This is the third anniversary of my mother’s death. I have not been able to write about her passing. I have spent hours with three different therapists and with them have spoken the same few sentences over and over to no avail: My mother is dead. It is my fault. I did not do enough. For three years, I have felt my body overcome with chronic physical pain, and each time I received the blood test results in the mail indicating I was “normal,” I grew more and more bitter. I was sick, and no one could or would help me. Nothing was said to me by anyone that could even come close to relieving me from the trauma of losing my mother. My anger over her death took up residence in every part of what I believe to be me, body and soul, and crushed me. In May of this year, I gave up. I actually had days when I could barely walk. My physician seemed unconcerned. There were no data to support my supposed illness. How could I give up any more than I had? There is no standardized hitting bottom; it is different for each of us. The despair I felt in May was so intense that I could not feel it.
What’s odd, I suppose, is that my mother and I were not close in the way one imagines the mother and daughter bond. From the time I was a little girl, I took care of my mother. We fought. She hated me. I reminded her too much of my father who beat and berated until she left him just before I was born. Undoubtedly, all mother-daughter relationships are complex, but my mother and I were enmeshed in a mutual betrayal that she had no understanding of how to untangle. The more I tried to work out the knot, the tighter she pulled. With her death, I am still working on that now with her. I use the present tense because I believe that we never really lose people; they take different forms at different times and in different spaces in our lives, and that time and space are not necessarily measured in decades and thousands of miles or particular shapes. They are measured in context of divisions of time that are collapsed: Heaven communing with Earth and any place there is a sentient being through whom God works.
How nearly impossible it is for the human in us to see the beloved standing right in front of us. For years, I have trained my mind to look at the world though the lens of reason – rational thought is enlightenment, right? I cannot tell you how many times reason has failed me in the most significant of ways. And when reason failed me, I attributed it to my failure of reason – I surely had committed logical fallacies of thought. Analyzing the data, the evidence would expose my error, I would apply my critical thinking skills, and all would be well. Academia has demanded this approach.
I am in no way suggesting we abandon the rational mind. If we make every decision based on following the heart, we are in for some serious trouble. Not long ago, parents in East Tennessee were charged with child abuse for using faith-healing to treat their nine-year-old child’s brain tumor. The court ordered them to admit the girl to hospital, but it was too late. And I am not always sure what I or anyone else means by the phrase “follow your heart.” What I do know in this moment, in all moments since I fell into my hell in May is that God calls us to do things that if we hear, bring us back from that hell. And it stuns us when we realize in that moment we have been called. Suddenly, we are standing in the light, and we have to squint to make sure it is not a trick of the light of our personal hell.
When my mother was dying – a highly unexpected, sudden combination of illness that consumed her with suffering for the last four months of her life – I became the highly functioning daughter that continued working a demanding job, tended to domestic necessities, cared for my mother’s increasing physical needs, and attempted to soothe her considerable fears. Being intensely empathic is not always advantageous – when my mother died, I died right along with her. During her sickness, most days I was not even sure I was walking or breathing or talking. At the end of the day, I could not remember having taught a class or having eaten. The world ceased to look familiar. The oppressive heat of August became the chill of November, and she was gone.
But I met someone in the last weeks of my mother’s life who of all the people , of anything I encountered made a mark on me – her light registered in me even though I was too broken to know it. She never said anything to me about my mother’s illness or spiritual state that I did not already know. What she gave me was outside the realm of the rational, outside the realm of words. She sat with me in a waiting room at 3:00 in the morning when she should have been home in her own bed. In the last hour of my mother’s life, I called this woman who knew my mother and who would come to be with her when she died. As I held my mother’s hand in the last moments of her life, this woman came into the CCU to help my mother’s soul leave her body. And I unknowingly fell in love with her light.
After my mother died, I deliberately stayed away from this woman who had been so kind to my mother and to me. I did not deserve the kindness. And after having shared something so intimate, my mother’s death, with a relative stranger, I did not know how to be with her. And all of my anger told me to certainly not seek God, a God who had taken away from me every person I ever loved. But I never stopped being aware of this woman’s presence in the world. One day this past August, I suddenly remembered her smile, and a few days later, I sought her out. I just wanted to see her smile and her light.
Last week, I finally admitted to myself that I have come back to find her to find God. I came back to find my heart. If I cannot find God in her, in the roses, in the fields, in the dirt, then I cannot find God. The beloved never really leave us.