It’s been five years since we said goodbye, but even that phrase “goodbye” doesn’t seem exactly right. We talk all the time. You flood my YouTube feed with Mormon Tabernacle Choir music, and when I ignore you, you up the ante by sending a Mormon tabernacle choir rendition of ABBA’s Dancing Queen. Yeah you knew I’d click it and I did and about died of laughter watching it. Why am I not surprised you’d be pulling off goofy antics even from heaven?
You’d be thrilled I took the day off work to grieve/celebrate YOU…and to make some art while rocking out to music. (Don’t worry, I’m not only listening to new wave. I’ll throw some Linda Ronstandt and Streisand in rotation too.)
We’ll be having a slice of chocolate cake tonight to celebrate your life. Zoey says you get some too, and she’s pretty sure you can eat as much as you want in heaven without getting a belly ache! I bet she’s right. We love you. Keep a listen for the sound of bells….we might put on some tabernacle jams in your honor.
Tomorrow will mark a year since I sang a song for my mother, an experience that still gives me goosebumps. Everything about that experience was infused with loving grace. I’m writing another post for tomorrow, but in the meantime I thought I’d share that post from last year.
There I was, palms sweating, all eyes on me. My heart was racing. Around me, new friends (very new)—most of them twenty, thirty, even forty years older than myself—urged me on.
“Will you consider it?” They asked.
Would I consider it?
I knew in my heart the answer was yes, even if my sweaty palms said no.
I was at choir practice, and these new friends were fellow members of the choir that I recently joined, which is part of the church that I recently joined. (You know, working on building my village and all that jazz.)
In the way that only deep, deep pain can motivate us, I recently came to the realization that I can’t do this life-gig solo. I need a village. Comrades. Partners on the path of self-actualization
I needed a faith community .
Seeing as I’m liberal-but-leery-of-organized religion, I naturally decided to check out our local Unitarian Universalist church. Their mission statement is “Love. Grow. Serve.” Who can’t get behind that? They describe themselves as an “open-hearted multi-generational community” and that is what I found the instant I walked through their doors.
The people I’ve met in this faith community include a baby-boomer hippy guitarist, a young physics professor, a Jewish grandma, a seventy-year old blue-bird enthusiast, a musical theater professional, and more. (And, they literally greet you with homemade muffins and coffee. In fact, they give new members the yellow mugs, so they can find you and say hello. It just so happens the yellow ones hold the most coffee, which also makes me love them.)
I immediately knew I wanted to join the church choir. Their Director is young and talented. The choir is small and half their members are snowbirds who return north for summer. In addition to needing more warm bodies, I had a hunch they would also benefit from having a few more members who could read music.
So there I was, at the second practice of my new choir at the new church I joined.
There are precisely four sopranos including myself. Judy, who carries a Monet Water Lilies tote and a tin of cough drops, sits to my right and watches out for me. She found an extra binder of music and shared her post-it tabs with me.
I was enjoying the practice. We were rehearsing the old Appalachian hymn “Bright Morning Stars” for Mother’s Day.
Our Director announced she would need a volunteer to do an a capella solo for the first verse, then we would add another part with each subsequent verse.
I absentmindedly scanned my music. I wondered who she had in mind to sing the solo. I was sort of relieved, in fact. Thank goodness I’m new, for surely she didn’t have me in mind, I thought to myself.
And then Judy tugged my arm and pointed to me. My palms started sweating. A lot.
“Will you? Will you consider it?” she asked?
I looked up and all the others were smiling kindly. Wait, what? They were serious? Several altos nodded and smiled at me. I looked at the choir director who was smiling, waiting for me to reply.
It was then that I heard myself say yes.
It is hard for me to describe how much this moment stirred me. I have always loved singing. From as long as I can remember I have sung in a choir. In middle and high school I took voice lessons and competed with other awkward pre-teens in various music festivals, singing with girls’ ensembles and honor choirs and on and on.
Recently, the most singing I’d done was in my shower or dancing with my pre-schooler to Yvis’s Yogurt Song.
And here I was, nonchalantly saying yes to SING A SOLO. In church. My voice, alone. What on earth was happening?
