Golf Digest WomanSeptember 29, 2010

Golf and grief

Ever ponder the healing properties of the game of golf? The following essay was sent to us by reader Janet Wiley Mulderrig:

I miss my mother. I knew I would, but I didn't expect to find myself in tears at the oddest moments, months after the fact. Of the hundred people I've told that I recently lost my mother, almost all of them have said the exact same thing, "You never really get over the loss of your mother." I'm beginning to think they are right. I admit, I'm a baby about this. There is something to be said about birth order. Once the baby, always the baby -- even if I am 52.

I played my first round of golf almost 21 years ago. I know this because it was Thanksgiving morning in 1989, and nine days later my daughter, Maggie, was born. My mom, my husband Topper and I went out to Cedar Ridge Golf Course in Gettysburg, Pa., to kill some time and let the turkey cook. My mom had been working there part-time since my father died earlier that year. She didn't make much money, but she could play all the golf she wanted to, free. Topper remembers the day because he claims he was having the best round of golf in his life, and I made him stop. He's forgotten that it was 10 degrees outside, and I was nine months pregnant. Golf can do that to you, I've been told. That day, the game had little appeal to me.

For the next 20 years I probably played golf two or three times a year, mostly in tournaments where the format was "best ball." My mother supplied me with clubs, and a bag. She gave me colored tees and new boxes of balls for Christmas. She found a golf umbrella for me, and then a PING putter in the golf outlet store. She saved and gave me her old Golf Digest magazines, which I never read, instructional videos to help perfect my swing, whiffle balls so I could practice my chip shots in the back yard. My mom had the bug. I was only mildly interested.

Every couple of years I would play with my mom and her friends, from Bowie or Gettysburg.   Usually I was having some sort of crisis and needed a day away from everything -- loss of a job, or the start of a diet -- some rite of passage. I'd get all sorts of helpful hints on those days -- "You've got to SEE the ball." "Pretend you are holding a basketball in between your legs." "Keep your wrists straight." "Don't let those asshole men behind us intimidate you.  We're going fast enough."

In May of 2009, on my birthday, I took a day off of work and drove up to Gettysburg to spend a day with my mother. We played a round of golf together at Piney Apple, a remote course amidst the apple orchards just about a half an hour north of her house. It was a beautiful day-- one where you are just glad to be alive, and outdoors. No one seemed to be on the course but us. We chatted and played, played and chatted, and then chatted some more. She gave me a few golf tips along the way and a bag of extra tees. I had a few decent drives. She played, as she always did, with ease. Her balance wasn't that great, but I decided it was the hilly terrain.  I took some photographs that day, and we had lunch together afterwards. I remember it well.

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When I finally realized that my mother was going to die this past March, it came to me about two weeks later than it should have. All the signs were there* [Ed.'s note: Helen Wiley passed away after a sudden brain aneurism at age 81]*, but you know how it is, the baby is always the last to know. Blissfully unaware.

Losing my mom threw me completely off balance. My relationships with everyone changed. Nothing was the same and I couldn't seem to find my footing. Some days I said too much, and other days not enough. I'd reach for the phone to tell her my latest achievement or disaster, and then I'd realize she wasn't there. The years I'd taken for granted that she'd always be around were no more.

Nothing seemed to be able to make me feel better. I tried, I honestly did. I went for runs. I watched what I ate. I took my vitamins and tried to get enough sleep. I worked hard, and tried to be polite. But in the end, I was still unsatisfied. I wanted my mother. I was, after all, the baby.

Suddenly, I had all this extra time once my mother was no longer here. There were hours to fill, whereas in the past, I'd never have enough time to do the things I wanted to do. Too many obligations. And so, in an effort to fill some of those moments, my husband and I began playing golf -- nine holes of "early bird" golf on Saturday mornings over the summer. Our first time out, I managed to find the golf shoes my mother bought for me, and grabbed her golf bag, and figured I'd fake the rest.

When I unzipped her golf bag the first time out, I panicked a bit. I knew I was entering into an emotional zone, but after sorting through all of her things and looking at all her photos and mementos over the past few months, I figured I was prepared for anything...  On that first day out, whatever I needed was there in her bag. There were three gloves, two dozen balls, and tees and markers of every size and shape. There was bug spray, and suntan lotion, and lipstick. There was ibuprophen and acetaminophen, and aspirin. There were band aids, a visor, and a waterproof jacket. There were See's lollipops, a bottle of water, and even a five-dollar bill. There was a four-leaf clover for luck. And there was Kleenex with evidence of bright pink lipstick. (I must admit to tearing up a bit when I found these.)

Then a funny thing happened. I actually enjoyed golf. I felt the presence of Helen Wiley everywhere. It was a bit like having her open her arms to give me a hug. She was with me that day, and all the days I played golf this summer.

This morning Topper and I played at Pine Ridge again -- the first time in more than a month.   I've been playing all summer, mostly with a 3-hybrid club given to me by a friend of my mother's a few years ago. Today we were paired with two men who seemed happy to be with us, and as with most rounds of golf, we all had our share of good and bad shots. I found myself thinking about my mom, and felt her presence as we progressed through each hole. I decided to try to "channel" her golf abilities, and remembered how she would take her time and swing easily without trying to kill the ball. It seemed to be working.  On hole number 14, I took a ball out of my pocket that I had found (which meant I was prepared to lose it since the first shot is over water) and went around the back of the cart to get my club.  Somehow I was inspired to try something new, and grabbed a driver. I placed the ball, got into position and reminded myself to look at the ball and to swing slowly and easily. My ball sailed through the air and landed on the other side of the water just below the green. And I realized that in the 75 times I had played golf, more or less, in the past 21 years, I had never been successful in hitting a ball over a body of water. Never. Until today. Perhaps it was taking a risk, or trying something once again, but this time with confidence. Perhaps practice makes perfect. Maybe I just kept my eye on the ball. Honestly, I am not at all sure. But I do know I am hooked. Completely.

I think I will always miss my mother, as others tell me. But there are things she's still trying to tell me, to teach me. After all, I am the baby.

-- Janet Wiley Mulderrig