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
What a beautiful essay! Thank you! You’re sharing this thoughtful way to navigate and honor grief and joy in the same space will help many. It helped me and I didn’t even know I needed this message. Thank you also for reminding everyone who reads this to talk about your grief and your feelings with trusted resources because talking it out helps tremendously. As trusted resource will help you see what you cannot because you’re so close to the grief. As time softens the ache of grief, may you continue to be gentle with yourself and may God bring you a peace and joy that only He can.
Deborah Morrison says
Thanks for sharing your article.
March 6, 2018, on this day I was 60 years old. It was the morning my mom passed. I told our caregiver I was just going to the store and coming back. I didn’t normally do that. This morning, I really felt the need to get dressed to go out to have breakfast alone. When I left that morning I didn’t have any idea how this day would leave me with regrets. Regrets I’ve not quite resolved.
After arriving at my destination, I got out of the car and walked to the door of the restaurant. My cell phone ringing, I answered it. It was the caregiver. Extremely, calm she ask me, “Can you come home?” Not thinking, I said “Yes,…if you need me”. She told me my mother had called for me, and her breathing was labored. I thanked her and told her I was on my way. This shook me.
My mom was diagnosed with dementia in 2013. I love my mother dearly. Most of the time we were inseparable. There was no doubt that I would be there for my mom. As a result I was in a position to retire and I did.
Gratefully, I packed a bag and left my house. Temporally, I thought, to take care of my mom.
Initially, because of her diagnoses, I thought it was a good idea for us to travel. We visited family in different states. We went to Jamaica for a family members birthday. Continued to attend our college HBCU football games, as long as she could. We also went to NYC again, for her second time. This time to see her favorite actor, Denzel Washington. Coincidentally, he was playing in one of my parents favorites, “A Rasin in the Sun”, by Lorraine Hansberry.
I know she would have rather come with my dad. But he passed in 1985. They both had a love for each other, their children, family, our history and the arts. They both never missed an opportunity to expose, both my brothers and me to it all. Especially, plays, poetry and the works of Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.
After three years, I realized my mom had a small insurance for elderly care. It was a blessing, because at this point she was having more ambulatory and sleeping issues. This was a gift from God. Though I rarely left the house, even with the caregiver there.
I realized I needed time to take for me. To be the best I could be for my mom, I had to make sure I was rested and healthy. She also felt more comfortable when she could see one of her children. Most of the time it was just me. It was also because, I wanted to be there for everything she needed. She had always been there for me.
When I got home from the restaurant, she had already passed. She looked as though she was peacefully sleeping, with a smile on her face. I was so stunned, I couldn’t cry or say anything initially.
I was so angry that I had decided to leave that morning. When she needed me most. From 2013 to 2018, I have been by her side. Through good days and sad days, I was there. When she called me by my name, and needed me. I wasn’t there. Though it may have been an irrational thought. It was real to me. Why was I so excited to get out that morning to go have breakfast.
When I explained in tears to family, when they came to say goodbye to her. I explained I am crying not just because I lost my mom, but also because I wasn’t here when she passed.
A number of them told stories of their own experiences or of people they knew passing. In summary they told me that they believed sometimes when people are about to pass, they wait for people to come, or leave. They told me it is a consideration of the people they’re leaving behind. They explained to me that my mom may have been waiting for me to leave. Some of these stories I’ve heard before.
I know now it was their way of trying to bring me comfort during that time. It was kind, it was thoughtful. Probably not the truth. But, I needed it.
My grandmother, my father’s mother was good at helping people transition. She was probably about 87 when my dad died at 53. She created a space for everyone to say goodbye to my father, and for him to reciprocate. It gave me a peace that I cannot explain.
God bless and thanks the people who assist you while grieving. It is difficult to know what to say, when a friend or family member has lost someone close to them. I know, I’ve been in that position.
But what I’ve learned from my parents deaths, …say something, make them laugh, run an errand for them, stay a nights, cook breakfast or just sit quietly with them. It won’t prevent their grief. But it will soften the blow.
Marian Young says
Amen. This resonated within my spirit. My husband of almost 40 years, my mother and my father all passed away one after the other within a few months. While I had & still have a wonderful support team, being able to comprehend and live in each moment while still on this earth, and still commemorate & celebrate precious memories is incomparable. Thank you for sharing your journey.
Carol Stevens says
I hope that many other younger (50’sh) children will see your article and realize their healthy 77 + yo mother would greatly appreciate a call if only once weekly before they have your experience.
A lovely story ❤️
THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR STORY. IT IS HELPING ME WITH THE EXACT SAME GRIEF WITH THE UNEXPECTANT TRANSITION OF MY MOTHER, MOTHER ROSE.