I was still wrapping my head around this fact as our Director paused to tell a story about this particular hymn. She explained how she had performed the song with a group of inner-city youth, most of them living on public assistance of some form in a very low-income area. She said how she talked to them about the meaning of the lyrics, how the song is about a parent’s sacrifice for their children.
It as at this point in the story that she said, that one of her high school students began whispering. Being the great choir director that she is, she cleared her throat and asked the young woman, “Excuse me, do you have a question?”
The student looked up and told her, “My parents are dead.”
At this point my eyes welled with tears. It turns out, of course, that the song is actually a metaphor, and it was about the eternal love of a parent toward a child even beyond death. The choir Director said she explained this to the student, how the song wasn’t literal but in fact about how the love of your parents goes beyond death, and perhaps this young woman’s parent’s were watching over her. Loving her still.
Well, at this point I didn’t know how I was going to sing this song about dead mothers. On mother’s day of all days. With my own dead mother up in heaven like that precious child’s.
None of this mattered. I seemed to be carried by the energy of this group, and I suddenly found myself moments later singing the solo it out into the empty church. I finished and heard the choir members begin to clap.
Judy turned to me and said, “that was beautiful.”
The choir director wiped a tear away.”I don’t know why I’m so emotional today but that really moved me.”
Not only did I get through the song about dead mothers without crying, but I sang the whole thing fairly effortlessly.
And here is the crazy thing: I have always dreaded and hated solos. I have a traumatic memory of me singing at a competition when I was maybe fifteen years old, totally breaking under the pressure of performing in front of others. (I was perfectly fine in the comfort of the pianist’s living room when we had practices.)
Singing out loud, alone, used to be too vulnerable. I was fine blending my voice with others. Exposed and in the spot-light, I would wither and crack. My outsides didn’t match my insides. Or maybe they did, because I felt cracked inside too, I hadn’t yet embodied my voice, and was many many years from that being the case.
And so I circle back to today. This week. I sang effortlessly. I suppose you could say I found my voice.
Today is Mother’s Day. I will put on my pretty blue dress, my heels and my mother’s jewelry. I will go with my daughter and husband to my new church, where I will sing a solo in front of my new, multi-generational faith family.
And I will sing out about how the love of our mother’s transcends death.
Mary Tyler Moore holds a special place in my heart.
Not Mary in the Dick Van Dyke show (though we loved here there, too). I’m talking Mary in Minneapolis. Mary in the newsroom. Mary with Rhoda. Mary in her apartment serving drinks to Lou at a Very Bad Dinner Party.
Mary Richards seemed to be the seventies embodiment of my mother. Funny, kind to a fault, determined, sometimes naive–and always fashionable–Mary was like mom is so many ways. My mom before kids, working as a bank manager, rocking blonde hair and wide-leg pants, hosting cocktail parties with friends.
When I heard about Mary Tyler Moore’s passing I immediately thought of mom and my many memories of watching the Mary Tyler Moore show with her–which, I will admit is a little weird as a high school kid in the ’90s. It wasn’t like any of my peers were staying up late to watch Nick at Night reruns of a syndicated seventies sitcom with their moms.
My mom’s love for the show was contagious. I became a fan with her. In re-watching her favorite episodes (Chuckles the clown’s funeral comes to mind as one of our all-time favorites) I got a glimpse into my mom’s life as a working woman in a male-dominated workforce int he 1970s.
I‘ve long seen my mom in Mary, but it is only now that I realize my mom saw a bit of Mary in me, too. As I went off to college, graduated and moved to bigger cities in states far from home, got my first suit, my first apartment. As she watched me experiencing all the highs and lows that come with tossing your proverbial hat in the air as a single working woman. As she saw me live out some of the Mary Richards’ experiences she never had.
Those were the part’s of Mary’s story were foreign to my mom, who married my dad at the young age of nineteen, never attended college, or lived alone in her own apartment, or navigated the dating scene. This fact was lost on me much of the time, especially as I was living those experiences. I often resented what I perceived to be my mom’s desire to project her own dreams onto me as I made questionable choices about careers, men, hairstyles.
It’sonly now with the benefit of age, and becoming a parent myself, that I get it. My mom wanted me to get every ounce out of the Mary Richards experiences that she couldn’t have. She wanted me to get it just right, to savor these freedoms that were not in her reach.
