Enable high contrast reading
My Sister and My Mom
I look up to my mom more than anyone else in the world. As I sat across the dinner table from her at my grandparents’ house the night before she spoke on Kiss 108’s ‘Matty in the Morning’ show last week, I was bombarded with appreciation and awe for not only who she is, but what she has done and will continue to do.
I was three months old when my sister Cameron died and have no memory of when she was alive. I have no memory of the house filled with family and friends, like it is described to me. I have no memory of her second birthday party when Dan Zanes came to play and people danced in a circle in the back yard. I have no memory of her memorial service, or her burial, or sprinkling her ashes in the stream in Vermont. I only know what I have been told. It sometimes feels like I can remember it all, simply because I have seen so many pictures, heard so many stories, and read her favorite story book annually on her birthday. My parents never had to sit me down and explain to me that I had a sister that had died. I grew up with the knowledge— like understanding that your grandparents are your parents’ parents—of the fact that Cameron existed was innate and obvious to me. Her photographs hang on the walls of our house. Her room became the guest room, but to us it remained “Cameron’s Room”. She has always been a part of my life, even if I have no direct memory of her.
Every year on the anniversary of her death, we watch a video that my mom made, filled with pictures and videos that capture who Cameron was in the two years of life that she got. I remember my parents crying every time that they watched it, and I couldn’t fully understand why, only thinking that I should have been crying too. My parents and sister tell funny stories of me watching the video or reading her picture book and blinking rapidly as I tried to make my eyes water. I didn’t fully understand what death or Cameron meant, only that it made my parents cry. As I grew older, I began to understand who Cameron was. Again, I have no recollection of the moment that it all clicked, but sometime between the days of blinking my eyes and second grade, Cameron became a person. Cameron wasn’t just a photograph on a wall. She wasn’t just an angel ornament hanging from a tree or a figure that ate chocolate cake on my TV screen. She was my sister. She was a person that could have ridden in the car with me on the way to school. We could have fought about who had to feed the cats and do the dishes. I began thinking about what it would be like if instead of a bland guest room, “Cameron’s Room” meant bunk-beds and messy clothes and perfume. Cameron became real to me and that made it all the much harder. But talking about it made it all the much easier.
This year in English class we read Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “A Temporary Matter”, in which a husband and wife lose a child and end up divorcing because of it. They lose touch with their extended family and stop talking to one another, never mentioning what happened or what they went through, instead eating dinner in front of the TV, going to bed without any acknowledgment of the other person. People in my class began talking about all the stories they had heard of similar circumstances. A tragedy that went untalked about, only existing in the wedges that it made between people. A girl mentioned her cousin’s family who lost a son but never spoke of it, and she herself had only learned of it at the age of fourteen. People connected the situation to other books that had been written about the same issue, and I sat awestruck as the words flowed around me. Finally, I spoke up saying, “Maybe death doesn’t always weaken families. Maybe it can bring them together and strengthen them”. Because, lord knows, that’s what it did to us. Not only did my sister die from a rare fatal disease, but my cousin Hayden did as well, and I have never seen a closer or more interconnected and emotionally involved family than mine, nuclear and extended. Cameron and Hayden are not secrets and mentioning their name is not a sin, but instead celebrated. For my entire life it seemed normal for this to be the way a family would respond to a death. Strength, light and love grew from it. Not despair, anger and resentment. My family made it look almost easy to go through such a tragedy, and it took me a long time to realize that it’s rare to be so positive in your response to losing someone you love, let alone two.
Most of all though, it was my mom who made it look easy. I knew that it hurt her to think about Cameron, and I saw her cry every year as we watched the video, but she never seemed destroyed by it. Many people say that there is nothing worse than a mother losing her child, and while I am sure this is true, my mom sure as hell didn’t make it seem like it was. In all my memories I cannot think of a single moment that my mom shut down because of Cameron’s death. There is not a single time that she lashed out at someone because of her grief, not a single moment that she stopped being someone to look up to. She tells the parents whom she helps that sometimes you need to curl into a ball and cry, allowing yourself to feel the grief. You need to let the sadness in and experience it fully in order to move on. But the key to all of this is the moving on. My only memories of my mom from my early childhood are of a put together woman who works hard, loves deeply, and laughs fully. They aren’t of a broken down, defeated mother who has given up. Just as Cameron’s death strengthened our family, it seemed to strengthen her, and because of this I didn’t fully understand how hard the death of a child could be. I took it for granted that my mom handled everything so well, never realizing how strong she was.
My mom has taken this strength and chosen to share it with the world. At 45 years old my mom left her job working at WGBH in order to do something she really cared about. That takes serious guts. Movies, books, magazines, plays and almost everything else make it seem like once you’ve reached your forties you’re stuck. You have a family and a house and an identity and a job and all those years of dreaming about the future have ended, because now you’re living it. But not my mom. My mom showed me that you can switch up your career halfway through life. She showed me that you’re not stuck where you are, or imprisoned in the way that you live. She showed me the importance of loving what you do. She wanted to use her experience and strength from losing a child to help others. She wanted to LOVE what she did, and now she does.
And the greatest part of it all is that what she loves to do means assisting others. Courageous Parents Network (CPN) is still a pretty new creation, in its infant years, but already it has been so helpful to families around the country. In the very early stages it was relatively unclear if it would help people at all, or if it would be successful in its attempts to make grieving easier. When my mom entered a ‘competition’ of many socially innovative nonprofit organizations, there were no expectations that CPN was going to win it. As each stage of the ‘competition’ wore on, and my mom continued to be called back for more presentations on what CPN was, it became clear how needed, revolutionary and respected her organization was. It was the first moment that everyone seemed to realize, “Wow. Blyth’s really doing something amazing”. And as time has worn on, she has proven just how true that is. People all over the country now reach out to her and the team, thanking them for what CPN has done for them.
However, my mom doesn’t fully admit how cool she really is. When I heard that the Boston Globe wanted to write an article on her, or that Matty of Kiss 108’s “Matty in the Morning” (that I’ve been listening to since birth!) had invited her to talk on the radio, my heart was first filled with pride for her. I’d say something along the lines of “Mom. You’re so cool. Do you understand how awesome this is?” and she would generally respond with, “It’s good, yes, but its not a huge deal. People appreciate what I’m doing and want to publicize it a bit, nothing big,”. Well Mom, I think it’s huge, and so do many others.
So Mom, thank you. Thank you for showing me that death doesn’t mean utter despair, but photographs and laughter and happy memories. Thank you for showing me how important it is to do something you love. Thank you for showing me not to be afraid of going after what I want. Thank you for showing me that I’m never stuck, and that there is never a deadline to changing my future. Thank you for showing me that humility and kindness are always important. Thank you for showing me how important it is to help others. And thank you for showing me that work and family can go hand in hand.