Memories of my mother will soon go soft around the edges. They’ll become as dreams and black-and-white photos, once prescient and still present, but inevitably beginning to fade. Given time’s passage, they will begin to miss living dimensions, and then rejoin the earth.
Nothing is wrong with that. Memories have their tenure, just as lives do. Grief and gratitude are inherently as transient as all of us who feel them. In nature, all feed the soil and nurture new lives to come. Fading is a form of generosity and release.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” countless people say, as my mother’s passing leaves a uniquely painful space. It isn’t empty space, though; and “loss” doesn’t feel like the right word. When a runner completes a marathon, no one comes up to them and says, “I’m sorry for your loss,” just because they’ve crossed the finish line—especially not when they’ve won that marathon, as my mother won her life’s run. Similarly, no one ever says “I’m sorry for your loss,” just because it’s time to sleep at day’s end. Rest too is a celebration of life; an essential in life itself. My mother gets to rest now, and I celebrate that despite its bittersweetness.
Yes, I profoundly miss my mother’s physical presence; and she would’ve loved to live forever. But that is not the nature of things. She lived almost ninety-four years, with her joy intact to the last. She had a long, beautiful life; filled with more than most achieve. We were blessed to share more—and more peacefully—than almost any mother and son I know. (A sketch of her remarkable life may be found here: https://cgsentinel.com/article/community-loses-artist-pilot.)
My mother loved nature, and nature has no waste. As a child of the Great Depression, my mother also learned to never waste anything, turning scarcity into preciousness. She turned challenge into abundance by never seeming to waste a moment of the ultimate jewel, time.
Now it is mine to pay her life forward; to ensure that there is no waste in the passing along of her spirit and possessions. I still feel her spirit within me; I’m learning to think of her in the present tense rather than in the past. I’ve come to understand that celebrating her life not only means to honor it, but to emulate her wise and generous ways as best as I can. That is a beautiful, enormous responsibility and opportunity. I have much healing and growth to do, to fulfill that. It’s a daunting gift.
My primary challenge is to embody that spirit of celebration and love of life she constantly exuded—for it’s in celebration of life as things are where the energy for transcending and transforming trouble is found. Only then will I be able to find the right pathways for giving; to feed our community with her continued legacy.
These are difficult times in which to do that, but no more so than the ones she faced. Our new collapsing economy is all too similar to the Great Depression of her formative years. This pandemic isolation cannot be deeper than what she felt after her mother died when she was five. Her sweet sixteen was spent behind World War II blackout curtains in New York City, when attack on American soil felt imminent. The 1968 riots tore up her home town of Chicago, in parallel to now. Every struggle and strain we face is sadly as ancient as it is new. She made it through, and made the world a better place in her quiet way. Somehow, we must too.
I wonder if she ever felt despair, in face of it all. Is despair an impediment to celebration? I think not. It’s often when things are too painful to bear that our motivation for change appears, and when our appreciation for better days deepens. That intertwining of grief and gratitude returns over and over again; the knowledge that our wounds are maps to our paths of service in healing ourselves and others.
Within the wound of my mother’s passing, I celebrate the knowledge that my caregiving role for her isn’t over. I humbly accept the new mission of shepherding her legacy of love, art, land conservation, and soaring above the earth. It’s more ancient wisdom, that shepherding the legacy of the wise ones before us is inherent in our own path of service. That is how we learn to care for our elders. It’s when we embrace that fully, that we can lose the sense that death is inherently a loss, and instead celebrate the beauty of completion.
Still, it’s been a long day in a long year, and I will embrace tomorrow more fully when another night’s rest completes today’s gains.
Photo of Shirley B. Froyd by Paula Goodbar.