My own daughter is only four, but I already think wistfully about how I hope things will be better for her–that though I am afforded more privileges that most of the world’s women, I still dream bigger. I hope my daughter doesn’t have to demand she gets paid the same as a man for doing the same exact job. I hope, should she decide to have children, that my daughter doesn’t have to navigate a workforce still trapped in the Mad Men era.
I can’t wait to someday introduce Mary Richards to my own daughter and tell her how much her grandmother loved the show. I’ll tell her the stories my mom told me about life in that era, where her only career encouragement was to go to typing school. How she ascended the career ladder in a male-dominated workplace, without a college degree, to become a manager in a bank. How she loved working full-time and letting the dishes pile up in the sink at home–a wild version of my mom that I caught glimpses of but never fully saw, as she lived out her life within the confines of motherhood and part-time work and breast cancer and the damn patriarchy.
Until then, I’ll stream some episodes of Mary Tyler Moore just like old times. I’ll make popcorn on the stove like my mom did. I’ll sit in the dark and laugh and cry as I watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show–this time just me, with mom and Mary in heaven.
My mom was 43 years old the day that she listened to the voice. Five years older than I am as I type this.
She listened and so she lived. To see graduations, birthdays, weddings, births. To adopt new identities: Mother-in-Law, Great-Aunt, and yes, even Grandmother.
When my mother paused in the kitchen that day to listen, perhaps with her hand resting on the counter near the neat pile of bills and school flyers, her tea nearby cooling, she heard a voice tell her to check her left breast. Immediately.
She did. Her world fell apart. A lump. Cancer. The mother of all cancers, stage 4. She powered through. Surgeries. An experimental stem-cell transplant. It was living hell. And yet she seemed to always find the humor in the midst of the horror. When cancer came back in the form of a brain tumor, she later would quip that “brain surgery was a breeze!” (and she meant it).
One day when getting cash from the ATM, her wig flew off and danced across the parking lot. She calmly walked over, retrieved it and placed it back on her head, not missing a beat.
“I could laugh or cry, but I would rather laugh,” she said.
My mother learned in the hardest way possible the importance of intimately knowing the map of your own body. She’d been diligent about annual mammograms. The year she found the lump, her most recent mammogram screening showed no irregularities. Of course, this was before the use of ultrasound and MRI screenings for high-risk patients, before testing for genetic mutations.
She would later confess that she avoided doing monthly self-exams. I was afraid of finding something, she told me. She understood the absurdity of this, but fear holds a strong grip. When she was twelve years old she saw her mother die of breast cancer. Her fear was a real one.
(I think she would want you to know that the voice she heard that day in the kitchen, it was her late mother speaking. It was my mother’s voice, she said. My mother told me to immediately check my left breast.)
Today I share my mom’s story because she cannot. She passed away in 2013.
Her story is this: my mother faced her largest fear—of finding cancer with her own hands. She chose to listen to quiet, loving voice that ultimately saved her life. While the costs were often great (so many sacrifices were made, of body and mind and spirit) she was able to celebrate nearly two more decades of birthdays. Of wedding anniversaries.
My mom was famous for starting conga lines at parties. Her life was a lesson in choosing to dance no matter the music that is playing—celebratory or sad, bleak or hopeful. She taught me that even when there are detours to dark and scary places, if you follow your heart, it will not lead you astray. It might even extend the dance.
Remembering my beautiful mom
today. I continue to draw sustenance from her love.
In the redwood ecosystem, buds for future trees are contained in pods called burls, tough brown knobs that cling to the bark of the mother tree. When the mother tree is logged, blown over, or destroyed by fire –when, in other words, she dies – the trauma stimulates the burls growth hormones. The seeds release and trees sprout around her, creating the circle of daughters. The daughter trees grow by absorbing the sunlight their mother cedes to them when she dies. And they get the moisture and nutrients their need from their mother’s root system, which remains intact underground even after her leaves die. Although the daughters exist independently of their mother above ground, they continue to draw sustenance from her underneath.
There is a large hall full of people, but I initially chose the small side room. I was there by myself, surrounded by plates and plates of hors d’oeuvres. The restaurant servers kept delivering them to me. (My late mother–who was not present because, hello, deceased–had pre-ordered these hors d’oeuvres for everyone. Which if you knew my mom is so my mom.)
