On Mother’s Day
For those that are grieving, the year of “firsts” is a painful time. The first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first birthday; each occasion arriving with memories and moments of a lifetime that give rise to both heart-felt happiness and soul-wrenching sorrow.
And now it is Mother’s Day. The first one since I lost my mom to cancer, and I am finding this “first” has been the most difficult to face. My sorrow has been difficult to identify, cleverly disguising itself as irritability and sensitivity, decreased patience, inability to sleep, and so on, so that I cannot quite discern what it is that is making me so. I only know that it is unusual for me, and unfair to Stephen, as I tried to get back to myself. And then one morning in the shower, suddenly it all made sense. A cascade of Mother’s Day memories came back to me. Trinkets purchased long ago by a little girl for her adored mom, handmade gifts and flowers, dinners and brunches, cards lovingly picked out for just the right words, and later, as a young mom myself, happy to give my mom the gift she loved best – all of us together, her daughter, and granddaughters, to honour her on Mother’s Day. I collapsed in tears on my bed. First came the ugly dry angry tears, raging against the injustice of it, and then the huge heaving wet sobs, leaving in their aftermath salty stains on the bedsheets, as slow and silent resignation began to settle in my soul.
I know mom is now in a beautiful, pain-free place, surrounded by a love that our limited human minds cannot even imagine. For this I am grateful, and hopeful that someday we will know each other again and be embraced together in this love.
It is this precise understanding that makes it so hard: Mothers are this Love. The love of Creation. The love of the Universe. The unconditional love of one soul for another, beyond the definitions and differences in people that our human minds create. The love of God, or the Divine, and everything good and kind. In our mother’s story is the origins of our own; and the two are forever interconnected. To experience this, and then to live without it, is the very definition of anguish.
My youngest daughter at a very young age intuitively apprehended this truth about mothers. One night many years ago as we were driving home from a family dinner late at night, the Beatles’ Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds came on the radio. “Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she’s gone….Lucy in the sky with diamonds…” As the psychedelic lyrics and music filled the spaces between us in the dark car, with a certainty that only 6 year old girls possess, my daughter declared, “Mommy, that’s you!” And in that moment, through the images suggested by the song, I knew my little girl grasped the truth of the universality of what mothers represent.
I know that my mom is still with me. Sometimes she sends me signs. She visits my dreams and I see her radiating light and dancing with ecstasy. I know she is happy. She speaks to me in certain songs that come on the radio just when I need them the most. Shortly after her death, in the midst of the whirlwind of the funeral and visitation and endless arrangements, I was driving to run some errands and feeling quite sorry for myself. I couldn’t quite grasp that I no longer had my mom here on this earth. What was I supposed to do without her? How can a person be here one day, and the very next day, they are not? What happens to the life force, the energy of their being, their spirit, that they bring to this world? Where does it go? How can it just be suddenly gone? My intellectual mind understood that energy never dies, it transforms. My heart wanted to know where I could find my mom’s energy transformed; to feel it, to see it, to be immersed in it as a young child feels embraced in her mother’s arms.
Just then I turned on the radio and the haunting melody of Valdy’s A Good Song permeated the air. I wasn’t really paying attention but at that moment, I heard the line – “I have a family; you have a mother.” With that, goosebumps rose on my arms and the hair stood up and I knew that I still had my mother. Her spirit, her energy, was all around me and reaching out to me in a new way.
Then there was the time that my oldest daughter and I arrived at dad’s house for a visit one Sunday not too long ago. Dad was still at church and we let ourselves in. We turned on the radio, and one after the other, Crocodile Rock and Surfing USA, two of my mom’s favourite songs, filled the house with their happy upbeat refrains. Immediately I knew this was her way of reaching out to me, again.
“See? I am still here,” a voice deep inside of me whispered. “Have some fun. Don’t be so glum.”
And so what else was there to do, but to begin an impromptu dance party in the living room. Two dogs and one reluctant cat joined my daughter and me as we boogied around the couches and chairs and plants. With tears threatening to tumble over my bottom eyelids, I closed my eyes for a moment. I could see my mom dancing her funny little dance with us and suddenly her energy filled the room until it was palpable. The hairs stood up on my arms and I ached for her presence. I smiled knowing that this is what she would want us to do.
Grief is a funny thing. It’s carried with you always. It’s that small little ache that sits there right in the bottom corner of your heart, even when surrounded by the love of those who are with you and close; even when immersed in a moment of happiness.
Sometimes grief takes a physical form. It squeezes little tingly sad nerve endings down into your arms and you think “this is what grief feels like.” Sometimes it’s big, dry, ugly tears. Sometimes the tears are softer, overflowing from your eyes and faling quietly when you long to see that face or hear that voice again. It is an ever present silent partner in all you do.
If I let it, the grief would become incapacitating. I try to push it down into the background and only let it out in a safe moment when I am in control. Yet in unexpected ways it overflows like a pot of water, flash boiled, so quickly that it catches me off guard and ill-prepared. The fuel may be a song on the radio, a memory recalled, the well-intentioned words of a co-worker. And then, in an instant, it boils over and spills into your carefully guarded present.
Sometimes I think grief is like ordering a meal in a restaurant.
