I asked my dad a couple of times before the one year anniversary of my mother’s death if he wanted to do anything on that day. The first time I asked him he simply shook his head. A week later when I brought it up he said, “No, it isn’t something to celebrate.” I wanted to say I wasn’t thinking we’d go out to the bar or anything, but I let it go, knowing we each need to grieve in our own way. When the date arrived I went to the store and bought one white balloon like the ones we released at her memorial service. I drove to the park where the service was held and I walked up the hill to the clearing where we all had gathered. I held the balloon under my arm, cradling it close to my body so the brisk fall breeze wouldn’t take it from me until I was ready to let it go.
I’m not sure if I went to the park to honor my mother, remember that sad day, or if it wasn’t really for more selfish reasons. Because the prayer I murmured out loud to myself that afternoon was for me, not my mom. I prayed that the anger I had been feeling since her death would go away once and for all, and I asked that my nighttime dreams be about my healthy mom and not my sick mom – the mom who’s suffering broke my heart over and over again, day after day during the last months of her life.
As the autumn wind swallowed my words I let the balloon go. It sailed almost straight up into the blue September sky. I stood squinting in the bright sunlight and watched as it rose higher and higher, determined not to take my eyes off it until it was lost from sight. Several minutes passed, and then, at the exact moment the balloon left my view for good, a hawk swooped in just over the treeline and flew directly over my head. It was the only bird within sight, the only bird I saw the entire time I stood on that lonely hillside. The hawk soared and dipped on an invisible current of air and I turned and watched as it flew in the opposite direction of the white balloon.
The year of first’s is over. First Christmas without mom, her first birthday coming and going without her here to celebrate it, the first baby born in our family without mom around to fuss over her, and now the first anniversary of her death. Last year at this time I was in a small emergency room watching my mother gasp for each breath, looking a doctor in the eye and saying yes, I understood what it meant if they didn’t put her on a respirator and instead gave her meds to help her go to sleep. Of course I only knew what it meant in the moment, which was that it would end my mother’s many months of suffering, but for those of us who loved her it was the beginning of the grieving process which is really just one long bumpy road of goodbyes. At the end of one of my books I write: Some eight years later, when the earthly lives of my daddy and brother had safely made that transformation from flesh and blood to mist and memory, when the grief had finally settled itself comfortably into the undercurrent of my days and nights, my voice came back to me and I picked up a notebook, opened it to the first page, and I began to write. I’m not quite there yet…but I’m getting there.
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Thinking about my mom a lot this week as I celebrate my fiftieth birthday today and approach the first anniversary of her passing at the end of the month. Love Josh Groban’s voice and this beautiful song has certainly taken on new meaning for me, enjoy!
The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age. ~Lucille Ball
I took this photograph over the weekend during a family barbecue. Aunt Bessie is 98 years old. My new granddaughter Brooklyn is only 8 weeks old. When I look at the two of them it feels as though I am looking at the whole of a woman’s life – the history of girlhood and school days, of friendships and lovers and work and marriage, the fierce new love a young mother feels when she holds her sleeping child, and the fierce grief a woman lives as she strokes her dying husband’s hand. Can you see it? All that has happened in the creases and lines of Bess’s beautiful face, and all that is yet to come in the smooth angelic face of my baby granddaughter. A life nearing its conclusion and one that is just beginning. The circle of life, strung out between their two ageless spirits like the glistening white pearls of Aunt Bessie’s necklace.
All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. ~Havelock Ellis
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As I write this post, I am thankful that September has arrived in Michigan and gifted us with a lovely late summer day. I’ve planted mums in the flower garden by the mailbox, planned a barbecue for the holiday weekend, and yet I can’t help but think about the fragility of life this afternoon. My daughter texted me last night that her and her partner have to put one of their beloved cats to sleep this week. A friend called to tell me one of the week old baby twins born to the son of another close friend is gravely ill, a blogging buddy has been asking for prayers for neighbors who lost their five year old daughter in a backyard swimming pool accident, and this month is bittersweet for me and my family as we will mark the one year anniversary of my mother’s passing. On Sunday, when I asked my father if he wanted to do anything on the 30th to commemorate the day, he silently shook his head and I suddenly felt how alone he has been for the past twelve months. My sister and I have made an effort to see my dad every week, and we talk about my mother often, but still, after fifty-one years of marriage I know there aren’t enough dinners or walks down memory lane that can change the fact that his wife is no longer sitting on the couch across from him reading her books with her little dog Ellie curled up on her lap.
Several weeks ago my dad woke up at dawn. When he looked toward the foot of his bed he saw the misty outline of a woman standing there, just looking at him. She was wearing a long white dress and he couldn’t make out her face. All at once, his two dogs who sleep in the bed with him, woke up and began barking in the direction of the ethereal figure. After a minute or two, my dad got up and took the dogs outside to try and settle them down. When he went back into his bedroom the woman was gone but the dogs were still nervous and it took them quite some time to go back to sleep. My dad said he would have thought it was a dream if the dogs hadn’t apparently seen the woman too. He said he assumed the figure was my mother.
So I don’t know, maybe my father isn’t alone. Maybe all the tender moments shared, all the joy filled beginnings and the sad goodbyes, all the threads of love and longing and regret that join each life to another, maybe all these things really do survive long after we are gone. And just maybe, if you are very lucky like my father, when you feel most alone they will gather together in the haze of the early morning light and give you peace. That is my wish for my friends and family on this bright September day, peace in knowing that it doesn’t matter if a life is measured in days or in years, in good health or in trial, each life is worthy and perfect just as it is – beginning and ending with one small breath.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt died on Sunday. A former public school teacher, he came late to a writing career publishing one of my favorite memoirs, Angela’s Ashes, at the ripe old age of 66. Born in Brooklyn in 1930, his family returned to his parents’ native Ireland when he was four years old and his memoir chronicles his years growing up in poverty with a mostly absent alcoholic father in the slums of Limerick. He famously wrote: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood. People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.
My mother had a similar childhood, but here in the states and with poor French Catholic parents, not Irish. Still, fourteen children, very little money, and an alcoholic father bring about like miseries whatever your demographics. It’s funny, but I catch myself sometimes feeling angry at my mother since she passed. For dying and leaving me. For loving my brother more. For her “You can’t take it with you!” attitude toward money which has cost me financially over the years and left my father vulnerable at the age of 80 with a large monthly mortgage payment. And yes, for not understanding me, that universal childhood lament that few of us escape – miserable childhood or not.
I know it’s childish to think these thoughts at my age, especially given that my childhood was a fantasyland compared to my mom’s and Mr. McCourt’s. But I also know that a part of us is always our mother’s child, no matter how old we grow in years. And whether we write an angst filled memoir and name it for her, or gaze into the eyes of our newborn granddaughter and miss her more than we ever thought possible, we know in our hearts that we’d forgive our mothers a thousand times over for the woes of our early years for just one more chance to tell them how much we love them.