Tuesday, August 25, 2015

With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love

My mom would be chuckling right now, as I write yet another post on death and funerals and loss. When her own mother died, it was weeks and weeks of morose and moribund sermons from the pulpit that nearly drove her as crazy as the Oklahoma winds. But here we are go again. I am not sure what in the hell is going on in the universe, but it's been a shitty week for too many friends.

For my dear L.T. Love you.
I have an image of my mother and her sister outside of the church in Beloit, Kansas, wrapped against the cold wind in fur coats, clutching each other as they followed their mother's casket down the path and into the hearse. They were both sobbing, their handsome, strong beauty crumpled from weeks of grief and pushing against the inevitable that a late-stage lung cancer diagnosis for a vibrant and remarkable woman brings. I don't remember much but that intimate moment, my grandmother's legacy stitched up in the space held by that embrace.

I can imagine that my mom felt the same push and pull that I did in those final days of my mother's own life, the real-time grief nearly impossible to process, the guilt-ridden wishing that this part would be over so that she would be free and so that we could move on to mourning her given that she already was a shadow of herself. The hardest thing to process was that she was never going to go back to the way she was, that it was reality, that it was over. And that's what we all mourned in real time, that space of anger and sad, that glimmer of her old self in between the days of losing her moment upon moment. The winding down was hard,  unfamiliar, not sudden like it had been with nearly every one before. And the winding down was slow and then fast and then too slow in its fastness, which doesn't likely make sense unless you've lived through that interminable time of ending.

There are a million things I want to tell my friend tonight, my girl L.T. who texted me in the wee NYC hours to tell me that she had just today lost her mother, an extraordinary woman with fire and depth and sparking adventure and deep love and good strength, so much good strength, for her family. 

I want to tell her of the things that I learned from Marie Howe about the spaces that are made by loss in which I learned about myself, so many years after she had gone: 
     I had no idea that the gate I would step through
     to finally enter this world
     would be the space my [mother's] body made.

And how I wish now that I had written a jar full of memories to keep for myself, a scrap for each, that I could pluck out and savor, some fit for my kids, many only fit for the curious adults within belly-laughing distance. And that I wish I had recorded those stories told in the numb days after when we all walked around with dead eyes, tracing the thin, worn path we had too many times before, knowing that it would be five days before the smoke cleared and we could begin to see what damage had been done.

And that in the blackened landscape, shoots peek through and life comes back to itself.
And that letting those shoots grow is important. Really important. Live.
And that good music helps. Often on repeat.
And saving that thing that smells like her in the back of the closet. That's the best. Do it.

And how five years, five years after she left, I can still be knocked nearly breathless by a poem from May Sarton that comes across my desktop without warning, kismet in far too many ways:

An Observation
True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root,
Must let their hands grow knotted as they move
With a rough sensitivity about
Under the earth, between the rock and shoot,
Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.
And so I watched my mother's hands grow scarred,
She who could heal the wounded plant or friend
With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love;
I minded once to see her beauty gnarled,
But now her truth is given me to live,
As I learn for myself we must be hard
To move among the tender with an open hand,
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.

So, sweet friend, so many things and nothing all at once. I wish there was more space to tell you right now, right in this time where everything and nothing is there. It's too much, all of it, and there is so much more to write.

Love you, L.T. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Where it sits

My bit of my mother's remains are nestled between a thick stone slab and the outer box of my brother's coffin, slipped there in a smooth wooden box by a persistent funeral director and a kind person at the Archdiocese who knew that spot, one spot down, was meant for her and not her 15 year old son whose life ended too early. Mom had always joked that she wanted to be with Dad and Hunter in the end. "Just sprinkle me around the edges," she said. "Nobody will ever know."

But she's there with a banded plaque that spans the marble, a three-person plot made out of the two. She thought about the options before she died, knowing she would be cremated, noting that our family plot was still an option in her small hometown in Kansas, talking about Africa and the ranch and of Dad and Hunter. So we divided her ashes, each taking a small part of her great legacy, to trail her earthly being back to the places she loved.

It's a curious thing to think about where your physical being will be after you die. Our people have always been buried with family, generations of people in the same acreage in small towns on the plains, still married through early deaths and lost children and all manner of combinations of life that came next. You were with your people, that man you married or the parents you lived with or the generations of people who stayed within the same range of life that makes a family a community. You can trace that lineage through the fading marble, lives made visible and marked and remembered.

I've never given much thought to where I want my remains to be after I've gone, never had that discussion with anyone outside of my then-husband. In those days of early marriage, I'd always assumed that we'd be together somewhere, ashes mixed, such a romantic notion. Cremation offers you that, a pause button, a hilarious pause button in some ways, allowing you to believe that if you are the one and only, there is life ever after together somewhere.

But life circumstances change, and change radically, and a new life requires you to consider these things anew. And the question of permanence keeps coming to me, of marking space and time, of having a sacred spot for your children to visit if they need to. A place they never go but can if they want to. And this notion of dividing suddenly feels weird, like the human form is elastic, stretched to the corners of the earth.

Even as I write this, my body craves the weight of place, one place, consolidated in its being. Permanence. The intimacy of ritual. The process of saying goodbye. The feeling of knowing where someone is. Not having a plan makes me feel unmoored and anxious.

Where will I go? What is special to me? What will be most important to my kids, most of all? Where is my soul most in touch with this earth? When I think about that one question, a few images appear: The sunrise over the fields at headquarters in Oklahoma, the evening sky in Santa Fe, driving into downtown Seattle on a sunny day, the tiles of the Rome train station, the south China sea at sunrise from the deck of a ship...it suddenly feels as easy for my kids to travel to these places and snap pictures as to fling the grainy remains of this body into any space. I'm adding this to the list of things to leave behind, the ideas and thoughts and what it would mean to remain upon this earth long after I'm gone.

1,640 miles away, I can imagine sitting in the cool marble room tracing the name of my sweet brother who came into this life 40 years ago today. That's where this sits.