The body knows. It knows the angle of the sun, the fullness of the trees, the scent of the air, the sharpness of the light, and the grace of the wind. Even if the events are different, if a person is missing and another is on the way, the body knows. And when the body senses these things, again, it knows what to do even if your mind and your heart fight savagely, like a feral dog, to stay in the present, to stay busy, to stay distracted, to do anything but go back into that cave of grief and face the reality of your absent loved one.
I wasn’t sure, but I suspected it; I knew it was either the first weekend or the second weekend in February last year. I knew it was coming in a sensuous way, but I had no clue, absolutely as though a fact, intellectually. I just had that sense of awareness, of knowing and the unrelenting waves of nostalgia, heaviness and “cling” (it’s the best word I can muster) that came and went at me like echoes in a canyon.
Last year, February 2 and 3, 2013, was the last time my entire family of origin and their families gathered in my house. I remember it as if it happened last night. I remember waking that morning, eager for the arrival of my brothers, their wives and their children. I remember making sure the sheets were on the beds, the towels in the rooms and that we had enough mac and cheese and strawberries for the kids.
Each year, our families do different things on actual Christmas, so we’ve made a tradition, over the last couple decades to celebrate “second Christmas” which I now recognize as my third favorite holiday ever. It’s usually in late January or February. We like to push it out a little later into the year because we all see each other for Thanksgiving.
I’d like to think it’s the big holidays that would do me in regarding my mother’s absence. Thanksgiving, Easter, Bastille Day. That was sort of a joke, Bastille Day. I threw it in there for comic relief, but then I realized after I typed it that it was actually the last time I saw her alive last year. We got together that day last year to celebrate my nephew’s and brother’s birthday at my house even though they were still in NY. It was the dinner that I planned the Wednesday before with an odd sense of urgency and deliberation. I never “had” to have my parents over for dinner like I had to that night. Then scant six weeks later, after my yoga retreat and a final summer vacation, she was gone.
We left our outdoor lights on the bushes out front because it was still Christmas to us. It snowed that night. I couldn’t believe it.
Second Christmas of 2013 was special to me, I didn’t know why, but I did my best at one moment to announce to the family — despite my brothers’ imminent mockery and my own self-consciousness at the sappiness of it all — that I couldn’t have imagined my heart fuller than at that moment: all my loved ones were, as John Mayer sings in “Stop this Train”, “safe and sound”:
Oh well now once in a while,
When it’s good and it feels like it should
And they’re all still around
And you’re still safe and sound
And you don’t miss a thing
And so you cry when you’re driving away in the dark,
Singing, ‘stop this train, I want to get off and go back home again…
Which is a song I hadn’t ever heard, despite my affection for John Mayer, until Second Christmas this year at my brother’s house and of course when I heard it, I pretty much fell to my knees emotionally. So naturally, to help me usher and attend to all these feelings I’m feeling these days, I listen to it, nod my head, sniffle and it soothes me.
It began last week, the nostalgia. I wrote to my son on his 13th birthday, again citing the Mayer song. I thought writing to him would soothe this beast, ease my pain, but it didn’t.
So then I wrote to an eFriend I met last fall after her mother died, telling her about how I was doing and closed that note, “Good thoughts are headed toward you from me.” That didn’t do it. Then I heard from a beloved cousin with whom I’ve grown amazingly and naturally close since summer, she’s like a combo sister auntie mom to me. I told her what I’d been up to: the new puppy, that I’m teaching yoga to the high school rowers now and working on my certification and all that and she asked me, in the most simple, clear and loving way, “how are you doing with your bereavement?” and I realized (even though I knew it all along) that she’s no dummy: I’m throwing all these things in my path to distract me from my pain.
But the thing is: this stuff comes at you, as your body knows, out of nowhere and if you’re not ready for it (and who is ready for an emotional sucker punch, you tell me) you fall to your soft places, curl up and cry unfettered sobs wishing that things weren’t the way they are. That they were somehow different — all along different in fact — but that your Now is unreconcilable; it’s as unreconcilable as the Then you wish were different, kinder, gentler.
Then you realize with a full heart, heavy lungs and wet eyes, that if your past were different then your now would be too. You can’t have it all: a functional mother and attendant father and a path of self-destruction which led you to the life you’ve attained now… that your children would not be here because your mate wouldn’t have stepped into your life when he did because you would’ve gone to a different college entirely if your life were somehow different, kinder, gentler, more orderly and rational.
Dovetailing. It’s all this fate stuff that happens to us when we allow ourselves to see it all with the glorious acumen and vision of a Monday morning quarterback.
Doesn’t matter. Would you trade it all? Would you trade it for just maybe one less crisis in your youth? Maybe one less heartache? One less battle with your parent that would’ve gotten you into the shower earlier? Are these the George Bailey (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) moments of our lives: that the one moment earlier in the shower before leaving for English 348 affected what parking spot we got at college, which determined the length of the walk to the car which had affected who’d we see in passing through the doorway at work who’d invited us to a party where we met our mate? I look back now and say, “No. I guess I wouldn’t trade it all.”
. . . . .
The amount of flotsam in my email inbox was absurd last week. I had close to 3,500 messages in it; something like 850 of them unread. Most of the missives are subscriptions and retailer content. Just before I went on the yoga retreat in July, I emptied it to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 messages.
I culled the inbox on Friday, to a manageable level, 1100 messages. I know that’s still high, it was an all-day affair requiring numerous bathroom and stretch breaks. I have now the same emails in the box that I had a hard time reconciling in July: notes from my family about my mother’s health and the conversations we had with my father a year ago today about his goals and ideas for the next 18 months, 12 of which have slipped through our hands like flaming kerosene, and the conversations going forward about how to best attend to her and his goals. I don’t know what to do with those notes.
The Chinese use the same symbol for “crisis” as they do for “opportunity.”
That email traffic created a new crisis (on one hand) and opportunity (in the other hand) for me. It was at that point that my father stopped speaking with me because I had drawn a line: After I gave him all the same information he’d requested three years prior and did nothing with, I told him to perform just one task and then I would help. This pattern of his, looking like he was doing Task A while really doing Task K was a long-held tactic of his — who can blame him? It’s human nature to completely avoid what you don’t want to do. The short version is this: it took a while.
The opportunity was that my mother and I started speaking more, as we used to, conspiratorially about my father and how curmudgeonly and obstinate he would be. He would be almost petulant like a child at times. If he’s reading this, he can close his laptop. I have suppressed a lot of this for at least one year and it’s just going to spill out of me somewhere even though I’m tempering a lot of it, so …
Then I began EMDR therapy to deal with the jolts and aftershocks of heavy emotional baggage, torpedoing through the abyss as though finally freed from the cargo holds of the Titanic.
While feeling all the feelings last week, I said to my husband, “The last time I remember feeling any sense of peace and purpose and composure in this house was immediately after my return from the yoga retreat. I did some sadhana, and then I went into the hot tub all by myself and chanted for half an hour. That was the last time I felt stable. Since then, it’s as though my life has literally turned upside down.”
This upside-downedness is ok; it’s how life is away from the Tibetan mountain top.
This next year, all the way through until the anniversary of my mother’s death on Labor Day, is going to be extremely tender for me; I can feel it already. My body knows; it is preparing me, and I best listen, to undergo and re-experience the final six months of my mother’s life and how I managed it; to honor it as it affected me while also reinventing it for myself without her. It’s right there: a pool of real, a puddle of authenticity that I am afraid to drown in.
If one thing’s super clear to me now: it’s the necessity to write about it. I haven’t touched my grief, actively, in months.
Stop this train.