Death in the family is not new to me. My brother, Robyn, was asphyxiated at the age of 23 when the propane heater in a cabin he was vacationing in malfunctioned. My father died suddenly at the age of 57 from an, until then, undiagnosed cancer. Robyn and Dad’s deaths challenged me deeply, but Mom’s death has kicked my ass.
The first three months after Mom passed I felt next to nothing. No tears, no missing her, not even relief – just a deep exhaustion to which I could only surrender. Life felt one-dimensional – as if it were a movie being projected onto a wall.
Rather than taking a hiatus in the wilderness this summer as Juan and I had envisioned, we pulled our art fair booth out of storage and vended at fairs in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and Montana. After our long homebound status getting out of the house and visiting far away places felt good, but as time rolled on I began to feel like my dome light had been left on and my batteries had drained.
By mid summer my numbness began to lift and Mom’s absence pierced like a lance. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled my phone out to call her then sadly stuffed it back into my pocket unable to grasp her physical absence. I grappled with those age-old questions, what the hell is the point of living if you ultimately die? What happened to Mom after she passed? What did she feel? I worried that I had been too impatient while caring for Mom and fretted that she passed away feeling hurt by my impatience – something I could not undo. But those fears were just me being too self-absorbed – my way of blunting the pain.
I had thought words would pour out of me after Mom died, but I had no words. No inspiration. Nothing made sense or mattered. A growing darkness seeped into me and I grew physically ill. I felt as if a main beam in my structure had been removed and came to realize how much I had keyed off of Mom throughout my life, despite how far apart we had lived. Her shear, unextinguishable love had enabled me to move through life with steadier sails. Juan, as always, helped as much as he could, as did some close friends, but no matter how much love and support was offered, the darkness crashed back in like a tide. I couldn’t escape it.
Years ago a friend taught me a profoundly helpful tool for dealing with such debilitating depression. Don’t try to tease it apart, which is the hamster wheel I always get trapped in. Instead run a hot bath, pour a cup of tea, light some candles and sink into the quiet. It's so simple it works. It gets me through every time.
So I started to baby myself. I soaked in the tub. Listened to music. Redeemed two gift certificates for massages that friends had given me over the past year. And rather than trying to gather my brain together and do the taxes, which I had filed extensions on while Mom was dying, I bought myself some breathing room by asking a CPA to do them all. That was monumental letting go for me. I also told Juan I needed to take a month off to spend time with Mikaela, visit friends, and go backpacking. He, of course, gave me his blessings.
Before Mom died, she had promised to send me a sign from the other side if possible and she has made a couple of visitations – or, at least that’s what they felt like to us. Last spring Mom had saved our shamrock plant's life by transplanting it into a bigger pot. As a sort of memorial I set the shamrock on a table in the exact place where Mom’s head lay when she died. In the wee hours of morning, as I sat in my writing room staring at the shamrock, its leaves waved in a nonexistent wind. I jumped up, spun around the room, opened and closed the door and window trying to create a breeze that would stir the leaves, but nothing I did affected the shamrock. That was Mom’s first visitation.
The second visitation came when Juan and I were outside working on an art booth project. We were both stressed and Juan was being mouthy with me. Suddenly a pinecone flew out of a tree and hit him right on the head. I’m sorry, but pinecones do not catapult out of a tree on a windless day at a 45-degree angle unless someone is flinging them. Immediately after impact, Juan looked up at the tree and hollered “I’ll be good Mary! I’ll be good!”
What has struck me because of these visitations is that Mom is not gone. She is woven into every fiber of my existence. She is here. She is everywhere. I feel her when I dig in my garden and while I smile at a mountainside full of wildflowers. I feel her as I stack the dishes in the dish drainer just so and draw up plans to make a wooden display rack for our art fair booth.
Little by little I am moving out of my tidal zone. As I reside in my quiet, the threads of my despair unravel themselves. I am still OK with not knowing what happens when we die but the self-evaluation I have been immersed in since Mom’s departure and feeling her presence in so many ways has whittled that not-knowing into something more three-dimensional. My not-knowing is now a feeling, not a thought.
My life is forever richer because of this deeper dimension: a sunset brings me even more joy because I know some of my appreciation comes from Mom’s eye for color; my hands now gather stones from a creek with guidance from Mom’s inclination towards certain shapes and tones; I pack my backpack knowing that my need to put the first aid kit in one pocket and nestle the pans together just right is in part Mom’s influence. And my words will no longer come from just me. Of course, it has always been this way – I just had no awareness – and it’s the awareness that brings joy and acceptance.