February 1975

The Darkest Time of Year

I never liked Thanksgiving. One year when I was home from college, my mother humored my holiday angst. She made salmon and lentil soup because I didn’t eat red meat or poultry. Then she let me stay home from a family gathering. I told her I hated celebrating the European colonization of the United States, that it felt like celebrating Hitler’s election to chancellor. When I shared this information with her, she sat us both down on the white couch in her living room. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “The holidays are about family and for being grateful for what you have.”

A year later, we celebrated her last Thanksgiving, although we didn’t know it at the time. This was the first and only time I ever cooked with her during a holiday. I don’t remember everything we made, just how comforted I felt to be with her in the kitchen. How safe and peaceful I felt beside her. I wish I could say I savored the moment, that I felt grateful. But, I didn’t know she was dying then. I was only 20. I thought assembling a salad from a bag mix, then adding raisins and chopped apples, was a high culinary achievement. The moments that passed between us are only special in retrospect.

Since her death, I have wanted to avoid Thanksgiving altogether. I have spent it abroad. I have spent it alone. I have spent it playing Monopoly and eating Thai food with my husband. I have spent it hiking in Shenandoah National Park with our two dogs. In this way, I may be dishonoring my mother’s legacy, since I often choose to retreat from family and tradition. But family gatherings stress me out because I focus on what is missing, on her absence. It’s easier for me to do my own thing, then to embrace other people’s expectations of what the holidays should be. I’m happier this way. I am more honest about myself.

This year was harder than I expected. I agreed to participate in a traditional gathering at my aunt’s house because I am grateful for her. She’s had a rough year. I wanted to support her. I texted my father on Thanksgiving to wish him a happy holiday. He called me a few seconds later and talked at length about everything going wrong in his life. He never asked, “How are you?” He never asked, “What must it be like for you to celebrate holidays without your mother?”

My mother raised me. After she left him, he beat her in front of my sister and me. For many years, she was my only parent. Despite our past, I love my father dearly, primally. Relationships are complex webs. He has worked hard on himself. He is not the person he used to be. I know these past few weeks have been horrible for him. But I have felt triggered by my father during this election. He supported Donald Trump, which makes me feel unsafe, and brings back memories of past abuse. On Thursday, I also felt abandoned and irritated by his lack of empathy. I talked to my husband about it, then I made mushrooms and polenta and drove to my aunt’s house. I spent most of Thanksgiving holed up in a bedroom with my sister, who needed to nurse her infant son, also known as My Precious. Still, my bad mood lingered over the weekend. I do not begrudge anyone their holiday cheer. Right now, I’m focusing on getting through the holidays.

That said, I seek comfort during this darkest time of my year by remembering my mother’s emphasis on gratitude. This is how I lift myself out of sadness. This is how I honor her. I have tried keeping gratitude journals, but I always forget to write in them. (There is still a gratitude journal from 2009 sitting on my night table). So I pause each day to consider something for which I feel grateful. Some days, I have to dig deep. On these days, I am grateful for working radiators and leftovers in the fridge. Other days, I am grateful to live within driving distance of my sister and best friend, who have seen me through the worst of my grief. This weekend, I felt grateful for Carl. We spent all of Friday watching “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” and he knows the show better than any of my friends’ husbands. He even predicted the ending, which I didn’t like. Still, I am grateful for a husband who can spend 20 minutes discussing why my dream ending is more feminist than the actual ending.

I am also grateful to have found a doctor who identified the underlying hormonal imbalances causing my Hashimoto’s. I’m grateful for his hope that I will be able to conceive and sustain a pregnancy after one year of treatment. Always, I am grateful for my niece and nephews, who continue my mother’s legacy in ways she never imagined. Most of all, I’m grateful to have been her daughter.

To Gerda

This week Michelle Obama spoke out against the Republican nominee for president, and his alleged sexual assault of women. She implored Americans to “get on social media” and share “your own story of why this election matters, why it should matter for all people of conscience in this country.”  This blog post is inspired by Obama’s New Hampshire speech and “Dedicate Your No-Trump Vote”  a website created by novelist Julianna Baggott. I’ve been reading posts daily from writers, humanitarians, clergy, and other extraordinary citizens. They are responding to hatred with hope and demonstrating the power of storytelling in shaping a compassionate America, the America I know, and the America my mother believed in. 

