It feels like a Seurat painting as I sit on a park bench in Golden Gate Park, under clear blue sky, soft autumn sun, water splashing in the fountain and movement of people under a canopy of leafy pollarded trees. But this is not dots of paint on a canvas, this tableau breathes. I hear his shuffling feet before I see him, his clothes hang baggy on a skeleton frame, aged or ill or both. Alongside him, a Golden Retriever with that telltale senior white face walks as slow as his human but turns his head toward me with that Goldie longing, “Love me.” The man interrupts the wish and firmly and simply says, “No.” The Goldie obeys and lumbers on. Sitting on other side of the fountain, a young woman stares into space with an infant held close against her chest, a small blanket covers the baby’s head and the mother’s breast, tiny legs poke out from under the blanket and pump with excitement. How does all this co-exist? What kind of alchemy happens in the heart to make room for it all. I want to cry and smile. I want to protest and embrace.
We buried mom last month. The twelve-inch square was perfectly carved into the Wisconsin fertile soil. After eleven months of COVID quarantined grief, we finally were able to gather as a family and return her ashes to the earth. She lies next to dad, next to my brother, we were a family of seven, now we are four. The hills surrounding the cemetery were filled with oak, maple, aspen and sumac in their autumn show-off colors but muted by a gray sky. We offered careful tears and polite pauses when words couldn’t be formed. I wish we had been able to gather sooner when grief had no patina, when it was fresh and raw—the kind where all you can do is hold on to each other. But over these last eleven months, we have grieved separately and alone as best we could. That intense moment of loss has passed. I am grateful it has. I wish it hadn’t. As I dropped my pink daisy into the grave, part of me wanted to fall into the hole with mom.
And then the memorial was over—officially orphaned, waiting for what’s next. I buried my hands in my pockets, my heart looking for a place to land. Nowhere to go but here, making contact and covenant with me, the one who needs to be mothered. And so, the mother becomes the son. Meanwhile across this landscape a million leaves, the color of sunset, were making their transition. Soon knobby limbs would be bare and frosted with snow. And then after a long sleep, by some unspoken agreement, spring will course through those same branches and buds will reach for summer green. Life during death and death in the living. Love and sorrow together again.
Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,
what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so
utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment
by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,
as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.
November 19 is the one-year anniversary of mom’s death. Anniversary isn’t exactly the right word—it doesn’t have the right balance of grief and gratitude. But I’ve been thinking about those mother moments that are so ordinary yet made extraordinary because of their repetition and faith. It’s a kind of magic that you don’t understand in the moment but it becomes the air you breathe and the ground you walk on.
The day is ending
Covers pulled tight
Tiny heartbeats wait
And then she is there
Or bending low
Often a prayer
But always a kiss
And just like that
Into the dark night
Her breath and prayer
Placed on brow or cheek
Again, again, again
I miss the way mom championed us—her family. In her later years her patchy memory only remembered the good, even as she reminded us with a twinkle, good is not perfect. The worries that kept her awake at night and the wishes that in some ways we would be different went with the memory of what she had for breakfast. She thought of us as gifts. A good gift is larger than the package of perfection. It’s not an object, it’s a verb that keeps creating. When I lay down for my final rest, I want it written, “I was loved.”
Daily Bites and Blessings
Welcome to "Daily Bites and Blessings." Pull up a chair. I’ve set a place for you at the table. These edibles are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and often they are both. This is a come as you are party. I invite you to bring your compassion, courage, and curiosity as we dine together on life's bounty. May our time together give us more light and more love.