As I did some yard work for a friend, I found a dead bird in one of her beds. I didn’t recognize the type, but it was small and could have been any variety of songbird. A fallen bird is often a romantic symbol. Poets have written in abundance about birds in the wilderness or outside their windows. I’m writing about one now. Occasionally, I’ll hear a message during meeting for worship that starts almost exactly as I began this paragraph. The death of the bird is sad and innocent, heroic, or perhaps unjust. Maybe even beautiful. Parallels are easy to draw.
My mother died in September 2007. I sat with her and Andy, a family friend, at the Massey Cancer Center when the doctors slowly and inarticulately let us know that “current treatment isn’t working.”
“You are dying.” “Your body isn’t strong enough.” “Our poison isn’t poisonous enough.” “We should not have told you there was a 90-percent chance of recovery.” Those are some things I might have preferred them to say. These statements seem more honest than “the current treatment isn’t working.”
She was at peace when she died. But the first thing she said in that room then was, “I don’t want to die.” Usually I omit that bit when people—friends of the family, members of meeting—all say to each other she died in peace.
Our hospice nurse, Tracy, was amazing. She organized everything, leading us blindly through a muggy swamp of lumps in our throats. She never placated, showed pity, or tried to sympathize with us. She talked politics with my mom; they were both planning to vote for Obama.
My impression of Tracy is that she usually doesn’t have a lot in common with the people she cares for as a nurse. Tracy was so into my mom. I don’t think she’d ever met a hospice patient who had been to Kenya three times. I’m also willing to bet most of her patients in Hanover, Virginia, weren’t voting for Obama. Tracy is in this story because she is racking up brownie points, and because no one else has written about her yet.
Back to the bird. I picked it up with a spade—not wanting to touch it, but unsure if I should bury it or throw it in the trash. I didn’t want the cat that brought it over to dig it back up. But I didn’t think it was right to throw it out with the weeds I’d just pulled. I left the bird on the spade next to the bed, forgetting about it. Later in the day I remembered and returned to find it—this time, a little smellier. When I’d first picked it up, I was shocked at the color of its feathers—blue and white and yellow and red; the limp little frame as I slid the spade underneath; the contrast of the soft feathers with the brown, coarse mulch; the beak long and sharp, wobbling with the broken neck. And then the eyes eaten out, the insides decaying and chewed upon by the cat, red and brown and meaty, beneath the rainbow feathers. I buried it deep.
This bird was the death of my mother. Symbolic and romanticized at a glance, but look closer and you see two things: the gory details of it and the insight her death brings.
She’d said she wanted the hospital bed in our living room so she could watch the birds at Dad’s bird feeder. Cardinals and canaries and finches would make hourly pilgrimages to our windows. Mom and I would chuckle at how fat they were getting. We were the Hardee’s of the winged community.
When she wouldn’t eat much, I would try to share whatever fruit I was snacking on. Clementines, usually. She liked to eat these. Can I imagine never again eating something so simple, a food so regular in my life, something I often take for granted and usually scarf down while watching TV or talking? My own mortality is still foreign to me, but watching Mom eat her last fruit sealed the deal, searing into my heart. Your mother is dying, beloved. Rejoice in this clementine.
My heart. Someone said to me, a week before she died, “You are going to be so screwed up by this.” I am not screwed up by the death of my mother because I feel all things about her in my heart. Not the metaphorical love heart, but the physical heart area in my chest. When I feel purely, when I know, I feel things in my chest, much like the butterfly bubbles in my stomach when I got a crush on that boy who kept coming into the coffee shop, ordering a morning bagel. If I felt it in my head—foggy and anxious and I-can’t-tell-why-I-feel-this-way— then I’d know I was screwed up. But it’s not in my head, it’s in my heart.
I hated when people told me this must be so hard for you. How very astute. It will take me a long time to trust the people who said this to me, despite their good intentions. I’m sorry, because you meant so well, but it did so little. It’s scary to write this so publicly, because I am rejecting the message from those people who told me this must be so hard for you.
I just don’t want to be around people who think they can sum up my existence in two monosyllabic words. So hard. It’s not hard. I was—and am— truly blessed to feel the deep loss and sadness that comes from knowing that my mother was eating her last clementine. Instead of regret, or anger, or helplessness in the face of my mother’s death, I had the gift of grief.
Yes, grief encompasses a spectrum of emotion, much of which is a burden, but it is a gift to dote on all of my mother’s positive attributes and ignore all the things she’s done to piss me off. It’s a gift to open her dresser drawers and pull out her scarves one by one, then to open her polished jewelry boxes to see my reflection, and cradle the antique pendants and roped silver chains and dimpled gold bangles.
