I knew I’d never be able to write much about my mother while she was alive. It would be too complicated and potentially wounding to her, potentially destructive to our relationship. I never wanted to cause her pain, so I imagined it might be another 20 years before I could share anything about her or about our relationship.
But last year she unexpectedly and suddenly died – and, far from releasing me to write – I found that apart from a bit of journaling, I could not write at all – not about her, not about anything. There was just too much…
It’s now been exactly a year today since her death and I am trying to wade slowly back into sharing words. I must try to break off small pieces of ideas, so that I don’t get overwhelmed trying to capture so much that words become too flimsy under the weight, finally collapsing, sending me back into silence.
Today is September 8th, the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I am having a hard time grasping that this day has come, because the past year has not felt like a real year of actual time passing. It has felt like wave after wave of thoughts and feelings only lightly imprinted upon months and seasons, emotional experiences only lightly tethered to time and space.
It was windy today – I was walking through the Commons and the leaves started falling. It was the first time this year that I could see and really feel the seasons changing.
I have been anticipating this day for weeks – and now it is here and I am having a difficult time knowing how to make it right, how to give it the weight it seems like it should have.
I had this expectation that something would happen today – something more significant than on other days. It turns out however that I am missing her just as much today as many other days. So I feel like I am somehow failing her by not experiencing the gravity of her death on more profound level than ever before.
I think that if I want this day to be different from other days, I have to make the effort to infuse it with importance myself. And so I write.
I have no religion. I have no tradition. I have nothing to lean on to tell me what to do or what to believe when someone I love dies.
Since my mother died I have listened carefully when people of different beliefs have talked about the soul. Several people told me that in their faith the first 3 days after death were so important, because the soul was still connected to the body – but I wanted to reject that idea, because I did not even get to see my mother’s body until she’d already been dead for 6 days.
Someone else said 30 days, another 40 days, another 100. I kept bargaining with different traditions for more and more time. And finally I heard 1 year, and something in me clung to that.
I have held on to that that idea – that she would be hanging around the planet all year – so I could feel like I still had some time left, some months to find a way to her, to learn how to communicate with her, reach her, feel her out there.
In Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, she describes a kind of superstitious state of mind she entered after Dunne’s sudden heart-attack.
“I see now that my insistence on spending that first night [after his death] alone was more complicated than it seemed, a primitive instinct. Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother and to Quintana’s husband. The New York Times knew. The Los Angeles Times knew. Yet I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible. That was why I needed to be alone…I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”
Weeks after his death for example, she gave his clothes to charity but couldn’t bear to give up all his shoes because, she thought, “He would need shoes if he were to return.”
I empathize with this dual state-of-mind – understanding loss has occurred on the one hand, but not believing it is unequivocal, feeling instead it is probably conditional.
We can know factually someone has died, but the way we feel can be much more primal, primitive and superstitious. And I have been so grateful for that.
SUPERSTITION: Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin superstitio(n-), from super- ‘over’ + stare ‘to stand’ (perhaps from the notion of “standing over” something in awe).
To stand over something in awe. Part of me stands apart from logic, from chronological time that only moves forward, from death being absolute, and looks outwards, waiting for the awe, waiting for the magic. Not trusting in it completely, but tentatively thinking maybe, yes maybe, oh please maybe, could it be?
It’s in moments like these that I get these flickering reminders of how much of me is rooted in something not logical, not reasonable. Something deeply fanciful, willfully credulous.
When I was 7 or 8 I read that unicorns ate rose petals – so I would regularly go to the backyard and pick roses, break break them apart, and fill the birdbath with petals. Then I would sit in the shadows and wait.
But, as far as I know, a unicorn never came. I couldn’t allow myself to consider that it might be because unicorns don’t exist…so it had to be through some fault of my own. I must have not tried often enough, or maybe I went to bed too early, was too impatient, too noisy.
