My Big Black Sunglasses

I bought a pair to shield myself during my mother’s demise. Little did I know they’d lovingly do so through all types of loss.

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Big Black Sunglasses Modern Loss

It is a very short path from the kitchen stairs to the graduation bleachers. In one moment, my little boy was wobbling down the stairs. In the next, I was staring through my big black sunglasses as he confidently strolled down the graduation bleachers.

I purchased my first pair of black sunglasses when my mother deteriorated from being my articulate closest friend to someone who did not even recognize me. Creutzfeldt-Jakob, a rare brain disease, quickly took her life. In the weeks that followed, the tornado that had engulfed my family grew darker and more violent. It continued to pummel us slamming us to the ground for a second time. When I looked up, depression and despair had swept away my father. Six weeks after my mother died, he took his life in our home. At twenty-four years old, my life, as I knew it, was over, and the seasons had not even changed.

I crawled out of the wreckage of my first life, expressionless, with my eyes swollen shut. I had to survive in a world that had continued on without my parents. I did not know anyone my age who had lost both a mother and father. I ached for someone who knew to tell me that I would be all right. I had lived through the end of the world before I had even experienced truly living in it.

I immersed myself back into law school; it was a remnant of  my old life that offered structure where I now had none. My new definition of “bad” and “heartache” were unimaginable to most twenty-year olds. In every crowd, I still searched for my parents. While my friends dreamed of prestigious jobs and carefree evenings, I prayed to someday recreate that which mattered most to me- a family.

A quarter of a century has passed since my parents died, but recently I had to bring out my big black sunglasses for my first-born son’s high school graduation. As Pomp and Circumstance began, I covered my ears.  I could not tolerate the melancholy dirge: an ominous signal that “Time is up.” It was eerily reminiscent of my parents’ funeral processions. This, too, felt like an end, and I was afraid of what came next.

As my son walked into the gym, my eyes welled up. I tugged at my glasses, making sure they were on tightly.  I was elated for him, but I was heartbroken for me, struggling to imagine this loss. How could I set a table for only four? In my bones, I remembered the anguish of living in a house where someone is missing.

After graduation, I savored every summer barbeque. I hoarded as much family time as possible, keeping the favorite parts of my world within my reach.  Every moment was amplified; every joy loomed with the fear of loss. I had been robbed of time with my mother, so all I wanted was more time with my children.

As the nights grew cooler, I knew it was time for him to leave for college. I slowly opened his dorm door and quickly put on my sunglasses. I made his dorm bed and placed a vacuum under it, knowing that no one vacuums in college. There I was fighting for one more time to feel like his mom. For me, tragedy had blurred the line between leaving and losing.

I began to look forward to every phone call; we were old friends sharing exciting news. When our family was together it was like Christmas morning, unwrapping the gift of our connection- an unbreakable bond. Despite all my loss, I had created my dream, my children. Now, it was time for me to share a part of my dream with the world.

My son’s freshman year is over, and in a short time, he figured out how to do his own laundry. It took me much longer to figure out how to open the door to his empty bedroom. When I saw children getting off the school bus or someone else racing in his seat on the crew boat, I continuously reminded myself that he was at college. This was different, and I would see him again. Simple words yet not obvious when you are missing a part of your being.

In the next few years, I will take my sunglasses out of hibernation when my other two children graduate. For now, I celebrate being present, however that looks. A few of my friends have high school seniors, and I am sending them big black sunglasses.  As I hand the glasses to the postal worker, I request, “Please stamp fragile, handle with care.” She thinks it is for the parcel, but I know it is for the mom receiving them.

Cynthia Dokas Whipple is a coproducer of The Conversation: Stories that Matter, examining life after mother loss. She is also a Connecticut ambassador for empowerHER. She lives in Avon, CT with her husband and three children.

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