I wasn’t supposed to read the letter. My mother kept it in a dresser drawer, tucked beneath her sweaters. Those sweaters still held her rainwater scent even though she’d been dead for a week. I was 21, alone, and desperate to find my way back to her. I wanted to understand how a juvenile diabetic could die while wearing an insulin pump. I needed a clue, an answer to this impossible question. But what I really wanted was my mother returned to me, as if her death had been a misunderstanding or bad dream. I thought I could find her in the possessions she left behind. So I rifled through her drawers, until I came upon the letter.

My mother had typed it in 1998, four years after an experimental organ transplant saved her life when I was 13. In 1994 surgeons placed a dead man’s kidney and pancreas inside her body. The surgery suppressed the effects of juvenile diabetes on her kidneys, which had begun to fail. She’d suspected her donor was a man she’d read about in The Baltimore Sun. He’d withdrawn $50 from an ATM after leaving work late. An unknown assailant knocked him to the ground, left him dying as night faded to dawn. He was not a registered organ donor. It was his mother who said, “yes” when hospital staff asked. Amid her grief, this mother thought of other suffering families. She thought of how her son could live on in another person’s heart or corneas or kidneys. She thought of the hope he could bring to people she would never know. She did the extraordinary. She shared her child with strangers. Her name was Gerda, by the way.

The letter I found beneath my mother’s sweaters was the first letter she sent to Gerda. I’m not sure why my mother saved a copy, but I am not surprised she reached out to connect. Gerda’s loss of her child was the worst thing my mother could imagine, even worse than dying before her own children. She needed to share her gratitude. She needed to say, “thank you” for Gerda’s generosity, which allowed my mother to live seven years longer than she’d expected, allowed her to mother my sister and me.

In that time, a friendship bloomed between these two mothers. I remember cards coming in the mail, and long phone calls. I remember how my mother exclaimed, “It’s Gerda!” when the name flashed on our caller ID, as if Gerda were a member of our own family.  When I deleted my mother’s e-mail account a few months after her death, I discovered an e-mail from Gerda. I don’t remember what the e-mail said, only that I replied. I delivered the bad news, then shut down my mother’s e-mail forever. I did not reach back out to Gerda until 2011. I wanted to understand her generosity. I wanted to know her story. I needed to thank her too.

Like my mother and me, Gerda was Jewish. She lived in Berlin when Hitler came to power in 1933. Her family fled Berlin for Holland in 1939, never imagining that Nazism would trail them across the Continent. After Holland fell to Nazi occupation, a clergy family hid Gerda in the countryside. At night she slept in the forest, not knowing the whereabouts of her own family, not knowing if she’d survive the night. Her parents died in a death camp, but Gerda avoided imprisonment. She emigrated to the United States after the war, attended college and graduate school, began her own family.

I often think about what would have happened if Gerda hadn’t survived, if she hadn’t encountered strangers willing to risk their own lives to protect a denigrated class of people –– my people. Would my mother have died at 41 instead of 48? Who would I have become without her to raise me? My mother believed in miracles –– she thought I was a miracle. She thought her entire life was one continuous miracle. She thought Gerda’s survival was a miracle. I believe in interconnection. I believe one action affects another action in a great, unknowable continuum. I believe kindness ripples through our lives, across generations and decades and continents. I believe Gerda’s experience of being saved by courageous people lit the spark that allowed her to save other lives many years later. This is why I dedicate my No-Trump vote to her, to Gerda.

Today, when I hear a presidential candidate talk about banning Muslims, or deporting undocumented people, I think of her. When I read of first-grader Abdul Aziz being beaten on the school bus for being Muslim, and his family fleeing the United States for Pakistan because they no longer feel safe here, I think of her. When I read of hate crimes against Muslims escalating, I think of her. When I hear a presidential candidate stumble over denouncing David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, I think of 1939 Berlin. And I think of Gerda’s family escaping to Holland.

