Tag Archives: grief

In the Desert

When I visited the Sonoran Desert for the first time in September 2006, the landscape left me speechless. I felt like I was underwater, experiencing an ecosystem that was entirely “other” to what I always knew growing up on the East Coast.

Carl took this photo of me on our first hike in the Sonoran, a month before he asked me to marry him.

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This was our first hike together, and I was not prepared. But my smile is genuine, even though I’m wearing fashion sneakers that slid all over the pebbly sand. I did not become athletic or even outdoorsy until a few years into our marriage. This trip was a turning point because it showed me what I could do.

Now I am drawn to the Sonoran Desert because of the constant interplay between life and death. While this interplay exists in all ecosystems, it’s most apparent to me here.

We live in a culture that tries to erase death at every turn. Instead of died, we say passed away. Instead of funeral, we say Celebration of Life. But death cannot be erased in the desert. Death defies erasure. The desert is the most necessary memento mori that exists.

Leaving always breaks my heart.

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From what I’m told, my paternal grandmother loved the desert too. She’s buried there now, in the shade of a Creosote.

She lived in a neighborhood studded by prickly pears and Palo Verdes. But she planted shamrocks in her backyard, made them bloom beneath her kitchen window.

The first time I stood in what was once my grandmother’s backyard, my aunt pointed out her shamrocks. I tried to photograph them, but it was too dark. I couldn’t capture their essence. As I stood in the spot where her hands once plunged into rocky earth, I could feel my grandmother’s faith. Her spunk. I could sense her capacity for imagination.

The great sadness of my life is that I didn’t know this grandmother. She moved to Phoenix before I was born. My parents separated a year after my birth. Their divorce was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf messy. But the aftermath is what I remember, and I think it was worse. With the exception of my father’s father, I was cut off from the rest of the family.

Until the day she died, my grandmother carried my photo in her wallet. She wore my name on a charm around her wrist. She never stopped loving me. But I have no memory of her.

Still, I always think of her when I walk the desert. I conjure the story of who she was, and who we could have been together.

Last weekend, when I hiked Saguaro National Park with Carl, tears pooled in my eyes. “I should have seen this with my grandmother,” I told him, then blew my nose.

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Grief is not linear. It’s more like a wave that rolls right back out to sea once it hits the shore. There’s no end point. No exit.

The first time I visited my grandmother’s grave, I wept as I wept when my own mother died. I did not expect the crush of sadness I felt. I placed my hand on her grave, as if I could touch her. This motion staunched my tears. I resolved to know her as best I could.

This year, when I touched her grave, I breathed Creosote and said the metta prayer: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be at ease.

My grandmother died not knowing that I loved her. There is nothing I can do to rectify that fact. On Sunday, I placed a rock I collected from the Chesapeake Bay on her grave. This rock came from the same beach where I scattered my mother’s ashes five years ago. Before I left the gravesite, I picked up a pink pebble and tucked it into my purse.

I wanted to carry a small part of this place away with me, as if I could merge with the desert, with my grandmother, as if such a thing could be.

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.

Love & Immortality

My mother dreamed of climbing Mount St. Helens. She’d never been to Washington State, but once glimpsed the Wasatch Range from a Salt Lake City hotel room.

“They’re capped in snow, like in the movies!” She told me on the phone one morning, before leaving to run in the U.S. Transplant Olympics. Breathy and energetic, her voice sounded like that of a teenager.

At 43, my mother was thriving after an experimental kidney and pancreas transplant saved her life two years prior. Once barely able to walk around the block, she participated in two U.S. Transplant Olympics held in Salt Lake City, Utah and Columbus, Ohio. Her transplant freed her to dream of all the possibilities restored health could hold.

She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1966, before the widespread use of insulin pumps and blood-glucose meters. Although she once aspired to be a flight attendant and travel the world, my mother relinquished those ambitions when her insulin reactions became unpredictable. She chose a career in nursing and worked in healthcare until disabling organ failure forced her to leave her job.

