Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Farewell To Grief

Five years have passed since my mother died. When you've had cancer, the five-year mark is profoundly significant. At five years with no recurrence, you are considered to be free of disease. Any subsequent cancer is diagnosed as a primary event, unrelated to the first. Grief feels the same to me. I would no longer call myself someone grieving. The loss is present, of course; that will never change. But the anguish, the anger, the rawness: these are gone. When I remember my mother, it is with an overriding fondness and nostalgia. Everything is soft, as if blurred for effect. There is no glare, there are no harsh planes. If there were a setting attached to my mind's pictures of my mother, it would be twilight in a New York City spring, the trees blossoming white and green.

There was no discernible moment when the grief stopped and tenderness took its place. The transition was as gentle as what it's left behind. Oh sure, isolated incidents can freeze me in my tracks, but these are more likely to be times when I am struck by the knowledge of being the only living ancestor of the younger people I love. My own ancestors, by and large, are now dead. I am the person who represents my family of origin, and that responsibility, that charge, can weigh heavy.

I still reach to call my mother, to tell her something about my children, or to share with her the latest political catastrophe. Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge scandal, yes that she would love. But I laugh when I do, at my own forgetfulness, coupled paradoxically with the stubborn memory of 10 consecutive digits I could dial in my sleep: 212-988-5523. Don't try calling; there's no one there.

When my brother, my sister-in-law, and I carried my mother's ashes to a stream in the deep woods of Connecticut, it was a rainy, cold morning. We pressed through overgrown foliage, knee-high in spots, to reach the stream, really more a trickle of water sluicing a jumble of rocks. The deed was more noble, more emotionally fraught, in anticipation than in reality.

That night, I pulled a tick off of my leg. The tick felt like a message from my mother, across death's unknowable distance. It was never clear what the message might have been, but sometimes, in my anger, and in hers just before she died, I thought it was a Screw-you! kind of message, a How-could-you-have-put-me-in-a-nursing-home-and-left-me-to-die? message. Or perhaps it was an I-will-leave-my-mark-even-if-it-hurts! sort of missive.

Today I see it for what it was: a tick, common enough in northwestern Connecticut.  The fact that the tick infected me, that I was forced to down six weeks' worth of antibiotics later that spring to prevent Lyme disease from settling in my body, was only a byproduct of where I was, not what I was doing. Sometimes a tick is just a tick.

Five years, and I'm calling it: this episode of grief is done. Subsequent grief will be freshly cutting, like all grief, but I am gladdened to have learned through personal experience that it too will remit, not with a holler but with an unintelligible whisper, akin to the soothing whoosh you hear when you hold a snail's shell up close to your ear: the sound of tides rising and falling, the sound of our collective history.


Emily said...

Thank you, Sarah, for this. I am 1 1/2 years into it after losing my Dad suddenly. This gives me a strange sort of quiet hope.

Particularly this: Sometimes a tick is just a tick.

Veronica said...

What a perfect expression of the way grief evolves and passes. I loved this: "If there were a setting attached to my mind's pictures of my mother, it would be twilight in a New York City spring, the trees blossoming white and green."

Eventually, we make peace with the person, the memories, the final months, how things played out in the end, the legacy--all of it.

Tanis said...

This was so lovely Sarah, so poignant. I am there, mostly, settled with the weight of my grief resting comfortably on my shoulders, but every now and then a breeze comes along and repositions that cloak of hurt and I remember I haven't truly said farewell to my grief and I wonder if I ever really will. I have nothing to compare it to as of yet; most of my ancestors are still here reminding me to breathe.

(You are still one of the best writers I've found on the internets and I'm so thankful I found you and you keep sharing your words.)

Kate Rivera said...

Love this! Strong and clear, and tender and deep as you always are. I echo Tanis' comment, so thankful you are here sharing your beautiful words with us.

Patois42 said...

How beautifully written. You've perfectly described the way it happened for me so many years ago.

Rochelle Fritsch said...

This is exactly what it is and the indefinable moment when grief is over but the loss is still there.

Thank you for making even the painful so beautiful.

Andrea B. said...

I have had this open for weeks and found myself unable to read it. My father passed away in October and I'm by no means ready to get to that point. But I appreciate your ability to be there and share your words. And I thank you for doing so. So very much. I'm sorry for your loss. Even all these years later.