Five years

Dear Mom: Five years. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ve lived half a decade without you. By which, of course, I mean that I’ve lived half a decade without you able to answer when I (still) instinctively reach for the phone, despite your being very much present in my heart and my mind.

I think what most surprises me is how my experience of loss is still actively shifting, even after five years. Your death was a seismic shift that rearranged the landscape of my life. I’ve mostly found my way around this changed place but occasionally there’s another boulder that was loosened by the quake that tumbles into my path, another fall-out loss. Boulders that remind me that my world is smaller, because you connected me to your world, made me a part of those places and relationships and stories. And my world is less kind, because you influenced the people around you to be a little better versions of themselves.

Other shifts are a pleasant surprise. The weeks after your stroke were my first real experience of hospitals. For most of the last five years, remembering anything from those days has meant being right back in that room, flooded with all the helplessness, overwhelmed by my inadequacy and terrified that I was somehow making bad decisions, not doing enough, not doing the right thing… But this spring I found myself recalling the first time I took the overnight shift, and it was different. I was sleeping fitfully on the family bench/bed and noticed you were awake in the middle of the night. You seemed restless, and the nurse wasn’t around, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat next to your bed and held your hand until you fell back asleep. When I remember that night now, I’m no longer inside that scared and helpless self. Instead, I can see how hard it was, both of us scared I’m sure, and how sweet it was to just sit and hold your hand, together, through the dark hours of the night.

It gives me hope that more of those hard places can yet soften.

It also makes it more difficult to pretend that those hard places don’t exist. I’ve never been to visit your grave. I know that no plot of concrete and soil contains your essence, but places matter to me and I wish your grave could be one of my sacred places. Instead the thought of that cemetery fills me with rage and hurt. But I hope that someday I can forgive the burial you received, and I can visit.

I can also see how I thought grief was a process and at some point I would feel like there was an end. But right now, that doesn’t make any sense, I guess because I’ve come to see grief as indistinct from love. I think that grief just opens us up to greater love, which opens us up to more grief, and the cycle carries on. Love comes first, and in the end, it’s all just love.

So here I am, still learning from you what it means to love, how to love better. At least that part feels right.

I miss you.

Love, bethany

Four years

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Today is the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death, and my annual attempt to talk about what loss feels like years on. Perhaps the most telling shift is that I’m writing this a couple days in advance, because we are on the east coast and I have a full day of visits with friends and travel today. The last couple years, I was caught a little off-guard by the power of anniversaries, by how just seeing a date would throw me right back to the raw emotion of that date in 2012. This year, circumstance dictated that the date of her stroke fell in the middle of a meditation retreat and the the date of her death at the end of this trip. Both seem somehow fitting right now, short stretches of life where I naturally lose track of the day or the date, arbitrary markers that have little impact. Too absorbed in the immediate business of daily life to think too much. I guess both could have just as easily been safe spaces to grieve, but that’s not quite where I am.

When I reflect on how I felt a year ago and what has shifted, I realize that I finally surrendered to the loss of my mom in the last year, finally let go of the idea that I would somehow understand, make sense of how I felt, my experience of it all. I know it deeply, and I’m humbled by it, but I no longer expect I will ever understand it.

That is really all I know today… A little reminder (mostly for me) that it’s ok if it takes a long time to grieve a loss, and it’s ok if you need to grieve less some days too.

Lilacs, chapter 2

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We got home last night just as the light was fading. So much grew in just a week (two new feet of grass, I swear!). This morning, awake too early from a body in time zone readjustment, the first thing I did was wander outside to breathe in the sweet perfume of the lilacs that had blossomed while we were away. Planted last year on mother’s day, their first flowers cut on that day a year later. Perfect.

Three years

Today marks three years without my mom. And once again, I’ve been reflecting in recent days on just what that means for me. I debated publishing something this year – part of me thinks that I’m the only person who could possibly still be interested in how I feel about losing my mom three years later. Most people lose their parents -it’s a fact of life, the order of things. But maybe that’s the point. It’s the most universal of experiences and yet I’ve found myself feeling lost and lonely so many times as I tried to navigate these waters. So here I am again, trying to put words to it all, hoping someone else will find them helpful.

Three years on, I’m in the midst of really understanding that some of the emotions and pain stirred up by losing my mom aren’t about this loss at all. Certainly many of them were, and are. But sometimes the obvious answer is just cover for the inconvenient one.

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June 1999 – Finishing up the final clean on my college apartment the day after graduation

Over the past three years, I’ve read countless accounts of people losing loved ones by any number of terrible means and bitterly resented the time they suffered together, the chance to understand that death was imminent and the opportunity to have meaningful conversations before it was too late. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true.

In the first week or so after my mom’s stroke, there were some good days, relatively speaking, at the hospital. She couldn’t speak due to the apraxia but she could communicate the basics. We thought there was a long road ahead, therapy and rehab and adjusting. I just kept thinking that if ever there was a person in the world who could navigate that road with grace, it was her. I held her hand a lot and let her know that I was there, that we were in this together. But mostly we were firmly anchored in the moments, and our exchanges were about eating and resting and the mountain of cards she had received. I never imagined that one of those days would be my last chance for lucid communication.