For several days after Mom died, my grief would occasionally get rather macabre and I would imagine her in zombie form, shuffling around the house. This happened mostly at night, when these images would pop into my head and deter the Ambien I’d just taken. And frankly, though she did die in peace, she looked like a zombie towards the end. Now I just dream about her. Her hair is long and mousy-brown, in a ponytail or down and to her shoulders. Her cheeks are flushed. I ask her why she’s not dead or what treatment she’s on that is making her better. She sort of smiles the way she used to when she’d been out walking or gardening or had just found a sale on something. The “I’m Linda-in-Action” smile. One night I dreamt of her in her head-wrap. Her breasts were bare. She said, “You have become a soldier, I love you.” I like to think that one day I’ll dream of her in Kenya, and know what those big full-faced grins from the photos are like to see in person.
These precious jewels—moments I found and felt as my mother died and afterwards—made it simple to deal with the icky stuff, the things that not a lot of people fully comprehend when they say well, at least she died in peace: the morphine and anti-anxiety pill cocktails (how could you not die in peace?), the hemorrhoids and yeast infections my mother suffered, and the incontinence. To really paint you a picture: changing my mother’s diaper. Gross, yes, but not as traumatizing as you might think, not a statement meant to elicit the pity everyone is so willing to assume I need. Not an act I resent doing when others couldn’t bring themselves to do it—because we face death when we can, no more. But the point I’m making is that the statement she died in peace is complex. Again, what a blessing it was that I could—without blinking—both clean up my mother’s excrement and pay attention to the more important things, like clementines and birds.
Death isn’t hard for me—it’s everything else that’s hard. It’s the money and the organization and the relatives and the well-meaning people telling you how hard this is for you. It’s trying to figure out how to tell my friends, who all just graduated and are now scattered across the map, so that whenever someone calls, I don’t have to retell the story and hear the shock and the Oh God, what do I say to her? in their voices. The hardest part, though, is when everyone wants to share your grief with you, one on one.
My grief is mine. Get your own. This is why we have a funeral or memorial service or a sloppy-drunk wake. Don’t come up to me while I’m working in my garden, or at my job making lattes, and try to have a “real” tender moment. How am I doing? How am I coping? Well, I’m never not wearing a piece of my mother’s jewelry, I’ve become hyper-judgmental, I’m horny, and I just wrote a letter to President Obama that won’t get sent. These are some of the many honest responses I could give, but I’m not going to say them to some well-meaning member of meeting who I sort of know. Other honest responses could be: I’m sad, I’m healthy, I’m tired, I’m not dead yet, or I’m doing just fine. She died in peace, how are you doing? is complex, and sometimes I don’t have the energy to say it. Think of it this way: when everyone you know comes up to you, asking you how you’re doing, do you want to relive the moment her breath stopped with each and every person?
I live in a community and social network of Quakers who are all older than I am, and were all victimized by repressed emotional upbringings (if I may be hyperbolic and ageist). So it seems that they all want to protect me from the oppressive, Victorian way of dealing with grief and emotion—which is not to deal with it.
Maybe it’s because I’m “too young” to have lost my mother. Maybe that makes it more tragic. Or because she was “too young” to die. Most of us think we’ll live past 64. So, ageism all around. Quakers loooove talking gay marriage, but age is just a number, right?
Yeah, I know. Poor me. I must sound terrible, because these people are a blessing. Many who are grieving don’t have the privilege to push people away. I am being ungrateful for such a supportive community, but I must not feel guilty or ashamed or worried that I am psychologically damaged in some way because I choose to grieve in private, away from the community. I understand that I’ll find a deeper peace when I relinquish my need to control when and with whom I grieve, et cetera. But I think I did a good job of relinquishing control when someone had to change mom’s diapers.
I don’t think of my mother in an afterlife. So much of my upbringing, schooling, and my own initiative have bonded me with God. Avett Brothers have a song called “Me and God,” and the chorus goes, “my God and I don’t need a middleman.” That still rings true to me. But my liberal religious education classes skimped on my heaven-learning, and I only knew my mother in this world. I’m not going to settle on telling myself that I have to have faith that she’s somewhere out there, floating in spirit form, connected again to the great Divine. I’d be lying. I’d be relying on the middleman, telling me of pie in the sky, by ‘n’ by.
I didn’t write this out of anger, I think. But anger is a part of it. And so is the deep loss and sadness caused by her death. And so is the celebration of my mother’s profound existence, and of my own need to invite whomever I can to experience their grief with vulnerability, irreverence, grace, fear, or whatever is needed. I write this so that others can be—and so that I can be—undignified and human and loving. And I write this for Mom. It’s all for her.
—October 29, 2008