She is in my laughter. She is in the leaves. She is in the tiny age spots cropping up on my cheeks. She is all around me in my humor and my memories but she is gone.
That sound at the back of my throat when a cackle escapes, or a weep emerges, came from her. Smiling up at the trees as I take photos that I can no longer share with her. The thoughts that slither into my slumber and wake me with the past are there as well. It’s been three months as of today since my mother passed but it feels as if it’s been a week. I’m very alone in my grief, spare for the moments I speak with my siblings or friends that knew my mother well. Disenfranchised grief is what it’s referred to as but I think that sounds like a financial term. A more accurate description would be lonely grief. There isn’t a family home to return to or a gathering of elders to care for me as I mourn her. Like so many in the time of COVID, I am expected to carry on as if I wasn’t debilitated with an episode of smothering depression.
Platitudes don’t reassure me and the reassurances of some greater wisdom leaves me with a hollow fury that burns in my throat. There is no meaning to death. It is an inescapable event that equalizes us all like the biology of our bodies that betrays us with its messiness and needs. There is the chaos of existence and the unfairness of the end. There is no great purpose or fate. My mother didn’t deserve to suffer anymore than the next person. No magic ball or religious relic can prophesy the answers for us. There is no karma to blame. I am at once thankful for having her and enraged at her loss. Angry with her for not taking better care of herself and furious at the world for taking her away.
There is only life while we have it and the chance to love. To me, life isn’t the other side of the coin to death but love. We love while we can until we die. The chaos and unfairness of life are constant just as much as love. We fall in love with the wrong people and fall out of love with the right ones all too often and rarely in the right order. Then when our beloved is gone, we mourn them whether they were a hero or a villain because we love them all the same.
We seek enlightenment and order out of the random violence and tragedy of this life because to admit that there is no greater knowledge to be sought from pain, fear, sadness, anger, and suffering would be to acknowledge there is no justice to any of it and we are powerless to control such events. We travel through the chaos looking for order and meaning only to find more questions without answers. All the while chastising ourselves because current societal norms dictate that we are to rise above our grief and persevere over something that cannot be cured. That is to be human.
We can be grateful but it doesn’t require shutting out that which pains us. Gratitude is only found in the comparison of what we lack and suffering is only felt when we have experienced joy or contentment. To experience one without the other doesn’t conjure up the true pathos of that emotion. Death versus love. We are grateful for the joy and pleasure we find on our way from living to death but not all of us love as we wish and that might be the greatest tragedy of them all. Pain, sadness, anger, and fear are unavoidable certainties and the respite from them is love.
My secret hope is that my mother truly knew she was loved and had loved someone greatly. She claimed that her children were her deepest love. Maybe that was true. Now I’ll never know. I only have trinkets and mementos to go by and the emails and messages from her. Rereading them is too painful at moments and at others I laugh aloud only to mourn her more keenly.
My mother didn’t like my writing. Not all of it or most of it any way. I don’t say this with bitterness but with my full admiration of the irony and paradox which was my mom. She enjoyed my writing about the kids but any other published work was readily dismissed by her as not measuring up. She even managed, before she lost her ability to speak, to tell me that she was “generally proud” of me “for being a mom”. Her last dig before she slipped into unconsciousness. It was one of our eternal debates that will now never be settled and yet, in honor of her because she was the queen of facetiousness, it will be by me writing about it and getting the last word by outliving her.
I watched a performance of a theater production, “Every Brilliant Thing”, on HBO recently. Without giving much away, it is a one-man show where the actor involves the audience to play his co-stars in scripted vignettes but without much warning to each individual. The channel describes the film “recounts a life lived in the shadow of suicide”. I disagree, I think it is an inspired play about struggling to find meaning in life despite clinical depression or the unbearableness of existence that we all encounter at some point in some measure. The title itself refers to the list that the main character creates to convince his mother that life is worth living but I like to think of it as an overture of love to the act of living.
I don’t believe in good or bad parents. Mom staunchly and heatedly disagreed with me on this and was fiercely proud of my parenting and her own yet admitted crippling guilt over her poor choices that haunt her children still. It baffled, amused, and hurt me equally that to her that was the only thing she saw in me to be proud of and that she didn’t believe me when I said I forgave her. I felt guilty that I didn’t relish in this praise. The added layer of irony was her own maxim was “you’re never “just’a” anything”.
It was as if you had poured your heart into a painting that was being displayed with awards and had your mother comment on your shoes instead. That actually happened between us. That was typical of our exchanges. I loved her and always wanted her acceptance but it was an elusive achievement.