By the time we realized that she was declining, her ability to communicate had completely slipped away. She could never tell us that she understood what was happening, that she was at peace, that it was ok. If there’s anything I’ve wished for more than any bit of extra time, it is to hear two simple words: “it’s ok”. Oh, I have ached to have heard those two words from her before she died.

For most of the last three years, I felt like those details stung so sharply because they were the particularly cruel details of her death. What I understand now is that the whole story I’ve just told you isn’t about me being assured that she’s ok and I’m ok. I know that she’s at peace and I can see every day that I’m ok.

But a lot of days I find it hard to really know that I’m ok. The pain isn’t that she couldn’t tell me, or that I’m unsure. It’s about really trusting and knowing, in my heart, that it’s ok. That I’m ok. That everything is going to be ok. That distinction likely makes no sense to anyone but me. But it feels like all the difference.

What I can see now is that the vein of insecurity is much older and deeper than three years. Her death just tapped into it. It’s not just about healing the grief, it’s about healing me. And that requires growing my way out. I think that’s probably true of any loss, but especially so of your mother. No matter how old you are, it shifts something. To be motherless is to feel vulnerable and exposed and disoriented in ways I couldn’t have imagined when she was alive. I think that is most what her loss feels like right now – the challenge of finding a way to grow myself out of the hurt that remains.

Three years. I miss her. And I wish my mom could see the person I’m becoming. I don’t think we ever outgrow that inclination.

December 23

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Today is my mom’s birthday; she would have been 64. Back in April when I wrote about losing her, I resolved I would write about her another time. Here goes.

One of the first things almost anyone would tell you about my mom was that she was a connector of people. She had a grace about her that put people at ease, that made her comfortable in most any company. She made friends for life, keeping in touch with people for decades (sometimes many); often just with an annual Christmas letter, but never letting someone drop from the list. She was also the hub of her extended family, the one who passed along the news, planned reunions, and chided people into attending. That grace with people – young or old, strangers or family – was probably the part of her that I most admired, that I most wish I saw more in myself.

My mom was supportive in a way that was over the top, except that it’s really hard to find support excessive when you’re on the receiving end. Once when I was in college, she drove more than 15 hours by herself to watch the first day of the conference track championships, only to miss the second day of the meet to drive home. When I hiked the PCT and CDT, she sent a care package to every. single. mail stop. Even when they were two days apart. That means packing a box that was likely full of homemade banana bread or cookies or popcorn cake, home-dried fruit, some hiker treats that she special-ordered from her buying club, and local newspapers or a magazine and getting it to the post office about twice a week for 4 months straight. It was always more than I could reasonably eat or use, and her answer was always the same, “share”. That’s a serious amount of time and effort and expenditure. It’s dedication. It’s the kind of love my mom excelled at, and I think it captures her in a lot of ways – she was capable, pragmatic, reliable, and giving.

My mom was a great traveler because she was adaptable. She was content. She was curious. She was easy-going. She liked trying new things.

My mom also aged well, partly I think because she was accepting and partly because she made a concerted effort to stay fit. When she reached that point in middle age when water skiing wasn’t a casual effort, she chose to do it more often instead of less.

Not coincidentally, if I wrote a description of the person I aspire to be, it would sound an awful lot like the above. In so many ways, she was what I was trying to grow up to become.

Don’t get me wrong – there were also big things where we differed, like religion. I resented like hell the years of her trying to quietly change my mind, the times when her religion counseled her to act in ways that were at odds with what I needed from her. But in the end, we had enough common ground to work around our differences.

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It’s clear to me now even if it wasn’t at all in real time that when I was figuring out how this life worked and how I wanted to live it, my mom was the model. Not in the specifics, even some of the big ones; I knew I’d never be a mother myself. But the general outline, the part that went roughly like this: I would take care of myself and be good to people and live modestly and I could plan for a reasonably long and happy life. And I think we’d mostly agree on the definitions of “take care” and “good” and “happy”. And then things sort of fell to pieces, because my model for how this would work… she died at 61, decades too early. And she didn’t get hit by a car, and she didn’t get cancer from living with industrial toxins. She was hiking in the mountains one day, and then the next a blood vessel in her brain gave way. And for a few days it looked like a big hill to climb. But then she just start slipping farther and farther away. Her body failed her, without warning before or explanation after. And my innate trust in… life slipped, too. I don’t imagine growing old with the same confidence I did a few years ago.

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I think of her every day when I see 408p on the clock, the time on my birth certificate. It’s become a little daily ritual to say hello to her and smile, to take a few seconds away from my day to tell her how I am doing or ask for the advice I need.

I hear her, too. Like many stroke patients, my mom was unable to produce speech in her final weeks. But even in the days when she was unconscious, her yawn reflex still triggered, including the verbal “ahhhh” on the exhale. I would startle a bit each time, because it sounded like she was just waking up beside me. Ever since then, I’ve noticed how I have the same involuntary habit, and I sound exactly like her. For a time it was eery, to yawn without noticing until being jarred by the sound of her voice, only to realize it had come from me, but these days it mostly makes me smile.