Maybe it was some fundamental lack in me – I wasn’t pure and appealing enough in some way; not the right Maiden Fair. Or maybe I didn’t quite BELIEVE hard enough, completely enough. Maybe it was the sliver of doubt in me that I could never seem to dislodge from any of the things I tried or wanted, even at that age.
And every day that I failed to attract a unicorn, I wondered how long it would be before I ran out of time.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – many sad things happen, but for me the largest heartbreak is the idea that Peter and Susan lived this whole incredible, beautiful, magical life and then go back through the wardrobe doors, and have it all taken away, even the memory itself, as they grow into normal adults, grow up a little too much to believe in magic.
I spent a lot of my childhood in a state of desperation, hoping to find magic before it was too late.
I chased rainbows in a search for leprechauns and pots of gold in the golden, oak covered hills behind my house. I looked for fairies, unicorns and elves.
I tried to fly with paper wings, jumping of tall ledges and the top bunk, so sure that if I believed enough and jumped just right and timed my flapping arms to the moment, that I would take off – that I spurn gravity, rising up instead of dropping endlessly down.
But time after time I found myself on the floor. And I wondered – did I need stronger materials? Was the timing of my flapping arms off somehow? Or was it just quite simply that I did not believe enough? Was I already too much like a grown-up, who doesn’t experience magic? Not because it isn’t real, but because grown-ups aren’t willing to believe in it enough to see it.
SARAH: “SAY YOUR RIGHT WORDS,” THE GOBLINS SAID,
SARAH: “AND WE’LL TAKE THE BABY TO THE GOBLIN CITY,
SARAH: AND YOU WILL BE FREE.”
GOBLIN: LISTEN! SHE’S GOING TO SAY THE WORDS.
SARAH: I CAN BEAR IT NO LONGER!
SARAH: GOBLIN KING! GOBLIN KING!
SARAH: WHEREVER YOU MAY BE,
SARAH: TAKE THIS CHILD OF MINE FAR AWAY FROM ME!
GOBLIN: THAT’S NOT IT!
GOBLIN: WHERE’D SHE LEARN THAT RUBBISH?
GOBLIN: IT DOESN’T EVEN START WITH “I WISH”!
Out of all the thousands of words and millions of ways they can follow each other – all the incantations, spells, actions, movements of the hand, movements of the heart – how can you actually know how to break a spell or cast one, how to send someone away or bring someone back?
On the anniversary of her death, I wonder if my mother’s soul is just waiting there, waiting to be invited in – and I either don’t know the words, or don’t believe in them ENOUGH for it to work.
Maybe if I could TRULY suspend disbelief, the door would open.
I don’t want this first year to come to an end because it feels like I will have somehow missed the opportunity – and this day will end, and then some door will have closed forever. Like growing too old to go through the wardrobe.
I fear that I am letting her slip away, losing her all over again.
Nick Cave’s 15 year-old son, Arthur, accidentally fell off the Brighton cliffs to his death in June, 2015. Cave just released an album today (Skeleton Tree)- much of which circles around and around that brutal grief, a kind of grief I hope to never fully be able to imagine or understand.
“I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world
In a slumber til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth
Well, I don’t think that any more”
And in a later song:
“All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose.
It’s our bodies that fall when they try to rise–
Here they come now, here they come
Are pulling you away
There are powers at play more forceful than we
Come over here and sit down and say a prayer
A prayer to the air, the air that we breathe …
Come on now, come on now Hold your breath while you’re safe
It’s a long way back and I’m begging you please to come home now
Come home now.”
Should I light a candle momma? Should I say words and wave my hands? Should I make some kind of sacrifice? Would you come to me then?
What should I do? What should I say?
What am I missing?
Is this my last chance? Have I just not tried hard enough – and that is why I lose you in the end?
Did you die because I didn’t try hard enough? Because I never knew the right words to make you want to stay?
I’m begging you please, to come home now.
Dear Momma –
This is the best I can do.
I don’t know how else to make you live again, besides writing.
Writing about you, about myself, about us…
It’s what I will keep on doing until I learn some other, even more potent kind of magic.