When I hear white supremacist hate speech normalize violence and sexual assault and the torture of human beings, I think of Gerda. I think of her separated from her loved ones, hiding from the unimaginable. I think of her sleeping in the woods, wondering whether her parents were alive or dead, not knowing if she would survive the night. I imagine her heart opening in that darkness, her face turning toward the stars’ distant light. Even in her most terrifying moments, she knew the saving power of kindness. She knew only hope can conquer fear.

On Speaking Up

Two weeks ago, I sat in my endocrinologist’s office and waited … and waited … and … waited. I had an 8:45 a.m. appointment. He entered the room at 9:25 a.m., more than 30 minutes late.

Then he rustled through my latest labs, which showed a worrisome increase in thyroid stimulating hormone. Despite my efforts to lower TSH through an autoimmune diet, exercise, meditation, and supplements, I came to that appointment with a hard conclusion: Starting medication would be the kindest thing I could do for my body.

Twice during this appointment, my endocrinologist raised his voice at me. The first time, it happened when I named my ideal TSH level.

I chose this level after researching blogs, books, and studies about Hashimoto’s, hypothyroidism, pregnancy, and miscarriage. The doctor made it clear he did not care how I had arrived at this number I chose. He invalidated my knowledge, which I came by honestly and with professional expertise.

When I heard the sharpness in his voice, I felt tears welling, but I breathed. I remembered the metta prayer. I placed my right hand on my heart, so that I would remain calm and unemotional, given how gender bias negatively impacts the way male doctors may relate to female patients. (How dare I speak at all … )

The second time he spoke sharply was when our conversation veered toward medications. I expressed my discomfort in taking medications that contain gluten, sugar, or lactose. The most popular thyroid medications contain at least one of these ingredients. I asked my doctor to confirm that the prescription he was writing would respect the boundaries I needed to set.

“I don’t have time to answer your questions,” he replied, his voice rising again. He may as well have said, Shut up. Because that’s the silencing implication of his words, which he spoke at a volume I perceived as disrespectful.

For me, being silenced is worse than being yelled at or not being listened to. It’s a complete invalidation of my voice, of my right to speak on behalf of myself. Silencing says, You don’t matter. Your ideas don’t matter.

Later, I looked up the medication’s ingredients myself. (In less than two minutes and without an MD, I found them on the manufacturer’s web site.)

The next morning, I called my endocrinologist’s office because I needed to address the silencing. I needed to say silencing is an unacceptable communication tactic, as far as I’m concerned. I needed to know it wouldn’t happen again.

So I said I felt frustrated by my appointment. I said I felt disrespected by my doctor. I said my previous experiences with him had been positive, and that his behavior seemed out-of-character. I asked for assurance that I could trust him to be attentive and respectful at future appointments. The woman with whom I spoke said she would pass this information along to the office manager, who would call me back.

I’m still waiting for that call back.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by further silence, but I am. I’m surprised because I tend to expect the best in people. I’m disappointed, too. I’m also angry.

Even as I write this, I feel my heart clenching, my throat tightening. I want to scream, just so I will be listened to. Just so I will be heard. That was all I wanted from my endocrinologist that morning. A little understanding.

But I also know I’m extraordinarily lucky. Because I had a mother who taught me my voice mattered. She taught me to be skeptical of physicians, to do my own research, to ask my questions, and to fight for respect if it was denied.

My mother became a patient advocate after her experimental organ transplant in 1994, at a time when the field was still relatively new. Her own experiences taught her that advocacy is what all patients need in a healthcare system that, at its most broken, can be deeply dehumanizing, especially to women.

The worst part of navigating an autoimmune disease isn’t doctors who behave badly. It’s not having my mother beside me. It’s having to go alone to doctor’s appointments when I feel anxious and scared.

But the best part is learning to see myself as powerful, even in situations when a doctor’s behaviors intend to deny me power. My mother taught me to get back up when I felt knocked down, to keep going. She taught me I deserved kindness and respect. She taught me not to accept anything less, especially from men.

I don’t know if I’ll continue seeing this endocrinologist. There are many, many endocrinologists in the sea, and I’m resolved to find one who can handle a patient like me, a patient who does her own research and who speaks for herself. That’s the only kind of doctor who deserves my money, trust, and time.

