Everything That Makes You … Divergent

My friend Laura Lynn Brown published “Everything That Makes You Mom” last year, but I didn’t read it until this year. What follows—last Wednesday and today—is a review of sorts. Laura’s book is part memoir, part writing exercise. She offers memories of her mother, interspersed with questions for you to answer about yours, such as “How might she deal with animal intruders?”

I never could figure out which house of Hogwarts I belonged in (although I leaned toward Ravenclaw because I adore Luna Lovegood). While reading “Divergent,” I had the same problem with knowing what faction I would choose. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I were Divergent, like Tris?

Divergents are people whose testing reveals they could belong to more than one faction. Tris qualifies for Erudite, Abnegation and Dauntless. That means she’s smart, selfless and brave. Divergents are dangerous to the authorities because they can’t be controlled.

“Mom, how do you know about Divergence?” Tris asks her mother. “What is it? Why …”

“I know about them because I am one,” she says as she shoves a bullet in place. (In the movie, this is when Ashley Judd gets her gun and saves the day.)

After a bit more explanation about factions and her personal history, Tris’ mother says, “I wanted you to make the choice on your own.”

The hardest part of being a mother is letting our children make the choice on their own.

In Laura’s book, she asks this question about mothers: “What simple pleasures did she invite you along on?”

I remembered our trip to New England together when I was 15. It was supposed to have been a romantic vacation with my dad, but he couldn’t go because of work. So, she asked me to come along on a quiet adventure through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Not having my dad along forced Mom out of her comfort zone to do all the driving and deciding. I was her navigator backup, which was a tragic mistake. One day we were heading for Freeport, Maine, and we knew we had taken a wrong turn when we saw a sign proclaiming, “Welcome to New Hampshire!”

Clearly, Navigation is not a faction I would qualify for, if such a faction existed in any society.

During that trip, my mom confronted me about my anorexia. When we got home, she arranged for me to get counseling. And when that didn’t cut it, she found a place for me to get treatment.

As “Divergent” unfolds and Tris confronts her divergence, she realizes that Abnegation and Dauntless share a quality — bravery. It is expressed differently in each faction, but even selfless people can act bravely in order to save someone else. Or, as Four/Tobias puts it, “I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”

That makes my mother Divergent. She was selfless and brave. She didn’t just fight her own battles, but mine, too, as much as she could.

Next year my 15-year-old daughter is going away to a boarding school — her choice. I’ve never seen her work so hard for anything in her life. I hope she becomes convinced of her own strength. I hope she sees that bravery takes many forms, especially selflessness. If she is Divergent, it will require more of her than she can imagine. It might even be a little dangerous.

I know because she is so much like my mom.

Everything That Makes You … Dauntless

My friend Laura Lynn Brown published “Everything That Makes You Mom” last year, but I didn’t read it until this year. What follows — this Wednesday and next — is a review (albeit a strange one). Laura’s book is part memoir, part writing exercise. She offers memories of her mother, interspersed with questions for you to answer about yours, such as, “Does she have a nickname for any of her gadgets?”

Tis the season when I really miss my mom — the run-up to Mother’s Day. She’s been gone for four years now. So, who knew that the worst possible/best possible choice for reading was “Divergent” by Veronica Roth.

“Go see the movie first and then read the book,” my daughter said, “because they change lots of things in the movie, but you’ll never read the book if you don’t see the movie.”

My daughter was right.

Here’s the dedication: “To my mother, who gave me the moment when Beatrice realizes how strong her mother is and wonders how she missed it for so long.”

I think I stopped breathing when I read that sentence. The point in the movie when Beatrice comes to this realization was my favorite part, and in the book, the realization about her mother is actually in two different parts. So, spoiler alert.

Quickie summary: When Beatrice, age 16, gets to chose what faction she will belong to for the rest of her days in this dystopian society, she chooses to leave her family’s faction, which is Abnegation (the selfless), and join Dauntless (the bad-ass fighters). I certainly would never have chosen Dauntless as my faction, but at 16, I would have chosen any faction other than the one my mother belonged to.

It wasn’t until Mom’s cancer returned after I had my own children that I began to see her struggle with the perspective that only adulthood brings. In some ways, it took her death for me to see her clearly.

One of Laura’s questions is, “What is something about your mother that you know only through someone else’s storytelling?”

