“No, sweetie. That's called flushing and pointing,” she said, setting the table, her thick black hair wet against her back. “That's what he was bred to do.”
When we are learning the world, we know things we cannot say how we know. When we are relearning the world in the aftermath of a loss, we feel things we had almost forgotten, old things, beneath the seat of reason. These memories in me of my mother are almost as deep as the memories that led Finn to flush and point. As the fireflies began to rise one summer evening, my mother called to us.
See them? Run and get a jar and a can opener.
And my brother and I ran in for jars and our mother poked holes in the lids and sent us across the lawn to catch the fireflies. The air was the temperature of our skin.
My mother died of metastatic colorectal cancer shortly before three p.m. on Christmas Day of 2008. I don't know the exact time of her death, because none of us thought to look at a clock for a while after she stopped breathing. She was at home in Connecticut in a hospital bed in the living room with my father, my two younger brothers, and me. She had been unconscious for five days. She opened her eyes only when we moved her, which caused her extreme pain, and so we had begun to move her less and less, despite cautions from the hospice nurses about bedsores. A bedsore wasn't going to kill her.
For several weeks before her death, my mother had experienced confusion from the ammonia that built up in her brain as her liver began to fail. Yet I am irrationally confident that she knew what day it was when she died. I believe that she knew we were around her. I believe she chose to die when she did. Christmas was her favorite day of the year. She adored the morning ritual of walking the dogs and making coffee while we waited impatiently for her to be ready; she taught us to open presents slowly, drawing the gift-giving out for hours. On that last day, her bed was in the room where our tree was, and as we opened presents, she made a madrigal of quiet sounds, as if to indicate that she was with us. Her hair was swept up behind her, and she looked like the mother of my earliest memories.
Nothing prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. And because my mother was relatively youngâfifty-fiveâI feel robbed of twenty years with her I'd always imagined having.
I know this may sound melodramatic. I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult; my mother had a good life. We had insurance that allowed us to treat her cancer and to keep her as comfortable as possible before she died. And in the last year of her illness, I got to know my mother as never before. I went with her to the hospital and bought her lunch while she had chemotherapy, searching for juices that wouldn't sting the sores in her mouth. We went to a spiritual doctor who made her sing and passed crystals over her body. We shopped for new clothes together, standing frankly in our underwear in the changing room after years of being shyly polite with our bodies. I crawled into bed with her and stroked her hair when she cried in frustration that she couldn't go to work and apologized for not being a “mother” anymore. I grew to love her in ways I never had. Some of the new intimacy came from finding myself in a caretaking role where, before, I had been the one taken care of. But much of it came from being forced into openness by our sense that time was passing. Every time we had a cup of coffee together (when she was well enough to drink coffee), I thought, against my will: This could be the last time I have coffee with my mother.
Knowing that I was one of the lucky ones didn't make it much easier.
In the months that followed my mother's death, I managed to look like a normal person. I walked down the street; I answered my phone; I brushed my teeth, most of the time. But I was not OK. I was in grief. Nothing seemed important. Daily tasks were exhausting. Dishes piled in the sink, knives crusted with strawberry jam. At one point I did not wash my hair for ten days. I felt that I had abruptly arrived at a terrible, insistent truth about the impermanence of the everyday. Restless and heavily sad, I would walk through my quiet Brooklyn neighborhood at night, looking in the windows of houses decorated with Christmas lights and menorahs, and think that I could more easily imagine myself floating up into the darkness of the night sky than living in one of those rooms like one of those people.
I am a transient in the universe,
I thought. Why had I not known that this was what life really amounted to?
I was not entirely surprised to find that being a mourner was lonely. But I was surprised to discover that I felt lost. In the days following my mother's death, I did not know what I was supposed to do, nor, it seemed, did my friends and colleagues, especially those who had never suffered a similar loss. Some sent flowers but did not call for weeks. One friend launched into fifteen minutes of small talk when she saw me, before asking how I was, as if we had to warm up before diving into the churning, dangerous waters of grief. Others sent worried e-mails a few weeks later, signing off: “I hope you're doing well.” It was a kind sentiment, but it made me angry. I was not “doing well.” And I found no relief in that worn-out refrain that at least my mother was “no longer suffering.”
Mainly, I thought one thing:
My mother is dead, and I want her back
. I wanted her back so intensely that I didn't want to let go.
At least, not yet.
Grief is common, as Hamlet's mother Gertrude brusquely reminds him. We know it exists in our midst. But experiencing it made me suddenly aware of how difficult it is to confront head-on. When we do, it's usually in the form of self-help: we want to heal our grief. We've subscribed to the belief (or pretense) that it happens in five tidy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (The jaggedness of my experience hardly corresponded to these stages.) As grief has been framed as a psychological process, it has also become a more private one. The rituals of public mourning that once helped channel a person's experience of loss have, by and large, fallen away. Many Americans don't wear black or beat their chests and wail in front of others. We mayâI have done itâweep or despair, but we tend to do it alone, in the middle of the night. Although we have become more open about everything from incest to sex addiction, grief remains strangely taboo. In our culture of display, the sadness of death is largely silent.
After my mother's death, I felt the lack of rituals to shape and support my loss. I was not prepared for how hard I would find it to reenter the slipstream of contemporary life, the sphere of constant connectivity, a world ill suited to reflection and daydreaming. I found myself envying my Jewish friends the practice of saying Kaddish, with its ceremonious designation of time each day devoted to remembering the lost person. As I drifted through the hours, I wondered: What does it mean to grieve when we have so few rituals for observing and externalizing loss? What
I am writing here about my grief, of course. I don't pretend that it is universal. Nor do I write about it because I think it was more extreme, more unusual, more special than anyone else's. On the contrary: I believe that my grief was an everyday one.
