After a surprising three weeks of experiencing hardly any grief, I woke in the middle of the night and felt a sudden sadness overtake me. I cried softly for a short time and then turned to look up at the alarm clock overhead. It was a few minutes past midnight – officially making it a month since the day my mother died. “Ah…that’s why the middle-of-the-night crying jag blues,” I thought to myself.
I got out of bed, wiped my eyes, and drug my weary body down the hall. I stumbled into the kitchen, turned on my phone, clicked on the gallery, and there she was, in her final days on earth, a photo of her taken right before we moved her to hospice. I don’t know why I didn’t remember I had taken it until that very moment.
Suddenly, all the questions I had been wrestling with for the past month were put to rest. Looking at her in that photograph I knew we had done the right thing. The woman I saw in that image – that was no longer my mother. Her eyes were drawn up into tight little slits, almost as if her body knew her eyes were preparing to close for the very last time. Her face was ashen in color, and her cheeks slack jawed and deflated from having gone so long without food. I let my fingers trace her outline, turned off my phone, and said goodnight to the ghost of a woman hanging out in my memory.
I’ve lived long enough now to have more than a few deaths in my past. I’ve been down this road of grief enough times that it almost feels like a familiar trail I have walked on a cold and overcast day. The first time you experience loss and grief it can be so totally overwhelming. You wonder if you will ever feel like “you” again. The answer, of course, is no…you won’t. But, with time, you will feel a new sense of normal and you’ll find yourself petting your dog one day and you won’t see the faces of the dogs you loved before it looking back at you with those big, brown eyes. It is possible to move on – to live your life without those that mean the most to you. If death is the worst thing you ever experience in this lifetime then moving on after it happens is, perhaps, the biggest miracle.
Having lost both my mother and my brother in the past 15 months, I am beginning to understand death in a way I never did before. Having back-to-back losses really sucks you down into the muck but it also leaves you with clarity about life you couldn’t get any other way. I was telling my friend last week that I was surprised how I seem to remember only the best and the worst of the people I’ve lost; all the middle ground gets diffused into a mental fog that never clears. Occasionally a normal, everyday “nothing special” moment will float up to the forefront of my mind but, for the most part, it’s really the highs and lows that stand out. It reminds me of the refining fire they talk about in the Bible. Everything that meant nothing gets burned away and all that’s left is the most important part: what you did for others that came from a place of love and what you did to others that came out of a need to hate.
It’s a solemn thought, really: that I’ll be gone and those left behind will be tallying up those two columns, trying to decide if having known me was an asset or a hindrance to their lives. If that doesn’t make you take stock in who you are, I don’t really know what will.