Tag Archives: death

A Season of Loss

We’ve had so much going on this year, and I forgot to buy a yartzheit candle to mark the seventeenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This weekend initiates a trifecta of death anniversaries: my mother (April 7), her mother (April 8), and a beloved aunt (April 9).

I have marked these anniversaries back-to-back for years, often lighting candles in my kitchen. For me, marking death in early April can feel incongruous, an affront to the landscape’s perpetual message of rebirth.

This morning, because our past year has been so complicated, I also forgot that today was my mother’s yartzheit. I remembered only after I opened the kitchen door to let our dogs in from the yard. Nature reminded me. Each time I look at a cherry blossom or daffodil, I remember where I was on a Sunday morning seventeen years ago. I go back to the moment before I learned the news of my mother’s death, when I sat on a sofa while the walls turned salt-lamp pink, then swirled around me. I go back to the the moment after I confirmed the news, when I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out. My primary experience was one of silence, which now strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for death and grief.

In the past seventeen years I have mourned my mother, I have resisted cultural silences imposed on the grieving. I have resisted avoiding the topic of death. I have resisted language that denies the reality of death and grief. This blog is one form of resistance.

This week, I’ve thought frequently about how hard it was for me to go back to school after I lost my mother, how much pressure I felt to perform normalcy and perfection. I thought about how I learned to hide my sorrow, and how alien I felt in rooms full of 21-year-olds whose parents were still alive, and often paying their children’s bills. At 21, I had no such resources. I was on my own. To this day, I do not know how I graduated from college, only that I did – on Mother’s Day 2003. Some people tell me I’m strong or brave. But I don’t think finishing college was a heroic act. In a period of tremendous instability, the structure of an academic year gave me stability. I clung to stability. If anything, I feared further change. I avoided uncertainty.

After my graduation ceremony, I went out to lunch with visiting relatives but refused to go out to dinner. Instead, I stayed in my apartment with my sister and boyfriend. We ordered takeout. My graduation was not a celebration, and celebration felt fraudulent. My college graduation was the first major milestone I marked without a mother, and I marked this milestone in public, surrounded by jubilant people, on a Hallmark holiday that forefronts motherhood.

That day, I needed privacy. I needed to grieve alone with my sister. The next week, we’d “celebrate” her graduation. I cannot bear to look at photos from either of these events. I had such a sweet boyfriend at the time, and he stayed with me even though it was hard, and we were both too young to understand the emotional pressures bearing down on us. In the graduation photos, my boyfriend stands next to me. He holds me in a protective embrace. But my eyes are vacant, cold, dead.

I am barely there. I do not want to be there.

Something that bonds Carl and me is that we both lost parents young. We both lost the parents with whom we shared a gender identity – my mother, his father. We both walked across commencement stages, received diplomas, fell in love, began careers, bought homes without those parents present. At our wedding ten years ago, we claimed these losses in a candle-lighting ritual. We acknowledged how light and darkness exist side-by-side as natural elements of human experience, our experience. In our family, grief swims beneath each experience of joy.

This morning, because I could not find a yartzheit candle, I walked from our kitchen to our attic, which we’ve recently remodeled into a meditation/Yoga space and writing studio. I sat on my meditation cushion and lit the only candle we have, a rainbow chakra candle I gave Carl for Christmas. Then I carried the candle through our dark house and placed it on the stove, beside a plate of matzah brei I’d made for Carl’s breakfast. A spoon holder that once belonged to my mother sat behind the candle; it’s one of the few objects I have left from her house.

In our kitchen, the makeshift yartzheit candle still burns, will burn all day. I’ll light another candle tomorrow, and another candle the next day. Outside, the daffodils and cherry blossoms will open more blooms. Each time I see them, I will hold despair and hope in the same gaze. Despair. Hope. Neither cancels the other out. Each magnifies the other. Each reminds me how precious, how beautiful a life touched by death can be.

 

After You Died

We cremated you. Without a will, or any written instructions, this was a difficult decision to make. I wasn’t sure of your desires, but I believed my sister, who said she recalled your final wishes were to be fully released from your captor body. So I signed my name on a piece of paper the day after you died. Your funeral would be the next day, as per Jewish custom. Your cremation horrified me, but not because it bucked tradition. I could not bear the image of your body burned to a cinder, your ashes mine alone to scatter. Still, you would have laughed at the funeral director. Instead of mom, he called you mother. Very Norman Bates. Had you been there, we would have giggled until our stomachs ached.

The other night I told my husband I felt like I have lived two lives, the one before you died and the one after. We were both falling asleep, and I can’t remember what he said back to me but I think it was, “You have lived two lives.” He has only known me in my second life. He never knew me in my first life, as a person with a mother. He never knew you. But he has carried the weight of your absence with me for the past thirteen years I have known him. He has never once told me to get over it. He has never told me to be a person other than who I am. We met on your birthday, by the way. You’d been dead two years by then.

Around that time, I took in my first stray. He was a black tomcat, like the one you used to have before I was born. He appeared near my apartment in the Louisiana delta. At first, I didn’t want him. But my sister, who was visiting, forced me to adopt the cat. She put her hands on her hips the way she did when we were kids and played “Business Women.” (You should remember she was always the boss and I was always the employee.) She convinced me I could take care of something else again, that I could stand to be needed. So I adopted him that very afternoon. He opened the heaviest door I shuttered after you died, the one marked LOVE.

It felt wrong at first, to love beyond you. But the moment I started, I couldn’t stop. I have four rescues now. No child. For a long time, I was afraid to become a mother, afraid to lose a child the same way I lost you. I was well past 30 when I realized losing you taught me I could bear anything. Losing you taught me not to withhold love. Fingers crossed, I’ll give you a grandchild in the next year or two. Maybe twins :-).

By the way, you are already a grandmother. I know: You look like you could be my sister! But your other daughter already has two sons and a daughter. The eldest looks exactly like you. He makes all your most hilarious facial expressions. Like you, he loves music, loves to sing. He’s particularly fond of The Beach Boys & Billy Joel. His sister has a thing for Taylor Swift. You should hear her sing “Firework.” It’s really something. The youngest isn’t talking yet, but he has the chubbiest thighs we’ve ever seen. If you ever had the chance to squeeze them, you’d never let go.

When I awoke this morning, I remembered the morning you died. I was the same age as many of my students are now. No wrinkles then. No grey hair. At first, I mourned the big things, such as how you would not be at my college graduation –– on Mother’s Day that year. Ugh. But I felt your absence in the small things, how there was no one to tell me to be home by 10 p.m. or to complain that I’d used all the hot water AGAIN. I missed you most in the mornings, that time when we used to sip coffee and read the newspaper. I still miss you in the mornings. This is when I resurrect write about you.

Today is an anniversary, but not the kind that requires flowers or chocolate. Today you are fifteen years dead. My sister will likely light a candle for you, say Kaddish. She has been so good about honoring you on the terms of your faith. I will go to my Spin class, grade papers, prep lessons, steal an ordinary day from the impossible shadow of your absence.

After you died, I didn’t think I could go on. I didn’t want to go on. But here I am, missing you as much as I did on my first day without you. Only now, I can balance the unbearable loss of you on my head, walk beneath it without sinking.

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.