Since my mother died, my dad has told me more of the story of her 29 years with cancer. I’m realizing  that my parents told me the truth but not the whole truth, and that was appropriate because she first got cancer when I was 10. They never told me, for example, that when the radiologist got the results of the metastisis to her vertebrae, he dropped to his knees and said, “Oh, my God.” And that when her oncologist said to the radiologist that he thought he could buy her up to 18 months with a hysterectomy, the radiologist thought he was crazy. Her oncologist bought her 23 years of remission.

In the “Divergent” book, there’s a scene when Beatrice, now called Tris, and her mother talk in a dark hallway of the Dauntless compound on Visiting Day. Her mother gives Tris some unexpected advice, revealing that she knows a whole lot more about what’s going on than her daughter does. And the truth dawns on Tris:

“She has been to the compound before. She remembered this hallway. She knows about the initiation process. My mother was Dauntless.”

Squee! I think I actually squealed when I read that. Of course! Her mother was born into the bad-ass fighting faction and gave it all up for a life of service in Abnegation! Hallelujah!

When my mother had cancer all those years while I was growing up, I didn’t realize she was Dauntless. How did I miss it for so long?

I’m sure my daughter doesn’t see me as Dauntless either, and maybe I’m not. But Laura knows what Tris did not know and I did not know for a long time — that our mothers are strong. It just takes awhile for us to notice.

for March 3

(I wrote this on September 3, 2010, exactly six months after my mom died. It is still the only time I’ve visited her  gravesite.)

So I came. I called John from the road. He told me to go and to be sure and call Jenny Kay, which I’ve done. We’ll have lunch when I’m ready.

I’m not ready.

I’m in the car with my laptop. It’s raining. 71 degrees. North wind at 10 mph. It’s fall, Mom. You love fall.

I arrive at 9:52 a.m. It would have been sooner, except for the rain. But it’s the perfect rain — so light you hardly get wet, especially in a place like this, where there are trees everywhere.

I walk right to the spot in this outdoor columbarium, remembering walking there with her that Monday, February 22nd. She could hardly walk the paths. My dad had to help her up the steps. But she was so proud of where she would be buried. “Isn’t it pretty?” she said.

You should see it now, Mom.

I reach her stone and just sob. I thought I’d just be wistful or a bit teary, but this is real honest loud ugly crying. My hair is wet. My clothes are wet. My eyes are wet. I bend down and touch her name, carved into the limestone. I kiss my fingers and press them into the wetness puddling in “Mar. 3, 2010.”

I walk around and cry. I enter her grave from every pathway, so that I can see her stone from every angle. No matter how you look at it, her name is bigger than anyone else’s: Merry Nell Van Fleet Drummond. It fills the whole stone, which is shaped like the United States of America.

I tell her I’ll be back. I want to walk around this place she so carefully picked out.

And then I see that some kind, generous soul has left roses on a grave. And I burst into tears again. “Damn,” I think. “Mom would have remembered to bring flowers.”

And now, I’m a wreck. Because she always remembered to bring flowers, and I never remember to bring flowers.

I go back to her gravestone to apologize. But before I can, I notice a brown leaf on her grave. It’s not much. But I think she would like it.

I have an idea.

I walk around the area where she is buried, and I see the exact same type of bush that is planted by my kitchen window. I wish to heaven and earth I knew what it’s called, but I don’t. I do know it’s a NICE (Native Instead of Common Exotic). I bought two in September 2008, when she was beginning to get super sick. I wanted something that bloomed in the fall, her favorite season. This bush has purple berry clusters. I planted two, and by golly, those suckers are still alive. They are the first — the first — things I have ever planted in my entire life that lived.

And they’re all around her gravesite. They’re taller than I am.

I pick one small blossom. I place it between the “Van Fleet” and the “Drummond.”

“When you see this, think of me,” I say.

And I think of my dad because his name is on this stone, too. Waiting. Right now, only his birthday is carved into the rock. He is fly fishing in Colorado (possibly Wyoming) at this exact moment. He and Mom should be there together. They leave every Labor Day weekend. Today is Friday of Labor Day weekend. What would Dad want me to put on her grave?

I look up. There is a small oak tree right above her grave that is jam-pack covered with acorns. Some squirrel needs to find this place and get to work. I pull one acorn and its tiny branch and set it beside my father’s name.

“I miss you,” I say on his behalf.

