Life After My Mother

It’s been almost five months. Five months since I ran to the Byron Bay lighthouse and back in the evening light of the Australian Summer. Jess and I were road tripping on the other side of the earth. Run, shower and early dinner before the long drive back to Sydney. We didn’t have dinner as it turns out because I got a call – the kind we don’t really dread until we’ve been on the receiving end of one. It was my sister, with the news that my mom was gone. Whoosh, just like that. I could write a book about these last months. I’d have a chapter on the nightmare that was my flight home. The funeral. The sorting out of things. The wedding. And then trying to go on with life. But i’ll focus on this last chapter – the going back to normal when really nothing is normal at all.

Having someone removed from your life is both unfathomable and very painful, almost physically. If I close my eyes it feels like I’ve been sucked to the centre of the universe, to the very origin of my agony. The layers go down so deep that when I hear the sound of my own wail escape from under there it sounds like it will take years to reach it’s destination. I didn’t know that place existed before. I cry like that in the private moments I can find. When I get home from work or when I’m in the swimming pool behind my goggles. Sometimes my husband finds me and rescues me from what would be a much greater desperation without him. He is patient and caring in the face of what, for him, must feel like coming home to a record stuck on the same pathetic song. I regularly think that I’m feeling a bit better, that I’ve turned a corner and then realize I haven’t.

In the beginning I would count the days and the weeks without her. I noticed with unease the transition between waking up with a sick feeling in my stomach to waking up without it. From crying every day to wishing my tears would occur with greater frequency. I would see signs of my mom in nature in the weeks following her death, in the Knysna Loerie that visited her home or the ladybirds that kept landing on me (imagining you’re connecting with a lost one in nature like this is apparently common and called animism). I would notice doors and windows left open thinking she was letting herself in to be with us. Now I wish that my mom would appear to me in dreams so that I can feel what it feels like to touch her or hear the words she would use in a conversation. But she doesn’t, she’s nowhere to be found.

My intellect can’t make sense of this experience – what it means for life, the after life and about how we should live now. I feel an acute sense of fragility for myself and the people I love. I know that Death doesn’t discriminate and I fear that somebody else will be taken from me in cruel succession. I won’t be able to cope with more. There is an urgency to life now and what I should do each day in acknowledgement of that but at the same time I feel like something inside me has died and I’m unable to do very much of anything. I don’t have the capacity for this new urgent life I want. CS Lewis touched on the laziness of grief in his memoir of his wife’s death: A Grief Observed. “…I loathe the slightest effort…Even shaving. What does it matter now if my cheek is rough or smooth?” And this is how it feels, the slightest actions seem futile and require too much energy. The bigger ones, impossible.

The loss I feel is specific to my mother but translates to something  more general – a loss of confidence. I am fragile and exposed and unable to tackle a world that no longer makes sense. Physically I am weakened. My back goes into revolt almost as my mother passes and our wedding concludes. There is no obvious cause and no obvious cure. I fixate on my aches and pains and psycho-analyze that this is because deep down I want to be sick, that way I won’t have to leave home and be surrounded by all these people who have forgotten my mom is dead.

People say I should speak to my mom but the only question that keeps replaying in my head for her is: “Where are you?” She doesn’t answer. I want to know where she is but I don’t want to divert my grief with a spiritual quest to resolve that question. I’ve only recently started to read a few memoirs of what it’s like to lose someone and I’m intentionally steering clear of anything more theoretical. It seems our grief is all similar yet different. I like to think that mine is bigger and sadder than other peoples’ because I lost a mother or because my mother was better than other mothers. But I don’t really think that’s true, it’s just that other peoples’ grief is in the past or the future and not visible to me, as mine is not visible to them. As Meghan O’Rourke says of her experience in her book The Long Goodbye: A Memoir: “Other people – friends, colleagues – got used to my mother dying. But I did not.”

There is some small consolation in the circumstances of my mom’s death – she didn’t suffer, we had no unfinished business, she had met my fiancé and knew that I was safe. For myself, I’m grateful to have a sister to go through this with – the only person who could come close to know how I feel – and a husband to make a new life with. This is the first time I have really had to stare death in the face and I know that very soon it will be time to avert my gaze. As La Rouchefoucauld said: “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily.”

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Sunrise from Keurbooms Beach

So I will try to focus once more on life and hope that this reprieve will last long enough for my heart to heal. Losing my mother has been brutal but the days are finally starting to to roll on less tainted. I am not unchanged but I am in recovery.  One thing I know for sure is that the next time I see someone crying in an airport or on the street I’ll stop to ask  if they’re ok. Maybe they just lost their mom.

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