The Private Pain of a Motherless Child

A daughter's struggle to find new life.

by Kristy McHaney

My mother’s screams startled me out of sleep that November morning in 1978. When I scrambled out of bed and ran to my parents’ room, I found Mother grabbing her head, rocking back and forth, and yelling at my father “Joseph,* help me!”

I froze in fear. What’s happening to Mom? I saw her bottles of headache pills strewn across the bathroom counter. Why weren’t they relieving the pain?

Only nine years old at the time, I didn’t fully understand what was going. No sooner had Kathryn, my 17-year-old sister, called for an ambulance than Mom fell on the floor and went into convulsions. My 15-year-old brother, Micheal, rushed to her side, held her tongue back to keep her from swallowing it, and lay her on the bed. Then my mother became still — lifeless.

Though my dad wasn’t an emotional man, I expected him to at least comfort my mother. He did nothing but stand in shocked silence with the rest of us until the paramedics arrived.

Futile surgery

At the hospital, doctors told us my mother had suffered a Berry Aneurysm. One doctor drew me a picture of my mother’s brain and explained what they would do for her in surgery. The surgical team feverishly operated on a vein in her neck, but couldn’t stop the bleeding in her brain. When we finally saw her, my stately, sophisticated mother lay like a vegetable, laced with tubes and pumped to life by a respirator.

Everything in me wanted to yank out the tubes and talk to my mother and have her comfort me and take her home so our lives could be normal again. But that would not happen: After surgery Mom slipped into a coma, then died the following evening.

Outbreak of anger

Kathryn and I picked out a silvery gray and white casket. I was glad to be part of the plans. The day of the funeral I bubbled with hope: “I know I’m going to be spoiled for a little while,” I told my aunt and grandma as we rode to the cemetery. “But after that I’ll take good care of my dad and do all the shopping and the cooking.”

In the following months, however, my hope deflated to anger. The vice president of a local bank, Dad frequently went out of town on business. He didn’t talk about Mom when he was home and didn’t allow us to talk about her or to openly mourn her death.

Though I often shared my grief with my grandmother, I couldn’t take the silence at home. I broke a chair once, hit myself on the legs, and punched the walls.

Secret shame

Eight months after my mom died, my emotions received another blow. While at a party at our neighbor’s house, I was molested by a man who said he had known my mother. I wanted desperately to run home and tell Mom what had happened.

Instead, I kept silent for at least a year out of shame and fear of what others would think. I finally told my dad and brother, but until my adult years I lived with a fear of older men.

Radical changes

In my thirteenth year I experienced the most radical changes since my mother’s death. I started my menstrual cycles, but had no idea what was happening until a friend’s mother explained it to me. Again I wondered Why isn’t Mom here to help me with this?

More and more, the silence at home pushed me into doing the wrong things with the wrong people in the wrong places. I flirted with an 18-year-old neighbor boy; he raped me on a date. With my seventh-grade friends I started drinking liquor and smoking pot. We tried mushrooms, speed, and cocaine and smoked cigarettes.

Gentle stranger

When I reached ninth grade, a positive turn in my life came through a total stranger. Soon after Dad, Micheal, and I moved into a new house (Kathryn had moved out), a man came by asking to buy a bed frame in our garage. For some reason, he asked me, “Do you know who Jesus is?”

This man was kind and gentle — so different from the men I’d known so far. Looking back, I know God sent him. I had been raised Catholic, had gone to church, and had heard of Jesus; but these weren’t enough. I desperately wanted to know God’s love and feel His peace within me. I knew my life had gone in the wrong direction. After more conversation, the man prayed with me, and I asked Jesus Christ to forgive my sins.

Some old neighbor friends attended the same church as this man, so I went a few times. Though I knew Christ had forgiven me, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t follow Jesus and still listen to Black Sabbath and smoke pot. Soon the drugs and music won, and I stopped going to church.

Bad reputation

At 16 I got my first car. Six months later I got pregnant and decided on abortion. Having an abortion as a teen was one of the most shameful, repulsive, lonely times of my life. I was just one of an assembly line of girls who were treated matter-of-factly by the doctor and nurses. I never told my dad about the abortion, but ached to tell my mom. I swore to myself that if I ever became pregnant again, I would keep the baby no matter what.

By my senior year I had gained the reputation as a tough girl who could snort cocaine quicker than anyone. My friends called me the Hoover vacuum cleaner. I couldn’t see cocaine, smell it, or hear about it without getting and using it as fast as I could. And I didn’t like to share.

My relationship with my father didn’t help. Though I knew he loved me, he didn’t know how to show genuine affection. He proved his love with his credit cards and checkbook. I bought whatever clothes I wanted and had spending money, but never had any real responsibilities. By my senior year in high school, I was on my second car with my own gas card; I didn’t have to pay the insurance. I had a part-time job, $2-per-day lunch money, $10-per-week allowance, an ATM card. And it all went right up my nose.

College life

I miraculously graduated high school with a 1.4 grade point average and, with just a diploma, was accepted at a local two-year college. I determined to take studying seriously, but after three months, I became pregnant again. Remembering my promise to never have another abortion, I quit drugs cold turkey and carried my daughter with no problems.

The father of my child didn’t want to pay child support. When I told my dad I was keeping the baby, he said, “You’ll be alone the rest of your life. No one will want you.” When he said I wouldn’t be covered under his insurance, I quit school to get a second job to pay for my expenses.

Finding the right road

About that time, I met George at my second job. He was easy to talk to and kind. When he learned I was pregnant, he would bring me orange juice and take me to lunch. We started dating about a month later. George moved in with me and my daughter just after she was born, and we married the year she turned two.

When my daughter was three months old, I was home watching the 700 Club, a Christian TV show. I don’t recall what the speaker said exactly — something about second chances. I knew I needed a second chance with God — to go back to the right road I’d found years before — so I rededicated my life to Christ. Shortly after that I found a church and was baptized. It was not a dramatic conversion or rededication, but I knew in my heart that I was forgiven and clean.

Saying goodbye

Thirteen years after my mother’s death, God impressed me to write letters to Mom and tell her who I had become and what I had gone through. God reminded me of the good times I’d share with her when she was alive. I told her about George and my daughters, Shanna and Jennifer. I also told her about my new relationship to God and what He means to me.

In a second letter, I told my mother I was angry with her for not being here for George and me and especially for the girls. “But,” I continued, “I have a special peace in knowing that God is watching over me.” I finally told my mother I forgave her for leaving us.

These letters weren’t just words on paper; they were a source of healing and release. Through my writing them, God healed me of the pain I’d endured in losing my mother and in living life without her. After years of silence about her death, I was finally able to say goodbye.

New creation

Four years ago I returned to my hometown to see some family and old friends. Two girls I had known in high school were in jail. Another guy had been sentenced to nine years in prison for cocaine possession. Some of my married friends were now divorced and some were strung out on crack.

During our visit, my friends offered me crank — one of my favorite drugs. I smelled it; thank God, I didn’t want it. My mind focused instead on a truth from the New Testament: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).

Every day I live as a new creation, free from drugs and a sinful past. The pain of losing my mother is no longer private: God knows it and has healed it. Though still without a mother, I live as the child of One who will never leave.

* Names have been changed.