September 21, 1993
as told to C. Shauck
A READER’S STORY
Kim Smoke was four years old when her mother was murdered. She never got over the loss. Instead, as a troubled teenager, she turned to drugs to numb her pain . . . until one day she realized she had to turn her life around – to make her mother proud.
If Mama can see me now, I know she’s smiling.
When I hold my nine-month-old daughter Ashley, I feel so complete. Being a mother is the most important thing in the world to me, yet at times I can’t believe I really am a mother. I’m lucky just to be alive.
When I was a teenager, I was so grief-stricken over my own mother’s death that I nearly destroyed myself with drugs. Yet it’s only because of Mama that I’m here today to love my little girl and feel joy. Like a ‘guardian angel, she’s been watching over me.
My mother disappeared when I was only four years old. I remember the night she left me and my six-year-old brother Toby with a baby sitter, promising us she’d be back soon.
But Mama didn’t come home that night. When she hadn’t returned by the next morning, the baby sitter called the police. They contacted my dad (he and Mama had been divorced for three years), who picked us up and took us-to his house.
Confused and frightened, I cried, “Where’s Mama?” Gail, my step mom, tried to comfort me, but I pushed her away. “I want my Mama!”I cried.
When my mother hadn’t returned for several days, Dad finally told me that she was lost and the police were looking for her. A year later, a hunter found her body. My father told me she’d died in an. accident.
Without Mama, I felt lost. Because I was the baby in our family, Mama had doted on me. She would dress me up and take me for rides in her convertible to show me off.
She was a dispatcher in the sheriff’s office. Because she wore a uniform and a badge, I’d always thought that she was the sheriff. I was so proud.
Dad wouldn’t let me go to the funeral. I know now that he was trying to protect me, but perhaps if I’d seen where she was buried, I might have understood her death better.
When I was eight, I came home from school one day and demanded to know why some of the kids whispered and pointed at me. I was so insistent that Gail took out an envelope filled with newspaper clippings.
Although I didn’t understand every word, I did realize that mama hadn’t died in an accident. Someone had hit her over the head and killed her.
Her boyfriend – a married co-worker – had been arrested, but because of a lack of evidence, he’d never stood trial. One article reported that Mama had been four months pregnant when she died.
Perhaps because he was older, Toby was able to accept Mama’s death better than I was. Although he missed her, eventually he got over his grief. I, however, became difficult and rebellious. I wouldn’t listen to anyone _ especially Gail.
“Just leave me alone!” I’d yell at her. “You’re not my mother!”
Hoping for a fresh start, Dad moved us from Arkansas to California. But I just couldn’t leave my problems behind.
I started running away from home when I was 13. I never got far, but I kept thinking that if I could get back to Arkansas, I’d find Mama. I couldn’t believe she was gone forever.
At 15, I began drinking and using marijuana and methamphetamine.
I missed Mama so much. All I had to remember her by was a framed picture and a few poems she’d written before she died.
A line from one poem stuck in my mind: The past is done; let it go. I wished that I could forget the past, but I didn’t think I could ever get over my mother’s death.
By the time I was 16, the drugs had begun to wear me down. I was 5 foot 8 and weighed only 88 pounds. I didn’t care if I lived or died. Finally, my dad forced me to check into a rehabilitation center.
Part of the treatment involved group therapy. At first, I sullenly listened to everyone talk. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t think anyone could understand how I felt. But my counselor kept asking me about my mother until one day I finally broke down.
“She’s dead!” I sobbed. “Someone killed her and I’ll never see her again!”
Maybe it was saying it out laud, or seeing the sadness in everyone’s eyes, but I finally believed that Mama was really gone.
After 10 months at the center, I went home. Two weeks after I was released, I refused drugs offered to me at a party. I pictured Mama smiling at me. I smiled too, thinking how proud she would be.
As time passed, I realized that Gail had never tried to take my mother’s place. Once I stopped pushing her away, she became my best friend. We began having fun together, going shopping and out for Chinese food. She even helped me get a job where she worked.
When I was 18, we moved back to Arkansas. I avoided visiting Mama’s grave because I thought it would be too painful.
But then one day, I was thinking about Mama when I again recalled the line from’ her poem: The past is done; let it go.
Feeling as though she was trying to tell me something, I drove to the cemetery. Kneeling in the grass by her grave, I felt at peace for the first time since her disappearance.
“I love you, Mama
Since that day, I met and married my husband Timothy. And last October, I gave birth to our daughter, Ashley.
We live in a cozy house in the woods. I know that if Mama can see me, she’s smiling. I’m finally happy.
putting the past to rest
Kim Smoke’s need to visit her mother’s grave and say a formal goodbye was natural and healthy, says Gloria Kardong, M.D., a psychiatrist on the clinical faculty at Stanford University.
When young children who lose a loved one aren’t given the opportunity to express their grief – or aren’t old enough to put their feelings into words or even to understand their pain – they often carry the heartache with them as they mature.
“The pain doesn’t just go away,” says Dr. Kardong. Those who have experienced childhood trauma need to symbolically put the past to rest, as Kim did.
“A ritual (such as visiting a parents grave) helps a person release the pain and allows them to go on with their life,” she says.