Last week, I went to my first appointment with a functional medicine physician. We sipped tea in his office, and he listened. He showed me a chart with all possible medications and their ingredients. He ordered much more detailed tests than my endocrinologist has ever asked for. He told me he has “a passion” for Hashimoto’s because his wife and daughters have the same disease.

I felt comfortable telling him how I dreamed of my mother the night before our appointment. I shared that, in my dream, my mother was on the phone with my endocrinologist. She was shouting at him to order a very specific endocrine test, unrelated to thyroid disorders. I told him the test she requested was now on his new lab order. He just smiled.

I don’t know what will happen next, or what my future tests will reveal. But for the first time in a year, I am not afraid of the unknown. I feel understood. I feel heard. I feel safe.

 

Blogs That Have Helped Me The Most: 

 

Books That Have Helped Me The Most: 

 

 

Grief Observed: Lessons from Binge-Watching “Six Feet Under”

Carl and I started watching Six Feet Under this summer. This is my first time watching. When the pilot aired in 2001, I knew my mother’s death was inevitable, but neither of us could face that truth. We pretended she’d recover, that kidney failure in a type-one diabetic was just a temporary thing. I, along with much of the nation, had also watched the twin towers collapse on live television. Death hung over everything that year, but I thought Six Feet was weird and morbid. I wanted nothing to do with it.

Carl, who lived across the country from me, was starting seminary. He loved the show, all its rituals and questions about life and death and truth. He watched weekly with his friends. At the time, we didn’t know each other. But back in 2001, one of my good friends was a Six Feet fan, and I’d hear about the show’s weekly episodes from her. She loved Six Feet because her father worked as an undertaker in central Pennsylvania. Funerals were their family’s business, and it had been that way for generations. When my mother died in April 2002, this friend was studying abroad. But that didn’t stop her from reaching out.

The day she learned of my mother’s death, she sent me yellow roses and a card. In the subsequent weeks, she left me thoughtful voicemails. She responded to my e-mails without missing a beat. Never once did she attempt to comfort me with irritating platitudes or vague offers of prayer. She understood there was no reason why my mother had to suffer, or why I had to face the rest of my life without a mother to guide me.

What I needed was to get through each moment, each day. Through it all, this friend stood by me. We didn’t know the term holding space back then, but that is what she did for me. She held space for my grief, and she didn’t flee, like many others did. I don’t blame them. Grief is terrifying, especially to twenty-one year-olds, many of whom have never even lost a pet. My mother’s death, and my own grief, reminded others of what they stood to lose, and many could not bear to look.

One of the reasons why I think Carl and I are drawn to Six Feet now– we binge-watched half of season four yesterday –– is because death feels like our family business, too. We both lost parents young. As adolescents and young adults, we saw our parents lose control of their bodies and hope. We stood at their funerals. We received diplomas and awards without them watching. Any child we have will grow up never knowing two essential grandparents. We will mourn our parents again and again. There is no finish line for grief.

Had I watched Six Feet back in 2001, I’d know how grief “comes and goes,” as Nate says in season four. I’d know grief feels more like an ocean than a highway. I’d know how unexpressed grief leads to greater pain, and that numbing through sex or drugs or alcohol does not lessen our suffering, but only ushers in greater despair. I’d know death stops for no one, but it is also not contagious.

I hope I’d understand that, at 21, I could not bring my mother’s body back, no matter how long and deeply I mourned. But I could return to her essence through my work as a writer and teacher and friend. Now I feel my mother’s spirit –– not her ghost, but the core of who she was –– when I hold space for others. When I make room for another person’s grief, I make room for my mother. In this way, I honor her death and her life. Rather than confining her to a grave or a memory, I make her expansive, like my own heart, which is one half hers, still beating, still alive, in the world.

 

 

On Not Forgiving

 I had every intention to read Desmond Tutu’s book on forgiveness this summer. I carried it with me on trips, and on two 12-hour train rides. It sat on shelves and desktops and bedside tables, alluring me with its cover image of a flower blooming from a tree stump. But between May and August, I did not, not even for a moment, crack open this book. You’d think I’d have no trouble with Desmond Tutu or forgiveness. I meditate. I practice Yoga. I’m married to a minister who has preached from this very book. In fact, it’s his copy that I’ve been toting around all summer. But I just can’t do it. I can’t open this book, and I’m not sure why.

