The last five years have turned me into the seasoned mourner I never wanted to be, but always knew I was destined to become. Even as a young man, I knew I’d have to face losing a lot of important people in my life. Among my massive Catholic family, I’m the youngest child of the youngest of nine siblings on my paternal side and not far off on the other side. I could still leave the planet early, of course, but if I’m on anything like a standard timeline, I will experience a lot of loss from family alone, to say nothing of my voluminous list of dear friends.
As I hear of a good friend losing his mother, the concern and grief I feel at his loss triggers a dull sting reminding me that I’ve more to do to mourn my own mother, who passed away just a couple of months into the pandemic last year. This was all easier with my father, who we lost three years back. I’ve found myriad ways to honor him, from travel to reading to watching his favorite films. Sorting out similar methods for my mother has been much more challenging.
Yet, I’ve found a meaningful way to make it work. The books and such are fine, but the most profound part of my mourning process has been to embrace the best traits my parents had to offer. They were far from perfect, as am I, but there’s much to admire, too, and not all of it is currently housed properly in my own brain and/or heart.
With my mother, I’m trying to embrace her sense of generosity as my own. She was a devoted mother who would do anything for her children, to the point that we relied on her too much. She loved us so deeply that she could not judge where to stop. This clouded her view of us in the kindest way possible, as she could see little wrong with her children and nothing even slightly askew with her grandchildren. She was a giver and I know this well as one of the big takers in her life. I’ve always tempered this inclination to follow her ways in my own parenting, trying to focus on opportunities to encourage self-reliance and build confidence. Now, however, I want to be more like her. I want to just support those around me without so much precision. I want to be more the one who rushes to help without thinking about whether I’m ‘teaching a person to fish instead of giving them a fish.’ My mom handed out the fish all the time, no questions asked. You even got a hug with it.
A Task Never Accomplished
As I pondered this intangible quest last weekend, I noticed my wife watering plants in our back garden, stepping among the small bits of statuary we inherited from my mother. A peculiar one amongst the collection was an ersatz Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This is generous to the stubby little thing because it was made by some knockoff company and, although there was fidelity in the facial features, the clothes were red and blue for some reason. This Disney expert knows that’s just not right.
My mother housed this goofy little item in her yard, dragging his heavier-than-you-would-think body from her house to a townhome, to a mobile home in a retirement community and then to our place when she came to live with us. This helped our home be hers during the year she was with us. Internal space was tight, so we couldn’t retain all of her furniture, but we kept her garden decor and plants she’d put into ceramic pots so they could move with her. My wife endeavored to keep the plants alive, but the loving care she provided my mother was the real gift she gave us both. Alas, my mother’s nature inspired me to marry a woman of uncommon kindness. She was repaid mightily by my wife, who managed her medicine, cooked and cared for her with love, as she would her own mother.
During that year with my mom, I’d often sit in the garden and sometimes joke with her, suggesting the ‘real’ Dopey would be offended by this impostor. “I know,” she’d say, “He’s a big faker.” While teasing the innocent statue amused us both, I’d often said she should paint him the right colors. She’d agree and recall how she used to paint. She didn’t produce much but I recall a gorgeous painting of an atoll at dusk, with rich eggplant-colored water and lavender shadows dominating the serenity of the scene. Her work was always a pleasant reminder of my mother’s artistic side, which mostly came out in the course of necessity. Challenged with a child (even an adult child) in need of a Halloween costume, she would find the materials and get them together with impressive results. She turned my wife and myself into a credible March Hare and Mad Hatter one year. My sister’s Queen of Hearts costume was also exceptional and made on the rattiest of shoestring budgets. Halloween was always a fun time for our family. This tradition preceded our generation; my family always had Halloween parties and, in fact, my parents first met at a Halloween party. The story is they were an item almost immediately. I’m thrilled to have a picture of that glorious night preserved in an album.
Alas, my mother never broke out the paints as she planned so many times. Poor Fake Dopey remained in his unattractive blue and red garments. So, when the clouds of early spring parted a few days before Easter, I mentioned this to my wife. She kindly took up a paintbrush the next day. With her sure hand, she cleaned up the figure, corrected his wardrobe and put him back out to work – newly refurbished and ready to guard the garden against whatever incursion might threaten the kumquat and mango trees my wife planted (knowing my affinity for those fruits) or the white flowers of jasmine spread across our fence.
Only when a friend came by for a physically-distanced visit last week did I make the connection. He saw the newly-painted Dopey and asked where it came from. I reminded him of the knockoff and he recalled it. I noted that my mother had wanted this statue to be painted and, though she wasn’t here any longer, I experienced a powerful satisfaction at his refurbishment. This act would have made her happy and a reflection of that imagined joy on my own soul was palpable. I hesitate to say reflection only because the elation was a more potent blend than that word conveys. This was the same multi-flavored emotion I felt when I traveled to England to spread my father’s and uncle’s ashes in a place significant to them. I was overwhelmed by an emotion of my own layered on top of what I know my loved ones would experience.
I’ll add one more dimension: my mother would want me to be happy when I thought of her, so I’m also fulfilling that wish. It’s like a sense of loving accomplishment boomeranging back and forth to infinity. This lifted the shackles of loss and beat back the grief, turning the tears into a quiet rain of pure love. I enjoyed those salubrious drops hanging around the edges of my eyes, comforting me as my mother always would. The impression of her head against my chest (she was only 5’1″ to my 6′) appeared like a phantom hug. I’ve been feeling that all week as I considered my experience; somehow, it’s new and wonderful every time.
One of life’s counterintuitive and also most profoundly sweet lessons is that making others happy is actually more compelling than making yourself happy. Applying this notion to the memory of someone you’ve loved and lost – well, I find it a rare and wonderful concoction. To be sure, it is an acquired taste that you obtain through the mourning process. I definitely didn’t have it in the early days, when even pleasant memories and thoughts were too raw.
Yet, these rituals help along the journey, whether they’re tiny like this restoration or larger like my donations to causes important to my mom on her birthday and for Christmas. They build up the interest and appetite for these more complex emotions that manifest from the loss of a loved one. Every time I find another way to honor my mother, the experience is less bitter and somewhat sweeter. Accepting that these emotions will always be a melange has helped immensely, especially as I strive to embrace the best of my parents so I can keep them alive in my thoughts and actions.