When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That's what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.
But, oh hell, you keep trying.
NE SATURDAY in May 2006, I took the train to Connecticut to visit my mother. We lived only a couple hours apart, but we hadn't seen each other in monthsâboth of us too busy with workâand I had become vaguely concerned about her. She was having trouble with her kneeâsuffering from the arthritis that had plagued her mother before herâand her blood pressure was dangerously high. She retained much of the beauty she'd had as a young woman, a beauty particular for its expression of a serenity of soul and a charged wit palpable below her calm surface. But she had gained weight after the birth of my youngest brother, Eamon, when she was thirty-four, and the doctor had asked her to start taking her blood pressure regularly. I worried that she might have a heart attack; she was unusually anxious because she and my father were selling their apartment and leaving behind their old lives in Brooklyn, where they had worked for decades at Saint Ann's, an idiosyncratic private school my brothers and I had all attended; they were moving to Westport to work at a new private school, where my mother had become headmaster and my father, who taught Greek and Latin, was running the language program.
It was a big change. My parents had both worked at Saint Ann's since I was young (my father liked to tell stories of being hired as a barefoot hippie), first as teachers and later as administrators, too. My mother was a person with a strong sense of justice, which made children and teachers alike trust her, and over the years she had been promoted first to principal of the middle school, then to dean of academics; the headmaster had told her that he wanted her to be his successor. Instead, she had made the choice to go to Pierrepont, a school founded a few years earlier by a woman named Isabel, who was ardently devoted to children's education. Charismatic and funny, Isabel had a visionary intensity that my mother found alluring, and she became one of my mother's closest friends. Helping build a new school stimulated my mother's mind as nothing had in years. But it was a stressful job. The logistical challengesâand the sense of responsibilityâwere enormous, and she and Isabel had to learn how to make decisions together and trust each other. These things weighed on her at times, and inwardly she worried about the future.
You have to try to relax, I would say, when we talked.
That May afternoon was unusually warm. My mother and I went out into the yard of the house my parents were renting and sat by the pool, rolling up our pants and dangling our feet in the cool blue water. Leaning back, she pushed her sunglasses over her hair and turned her face up to the sun. She suddenly looked girlish. As we gazed across the pool at the horses from the farm next door, she talked about the pressures of school and of selling the apartment where she and my dad had lived for twenty years. But mostly she was quiet, content to sit in silence as the early dragonflies skimmed the water. The two golden retrievers, Ringo and Huck, nosed through the grass. Stillness radiated around us. I was happy just to be near her.
A few days later, I felt sick to my stomach and left work early. (I was an editor and writer at
, an online magazine.) I'd just lain down in bed when the phone rang. It was my mother. “Meg?” her voice rose. “You're home? There's something I want to tell you,” she said, with a deliberateness that alarmed me. “And I wanted you to hear it from me.” She hesitated. “I haven't been feeling well and I went to the doctor for some tests, and she found a tumor.”
“Where?” I said, stupidly.
“In my colon,” she continued. “They don't know what it means. It could be benign. They're running tests and we'll know more about it on Tuesday.” The way she said, “They don't know what it means,” made me hopeful, as if the tumor were something that could be interpreted, like a passage in Shakespeare. It's not a disease; it's a pound of flesh. I could hear that she, too, wanted to think of it this way.
The next week she called as I was walking back from lunch to my office on Fifty-seventh Street. As the afternoon crowd bustled industriously around me, she said, bluntly, “The doctor got the results. The tumor is cancerous.” My knees went weakâthe clichÃ© is trueâand I leaned over the scaffolding beside me, the metal bar hard against my stomach. “I'm going to need to have surgery and then maybe radiation and chemotherapy, and we need to do it soon. But they think they can treat it,” she continued.
I do not remember whether I got any work done that afternoon or what, exactly, came next. I remember calling a former colleague and friend who is a cancer researcher for advice. I remember talking to one of my two younger brothers. I remember fighting with my parents on the phone because they scheduled surgery but had done no “research.” I couldn't fathom their approach. They didn't know very much about the doctor they'd chosen or whether surgery was even the right course of action. This made me crazy with anxiety and frustration. In my work as a journalist, I collect information for a living. I read books, articles, and studies as a way of knowing the world. I am also a perfectionist. It's cancer, I thought. What if the surgeon is third-rate? We can wait a week to find out more. We need the best surgeon. We need a perfectionist of a surgeon; no, we need
to be the surgeon.
Y BROTHERS, Liam and Eamon, and I spent an inordinate amount of time with our mother when we were children, not only because we went to school where she worked, but because she loved being with kids. She was a bit of a child herself. She had a vivid sense of what makes children feel safe, and she believed in the validity of a child's experience of the world. This is why students trusted her, even when they'd been sent to her office to be disciplined and she was asking them how they could have done something so stupid.
She wasn't a mother who only cared about her kidsâwe always knew she enjoyed the adult world too much for thatâand our house was messy and chaotic as often as not. But she spent hours with my brothers and me making gingerbread houses or sledding or cutting out paper snowflakes. She taught us all to make apple pie, and read
The Black Stallion
to us at nightâthough she also had a habit of promising to read a book out loud and then giving up partway through. When Eamon came along, I was practically a teenager, and I could see how much pleasure she took in playing silly games with him. Later on, after the three of us had grown up, her best friends' childrenâIsabel's daughters and our friend Diana's sonsâbecame her stand-in grandkids, and whenever I visited there were still toys in the house.