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.