At its core, I’m okay with forgiveness. I understand that sometimes forgiveness is more about the person seeking forgiveness than it is about the person offering forgiveness. I understand that forgiveness can be a first step toward moving on. I understand that certain things are difficult to forgive, and others are impossible. I agree with Cheryl Strayed, who as Sugar wrote, “Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.”  Yes, this is more how I see it, and I know I’ve spent years hauling my own old fat guy up and down hills that felt like mountains. I know there are many things I’ve forgiven, and a few I simply cannot forgive. And I’m finally giving myself permission to let the Desmond Tutu book go, to be okay with not reading it, to be okay with not forgiving.

Disease is one thing I’m not forgiving. Disease has taken too many people I love, too many bodies, too many unfinished lives. My husband and I both lost parents young. We know loss intimately. We are both sad this weekend because we are sitting with some bad news. We are sitting with the knowledge that disease is out there in the world, claiming lives, hurting people, eviscerating families, destroying dreams. And I’m not forgiving it. Not today, not tomorrow, and maybe not ever.

And I think I’m being more true to myself about this one thing than I’ve ever been in my whole life about anything. Allowing myself to be angry, allowing myself to feel the power of my heart clamping down on itself, is more liberating than saying I forgive you.

Years ago, I took a graduate class in liberation theology, and I read Beverly Wildung Harrison, who in “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” argues that anger can be a radical act of compassion toward ourselves and others. Our anger connects us to injustice. Our anger resists oppression. Our anger harnesses energy toward change. I remember the night I first read Harrison. I was sitting in an armchair at my mother-in-law’s house, and I started to shake, as if my body were opening to a glorious new truth. Harrison granted me permission to hold onto anger, to interrogate it, to investigate all its endless shapes. She allowed me to get angry, to be angry, and not to rest until I understood where my anger wanted me to go.

This summer I’ve thought hard about a few things I am not comfortable forgiving. These things are, not surprisingly, charged with anger. I’ve questioned this anger’s roots. I’ve questioned who forgiveness belongs to and what power it has in our lives. I’ve questioned what forgiveness can actually change. Maybe that’s why I’ve carried the Desmond Tutu book around like a map, as if it could lead me to answers where I know none presently exist. All summer long, I’ve also encountered the same words by Ranier Maria Rilke. I’ve found them in essays and articles. They have followed me to dharma talks and conferences and lectures. I cannot escape them. These are the words that won’t leave me alone:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. … the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Maybe the Desmond Tutu book feels too much like an answer, too reductive and too easy. Maybe I don’t like the idea of books about forgiveness. Maybe they feel too commodified, too capitalistic. Maybe I am completely wrong about this whole thing, and would only know how wrong I am if I read the book. Maybe I am clinging to anger, and to not forgiving, because I’m intoxicated by a false sense of control. Maybe I am more in love with questions than answers. Maybe questions feel like hope, and a life unfurling toward all its dreams. Maybe answers are not really answers at all. Maybe they’re just dead ends.

Teach Me To Sit Still

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
 

T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”

When I sat za-zen with three Buddhists in a Baptist church eleven years ago, I had no idea what would happen. I’d only known one Buddhist previously, a creative writing professor who supervised an independent study with me in college. I once heard another student discussing him. She’d bristled at the word Buddhist, whispering it the way people sometimes whisper atheist or cancer. Still, Buddhism allured me. That former professor was kind and generous and calm. When I sat in his office, I felt calm and worthy of another person’s attention. He offered me something I had not received since my mother’s death. Presence.

Still, my first sit didn’t happen for three more years, when I was 24, and mired in grief, and grasping for a life that was no more, the life when I had a mother. That night I sat, eyes half-closed, and focused on my breath. In. Out. Nose. Mouth. I noticed my heart tightening, my arms tingling, my elbow itching with ferocious force. But I held my posture for 25 minutes –– legs folded in front of me, palms pressed lightly on my thighs, neck straight. Then a bell chimed, and I stood and walked for five minutes in a circle with the only three Buddhists I knew between Jackson, Mississippi and Shreveport, Louisiana.

