Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mourning Marigolds

I used to worry that something was wrong with me – did I not have the ability to experience grief? I was very young when attending the funeral of a relative, but I recall leaning over in the pew toward my second cousin and saying, “I am sorry, but I just don’t feel anything.”I had not yet learned to define grief nor to realize that grief seems to look for someone to blame. I knew only that dying causes problems. I looked around the church in an odd gaze, and the words spoken that day have echoed ever since – your feelings will come later.

Both of my parents are now dead. Perhaps the most powerful and transformative experience I have ever had occurred during the last week of my father’s life as he was actively dying. I became his parent and gave back to him what he had given me: comfort, care, and love.

Recently, my mother died, too. Again, while I recognize the personal loss, I do not feel grief. Just as I did not feel robbed of life with Dad when he passed, I feel a sense of fullness, a sense of completeness in the life I had with my Mom as her son.

When I focus on my mother, the woman who lived and died, I have gratitude not grief. I am not troubled or annoyed by her life or our life together. To be troubled by her passing would imply that something was not finished, and nothing could be farther from the truth. As she said many times when out by the garden, “the most important thing is the weeding, to be rid of the inessential things that steal the nutrients from the flowers.” We had done our gardening, and I do not feel disappointment or sorrow and cannot recognize grief as synonymous with mourning.

The rituals I employ to honor Mom’s memory are celebrations of the joy that she brought me, and not a traditional lamentation of what was missing, of what was unfulfilled.

As I have grown older my young man’s impatient demands have become a bit more akin to reasoned acceptance. For many years with Mom and Dad, when we were a little younger, there was little acceptance of one another. Had we left things unresolved, there would be fodder for extensive grief and sorrow, the kind many seem to experience. When people try to make sense of loss and fix what is still broken, it is precisely the moment when grief begins to takes hostages and burdens people with blame.

Luckily, however, my mother and I had spoken directly about all things before she passed: her childhood and mine, her marriage to my father, my adoption and how they raised their children, her relationship with my brother and me, my professional aspirations and disappointments, and near the very end of her life, my sexuality and the incredible relationship with my boyfriend of almost two years. We had unbundled, examined, and set to rights so many things…Did we cover everything? Probably not but we knew we were not perfect and need not be.

What Mom and I had was complex, and together we codified our own unique bond after Dad died that nurtured and transformed for nine years. During this time I was with her often for an overnight stay. Our bond was simple: dinner – soups and salads, maybe pork or beef sandwiches, TV political stories, and “Law and Order,” trips to the store for household goods or flowers, to a restaurant where I would explain that burnt toast and bacon was not a meal , and then of course to church on Sunday morning to see her friends. Our time together was suffused with arguments, concerns, mutual love, and always reciprocal comfort.

Beginning in January of last year, I sensed Mom was finally becoming elderly, and I made a commitment to be with her every other weekend; a promise I honored and that, as she told me each trip, pleased her. It was never a struggle to be with her; in fact, after meeting my birth mother last July, it became even more important for me to show her, my adoptive mother, how grateful I was for the love that she bestowed on me. So joyous was she that my birth mother had found me that she proclaimed her only regret was that they, my two mothers, had not been able to meet and nurture their shared love of me.

So much loss in one year has taught me that while everyone has the right to mourn, they do not have the right to force grief and sorrow on others. I have watched how a rigid definition of grief steals the freedom of the survivors and their profound sense that they have done the best they can, as if you must be angry and not joyous or you are violating the family’s code.

While our immediate family often struggled, in the end, we were not caught in the typical net that entangles extended families when they do not communicate with one another. In a series of changes over the years we had managed to strip away false pride, weather hardships, weed the garden, and find the true humility at the heart of our family. I suspect it was in this clear soil that our relationship really grew.

It is precisely this humility that allowed me to experience feelings this week. Looking back over the month, I realized that I knew who I was in the moment of Mom’s death. My strong sense of identity allowed me to be part of this experience. Just as with Dad, it was an absolute miracle to be present as a witness to life as it moves through the last breath to death.

As promised at that relative’s funeral those many years ago, the feelings have finally come. It seems that they came when I realized that that which was, is no longer. These feelings are present when you do again what you once did with the deceased. These feelings materialize in the absence of Mom pulling down the coffee maker (she preferred instant) and trying not to wake me in Dad’s old room. These feelings come when driving by Culvers at lunch time and learning the ice cream is butter pecan, or when dialing her phone to simply say hi, to hear her voice, and laugh at her tales of local lore. These feelings come in the presence of flowers. I could choose to collect all these feelings and store them in a vase called sadness. However, I have weeded out so much and the sadness is tempered with light that can only be called joyful, and I am able to drive out of town for what is surely one of the last times.

Grief, it seems, is about feeling abandoned. Mourning is a different process, discovered in the absence of all things and opening like a blooming flower. Think of the marigold; her upper oblong leaves, smooth edges, and jagged petals alternating along the stem. Her essence is symmetry; the fusion of her parts, the embellishment like a multitude of memories leads each petal, each one pulls away from the earth and reaches for the heavens because the soil had been freed of obstruction. Her legacy is dependent on only the essentials. The mourning marigold is bittersweet, medicinal, antiseptic, and good for all that ails you.

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