It took two cars and the whole family – including all six children – to transport the eldest, Mariruthe, to college in the fall of 1972. I was 16 then, and we had just moved from Richmond to Wilmington. "We've been transferred," my father had told me with forced calm, as if pretending "everything is fine" would contain my oppositional outrage. Ripped so abruptly from a social world I loved, I found myself dazed and friendless, a listless high school junior beamed to a foreign planet called Delaware. Then, my older sister abandoned me – we retraced our tracks south and dropped her off for her freshman year at college.
"You drive," my mother sobbed uncontrollably as we climbed out of the mountains that fall, one child lighter. Mother was bright pink and could not breathe. With a brand new driver's license and a nearly unconscious parent, I was uncertain whether to tackle the highway or set off flares for medical help. Mother managed to swerve the empty station wagon to the shoulder and collapse onto the steering wheel. I managed to slide her from behind the wheel and set off to catch up with my father, now miles ahead of us. Mom sat folded and crumpled next to me, moaning, while I negotiated my first interstate journey.
Over the next year, missing Mariruthe took the stuffing out of my mother. Typically testy, she did not raise her voice against me once that year. Her Irish temper lost its spark. I forgot to talk back and be snide. I lost interest in smoking in the bathroom and devised no new ways to provoke her. We were quiet with each other for the first time in years. "Where did our mojo go?" I wondered.
I discovered her sitting, groggy, silently crying. She never could say what was wrong – but once I sat next to her and we cried together. My father wrote to me from his business travels confiding that "it's very hard for your Mom to cope with everything without my help" and urging me to "smile." But Mom and I missed Mariruthe. We found it hard to be happy. Our hearts, filled with melancholy, grew strangely still. We laid down our weapons and let a truce settle upon us.
We talked about Mariruthe – her roommate, her classes, and her possible new boyfriends. We baked cookies for her and sent care packages. Mom bought me a ticket and sent me to visit for a weekend – and she gave me Mariruthe's blue bedroom furniture to call my own. We prayed for Mariruthe at Mass, side by side, sometimes lingering. Our hearts, filled with missing, sought God's love anew.
This morning I remembered all this, leaning against my own daughter's door jam. I stared into the space now emptied, her body and stuff gone off to college. I was bright pink and could not breathe. I leaned heavily, groggy, silently crying. I felt the stuffing drain out of me.
"Come back," I whispered, my heart twisted with grief. Come back and steal my tweezers. I won't make you turn off your lights – or clean your long brown hair out of my tub. You can eat all of the Balance Bars and take my car without asking. It turns out that I actually do love rap music and don't mind it blaring through my bedroom wall one bit. And, yes, I would love to shop with you at Union Square all day on Saturday and I will pay for everything! "Just come back," I choked, my heart pounding black loss.
"So, this is how missing Mariruthe feels," I moaned, crumpled and folded against the hard door.
What exquisite pain, this business of missing our Mariruthes – like a fine needle through the heart, leaving a thread cinched and dangling for a sudden memory to yank. I thought of my daughter's thud on the stairway, and her daily yelp, "Mom, you will never guess what happened . . ." – and the silence blasted a cold, metallic grip about my chest. "No wonder Mother couldn't drive," I gasped in the morning light, sucking for air between sobs, clinging to my child's spot.
"There is no emptiness like the emptiness of the house from which a child has gone away," wrote Caryll Houselander, pinpointing my mother's pain, my pain. Stripped of our beloved child, we are like Mary – drained and moaning with a loss we know we must bear. The child must leave – that person into whom we have poured every ounce of self and devotion, and then more, that person must leave.
And it is in their leaving, in missing Mariruthe, that we are, thereby, made to seek God, I knew. It is when God leaves us, when that exquisite pain of losing divine love brings us to our knees, that we find Him again. I dried my eyes, remembering how missing Mariruthe brought my mother and me toward each other, toward God's love. In her leaving, in the grip of crushing loss, we were made to seek love again – and to find in each other the divine we so readily neglected. "I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you" (16 Jn 7).
"Where are You?" I pleaded into my daughter's absence. "Let me find You again, dear God," I prayed, pushing away from her bedroom, suddenly wondering where my two red-haired, rowdy sons were hiding. I went off to search.