I sat in bed on this crazy, windy morning looking through old photos. I keep a stack of them in a wooden box in the bedroom that holds all manner of stuff that there is no real place for. A really cheesy scarf from Paris. A hand cream I really liked and hope to find again. A box of letters to my grandma in my sprawling 9-year-old hand, discussing boredom, boys and my intense desire to visit Florida. A box of wedding matches from couples who tied the knot in the 70s that I found in the closet at my parents’ house when we were cleaning it out last year. (I barely know any of these couples but the concept of handing out “wedding matches” invokes a certain nostalgia in a 70s kid.)
Mostly, the pictures in that box were mom and dad’s. I should put them away downstairs with the others, piled in storage bins to the ceiling of the basement, but I never do. I like to keep these photos close. I was looking for one photo in particular — taken 20 years ago today, on the day my son turned 1 and my mom turned 60.
As I flipped through the pile of photos that I’ve seen at least a hundred times, particularly over this past year or two, some of them spoke to me differently today.
In the pile are several worn black and whites of my mom in various stages of her youth. There’s one of her taken on a sunny day, sometime back in what must have been the mid-1950s, her thin frame posed against the stone gates at the entrance to Tavistock on the road to Shakespeare. She must have walked uptown that day. I’ve always wondered who took that photo.
There’s another of her in a t-shirt, leaning against the chromed-up hood of a car that had more curves than she ever would. And another, of her as a little girl, arms folded in defiance. That’s the one that always makes me smile. She passed that spirit on to me and my sister, and I see it in our daughters now.
For just a moment this morning, I realized that old photos are either a bridge to the past — or a chasm. I could see the deep and abiding chasm today. I was suddenly struck by the gulf between the Mom I knew and who she must have been back then. Before me. Before any of us. What hopes and dreams she must have had for her young self. Growing up, I would sometimes get glimmers when she would tell me how she loved History and English and felt she could have been a teacher or done something greater with her career. There was another person inside her. One who did not measure out, with coffee spoons, what she might ask of this life. Who was she?
It struck me today that, not once in all the years we had, did I think to speak to that other person. It was kind of a strange and interesting revelation. On the day she would have turned 80. On the day I would have been the one giving her a gift, she gave me one instead. She reminded me that I don’t need to know.
The pandemic, and subsequent explosion of work for a crisis communicator, has largely taken away any time or desire I’ve had to write for pleasure. I’ve written shockingly little (to me, anyway) during this time about her — about anything really. And, while I was beating myself up about that at first, I’ve lately come to think of it as a gift. I believed, for the longest time, that it was what was getting me through the death of my Mom. This ability to take her life and death apart, hold them up to the light, and understand — through writing about them — the kaleidoscope of facets that made up the relationship between my Mom and I.
It’s like the pandemic stopped my processing of her death, and us — cold. I could never have imagined what a gift this would be. The pure rest that it would be. The understanding it would bring that I’ve come so far from that grief-stricken shore I found myself on for all of 2019 – and maybe some years before. This time seems to be telling me that I am not haunted anymore. That I am flooded with light. That I’ve accepted the loss of her for what it is. I’ve allowed it to be okay. I’ve held on to all the love in my heart. But, I’ve allowed myself to be carried forward.
The death of someone living is the price of our own survival and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep. It’s a cautionary tale that life is not a savings plan accrued now, for enjoyment later. You’re alive now. Your responsibility is to live now. As fully as possible. This is all she had ever wanted for us.
I’ve started to think that it’s an honour to be in grief. It’s an honour to feel that much.
To have loved that much.
Of all the gifts she gave me, this might be the most important one.
Happy birthday, Mom. Thank you. I love you.