We walked slowly. S-l-o-w-e-r than I’ve ever walked, our feet hitting the floor in perfect slow-motion time with one another. And then the bell chimed once more, its vibrations rippling into tiny and tinier pings until we sat again. Another 25 minutes of breathing and feeling and noticing our bodies and breath. Car doors slammed. Dogs yelped. Tim McGraw songs played from rolled down windows. But I just inhaled, exhaled. I contemplated the itch on my elbow, which turned into something else. Not an itch at all, just nerves and skin and, finally, softness. When the final bell rang, I felt like five minutes had elapsed, not another 25. I pressed my hands to my heart and bowed. Had I really just sat in silence for nearly an hour? This person who sat still that night, this person who had breathed stillness into every inch of herself, was not a self I knew.

The self I knew always surrounded herself with sound. She delighted in the noises of the world and the noises of her thoughts. She had so many noisy thoughts. Why did her mother die? How would she go on? When would she feel better? At night, in her apartment, she listened to records and struggled to sleep. When the sun came up, she listened to NPR, letting the voices of Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne soothe her jagged insomniac nerves. These noises reminded her that she also lived in a world full of people, connected her to something larger and broader. On the occasions that she did fall asleep, she dreamed of her mother, but awakened screaming, just as she remembered her mother was dead. This was the me I knew. This was the me I had been for the past three years. I never imagined I could be different. I never tried to be different.

But when I returned to my apartment after my first za-zen sit, a tiny revolution began. That night, I did not turn on my record player. I pulled on my nightgown and crashed into my bed. My black tomcat curled into my hip, and I slept hard beneath my quilt. In the morning, I did not turn on NPR while I dressed. I did not crave any sound. I felt lighter, more still. One thought distilled as I drove to work, and that was this: I felt like I had just returned from a one-week vacation to the beach. Grief contracted me, shrank my world, made me fearful and small. But meditation opened me to something else, something different, an experience where joy and hope ran beside pain.

I meditate now on my own and with others. I’ve explored different styles of Buddhist meditation practice, and ultimately gravitated into vipassana, or insight meditation. In the past ten years, I’ve read Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’ve also read Julian of Norwich and St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila. I’ve attended a day-long vipassana retreat and two multi-day retreats in Benedictine communities, but I never attended a weeklong retreat in a Buddhist community until this summer.

A few days ago, I returned from a seven-day Buddhist Geeks meditation retreat, an experience whose magnitude I’m still unpacking, along with a lot of dirty laundry and new dharma books I want to read. I went on retreat because my husband encouraged me, just as he encouraged me to get serious about meditation years ago, when I was still awakening to the sound of my own screams, and waking him up, too. (As they say in the South where we met, Bless his heart.) Truthfully, I would not have attended a retreat of this length without another person encouraging me to do so. I think this is because change and leaving my comfort zone are still excruciating for me. Really, they are the hardest things in my life. I resist them because they plunge me back to uncertainty, back to my first night without my mother, back to the end of my life as I once knew it.

I meditate now because I want to change how I relate to fear. Meditation sometimes escalates my anxiety and insomnia because I am relating deeply to emotions I have buried. Meditation has not made me zen in the way this word is commonly understood. I am still nervous and loud and seem like I drink a boatload of espresso when, in fact, I drink no coffee at all.

I still missed my mother when I came home. I stood in my dining room and watched morning light spill onto my record player, and I wanted to call her and tell her that the daughter who spent an entire adolescence on the telephone had just spent 80 percent of the past seven days in silence. I imagined how we both would have laughed until tears came out of our eyes. And tears did come out of my eyes then, but I welcomed my sorrow, this shadow side of love. I scooped my orange tomcat into my arms and kissed his soft head, then made myself a cup of tea.