All parents have the capacity for doing well one moment and terrible the next just like we all do at living our lives. Some parents seem to have it together or make better choices but, since we inevitably make mistakes, deep down I think we’re all just trying to help our kids survive their childhood with as much enjoyment as possible. This is why I try not to generalize my view of my own mother’s parenting because so much of it was conflicting and to do so would be to judge her unfairly. Ultimately, it just leaves me miserable to only focus on her poor choices and instances of cruelty because there was so much love and brilliance about her life that shouldn’t be forgotten. Because, after all the arguments and misunderstandings, what I remember most about her is her love.
The fuzz on her cheeks that brushed against me as we hugged. The green glint in her eyes when she was up to mischief or about to laugh. Her incredible red hair from when I was a child that I’ve never seen the equal to since. Dark auburn waves of thick hair to her waist like a Celtic queen. I would brush and braid her hair for hours if she let me.
The way she picked fabric pills off my socks when we cuddled on the couch. The smell of her baking and the joy of when she let me help. The times she was kind to me and gave me her undivided attention when I was sad or sick (a rarity with four children to raise). Feeling as if I was unwanted and dejected after giving my heart out on stage and thinking no one came to watch me only to have her greet me afterwards and congratulate me until my heart burst with pride. The look on her face when I was awarded my scholarships. The weekend afternoons when we would eat the perfect bacon cheeseburgers made on hoagie rolls at her favorite spot, Tee-Time (we forgave them for the golfing pun) in Grants Pass, and watch people walking down main street from the cozy dimly lit table by the crisp white window panes.
Her laughter in a movie theater that sounded like Eddie Murphy. The embarrassing hilarity of when dirty tissues fell out of her sleeves from where they had been tucked. The way she was impatient with servers and would get her own coffee drove me mad with mortification. Walking through the South Park blocks in Portland and talking about life while holding her hand. Having to park the car for her because her eyesight was failing and basically reenacting a Mr. Bean comedy sketch in the process. Debating politics with her and surprising one another as much with our agreements as our disagreements. Loving the cold and hating the summer heat as much as her and knowing when to send her ice cream or flowers as an adult. She was crap at presents but always called me on my birthday and loved the outings I planned for her. The last time I hugged her while she was lucid was a week before her death and she smiled at me, “You’re so beautiful, I love you.”
The sound of her reading to me as a child and then when she read to her grandchildren. The bad Christmas gifts, the rainy Easter hunts with the grandkids, sharing books, yardsaling, watching English comedies with the captions on and having to explain them to her, documentaries that we cried over, and hearing her rant about the annoyances of life like her own angry standup routine.
I took a trip to the ocean recently with a dear childhood friend, Tara. I had planned on scattering some of my mom’s ashes while we were there but realized that my mom was never fond of water. When I explained this to my friend we both cracked up. We slept with the windows open that night to listen to the waves. I dreamed that night of walking with my mother as a child and I could feel her hair brushing my hand that was straining upwards to keep a hold of her. My hand slipped and I lost her in a crowd of people that had suddenly appeared along with a cloud of smoke. I could hear her crying but I couldn’t grasp her hand. She was just out of my reach, like so many moments I tried to connect with her in life, and now she’ll forever be so.
I woke from the dream in the early morning hours and I could smell a bonfire from the beach down below. My mother never slept well and hated the smell of smoke despite being a smoker for sixty plus years. She would merely shrug and giggle at the contradiction in herself as I did now. The panic subsided of the dream and the ridiculousness of her incongruity and my own struck me as comical. Here I am in my forties, panicked by a bonfire and a seagull staring at me as I wake at 3 a.m. and there’s nothing to fear other than my imagination.
Most of my life I chased after my mother’s approval and acceptance yet she claimed again and again that I had it yet behaved as if I didn’t and would tell me I had let her down when she was angry. Was I wrong? Did it matter? In the end, does any of it really matter other than honoring the love you had for the person and they for you? We’re all flawed yet lovable like a toddler in a toy store without any supervision. Wreaking havoc and yet experiencing joy despite the damage we leave behind.
My children will never fully know what they’ve lost with her passing because they didn’t have the chance to know her long enough that they would remember her like I wished. Their gratitude will be felt someday when they truly miss her, or the idea of a grandmother, and know that they have lost her yet they will never really know what was lost other than the memories I share and the stories I’ll be sure to tell them.