I think that if Mom were with him, they’d be in Creede by now, and the aspens would already be turning gold. And if there is one thing she needs on her grave, by God, it’s an aspen leaf.

But I’m in Austin, Texas. It was 100 degrees a few days ago. There is no friggin’ way I’m going to find an aspen leaf.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Mom.

I start walking around the cemetery. “I’m not asking for a miracle, Lord,” I say. “I know I’m not going to find an aspen leaf. But can you please help me find something that’s close? Can I at least find a leaf that’s golden? We can pretend it’s an aspen.”

And you know, God is good, because it wasn’t a few minutes later that I found a golden leaf. It’s about the same shape as an aspen. I pick up the leaf and look around just a little more, to confirm that I picked up the right miracle leaf, but I’m pretty sure.

I go back to her grave and set it above her “Merry Nell,” kind of halfway to my dad’s name.

“Wait a minute,” I tell her. “I need to get a picture.”

I quickly walk back to the car and get my cell phone. As I walk there and back, I think about how Mom was always driving me crazy by taking pictures, and here I am, doing the same thing. But she would want me to. If she had picked a berry cluster and an acorn and a miracle aspen leaf, she would want me to take a picture.

So I snap my photo in the rain, but it comes out clear.

“’Bye, Mom. I love you,” I say. I kiss the stone with my lips.

Back in the car, as I type this, I look at the photo. I can see now what I couldn’t see then — green ferns surrounding the stone, which is set in rich, black soil.

Happy fall, Mom.

I get back into my car. It starts to thunder and pour down rain.

She said goodbye.

Heaven? It’s in Creede.

If you want to know the temperature in Heaven, just check the weather in Creede, Colorado. It’s programmed into my iPhone. I’ll bet money it’s programmed into my dad’s iPhone, too.

My parents started going to Creede several years ago, thanks to Ben and Amy, who let them use their house. One of the best decisions of my life was including a week in Creede during our 2008 summer vacation to Colorado. Mom was feeling good that week, even though the tumor in her eye was turning the world sepia.

We went to the theater. We fished in the Rio Grande. We drove around. John and I and the kids hiked in the San Juans. There was a horseback ride in there somewhere. My son was young enough to battle imaginary bad guys hiding behind the stairs. My daughter was old enough to tour a mine and make appropriate comments. We saw bears, an eagle. We had steak and salad and potatoes and red wine. Also, my dad’s $89 Stew with Fat Tire. We made s’mores.

As I write this post, it’s 43 degrees in Creede. The forecast calls for morning sunshine followed by isolated thunderstorms during the afternoon.

Enjoy Heaven, Mom, even if it’s not quite like Creede. We miss you. Happy Mother’s Day.

Lents I Have Known: 1

First, thanks to all of you who left such kind comments on my last crazy poem. I guess grief is universal.

This Saturday marks two years since my mom died. Last Lent, at the one-year mark, I was still grieving hard. The year before, I was in shock because she died just two weeks into Lent. The Lents before that fall into The Cancer Years.

If you want to know more about Merry Nell Drummond, and if you have a thing for cancer poems, there are 72 of them here on the right-hand side of this blog marked “My Mother’s Diary.” They aren’t all good, but they were all helpful to write.

For those of you walking through grief, I want to say that it does get better, although it never goes away. My friend, Becca, who lost her mother right before I lost mine said, “For the whole first year, I felt like she had just died.”

Now, it feels like it happened a long time ago. When I wrote the marriage post, The Telegram it was the first time I had written about my mom without feeling the need to end it with “and then, she died.”

Despite the zombie dream, it’s like she’s no longer dead. She’s now eternal.



Makeup smeared, like a clown, like the Joker

Lipstick askew, eyeliner lying on her cheeks

Like she forgot how to put it on

(She’d never forget that)

I dream about Mom for the third night in a row

Everyone is humoring her, pretending she’s alive

She won’t stop talking about something from last week

As if she was there. She wasn’t. (Was she?)

“That was the worst hamburger I ever ate for breakfast,”

Mom said. Five of us leave the dusty diner

(She’d never eat a hamburger for breakfast)

I start to argue

Dad pulls my arm, shoots me that look that says,

“That’s enough.”

And then we are all walking to church. The wrong church.

I know it’s wrong because there’s standing, clapping

I yell “No!” turn, run away

To where I can kneel, where it’s quiet

Where there are no zombies

Only statues perfectly made up