August 17 A Passage for Grieving
I’ve cried a lot on this passage, perhaps more than at any other time in my life. This is because there’s a reasonably good chance I won’t ever hug my mother again. About 3 ½ weeks ago I fell and severely cut my leg. Earlier that very same day my mother fell and broke her leg – for the third time. The first was a skiing accident at Badger Pass long ago. The second was a tobogganing accident below Mendocino Pass 10-15 years ago. This time it was while walking to greet a visitor at her door, just days before her 92nd birthday. My injury has subsequently healed, only a maturing scar – my Papeete tatoo, as Kim refers to it – remains. My mother, on the other hand, underwent surgery and a few days later returned to her home. She has excellent round the clock caregivers, is surrounded by family and friends, and is happy to be back in her own home. However, she has stated that she is ready to let go and depart this world. She lies comfortably (I believe) in a hospital bed and it doesn’t seem that she will regain mobility this time.
Most often I cry after one of our daily 6-8 minute conversations. It is so wonderful to be able to hear her voice and her chuckle, and to respond to her enduring interest in what we’re doing – Where are you? How are the boys? How’s the weather? What are you going to do when you get there?. Recently, we chatted about her memories of watching the Queen of Tonga ride in a horse-drawn carriage in front of St. George’s Hospital (where my mother trained as a nurse in post-war London), as part of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation procession. My mother noted that the Queen of Tonga had an enormous smile, and that they had a good viewing spot as Buckingham Palace was “just down the road” from the hospital. We also chatted about a stormy race around Santa Barbara Island in my parents’ Anthea (a classic 1926 wooden sloop) in which most other boats turned back due to the stormy weather but my mother and father continued on, rounded the island during the night and returned safely, even though the wooden seams had worked in the weather, allowing water into the boat. She doesn’t remember how they got the water out – details, details. On these calls we always tell each other how much we love each other. My mother usually mentions how she looks forward to my call, and today she said she treasures them. They come to an end after 6 or 8 minutes when she says, “Mark, I’m going to have to let you go now,” (which I think means that’s all the energy she has for talking). I cry afterwards because our brief conversation reminds me how much I love her, of how impossible it is to imagine the world without her in it, and that there’s a good chance I’ll never see her, hug her, again.
These cries are part of my grieving process, a process that began quite a while ago. At various junctures in the past few years, usually around a health issue that she might not recover from, I’d be sitting with her on sofa, blubbering about how much I loved her and would miss her when she’s no longer with us. During these conversations she’d often say something to the effect of, “well you know Mark, I’ve got to die sometime,” quite matter of factly. And that’s our mother – brave, adventurous, courageous and matter of fact. The grieving process also has entailed saying what needed saying. We have frequently acknowledged our love for each other, more frequently in recent years, perhaps as part of this process. Often, when returning to her apartment after dinner and a few hands of bridge at our house, she’d pause then say how proud she was of me and my family and how much she loved us. The tears that often came with these sentiments suggested she was making sure she said the things she wanted to while she still could.
We’ve been at sea 10 days now. For 10 days all we’ve seen is the sea, the sky, the clouds, the stars and the sun. Save for a few birds, there have been no signs of life. Our wake, our only trace, vanishes in seconds. Is this not a manifestation of eternity? Of the vast, perhaps uncaring, universe, in whose presence our lives matter little? I’m reminded of Virginia Wolf’s husband (whose name escapes me) who was fond of the adage, “Nothing matters, yet everything matters.” From the perspective of eternity, from the perspective of this watery world, it’s easy to agree that nothing matters. Yet after each call with my mother, the intensity and depth of my love for her, how precious she is to me, the ways in she has been a bedrock of support for me for over half a century, and the difficulty of imagining the world without her in it, overwhelm me and I cry tears of sadness. Yes, there is simultaneously eternity and deep grief.
My boys know the situation. They know Grandma has limited time. They’ve seen my tears. Kim has been wonderful, supportive, loving and compassionate during these sad days. Of course, there is much to celebrate as my mother approaches her final transition. Getting to 92 is “nothing to shake a stick at,” as she might say, and her mind remains sharp as a tack. She has led a truly remarkable life, as those who know her can attest. And while this is most unlikely, there’s a slight chance that we might celebrate an early Christmas with her and make her another batch of three citrus marmalade. Regardless of the timing of her passing, this crossing has been a passage for grieving. It has provided a unique opportunity to allow the tears and sadness to flow through me as I continue to come to terms with the certainty of my mother’s passing in the not too distant future.