She is undeniably alive in me. Every day, in ways big and small. When I bake, can, knit, sew, when I kneel to plant, to weed, to harvest. She is alive in me when I reach out to a friend who has drifted, when I choose to volunteer. She is alive in me every time I choose to make more time for living and less for making a living.

I can’t help but think of this passage from Terry Tempest Williams’ memoir “Refuge”:

Let us toast twice. First to the older generation: may your days come to be many, full of comfort and understanding. May they be spent knowing that these days past have held a completeness uncommon and unknown to many, and that every detail of your beings continues in the lives of those who follow.

To the younger: may we accept these gifts, knowing that they are of this tradition, of this old-fashioned courage, of ethics, and that they can be carried along forever like rusting relics or they can be worn as wings. Let us wear them as wings.

Indeed, let me wear these gifts as wings.

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Lilacs

The sight and smell of lilacs transport me back to growing up on the North Dakota plains. They were ubiquitous, I’m not sure I can picture a farm yard without a couple of hardy lilacs somewhere in the scene; but they were also part of my specific landscape.

My childhood home had a long hedgerow of lilacs that ran along the back of our lot, forming the border between the civilized “yard” and wild beyond -an alley, then vacant land out to the railroad tracks. It was a hallmark of the turn from spring to summer when my mom set a big bunch of lilacs cut from the back yard on the kitchen table.

Lilacs also formed the outermost row of the shelterbelts at the Girl Scout camp where we spent nearly every summer weekend. I loved them there and still remember how surprised I was to discover that something I thought of as decorative and “fancy” was hardy enough to grow uncoddled, standing as a first line of defense against the elements.

Several years back, I started noticing the lilacs around town here in Washington. They’re not scarce once you start looking, but with all the rhododendrons in full bloom for the same stretch of May, they are rather overshadowed. And once I started looking… I’d get brave once or twice a year and discreetly stop to close my eyes and breathe deeply, escaping back to another time and place for a few moments before sneaking a couple tiny blossoms into my pocket to inhale later.

I’m not sure if my mom would have named lilacs as her favorite flower, but they are certainly one I associate strongly with her, partly because I know that she enjoyed having them around and partly because they are in peak bloom for Mother’s Day. I like to think it’s a little gift from mother nature to provide the perfect vehicle of escape just when I’d most like to crawl into a time machine. So this year on Mother’s Day, I planted three new time machines of my own.

It felt good to bring a little more “home” to this homestead.

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Two years

028-scan0124Today is the two-year anniversary of my mom’s death, which is really the two-year anniversary of my grief.

I am tempted to tell you about her on this day but I don’t think that’s fair. Maybe on her birthday or on Mother’s Day or any other day of the year, but this day is not remarkable because of what it meant to her life, but because of what it meant to mine.

I could try to tell you about how the clenching grip on my heart has relaxed into a warm embrace most days, with the key word being most. About how I recently met up with a friend who I hadn’t seen since before she died and when he asked how I was, the most truthful words I could find were, “I’ve gotten a lot older in the last two years.” Or maybe I could try to explain how impossibly brave it feels to look an emotion straight on and just say, “yes, I know. Let me sit with you.”

But I think I’d like to tell a story instead. Last year on this day, I was backpacking in the Grand Canyon. It was no coincidence – mom and I had talked about taking a trip there together in 2013 just a few weeks before her stroke. So I returned to Arizona without her to spend a difficult anniversary in the most comforting place I know, a trail. This day was our fifth and final night in the Canyon, and Dean and I were camped off the main canyon a bit, up a side drainage with its own steep walls. It was a hot and sunny day and by mid-afternoon we had naturally gathered with the other hikers staying nearby under a large central tree. Our afternoon conversation turned into a communal dinner and soon the sun was going down and someone lit a candle and we started singing and sharing poems and laughing together. It was a classic “campfire”, and one of the best I’ve had since my days at Girl Scout camp.

Then, seemingly in an instant, the night came alive. Our immediate surrounds were still perfectly dark save for the flickering of the one tea light but looking down toward the canyon, it was filled with light. It’s impossible to describe the quality of light, but it looked like the red rock was illuminating warmth, the whole north wall lit from within and bright enough to give the impression of daylight. It was stunning, and unforgettable. The full moon had risen on a clear night in the desert but wouldn’t be high enough to penetrate the shadows of the steep walls surrounding us for hours. We sang a little while longer, but now there were long pauses between songs when we all just sat captivated by the beauty. It was a magical night, one that mom would have loved in every way, and one that could have happened only by the intersection of countless vectors of chance.

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But as I reflect on that memorable night a year later, what strikes me more than even that light is how clearly I can recall taking it in, and how fragile and lonely and raw I felt then. How I tried to convince myself it wasn’t so bad, because that’s what I wanted to believe, but believing couldn’t make it hurt less. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s how grieving is truly a process. When you’re slogging through the weeds of all that, it’s easy to lose track of landmarks. So I am grateful for the perspective that an anniversary affords, and the healing that each year has brought with it.

I’ll end this with a chant I’ve been singing a lot the last few weeks, frequently accompanied by a mental image of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon…