhood that I can share with them, and I wonder – will their childhood be good enough?  Will it be rich and delicious like so much of mine was?


So now I face this grief that tackled me from out of nowhere.  I try to console myself with words from those I trust, like this:

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
― Rumi

I know that all things are passing, but it’s really hard to let go of attachments to those things that you rely on to ground you, that give you an anchor in life no matter where you go or what happens. I think this is part of the task of living – to let go of our anchors to places and things and the past. I think we sometimes believe when we let go of those anchors, we are denying what they’ve meant to us. And we struggle to believe that life will bring us more good and we will be able to find home again.

I’m trying to give myself space to really grieve now – my mother and the loss of a place so central to my childhood, but it’s hard. I’m afraid to face it head on, afraid that it will be bigger than I can handle.  It seems ironic…I’ve had so many loved ones die in my life, attended so many funerals, let go of so many other things….but this is different.  This feels like the closing of a door and having to admit-fully, completely-that the only thing permanent with me, is me.




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