It got lonely in this little room. Plus, all this abundance to share. I could not consume it alone.
I came into the great hall only to discover a series of long tables full of friends and family who had been waiting to see me.
At this point I tried on several different outfits until I found what is comfortable on my skin (ahh–to be comfortable in our own skin) and then I spent time catching up with everyone. So much time had already been lost!
I am so excited to share that I have a piece up on the website Keeping Mum! It is a new platform for mothers without mothers.
I would love for you to check out my story —and for those of you who are mothers who have lost a mom, you might want to check out Keeping Mum’s Facebook page, too. They are seeking to build their community of mothers who have experienced loss.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I appreciate you following my blog, sharing your own stories and experiences and sharing tips along the way. My healing journey would not have been the same without you. I am so grateful for this community.
I am embarking on the third round of birthdays, anniversaries and holidays without my mom.
In the past two years it often felt like I was fumbling around in the dark with a scarf over my eyes, playing a twisted game of pin the tail on the donkey where I never even came close to the tail and I only ended up poking myself in the foot.
I love making mistakes. It is how I learn! Well, that is what I tell my three-year-old, although I have a hunch I say it out loud as much for her ears as my own.
What have I learned from my many grief journey mistakes, you ask?
I have learned that on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, planning a long contemplative walk on the sandy beaches of Sanibel Island—especially after a storm washes up loads of mussels and seaweed to bake in the ninety-degree heat thereby attracting thousands of small biting gnats—is not ideal. It is not even close to ideal.
I’ve learned that self-care is paramount. That instead of eating food for comfort (the ultimate comfort, really), instead I can opt for restorative yoga. Or a cup of tea. Or some time alone to draw or paint.
Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated… It is truly an emotion that rises from the soul.
– Francis Weller
Last week I began writing about my healing journey since losing my mom, then a pregnancy.
I am discovering it was easier to share with you the experience of the pain rather than the beauty of grief.
I want to tell you about the gifts that come from the wild, untamed, soul force of grief. But it feels wrong. It feels sacreligous.
I am re-learning how there are two sides to all experiences. Behind the dark is light. And even behind light is dark.
It still feels wrong to speak of beauty in grief. To exclaim the wondrous joys and gifts that blossom from healing. I want to say, but I would trade any of it to have my mom back or my pregnancy back. (And I would.)
And yet I can’t get them back. Instead I am left to make sense of a journey that twisted and turned through through dark corners and expansive fields with sunshine.
I am still walking the journey and the parts with light are very recent memories on this journey. I am not prepared to draw full conclusions or to tell you even where this road will lead.
But I can share this: that beautiful and incredible things happened when I faced my deepest pain and my most vulnerable self.
When my small ego mind admitted it could not do it all, that it was not capable of finding the path out of pain, nor solving the problems of grief (as though there is a solution!), that it was, dare I say, FAILING in its job to fix, to be a hero, to stand alone like a mountain—that was the turning point.
I found out that none of us are alone in our suffering. That instead of being pinpointed, picked up and punished by the universe, we are simply experiencing the very human pain of being alive on earth.
I found that healing can happen unexpectedly and rapidly when there is community and connection. That by standing in a sacred place among community transformed me. That the simple act of singing with a group of fifty, sixty, seventy and yes, eighty-year-olds, and looking out week after week and always seeing yellow butterflies, that this too healed me.
How long-buried gifts of writing, art, and music were not forever condemned to the attic of my life. That they were not merely childish passions that led down short stumpy paths only to be long forgotten. No, they were secret lockets waiting to be opened.
I have opened them and I have delighted in them.
I cannot wait to decipher the many mysteries that remain. I have no idea where my creative urges will lead me but I know I will continue to be humbled by what can happen when you surrender to your heart.
Thank you also to you, dear readers, for supporting and encouraging me. You are part of the community and connection that has brought me to where I am now, and for that I am forever grateful.
Grief undermines the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small. There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and the sanctioned behaviours of our culture. Because of that, grief is necessary to the vitality of the soul. Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life force… It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated… It is truly an emotion that rises from the soul.
– Francis Weller