“Mother died today. Or was it yesterday? I can’t be sure.” These are the words of Meursault, the protagonist in Albert Camus’s famous novel The Stranger. This first sentence of the book has haunted me since I read it back in high school during the 1970s. I think why this rates as one of the most memorable first lines of a literary work ever (right up there with Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities) is that it is so shockingly incongruous to human nature that it jolts us into the fiction with our mouths wide open.
I was thinking about that book on Thursday (May 31), which was the first anniversary of my mother’s passing. I thought that Meursault’s seeming indifference was actually confusion (based on an ambiguous telegram); however, this is still indicative of his alienation, not just from family but, from life and reality. My situation was such an opposite experience, with the exact minute of Mom’s passing unforgettably and unrelentingly etched into my consciousness. This past year has been nothing if about reality and the harshness of its incessant sting.
How do other people cope with such a monumental loss? I don’t know, really. I listen to people telling me things about their experiences with the loss of parents, but this usually seems more like an attempt to rally my spirits and assist me in dealing with the situation. While this is admirable in so many ways, it does not work (at least for me). I know I’m not the first or last person to lose a mother, but damn it if it doesn’t feel that way.
Perhaps I can qualify it more: I am the only person to lose this mother (except for my sister). Even my sister and I cannot understand each other’s loss completely, since our relationships with Mom were unique and had nuances that are extremely personal and, in many ways, intensely private. There are those moments shared just between mother and child, when no one else is a witness, and those become a slide show of memories that are precious yet heartbreaking.
I can recall many times spent with Mom that made me realize not only how much she loved me, but how that love was magnified by things I said and did. When my daughter was born, I saw something in the sparkle of Mom's eyes that was both familiar and different, a sort of maternal pride that coalesced as she held the baby, reminiscent of her own motherhood and yet celebrating my new fatherhood. It goes beyond saying that this affirmation of our own mother-son bond was multiplied infinitesimally by this new dynamic. Just when I thought my mother could not love me any more, I found that she could through my child.
How does someone assess a lifetime of a loved one after that person is gone? I don’t know how to do it justice, but now after a year since losing her I still have trouble looking at Mom’s photograph. I want to. I need to, but when I do, emotions pour forth that cause me to lose myself. Composure seems to be such a valued thing in our society, and yet when I analyze it, I know that the breaking down of what was my once stoic nature has caused me to change considerably. The “new” me is not just more emotional, but more vulnerable, sullen, at times morose, and infinitely more quiet.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t make me a pleasure to be around these days. I strive to be cheerful for other people’s benefit (most notably my wife and daughter). My father, who suffered a stroke two weeks after my mother passed away and is now in a wheelchair most of the time, has not seen my sadness, and I don’t plan to let him. He has his own grief, compounded by his physical limitations, and I know he misses Mom terribly and doesn’t need to have more worries.
When I go to visit my father it is difficult, especially since Mom passed away sleeping in a chair in the living room. Dad sits in that chair now, symbolically connecting him to her every day of his life. She is all around him, her memories and emotions intertwining with his own, their shared space and time together infused in remnants of their lives together: the photographs and paintings on the silent shroud of walls, the glistening trinkets carefully preserved in the curio cabinets, the china they got as wedding presents still nestled in the hutch in the dining room as if they're waiting for Mom to set the table.
I cannot reconcile her passing now after she is gone a year, though I try. I understand that at the end she had so many medical issues, and her one wish was to be at home with my father and her family. While I am somewhat comforted by the notion that she passed away in the place she wanted to be, I sometimes wonder if it would have been easier if she had been in that sterile world of the hospital when she passed away, where so many souls pass over and the moment becomes less imprinted and impacted on a room or house.
But I realize that is selfishness. I know it is best that Mom was where she wanted to be, but I just wish Dad or my sister or I had been home with her instead of the twenty-four hour attendant. To get that phone call is chilling, especially from someone who is a virtual stranger. The words are forever embossed on my mind, “Your mother, she died.” This attendant was from Jamaica and meant no disrespect, but the words were kind of like those in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness when the servant tells Marlowe, “Mistuh Kurtz, he dead.” They seem so far removed from reality, so abstract as to be in essence meaningless in an excruciating moment when everything should crystallize to enshrine the hallowed importance of the instance in memory.
Nothing I do brings too much comfort, and I have tried doing all the things people have told me to try. I have been to churches; I have prayed and prayed and prayed. My return to God has been in part because of loss but also in finding something in myself that needed spirituality. For a while, I believed God had abandoned me, but I don’t feel this is blasphemy, for Jesus himself screamed as he was nailed to the cross, “Father, why have you abandoned me?” It is in the darkest time, as Theodore Roethke wrote, that one begins to see.
So on Thursday evening I went over to a local restaurant that has a Psychic Night featuring Tarot-Psychic-Medium Patricia Bono. I have seen this woman twice before. Both times she said things that led me to believe she has some kind of true connection to the spiritual world, because she knew names and mentioned situations she could not have possibly known in any other way. On this night I was feeling very low. It had been a year, and I was hoping for something, anything to latch onto.
Amazingly, Patricia came forward with some new information and clarified some things she had said before. The details are rather personal and I will not divulge them here, but let it suffice to say that I felt energized by her words and encouraged about Mom’s current place in the universe. Yes, maybe these things are part of what I want to hear, but there were qualifiers throughout the session that grounded me to the notion that Patricia was talking about real specifics; she could not have known these things without connecting with Mom (and some other people I have lost).
I came home Thursday night and have been writing this piece ever since. I wrote a few lines and stopped; I wrote a paragraph and stopped again. It hasn’t been a fluid process at all but more one of uneasy reclamation: the capturing of my own spirit and its fledgling hope for a better tomorrow. I was working on it slowly, deliberately, knowing that I want and need to move forward.
Still, there is no choice but to look back. By this time next year I hope I can tackle the memories, delve into the boxes of memorabilia that link Mom to me and my daughter. Perhaps the healthiest way to handle death is what I learned on Thursday night: Mom is with me, a real presence in my heart and mind (as well as in my father, sister, and daughter).
Mom’s being gone is still painful, but knowing she is there in some form is helping me. Thus, when I go to bed each night I speak to her and, sometimes when the darkness settles over the room and I am between asleep and awake, I catch a glimpse of that sparkle in her eyes and hear the sweet song coming from her lips, “He’s my angel/I’m his Mom.” She used to rock me to sleep with that song and now, sometimes, she still does.