Another Birthday

January 15, 2012

From left to right Rosemary’s mother, Rosemary, my mother, and her cousin, Steve.

My mom would have been sixty-seven today.  Since her death in 2008 I always write something on her birthday because I always find myself, more than usual, trying to conceptualize what today would be like if she were still alive.

One of the hardest parts of grief—and one I seldom hear people discuss—is how, after a certain point, you start to have a difficult time imagining what it would be like to have the person in your daily life again.  The world they knew before their death—the interactions between people, the relationships, the homes, even the people in the homes—have changed, sometimes drastically.  The world is a different place, partially because of their leaving and partially because of the simple fact that nothing ever stops moving. Every day a tiny change occurs. Put all those changes together and add up the years and the next thing you know we have a hard time imagining the selves we once were.

This constant motion of life is, in my opinion, is equal parts beautiful and absolutely terrifying. It comes with an ache that is hard to name.  How is it that we become so many different versions of ourselves?

If I could talk to my mom, what would I tell her about this life she left?  Maybe I’d tell her about how much her grandsons love to talk, how verbal they are and how much they yearn to describe the world around them. Or maybe I’d tell her about how much they love one another and how she doesn’t have to worry about them growing up a weirdo only child like me.  They have the unique experience of having no idea what it’s like to be alone.

Maybe I’d tell her how I’ve started writing again after years of swearing I was done with that. Or that I learned to knit or that we found a great home for her dog, Spanky, where he now lives the lap of luxury. I would for sure tell her how all her cousins and her friends came together and took me in, showing me that I had a family and letting me get to know each of them. I’ve been cared for by people I’d barely talked to before her death.  And I think that, more than anything, speaks volumes about the kind of woman my mother was. I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve had people tell me of the kind things my mother did for them, the countless ways she helped people I didn’t even know she knew.  I don’t know how things work in the afterlife, but I’d like to think my cousin Rosemary, who passed away recently, has already filled her in on how I joined her family and how many wonderful times we had around her kitchen table.

There’s some degree of peacefulness in knowing that if mom were here today she might not recognize much of my life, or my father’s life, or the homes we live in.  That might sound strange at first, but it’s peaceful because it means the stabbing pain of loss has somewhat subsided and because, at least on some level, we’ve done what she would have wanted us to do: keep going.  The stabbing pain has been replaced with a different kind of hurt, a kind of constant longing, a constant wondering about the whys of life.  The reality of grief is that it does not go away.  It just changes. Thankfully, with these changes come some measure of peace and we learn to laugh and truly find joy.  But the ache?  No, that never goes away.

One thing I’ve learned these last few years is that finding peace in loss has nothing whatsoever to do with escaping pain.  This realization that life goes on, well, that’s its own form of grief.  It’s like this: You believe you’ll never be able to function like a normal person again having watched your mother die before what you felt was her time.  But then you do.  Not because you’re strong, but because you don’t have much choice.  The sun goes down, it comes up, you still get hungry, there are bills to pay, you can’t find matching socks in the laundry pile, and emails, there are emails to send. In my case, there are babies to take care of, and to love, and somehow between feeling endlessly jerked back and forth between pure joy and crushing sadness, you realize you wake up one morning and you’re on the other side of the sharpest pain of loss.

Or at least this loss. There will be more, of course. And with each person we lose, we re-grieve all those others. Maybe these losses help us see more layers to life.  You start to realize that whatever exactly happens after we leave this world, there are a lot of people you know on that other side. This realization is sad, of course.  But regardless of what you believe about the afterlife (or lack thereof), I think there’s something potentially grounding about this. They’re adding up over there, all those folks you love and cared for you.  Maybe they’re waving, you know, like waves of grass or something?  I’ll skip the over-arching metaphors.  But there’s something hopeful about the thought of knowing the dead.

Me and my mother, 1986 Blue Springs, Arkansas

Initially you think they’ll be gone, unreachable, beyond comprehension.  But then, somehow, time goes by and on certain days they’re not. You start to find out that they’re around.  In places you never expected.

Now, people will tell you this when you’re first grieving, but it won’t mean much to you and you’ll largely ignore these comments.  When you’re first grieving, it’s not enough to know that your voice sounds like your mother’s or that your children have her eyes. Sure, it’s nice to hear. But you just want the real deal. You can’t tell your laugh that you love it and you can’t ask your baby’s eyes for advice about how to get children to sleep. But after some time goes by it will be magical to hear yourself laughing and hear your mother.  You’ll get actual chills when you see her eyes in your children’s. My friend Sam told me about this.  She was right.

And there are lots of other not-so-literal ways you’ll find the dead hanging around, but I’d just butcher those beautiful images if I tried to put them into words.   It’ll be hard to explain to yourself what you’re seeing and even harder to describe to others. But other people who have lost loved ones will likely understand because they’ll have felt it too. And since we all lose those we love, that’s all of us.