“Hi. I’m Sandy and I’ll be your server today. What can I get for you?”
Me- “I’d like to order a plate of Happiness and Laughter please.”
“Sure no problem. You’ll love it, it’s great! Will you be having the side order of Grief and Heartache with that today?”
Me- “No thanks. I’d like to pass on that.”
“I’m sorry ma’am. The side order comes with the meal.”
Me- “Could I at least substitute Melancholy for the Grief?”
“Sorry ma’am, no substitutions.”
And so it is. No substitutions. No going back. You are forever changed. The loss shapes your present and your future. It doesn’t ever really end or go away, and it is not something that you get over in a certain amount of time or after a predictable cycle of stages. Rather, the disbelief, anger, denial, guilt, profound sorrow, acceptance, and all manner of other emotions cycle in and out of your consciousness continuously, sometimes several of them in one day. You can’t check off grieving on your to-do list and be done with it.
The only thing that is true in my experience is that the acuteness of the pain does subside with time. That’s it. The rest you learn to live with. It’s always there, like the ever faithful company of a canine companion. There is happiness too, and life goes on.
At first you wonder: how will life go on without them? And somehow time passes, and you have gone on each day without them. And this accumulation of having gone on without them builds upon each previous day until a month, a half year, a year goes by.
If you let it, grief can transform you. Like a phoenix rising anew from the ashes, the suffering of grief can be transformed into something beautiful. My mom’s spirit and presence can be carried into the future in the example she has left for us.
Mom was far too modest to ever suggest she was a model for living, but my goodness she was. I never knew anyone who had more friends than Mom. She had this magnetism, this talent, for attracting people to her, and she simply treated everyone she met like a close friend until it became true. I can count several people who would say mom was their BFF, and mom and dad had a busier social life than I ever did. Mom was generous with her time and affection, waving and speaking to everyone she passed and friendly with all of her neighbours. She was always the first to volunteer with the church, Big Brothers Big Sisters events, and the activities of her neighbourhood. Material wealth and appearance were not important to her; it was people and relationships that she valued above all else. My mom was kindness personified; she was the person to whom adults turned with their troubles, the telephone virtually ringing off the wall. Hers was the home in which the village children, just off the school bus, could be sure to find freshly baked cookies she generously shared.
I wish I could tell her that no matter how old I get, I will always need my mom. I wish I could tell her about the beautiful tattoo my oldest daughter recently got in her memory. I wish we could go thrift shopping together again and marvel at our findings. To go to Coyle’s and purchase beautiful ornaments for her gardens. To wash the dishes together and in that time, solve all of the world’s problems from men to children to family and more. Oh, just one more time, I wish my mom would ask me to make the salad for dinner because she hated that part.
We know that our mothers shape us, make us into the women and men we eventually become. No one loves us like our mothers; and in the fullness of time, I learned to love my mom more deeply and fully in all her wonderful perfectly flawed humanity. And every little bit of loving kindness that may be inside of me is there because of my mom.
And so what I know about my mom is this: she gave life to me in every way that is possible. And even in her death, she continues to mold and shape me. I wish I could hold her in my arms one more time and tell her again over and over how much she is loved and what a blessing and gift she has been to this world.
There is one tender moment that I will especially remember from the last few days that I spent with mom in the hospital just before she came home to die. At times she was struggling to remember who we all were. But in one beautiful moment of clarity, mom turned her head and looked right at me. In the last few days of her life, I noticed that her beautiful green eyes were becoming increasingly more clear and transparent, and a glowing light seemed to emanate from them that I had not seen before. The eyes, they say, are the mirror to the soul, and I believe mom’s soul was filling with peace and truth as she prepared to leave her body behind. She looked straight into my eyes and held my gaze.
“My name is Mother,” she said.
“Yes mom,” I said. “It is the sweetest name of all.”
I recently read something both profound and deeply touching by Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen Buddhist teacher, on hugging. The year was 1966, and he was leaving the USA to head back home to his monastery in Vietnam. His Western friends wanted to hug him to say goodbye. Not a widely practiced tradition in the East, he was unfamiliar with hugging and felt awkward and rather stiff. Being a Zen teacher, however, he thought he ought to be able to embrace this custom and somehow transform it into a mindful practice. Through the physical connection of bodies hugging, he felt that transformation and healing energy could flow through one person into the other, if it was a truly mindful moment where each person would give the other the gift of their absolute presence. This is what he says.
“You have to really hug the person you are holding. You have to make him or her very real in your arms, not just for the sake of appearances, patting him on the back to pretend you are there, but breathing consciously and hugging with all your body, spirit, and heart. Hugging is a practice of mindfulness.
Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive.
Breathing out, she is so precious to me.”
So on Mother’ Day, if you are fortunate enough to have your Mom with you, hug her in this way. When we hug in this way, we know we are not separate beings, and we give the other the precious gift of our absolute presence and aliveness in the moment. Hugging with mindfulness will bring peace and happiness. You will both be nourished.
Your mother is always with you. Your mother lives inside your laughter. She’s the place you came from, your first home, and she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love, even your first enemy, but nothing on earth can separate you. Not time, not space, not even death.
Love you mom, always and forever.