The thread in the hand of a kind mother
Is the coat on the wanderer’s back.
Before he left she stitched it close
In secret fear that he would be slow to return.
Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?
-Mèng Jiaō (751-814)
(transl. by A.C. Graham)
I lost my mom last month. I wasn’t nearly ready to say goodbye to her, and I’m not at all sure how ready I am to start writing about her death at any length here, but Mother’s Day looms large, especially when the loss and the grieving is still so fresh.
My email inbox and the internet in general have been constant reminders of Mother’s Day – gifts to be purchased, celebrations to be planned, and time to be spent appreciating those who brought us into this world. I tried to steer clear of the Mother’s Day card displays at the store and to overlook online advertisements for Mother’s Day gifts, but there’s really no getting away from it. Even walking down the street or driving down the road, the reminders are here, there, and everywhere. It’s ubiquitous.
Not that I need reminding. My mom’s absence is, for now at least, unbelievably, painfully present for me, and the coming and going of an event like Mother’s Day will just be one reminder amongst many – some expected, some unexpected – that I can’t call her up to talk, that I won’t be seeing her the next time I visit home, that we’ll never get around to watching another movie together, or talking with each other about the books we’re reading and the projects we’re working on, and that all the lessons she taught me over the years are now mine to carry forward, in a way that was never so true before.
I’ve lost extended family members before, people I loved dearly, but I never realized how hard it could be to accept that someone you relied on so much – for good counsel and good humor, for love and compassion – was gone. I’m not a kid anymore, to be sure, but losing my mom has made me feel, at certain moments, awfully small, terribly alone, and completely ill-equipped to make it through all this.
At the same time, over the last month or so, I’ve been surprised how many people have said something to me along the lines of, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.” I know everyone’s grief is, in some sense, their own affair, and maybe it isn’t possible to fully understand what another person is going through at a time like this. But, if I’m honest, this phrase, along with its several variants, feels like a bit of a dodge. After all, there are few things in life more definite than life’s own finitude. Our time here is precious, to be sure, but always precarious as well. There’s a brink to be considered, a shadow around the edges, a boundary path that leads, in the end, to parts unknown, to “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”
This world – this life – is beautiful, but, barring some extraordinary intervention, none of us are getting out of here alive, and no person’s world can remain untouched by loss forever. It’s true that my mom wasn’t yet elderly, that she was still working, still actively engaged in the world and with her family and her community – and she planned to stay that way a while longer. Despite her health struggles, she still had a lot of living left in her. But it’s also true that she was subject to the same mortality we all share, the same ultimate human frailty as everyone else. Sooner or later, each one of us approaches that threshold, that liminal space between what’s here-and-now and whatever lies out beyond our ken, in the place beyond our knowing.
I wonder whether, when people say to me, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” it isn’t – in part at least – a way to hold another’s painful experience at arm’s length, to dissociate oneself from a difficult part of this shared human existence. I’m not judging anyone for this kind of response – and I’ve said similar things myself to others in the past – but I do wonder whether it’s that we can’t imagine or that we won’t imagine – that we’d rather not contemplate this fundamental and unavoidable aspect of reality because the thought of it hurts too much, because it hits too close to our own brokenness, or because to do so might force us, as Thoreau writes, to “consider the way in which we spend our lives.” That’s good work, that is, but it’s tough work, too, and it can be pretty harrowing. The examined life is, as often as not, no picnic.
A reflection I once heard in a lecture on Buddhism went, “Since death is certain, and the time of death uncertain, how then shall we live our lives?” Or, as Jesus put it, “Walk while you have the light.” And, for good measure, we also have Tolkien on the subject: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” That phrasing perhaps makes the task sound simpler than it is. Redeeming the time is the work of a lifetime just as much as it is the work of the present moment, and it’s not easy.
As for my own present moment, I know a month isn’t much time in the dark realms of grief, and I know the process will be ongoing for some time, maybe a very long time. I’m working right now on just getting through the day-to-day, and I’m still far from figuring out the next steps on my own journey and what to do with these next precious moments in the time I’ve been given. For whatever good it’s been to me, it’s in my nature to be always reflecting on life and how to live it well, and I can already tell that losing my mom is going to add more fuel to that inner fire, that unceasing desire to make the most of the time.
For now, I’m trying to keep loved ones and friends close, to be more regularly in touch over the telephone or text messages or email. I’m trying to write some of my thoughts down, though it isn’t always easy. And I’m trying to stay present, as well as I can, to let the feelings, and the tears, come when they come and go when they go, and not to shut out the loneliness and the loss, the hurt and the sadness, but to treat each guest (even these) honorably. I can’t say yet what fruit this time of sorrow will bear, or what sort of changes I might undergo as I pass through it, but I’m trying to stay open to finding out.
I’m glad her suffering is over, but I really miss my mom, and it’s hard to say goodbye.
Mother’s Day was tough this year, and a bit on the bitter side for me personally. But, even so, I found that a part of me could still say “Happy Mother’s Day.” It’s now a day of remembrance as much as a day of celebration. For my part, I’ve found myself reflecting on happy memories and on the person my mother was – because she really was incredible – and I’ve got an awful lot to be grateful for in having had her in my life all these years – even if I would still have wished for many, many more.
It’s a lovely thing, to be born, despite life’s many challenges, and to live is indeed a gift – even if it takes some of us a long time and a lot of work to figure out what to do with that gift. For now, for today, I suspect it’s enough just to live, just to be alive, just to see the sky above our heads and feel the earth beneath our feet and to know that we’re still here – for the time being at least – still learning and loving and growing in whatever ways we can, still taking the world into our arms.
For the time being, I’ll try to keep moving forward in faith and looking back in thankfulness.
I guess, in addition to making the most of the time that is given, we also, at some point, have to be willing to make the most of the time that is past – the lessons that have been learned, the stories that have been shared, all the happiness and tears and life and laughter that have come and gone. My mom wasn’t here to share Mother’s Day with us this year, but she is here, nonetheless, in a thousand different ways. Her work is over, in a sense, but it also carries on in all of us who remember her, in everyone whose life she touched. And her love will, in some mysterious way, always be a part of everything I do, of every story I write and every song I sing. I’ll be trying to keep that in mind, and to be grateful for the chance I had to share so many memories and moments with her over the years.
“Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?”
Time will tell. Time will tell.
Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Collaboration
Image: “A Timely Stitch,” by William Hemsley