March 11, 2022, was the first anniversary of my mother’s passing. It had been quite a year—fraught with grief, of course, and quite a bit of change.
I hadn’t seen my mother in eighteen months. The day she died I had been on a three-way call with her and a representative of a state agency that was helping her apply for Medicaid. I was scheduled to check in with my mother later that day, but before I had the chance to call her back my phone rang. Her speech therapist found her unresponsive in her wheelchair.
A few days later, I traveled from California to Ohio, where she lived. My husband and I already had our plane tickets for April. We’d all had our vaccinations, and I was going to surprise her by standing under the balcony of her second-floor apartment. But that was not to be. The anatomical gift program she’d left her remains to had already collected her from the hospital, so all that was left for me to do when I arrived was to claim what I wanted of her belongings and dispose of the rest.
The months that followed were a blur. I was surviving my first Mother’s Day and Christmas without her, moving into a new apartment with my husband, completing the painstaking task of closing out her financial accounts, and living through the winter month of both of our birthdays. All of this—along with the fact that I hadn’t told her I loved her at the end of our last conversation—was dragging me to the bottom of an ocean of regret like an anchor tied to my ankle.
The following spring brought the realization of my husband’s dream: to produce and star in the adaptation of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. Originally scheduled to open the first week of March, the show had to be pushed back a week. It wasn’t until talking about it over lunch with friends that it hit me: the new opening night of the show was March 11. In that instant, I teetered on the knife blade between two extremes—a deep desire to celebrate my husband’s opening night, and the equally imperative need to honor what this day would mean to my still-grieving heart. A few well-meaning friends and loved ones offered:
“Art is transformative! It transcends grief!”
“Don’t anticipate how you’re going to feel.”
“Well, now you have something to celebrate that day.”
Grief does not work that way. I have experienced the transformative power of art many times, but it doesn’t completely transcend grief as if to erase it. Neither was I anticipating how I would feel on that day. I had been grieving my mother since the day I lost her and was certain I would not be finished come March 11. Having something to celebrate wouldn’t obliterate the sadness I still felt in my heart. (Hadn’t these people ever seen Inside Out? The issue was how to accommodate both extremes.)
Thank goodness I had my mother’s former pastor, Reverend Tim, to guide me. I first connected with him to let the church know of her passing. From our first conversation, he was a source of comfort, inspiration, and relief. The stories he shared of my mother brought back parts of her that I could treasure along with my own memories. In turn, I was able to make him laugh when I recounted some of her best one-liners that he’d never heard. A friendship grew between us as we realized how much we had in common as writers, animal lovers, film buffs, and fellow Gary Larsen enthusiasts. I grew to trust and admire him.
It was only natural that he was one of the first people I reached out to for help navigating the duality I was facing. He wasted no time in pulling forth a gem from his great cache of wisdom, the lyrics to the song “I’ll Fly Away.” He pointed out one stanza in particular:
When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away
Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away…
“Just as Jonathan Livingston Seagull found freedom in flight,” he told me, “A year ago, your mother flew home…and your husband is soaring to new heights in his career.” As he explained the significance to me, I wept with relief. I could honor my ongoing grief for my mother and her memory while celebrating my husband’s achievement with deep pride and love for him. There was room for all of it, for all three of us that night in the space of divine Love, where none would be dishonored, and none would be left behind.
Opening night was splendid. The air crackled with energy and excitement, and my husband gave an amazing performance. Many friends and loved ones were in attendance. And a single chair, placed between me and my brother-in-law, was reserved with the names of my mother, my husband’s parents, and the father of our co-producer, all of whom had also passed away.
Grief and joy seated side by side.
Amen, Rev. Tim.Leave a Comment