After she left the workforce, I came home from school to find my mother watching Days of Our Lives or Another World, a Diet Coke in her hand, and a Dean Koontz novel spread out on our coffee table. At 10, 11, and 12, I didn’t understand my mother’s malaise. I hated her sweat suits and pallor. I longed to see her dust her eyes in coppery powder and sweep pink gloss across her lips.

I could not know then that my mother’s illness forced me to face my own mortality. The failure of her body, by extension, represented the inevitable demise of my own. I couldn’t understand how terrified she must have been to come so close to death in her thirties, not far from the age I am now.

Nor could I know the grief she felt, as she watched friends ascend their own careers and have enough energy to meet the daily demands of mothering. While her peers attended meetings and baked PTA cupcakes, my mother languished in our living room, caught in the snare of daytime TV.

Her organ transplant changed all that by offering an unexpected midlife reprieve. There were no limits to what she could do, and she wanted to do it all: travel, climb mountains, see her daughters graduate college, become a grandmother. Even when her transplanted organs failed midway through my junior year of college, my mother still clung to her dreams. She ordered luggage for far-off future trips and bought Harry Potter books for a hypothetical grandchild. Done with soap operas, she watched outdoor adventure television.

Maybe her behaviors represented denial, rather than hope. As my mother progressed on dialysis, death began to look like the most merciful path. But she had the imagination to dream of better days in the midst of her worst ones, and she taught me to do the same.

Six weeks after her death, I found myself on a plane to Glasgow, Scotland, traveling to work at a newspaper I’d never visited and live with a person I’d never met, in a city I’d never set foot in. I should have felt terrified, but I’d already experienced the worst thing that had ever happened to me. What could be worse than losing my mother? I embarked on the kind of adventures she’d always dreamed of having.

For a long time, I followed this path of living a mix of her dreams and mine, of doing what my mother could not do because she died, and I lived. I fantasized about climbing mountains that once beckoned her –– Mt. St. Helens and Everest. I even took her last name. I told myself I was honoring her legacy, and that is true. But I was also bargaining, offering up my life for hers, as if such a trade could resurrect her.

I don’t know when I accepted my mother’s death as final. I know acceptance came quietly, after years of reckoning.

People like to tell me my mother is proud of me, or that she’s watching over me. I do not accept these sentiments, but I also do not begrudge them. It is true that my mother is dead. It is also true that the best parts of her live on through me.

This time of year, when spring changes to summer, I remember how I found her sunbathing in our backyard one morning. She wore her black bathing suit. Her skin smelled of baby oil and coconut. A book rested against her chest.

What are you doing? I wanted to know. At six, I was full of questions. Why is the sky blue? Where does God live? Does death hurt? My mother pulled me to her chest, let me burrow into her shoulder, and began to read a story about a girl who rescued a pig.

I took the book inside our house and read the whole thing without stopping. I didn’t cry when Charlotte died after spinning the sack that held her eggs, or after her babies crawled out of the sack and into a world without their mother.

I understood Charlotte had died, but she wasn’t gone. She was the oldest story her children remembered, their first experience of sacrifice and kindness, a foundational current moving through their lives.

I no longer believe in sky gods or resurrection or clear categories of afterlife. I do believe in the force that was my mother, the power of her kindness and her dreams, her immortal love.

No Last Goodbye

My mother believed in heaven, not hell. I learned this a few weeks before she died, when I drove her to a dialysis appointment. We knew the end was near, but we both pretended she might live. I felt time closing in on us. There was so much I needed to know. I had no idea where to begin. In the car I blurted out, “Are you afraid to die?”

No. She told me.

As a Jewish woman who came of age in the 1960s, my mother never had a Bat Mitzvah. She could not read Hebrew. She had no clear concept of the afterlife. But she believed hell had been her life on earth. And that is what she said as I drove and cried and watched spring rain drench the windshield of her minivan, a car I’d soon inherit.

