"Someday's gonna be a busy day..."

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Beneath the Trellis

**This essay was originally published in 1999 in WholeLife Magazine.**

Every Mother's Day, I wake up and I wait. I spend the entire day waiting, in fact. I go about my morning, gulping hot coffee, chatting with my husband, disciplining my wayward dog. I make the expected and not unpleasant visits to my grandmothers and mother-in-law. I call my friends who have children. I smile and do the things one does on Mother's Day, and all the while I observe myself. I watch from within, and I wait.

It's been nearly six years since my mother died, and I have accepted the fact that Mother's Day will come and go and I won't be torn apart by grief. I won't become a slobbering mess, I won't lash out at my current maternal figures for their crime of simply being alive. I won't drape myself across my mother's grave asking the heavens "WHY?"

Since her death, I've done nothing outwardly to indicate I'm still grieving her loss, and I try to feel ashamed of myself. Aren't good daughters supposed to mourn their mothers for the rest of their lives and on Mother's Day in particular? The more I analyze this idea, the more I've come to realize that grief doesn't necessarily come blasting out like shrapnel. Grief is neither art nor science. Like joy, it cannot be scripted to fit a certain scenario. The best thing - and possibly the worst thing - about grief is that it fades like an ebbing tide.

I've struggled with my worry that I'm never really supposed to recover from the impact of my mother's death. I don't know if grief can ever disappear completely, but I do know that emotional wounds like the death of a parent it can heal cleanly, if you let them. For some people, grief is healed by time or acceptance. In my case, it was healed by something as simple and fleeting as a dream. . . a dream of rebirth that broke death's hold over me before it was ever able to tighten its grip and leave a jagged scar.

Even though my mother and I didn't have an ideal relationship (and we were certainly never "friends"), we loved each other. I harboured a lack of respect for her that co-existed awkwardly beside my awe and fear of her. Her maddeningly unchangeable opinions and penchant for bluntly stating them hurt me repeatedly, yet her unflappable generosity and the genuine concern she showed for her family, friends and students still humble me. Mom was a woman of sophisticated contradictions. When it came to preparing gloriously rich meals, toasting life with the best Russian vodka, or travelling around the world, she participated wholeheartedly. When it came to keeping fit, taking care of herself and her health, she would shrug, sigh and remind me that tomorrow was a new day, which usually meant starting a new diet that would last approximately 48 hours.

When my mother was feeling well, she was a firecracker, bursting with energy and ideas. When she got sick, she disintegrated at an alarming rate into a pale, sad creature who said little but articulated miserable volumes out of her green eyes.

She started feeling ill around October, and I remembering feeling annoyed with her for not taking better care of her health. She drinks too much, I thought. She never exercises. No wonder she feels like shit. My self-righteousness rapidly turned to terror as the disease took hold of her body. The cancer was quick and relentless, like a flame that consumed whatever it touched, as though my mother's insides were made of dry paper. The day I understood my mother was going to die, the moment that a wave of knowing washed over me, I was slumped in a bony hospital chair at her bedside.

It was still in the fairly early stages of her diagnosis, but that night she was struggling to breathe. My mother, the victor of countless battles throughout her life, lying inches away from me, fighting the one war she couldn't hope to win. My mother! Ultimate champion of forceful opinions, the woman my friends feared yet always sought to please, fierce polka dancer, sophisticated entertainer, yahtzee queen, Giorgio perfume addict, graceful gatherer of roadside flowers, beloved teacher, thwarted wife, devoted disciple of laughter and pleasure. . . dying, dying before my eyes.

The truth flooded me and all I had were two selfish thoughts: my mother would never be at my wedding. She would never hold her grandchild. I wasn't even engaged then, nor was I interested in babies, but those were the first devastating thoughts of many. I could hardly tear my eyes away from her all night after that. I began to notice things: how she had grey hair coming in at the roots when I'd never seen her without her hair coloured and coiffed. Her real nails looked pale and wan without their tangerine coloured polish. The lines on her face were etched deeper by pain, lines originally traced by determination and laughter. She looked so small, so powerless in her hospital gown, stripped of her signature dresses and high heels.

Before she'd gotten sick, I'd never kissed my mother's forehead, or climbed into her bed to comfort her. She had always been the one to comfort and nurture. I wouldn't have dreamed of ever doing such things, of attempting to reverse roles she had taken great pains to set firmly in place. The quiet despair of the truth made me change from the one who had always been cared for to the caregiver. In that instant, I lost all fear of my mother, all anxiety about ever having disappointed her with my choices, all worry over whether I'd ever be able to truly please her. None of that mattered. I couldn't cure her, or undo the past, but I could lie beside her and provide what comfort I could in the horrible present.

She lived another few weeks, in and out of consciousness, her poor arms and fingers swollen, her face pinched in an unceasing grimace of pain. I wanted her to die so we could both move on from the horrible place we were both trapped in, but whenever I left the mind-numbing confines of the ICU for the day, I grappled with my greatest fear: she would die, and I would never know where she had gone.

Mom was a self-proclaimed atheist who, for some reason, always sent my sister and I to the Lutheran church across the street to attend Sunday school. I think she just liked having Sunday mornings to herself. To this day, I don't understand why she insisted on us being baptized in our teens (humiliating) and then in later years scorned my embrace of Christianity. Our most pitched battles were always based on my decision to join a non-denominational church and run with a Christian crowd, or my "cult" as she called it. How could this woman go anywhere good in the afterlife after mocking gods of all kinds and mine in particular?

When she finally did die, a few weeks before Mother's Day, I was strong outwardly. I wanted to be stalwart, supportive to my family and mom's many friends and not crumble under anyone's pity. Alone in my bed at night (my crazily high three-quarter bed that Mom had discovered on a triumphant antique excursion), I mourned my mother with a depth of emotion that frightened me. For weeks I wept and writhed and clenched my body in agony. Where was she now? What was she now? I made myself sick at heart thinking about heaven and hell. Christians weep, but they also rejoice when one of their own is "called back to God," or any other euphemism used to describe the death of a believer, but I'd never been taught by my church how to mourn someone who didn't share my beliefs. I was too scared of the answers to ask God any questions.

And then I had a dream. I know, it sounds trite and cliche. It wasn't. Dreaming of the dead is heartbreaking because part of you knows it isn't real, and the other part of you just wants your consciousness to shut up and stay in the dream forever. The dream is still clear to me, even now; all I have to do is shut my eyes and I can see her: my mother, as the person she was before she became my mother, walking with serene purpose through a field of flowing green. Her long red hair is twined through with a wreath of white daisies and she wears a white dress that is open at the throat and flows around her legs like water. She walks toward a trellis covered with more daisies and stoops slightly to pass beneath it, as though uncertain as to whether she'll fit. And then she keeps on walking.

There's nothing exceptional on the other side of the trellis, no mysterious supernatural kingdom, no trumpets or angels. Just more flowing green grass and sunshine. My mother never acknowledged me in the dream, but I woke up the next morning a different person than the woman who had wept herself to sleep the night before.

I've carried this dream quietly with me for almost six years. I didn't want the sense of peace it brought me to fade or be replaced by guilt or any of the other emotions attributed to faithful daughters of departed mothers. I was afraid that by telling the dream, it would make it feel false or dissolve it from my memory. As I prepare to lay down my pen, I realize that the dream is mine, for now and for always.

This Mother's Day, I will wake up and stop waiting.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Just..Wow. I have no words.

Biddie x

Sissy Mylrea said...

That is beautiful and poignant. I remember this story well. I'm thinking of you and Tanzi this Mothers Day. X