This is a dark and dismal season of grief for me. Three months ago I lost my mother, and within this last week I have lost my oldest childhood friend, my anam cara – my soul sister…
I still remember the first moment that I saw her. She was a tiny little waif, leaning against my grandmother and laughing at something that had just been said. I was a lover of fairy tales and with her blonde hair, dancing blue eyes, and pixie face, my eight year old self imagined that here standing before me, in my very own kitchen, was Goldilocks!
At eight she enchanted me, by ten she was fully integrated into my family, and by twelve she was my confidant and best friend. I’m not sure when she became my sister and an essential part of me, but she did.
Her maiden name was Joy, which was both fitting and ironic. As a young child she and her younger brothers had been removed from her parents and placed into foster care. As a very young woman, one of her brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia, followed by the sudden death of his twin. Next, soon after she and her estranged father began building a relationship, he died from lung cancer. And then, eight years ago, her husband of nineteen years went to work one morning and never came home. He died instantly, leaving her to finish raising three of their four children alone.
Yesterday, as the great storm Nemo surged towards them, those same beautiful children bravely and graciously greeted friends and family who had come to honor their mother’s life. She had gone into the hospital with pneumonia and died there.
The amount of pain and suffering she and her children have faced at such tender ages is completely incomprehensible to me. The temptation to scream up at the heavens, “why!!!!!!!! why!!!!!!!!!! Why!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” sits wound tightly in my chest, threatening to explode, scattering pieces of my shattered self everywhere.
Her maiden name was Joy. And even as she struggled on a daily basis with the fallout of a heart broken way too young and far too often, she embraced her life and held it and those within its orbit close and tenderly. She created countless special memories for her husband and children, faced her fears, followed her heart, and sweetly coaxed me to join her from time to time. For the past three springs I told her that I thought I could manage a visit during the summer, and apologized each autumn when my plans to visit fell through.
She called me right after my mother died and left a message explaining that she knew that I might not have the energy to call back right away, (I didn’t) and that she would simply be waiting patiently when I was ready to talk. She emailed me at Christmas time and warned me that the holidays would be brutal, but that I’d get through them. I emailed her back and thanked her and promised that I’d call her soon. That was our final contact. Now there will be no more phone calls, no more heart to heart talks, no more promises, no more summers…
Shortly after losing her husband, she lamented that in working so long and hard in preparation for retirement, he had missed so many tiny inconsequential and yet precious moments. She had made a promise to herself at his funeral that she wouldn’t postpone pleasure in the interest of a tomorrow that might never come. She kept that promise.
Stephanie Ericsson wrote:
“Grief is a tidal wave that over takes you
smashes down upon you with unimaginable force,
sweeps you up into its darkness,
where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces,
only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped…
Grief will make a new person out of you,
if it doesn’t kill you in the making.”
It’s not my grief that threatens to mortally wound me, it’s my love. And it’s not my love that has proven to be my greatest teacher, it’s my grief.
Thirty five years ago four teenagers sat late into the night talking about life and death and making predictions about how their lives would turn out. Before separating in the wee hours of the morning, they made a pact that when they were fifty they would come back together and see whose predictions came true. They never kept that oath. Not because they got too busy, or forgot their promise along the way, but because the only one who lived to see her fiftieth birthday was me.
I grieved deeply each time I lost one of them, and yet failed repeatedly to fully grasp the profound lesson contained within each death. It’s a lesson that we learn over and over again without fully comprehending, one that we pay lip service to but seldom turn our lives around to meet. Those we love will die. WE WILL DIE. And so, we must make of our love a sacred practice, allowing it to flow through our lives like a mighty river. We must invite ourselves to fall in love with life over and over again, allowing life and love to become inseparable.
Both my mother and Missie, my golden girl, are gone now, and this is more loss than I can face today. But there’s something that I’ve learned through the terrible pain of earlier losses which sustains me. The intensity of this grief will fade even as its lesson comes more clearly into focus. Life is a gift of unknown duration – the only certainty is that it ends, and so we must learn to hold it lovingly and closely, like Missie did.
Her maiden name was Joy….