She died six weeks after my twenty-first birthday. That morning, my best friend drove me from my D.C. apartment to the house where my mother had lived outside Baltimore. We were both numb with grief, barely able to speak or listen to music. When I saw my mother’s minivan parked outside, I expected to see her appear at the front door, as she did whenever I came home. The door stayed closed, and nausea climbed in my stomach. I could not imagine ever wanting to sleep or eat again. Each step I took felt like a mile.

Truly, I lived on another planet, a world familiar on its surface, but utterly strange at the core. I reread Alice in Wonderland, desperate to find a door leading out of my rabbit hole and back to my mother. I looked for her in other places, too: her red comb that still held strands of her red-brown hair; her pillow that still smelled of her Dove soap; my dreams, where she led me to a house in the middle of a woods, then disappeared.

Jewish custom forbids open caskets, but I sat beside my mother’s coffin the night before her funeral. My grandmother asked that the coffin lid be opened, so that my sister and I could say goodbye to our mother. I kissed her face and forehead,  flinching momentarily at their rock-hard firmness. I wanted her to awaken the way princesses did in fairytales, even though I was far too old to believe in magic. I could not believe she was dead. Gone. Forever.

After the funeral, I followed her coffin to the parking lot, then crawled into the hearse. I could not let her go. My grief was raw and pathological, a torment I would not wish on the worst person I knew. A good friend led me away.

My mother died one month before Mother’s Day, which that year occurred two days after her birthday. I cannot remember how I marked either day, nor do I want to.

There are now 14 years between my mother’s death and me. But I always think of her on Mother’s Day. How can I not? Other than my birthday, Mother’s Day is the holiday that most connects me to her, and reminds me of my life on a faraway planet, of the time when I once had a mother, when I once was someone’s daughter.

I remember setting my alarm and waking up before sunrise to make her breakfasts of scrambled eggs and peanut butter toast. My sister and I gave her cards and handmade friendship bracelets, which she’d tie around her ankles. She’d scrunch her whole face into a smile and exclaim, “I’m the luckiest mother in the whole wide world,” before drawing us to her chest in a tight, all consuming hug, the kind of hug we thought would go on forever. She was the luckiest mother in the world, and we were the luckiest girls.

You would think I’d hate Mother’s Day, but the holiday doesn’t rankle me in the ways one might expect. I don’t wake up wild with grief. I might cry, but that’s because Mother’s Day falls on the most high stress time of my working life. It’s a frenzied end-of-semester day for me, a day of grading and dog-walking and rushing to get lunches packed and dinner on the table. This year, I’m able to squeeze in brunch with my sister, and I’m unfathomably grateful for time with her, given her own demands of a full-time career and full-time mothering.

Like my friends who still have their mothers, I’m irritated by the gender stereotypes Mother’s Day embodies, the pinkwashed sentimentality that implies women are delicate and soft and devoted to caretaking. Mother’s Day denies our complexity and renders women like me invisible, since I have neither a mother nor a child.

And yet, I love Mother’s Day, because I loved my mother.

Her laugh and smile and exuberance come back to me on this day, remind me of how important it used to be that I wake up early and thank her, make her feel appreciated and loved. I still feel her presence when I am kind and appreciative, when I go out of my way to help a person who is struggling, when I sit with a person who is staring down a staggering loss.

I will never get to tell my mother how much she meant to me. She will never get to see her legacy live on in me. She will never know her grandchildren, or see the homes her daughters have made, or the flowers I plant in my garden to remember her.

This is how I survive beyond my mother, and how I choose to celebrate Mother’s Day. Even though she cannot see or hear me, even though she exists now only in my memories and choices, I say, “Thank you,” as if she is sitting right here beside me, waiting to pull me to her chest, and remind me how purely I have been loved.

Thank youThank you.  Thank you.