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.
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…