My father is trying to find his balance now, after 56 years of leaning into his best friend and life partner. It’s not easy. The reality of my mother’s recent passing – or I should rather say, the hole she left behind – catches him unexpectedly and pulls him into convulsing grief, yearning to have her back. It strikes me, as it hasn’t before, that the real pain of death is not in what it takes from us, but in the absence it leaves behind.
When we lose the warm presence of someone we have loved for so long, memories call to us from the fading edge of awareness.
It’s tempting to remember, to go back to a time when she was here with me, tilting her head and smiling, or slapping her knee with a round tumbling laugh. I vividly recall my last conversation with my mother – what she said, how she looked, what she was wearing. It feels good to stay there, in that gauzy space in my memory.
I don’t want to leave.
But then. Why can’t the world just stand still long enough for me to collect myself, to mourn my loss and cherish what I had? How can those millions of people rush by so insensitively, so carelessly? Don’t they know? Can’t they see this absence, this hole that I keep falling into?
The Buddha said that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent and passing away. We hold on to what we love and it becomes part of us. As time goes on we hopefully learn how to adapt and accept things as they change. My love for my mother evolved over the years I knew her, getting deeper and stronger and more complicated as we shared life together.
My clutch as an infant gave way to an apron-string dependency in early childhood. Then I tethered my adolescent identity to her (and to my father), orbiting in tightening circles or flying farther out according to how supported or misunderstood I felt. In my adult years, we both were wrapped into our separate adventures, touching base from time to time by phone and sharing the occasional holiday as a family. Even though I didn’t get to touch and kiss her very often, the presence of my mother at least somewhere in my world provided me with an ineffable sense of security.
Her death has left behind this vacancy. My father is overcome with emotion as he vacuums over the spot where her hospice bed had been. An empty chair across the kitchen table has him weeping over his morning oatmeal. You know how a wall that once held a painting keeps a shadow in its absence? It’s like that – a reminder of something that isn’t there anymore. His vacancy is different from mine, even though they were once occupied by the same living person.
One of my daughters has a favorite book of my mother’s. In the margins are faint pencil checks marking passages that had caught her attention; here and there a crumb from her morning toast is lodged in the seam. Young fingers slowly sweep the pages – imagining, remembering, wondering, longing. Something so ordinary is suddenly the only one of its kind.
I find myself getting frustrated over an inability to focus on things that held my fascination but a couple of weeks ago. Certainly she knew I loved her. Did I tell her often enough? What does that even mean: enough?
The world still wobbles out of balance. Sorrow rises and rolls like a black ocean, lapping over the rim of my fragile composure. So love leads to suffering? I hurt more the harder I hold on? Sounds right. But I’m not quite ready to let go. I need to live with this absence for just a while longer.
Why don’t you pull up a chair and tell me your story?