Exactly a month after my mother’s death, I’ve boarded a plane for Toronto, Canada to train with the cancer center there in their protocol, CALM (Managing Cancer and Living Meaningfully).
It’s hard to leave home right now. I stick close to my wife and become easily overcome by the many details of living. On the other hand, I’m going somewhere that my grief will be, I assume, accepted, and where I will have space to appreciate that my mother died prepared, facing death squarely with her eyes open, just as this program teaches us to facilitate.
What a gift she gave me. I have no worries that she regretted her death or thought I, or anyone including herself, should have done anything different. There was just the simple fact that the end of her life had come. Maybe there was a strange blessing in such a clear diagnosis, pancreatic cancer, and the 9 months we had together after that. So I’m not really struggling with her death.
Grieving a parent, however, has brought me up short, affected me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. When my father died, I devoted myself to caring for my mother and so, in this time of mourning, they are both sitting on my shoulders, ripping apart the seams of my usual calm. I search for words to describe my new orphan identity which, even at 61 years old, feels profoundly new.
There are the ways my parents enveloped me, sometimes in my awareness and sometimes not. But I find it is the parts of me that pushed against them that suddenly make me feel the ground has been removed. It has been in defining my difference from them that I became myself, my own person. It is in coming to an understanding of each other as whole human beings that I discovered my unique gifts and talents. For all the agreement between us, it is in our disagreements that my life took shape.
I see that this was also true of them with their own parents. They ended up miles form where they began, spiritually, politically, personally, in nearly every way. Their faith remained but what defined that faith changed completely. This is the job of each new generation; to define themselves as “other than” their parents, and ultimately, hopefully, to strengthen the parent-child bond through that exploration. This has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, that my parents were willing to transform themselves to meet the person I became.
But now, that is all over. From here on out, I define myself, I change not in relation to them but in relation to my chosen life. I had no idea that I still referenced them until they were both gone. I now take what they gave me, to make what I will of it.
One of my mother’s caregivers dreamt of her, a week after she died. They were sitting together as they used to, with arms reaching out to each other and one caring for the other. My mother, a look of peace on her face, said, “I am so happy, so very happy,” and they shared together a beautiful moment of connection and contentment. The cares of the world are over for my mother. Now, I feel her as a steady, loving force just out of reach, murmuring to me, “go forward, keep going, continue to follow your own dreams.”! !!
It’s up to me to do that, not for her (or against her) but in her honor.