Two years later

The Thinker by Rodin

Two years later, I feel acceptance and serenity.

When a loved one dies, there is no accounting for the nature and length of the grieving process. Nor is there a way to know for certain whether you have really moved beyond their death. Yet here I am two years after my mother’s death. When I think about Mom at all, and most days I do not, those are my feelings. I accept that she is forever gone from my life. I find myself wholly at peace with her absence.

When I learned of her death, I was racked with powerful bittersweet feelings. Feeling unhappy, distraught and an emotional wreck were to be expected. I did not expect to also feel relief and happiness. I was relieved that her misery was over at last. I was glad to resume a normal life. In addition, I was happy that just maybe my mother was now in the presence of the God she had so slavishly worshipped. Perhaps she was even reunited again with her long deceased parents and many deceased siblings.

The first few months after her death felt surreal and were unnaturally quiet. It seemed like her death was just an extended absence. After all, for much of her last thirty years we lived apart. At best, I spent a couple weeks a year with her. It had become normal to be away from her. What was not normal were the last fifteen months of her life. She and my father had been living their retired years in far away Michigan. Her health had reached the stage where living at home was no longer an option. They sold their house and moved across the Potomac River from me to a retirement community called Riderwood. However, by that time she could hardly stand up and had to be carried up stairs. When she walked at all, it was with her walker. I went from seeing her once a year to once a week or more. Unfortunately, the time I did spend with her was rarely pleasant. Each visit demonstrated that her body was falling apart. Finally, there was little more of my mother than a shrunken old woman in a nursing home bed, ashen in the face, her eyes occluded and blank, her hair a surreal unnaturally white color. Near the end, her disease would not let her utter a word or even turn her head. You were never sure whether she heard you or not. I put on a brave face in her presence. I bawled in the hallways or in the privacy of my car. At some point how could anyone, including the dying, not take some relief from death? My mother’s death was ultimately merciful.

It took about six months before I really felt the aftershocks. My mother was the emotional heart of our large Catholic family. She was a loving person but she was far from perfect. She grew up impoverished, traumatized by the Great Depression and burdened with the impossible expectations from the God she loved yet that seemed to require ever more sacrifice and duty. She exuded duty and guilt, values she probably would not have wanted to transmit to me but which I absorbed anyhow.

My forebrain understood all this, knew that she loved all her children and was a product of circumstances. My neocortex had a different opinion. It still resented my perceived insufficient nurturing and the harsh punishments she meted out when we were children. I navigated through life but felt more and more detached. Inside, I was filled with turmoil. My neocortex was like a vast, dark storm cloud desperately wanting to discharge some lightning. My forebrain wanted to keep it at quite a distance.

Eventually I found myself disgorging my confused feelings to my therapist. Through therapy, I learned that to resolve my feelings that I had to do more than blab to her about them. I had to share them people who could empathize. Attempts to talk about my mixed feelings about Mom with my Dad were deflected. This left my siblings. One sister did not reply when I cautiously raised the issue in an email. Another listened patiently then gave me a different perspective of Mom, for being younger she had witnessed much less of her dark side. It was an older sister who I met for dinner one evening when she was in town who at last let me discharge my voltage. The one thing I had not anticipated was that I had a sibling who was far more upset with my mother than I was. It was clear from the endless tears flowing down her cheeks as we talked. “It’s is just hormones,” she claimed. For me, while I loved my mother some part of me also loathed her. Yet my older sister claimed that she never loved my mother at all. Her tears suggested otherwise.

At first, I had no idea I was on the road to recovery. Yet within a week, the storm clouds had disappeared. The voltage was gone. The skies were blue and the sun was shining in my life again. Since then I have felt simple acceptance at her passing and a serenity that suggests my feelings for my mother have finally been wholly reconciled.

On my first motherless Mother’s Day, I made a point to drive out to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland where her cremated remains lie. This Mother’s Day, I felt no such compulsion. When I am near Silver Spring I certainly intend to pay my respects again. However, the sense of duty is gone. This suggested to me that whatever unintended apron strings were pulling at me from her grave had been cut. Instead, I concentrated on the one living mother left in my life: my mother in law. I made sure we sent her a card and called her on Mother’s Day. I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day and many more to come.

Somewhere in the space-time continuum, my mother’s spirit is still present. She is happy for me. She is glad I cut those final apron strings. At times, I imagine that she is whispering to me. She is saying, “Get on with life, Mark. Life is to be cherished and savored. Do not forget me but do not let my death hold you back either. Be free of me so you can make the most of your life. Someday we will meet again, and when we do we will meet in love, as friends and as peers.”

Thanks Mom. I love you too.