Sometimes, the truth needs so little rehearsal. It just plops itself down in front of you like a fat, old man in an undershirt, smoking his cigars and admiring his bowling trophies.
Yesterday, on my way to work, I was scrolling through the satellite radio stations and came across a classic country station. I was raised on CKGL – classic country right outta downtown Kitchener back in the day. Almost all of my childhood memories — vacations, weekends at the trailer and the cottage, are set to an eight-track of George & Tammy, Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty. (It’s a little known fact that my parents prepared me to be a force to reckon with when Trivial Pursuit makes its classic country music version.)
Just then, Tom T. Hall came on singing “I Love…” a badly-rhyming country song that left me in a puddle right there on the 7&8, only 9 minutes from work. My dad always sang along to that song when I was a kid. It was the song I danced with him to at my wedding 28 years ago.
And, it spoke the truth to me yesterday.
It said to me, in my mother’s own voice: “Jana, my dear, grief does not follow, in order, through five stages. Grief follows nothing. Grief does what it wants. When and how it wants. Even on the side of a highway. Because of a song. It will have its way with you. You cannot negate it by pouring yourself into work or cleaning your house, or having an impeccable yard. This living without your mother is a brand new experience. And, when you find yourself in a brand new life experience, everything that requires healing is going to rush to the surface. The lesson is: Pause. And, let it.”
And there it is.
The cigar-smoking truth.
Everything that needs healing is at the surface.
And, I don’t quite know what to do with that. I don’t pause for much. I don’t let much have its way with me. None of us are really taught to sit with these things. We’re not taught that difficulty can have a powerful and meaningful and transformative effect on us. We’re not taught to have mercy for ourselves when we’re 47-years-old, in tears on the side of a highway, because the white-hot intensity with which we miss our mother in that moment — and so many others — is almost unbearable.
Have mercy, Jana. That’s what I am learning.
I have a long way to go. And, that’s okay.
One day, when I am gone, people are going to find what will surely be — by then — my hundreds of journals and the hundreds of started but unfinished stories and notes on my computer. And my disorganized and sometimes random fragments will probably make them wonder about what kind of shape my sanity was in. They will undoubtedly wonder why I wrote so much about grief and guilt and forgiveness and regret and death.
I hope it has to do with the fact that they’ve taught me the most, so far, about living. And, because they’re universal. None of us gets out having avoided any of them.
Some people die in the middle of their life. Some just as it’s getting started. And others probably live much longer than anyone should — or would want to. Accidents, mistakes, disease, suicide, addiction, even murder: we all go Home in different ways. And each death is as unique as each life.
But there are a few things about death — the inevitable end of our lives — that, I think, are universal for us all.
One is that we will all die. From the moment we are born, we are hurtling towards our final day. And one is that when we do die, we all leave with some regrets. And, all of those things are because of the love this life gives us.
We regret or feel guilty for how we treated others. We regret the things we said and, just as much, the things we didn’t say. We regret broken promises, broken dreams and the paths we didn’t take. We should have taken more risks, travelled more, quit the job we hated, or come out of whatever closet we were in.
Death has a way of bringing each of us to that sweet spot of reckoning. Of bringing out the human in us. The soul in us. The love in us.
My mother’s death wasn’t unexpected. It followed the natural order of things. And I can’t, and wouldn’t, wish her back the way she was. But the loss of her hits me over and over again almost every day. My brain lets me forget that she is gone in the millisecond it takes for me to think I can call her, or that I’ll see her this weekend. One millisecond. And then, the sting of reality’s backhand.
I know it gets better. I am full of grief. And, I am full of hope.
This is all Tom T. Hall’s fault.