I gave myself the gift another person had given me years and years ago, when I thought I could not live without my mother, when I did not want to live without her. I gave myself presence, pure and simple and elusive and profound. I returned to myself, my deepest unknowable evolving self. I sat still, caring and not caring, wanting and not wanting. Just there, in the still morning, with the sun coming up, where I once sat, many selves ago, beside my mother, who sipped her own tea and whispered how grateful she was that I was her daughter, how much she loved me, how lucky we were to be right there together, to be alive at the same time.

 

 

 

Paul Simon & the Mother-Child Reunion

At 12, I listened to The Concert in Central Park with my mother, cassette wheels spinning in rhythm to snow falling outside. We sang all winter: “Mrs. Robinson,” “America,” “Homeward Bound,” and “The Boxer’s” lie-la-lie chorus. She could never carry a tune, but sang because she loved Simon & Garfunkel, and I loved them because she did. I didn’t know The Concert in Central Park happened the year I was born or that Simon & Garfunkel were no longer a duo. I didn’t understand most of the playlist, but I loved the songs’ mama-pajama beat and their mystery.

Years later, before she died, my mother and I fought about music. I was 20 and home for a weekend and listening to a mix CD one of my roommates made. Who Stopped the Rain came on and my mother said, “That’s my music. I can’t believe you’re listening to my music.” She was remarking on how strange and beautiful it can be when children adopt the best interests of their parents, but I didn’t want to be likened to her. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be my own person, not a copy of my mother, not her life repeated, and I didn’t understand how she was really complimenting me.

I was angry in a way I’d never been before or since. I knew she was dying —I’d made her death real by writing it down in my journal. By giving what was happening to us a name, I sanctified her death with power. No one ever needed to say the word death because I already knew she might not see me graduate college. I already knew she would definitely not see me marry. I already knew she would never know a grandchild. She was still alive, wouldn’t be dead for another year, but I was grieving the mother who was going to die. My grief came out in anger. It came out in fights with her about inane things like her music and my music. It came out in me lying: The cigarettes weren’t mine. The beer bottle caps in the back of my car belonged to someone else. It came out in the only socially acceptable culturally conditioned way I knew, as one woman turning against another.

The summer before, we’d had Dylan tickets, but she was too sick to go. So I went without her, already resenting the many more places I’d have to go without her, a life full of her absence and my presence. I was enraged because she was leaving me, and enraged because I wanted her to leave, which was a thousand times worse than her leaving. To this day, I wish I’d just smiled and sung along with her to CCR, the way we used to when I was a tween, the way we sang to Simon & Garfunkel.

Last week, I saw Paul Simon at Wolf Trap. I danced the whole time with my husband, a man my mother never knew, a man who loves Paul Simon and Dylan, and is my husband nonetheless. The concert overflowed with energy and summer abandon. People danced all over the lawn. We danced from the first song, The Boy in the Bubble, to the last one, The Sound of Silence. We danced in the rain, our umbrellas bobbing to the beat. We danced as the sky blazed red and purple and lightning sizzled beyond the trees.

No question, I thought about my mother. How could I not? I love Paul Simon because his songs entwine life with death, joy with loss, and make plain how each amplifies the other. I know I live with more vigor and vivaciousness because my mother died, because I know how starkly short a life can be. The Wolf Trap performance was the last leg of Paul Simon’s 2016 Tour, a tour that could be his last. I think he gave it everything he had. There was a moment when I looked at the stage, directly into his line of vision, and felt as if his exuberance flowed into the crowd and our exuberance flowed back onto the stage, uplifted him, just as he uplifted us.

I knew I’d have seen this concert with my mother, had she lived. I know that last clause holds all my life’s desires in three words. Had she lived. My mother is dead —her ashes, scattered in the Chesapeake Bay, swam away from me long ago. She was not at my wedding. She does not know her grandchildren. But she is also alive in the same way Paul Simon’s music will be alive long after his last concert.

Her exuberance lives in the music I love, the music we sang and fought about. Her love for me lives in the choices I make each day to be honest and to steer clear of destruction. I do not believe in clear categories of afterlife, but I do believe I am the full sum of my mother’s life. I am everything that eclipses her death. My life, the life I live without her, unfolds in rhythm to all she showed me, and her hope runs beside me, as constant as a heartbeat, as steady as breath.