When death doesn’t bring tears

I’m in my sixth decade now but I still recall crying outside my parents’ bedroom as a child.
It was always mom who would awake.
She would envelop me with a hug and hear out my worries, basically the same worry every night: I was afraid she or dad or my brothers and sisters would die.
She would kid me about being a big boy, how I was tougher than tears, how we had real things to worry about, like cleaning up the yard or the cellar. But she would make room for me in the bed or put a cushion on the floor and reach down to pat me on the back or tousle my hair — until I found sleep.
Sometimes, if dad protested, mom and I would find somewhere else to go and talk.
It went something like this:
She said: “Honey, why are you worried about that? No one is sick. We’re not going to die.”
“Everyone dies, mom.”
“Yes, but we’re healthy and we should live for years and years. And, you might not understand this now, but when your father and I are old, you will have lots of other things to worry about – a job, a wife, your own kids. ”
Then, like a good Catholic mom, she would add something along this line: “You know, honey, if your father and I play our cards right, we’ll go to heaven. And you don’t have to worry for souls in heaven, right?”
I had heard that one before. As much as I tried to cipher it, I landed on skepticism.
“How can a mom and dad be happy in heaven if their kids aren’t up there with them? And how could the kids be happy still down here without their parents?”
(This could have been one of the first signs I would grow up to be a journalist. They say I asked a lot of questions that were not easy to answer.)
Mom put up with lots of strange questions, and more, from her kids and husband, her devoted spouse for six decades. We were a household of eight without much money but too many crazy neighbors and crazier relatives. Mom worked hard to try to keep us safe, fed and happy – all while trying very hard to not be boring — because dad had to spend many hours at his job.
We kids reciprocated, eventually. We also worked hard to keep her laughing and entertained, even after she began, more than a decade ago, to become confused and anxious and, at times, very sad. Her long illness included pain and anger and vacillation between attacks on my dad and demands for his attention.
The other day, on Dec. 9, she died.mom
I wasn’t there. It hasn’t sunk in. I have not cried.
I like to think that her counsel was wise so many years ago. As my life as a husband and dad and journalist became fuller, my fear for my parents dropped to a lower rung in my worry docket — that list that undulates, front-of-mind, like the TV storm alerts showing the towns where the tornado is headed next.
Mom lived until 86 doing a long disturbing dance of the mind that no one should have to try to understand. My siblings, to their credit, tried harder than me. My dad stuck by her as long as he physically could. He died March 10, 2013.
Living farthest away than all of them the last few years, I rationalized staying farthest away more than I tried to visit.
I was hospitalized with a strange throat ailment when mom died. I could not get to the quick service for her and haven’t yet gotten together with any of my siblings.
I need to find more photos, like the one attached to this writing.
I need to remind myself who she was – that feisty Maggie Iseman with the quick left jab and quicker wit.
I need to resurrect that 5-foot-2 Irishwoman who loved to write poetry but once slammed a neighbor kid who had held me at knifepoint atop the hood of a car … that high-school dropout who learned more words than most CEOs … that middle-aged mom who decided she would deal with increasing danger in our neighborhood by signing the whole family up for Judo defense classes then practicing our throws on mattresses in the front rooms of our corner house. (Hey, isn’t that the Judo lady and her kids. Let them pass.)
Tears will come then, I know. But not kid tears.
Forget the clichés. No one cries like a baby – except a baby.
Good parents like Maggie Iseman know that kids gotta be tougher than that.