“I meant to do my work today, but a brown bird sang in the apple tree, a butterfly flitted across the field, and all the golden leaves were calling me.”
“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on,or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”
I can’t form a memory of my mother without there being flowers in the background.
Some of my earliest memories are of looking for wildflowers in the spring as we wandered together in the woods behind our house. She died recently, wearing a favorite blouse with a bright floral pattern, listening to a recording of the songs of humpback whales.
Mom typically favored white and blue flowers in her gardens, and daffodils were always one of her favorites. In her last days, she developed a special fondness for sunflowers, saying they were “optimistic.” All that cheery yellow, I suppose. She found joy in whatever was blooming and once told me, “I don’t have an unfavorite flower.”
There was a tree in my mother’s yard that she loved. It was a particular variety of magnolia that is not commonly planted this far north. There were many seasons when a late freeze would keep the tree from blooming, but when it did bloom, it was magnificent.
When my mom died, I received a gift from some friends. They knew nothing of my mom’s old tree, but as a memorial to my mother, coincidentally chose the same type of magnolia. When I arrived home, I saw the tree and immediately recognized it. It was as if my mom had given it to me herself.
Some people say that coincidences don’t exist. I’m not one of those people. I think they do, but I also think there are times when there is more going on than just random chance. I hope there is.
Thanks for the tree, Mom
In a dark corner of the mind of each of us is a voice. The voice says, “One day, I am going to die.” We rarely listen to that voice, but there are times it speaks to us clearly and emphatically, and we have to listen. We hear the voice when we are sick, when we narrowly escape harm, or when a loved one dies. I’ve been hearing that voice lately.
As we age and our bodies fail, we hear the voice more clearly, reminding us that we are like everyone else who has ever lived— mortal. How we react to the voice determines how we live.
In our country we don’t like to think or talk about death. We find ways to talk around it or call it something else. Try to find a sympathy card that uses the word “death” in any part of the message. You won’t.
When we do think about death, most people think, “It’s something bad and I don’t want it to happen to me.” That’s a natural way to look at it—the fear of death being the flip side of the will to live—and some see nobility in fighting death for as long as possible. As the poet Dylan Thomas pleaded to his father to do, they “rage against the dying of the light.”
My mother didn’t exactly rage, but she had her moments. Not long ago she read something about ways to stave off dementia, like reading books and magazines, working on puzzles, watching the birds in her feeders, or eating certain foods. She told me the article said she should eat walnuts.
I said, “Okay, do you want me to buy some walnuts the next time I go to the store for you?”
She said, “Get me some pistachios.”
“Pistachios? I thought you said you’re supposed to eat walnuts?”
“I don’t like walnuts.”
Death is one thing all of us have in common, and our awareness of it is the fundamental dilemma of human existence. Death is not just an event that ends our lives; it is the horizon against which our entire existence unfolds, the backdrop to whatever else we are doing or thinking, always in the back of our minds on some level. The author Don Delillo called the knowledge of our own death the “white noise” that we only hear when everything else gets quiet. If we actually do that- get quiet and hear death’s white noise- our lives can come into better focus. We might make more of an effort to be aware and engaged in our relationships, to connect to something outside of ourselves, or to work for some greater good. We might choose to reset priorities or warm to nature as if we are seeing it for the first time.
Whatever it looks like for others, I want to use this time as a reminder to see life from a different perspective, my goal to be less afraid, to get myself to a peaceful place, and to let go.
Death is our life’s final portal to enter and threshold to cross. It is our last and greatest journey; a journey we must take by ourselves, but if we do it right, not alone.
A Story About My Mom
Mom graduated from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas before it became famous as a center of racial integration in the 1950s.
In high school she made the controversial decision to join a sorority. Mom was a shy child. She saw herself as lacking in self-confidence and hoped the sorority would help her develop social skills and make friends. Unfortunately, the school administrators saw the sorority as elitist and divisive to the student body and actively discouraged her participation. They told her that if she joined, they would not help her with college admission or financial aid.
My mom’s mom agreed with the school administration. My grandmother didn’t want her to join the sorority either yet never told Mom that she couldn’t, preferring to allow her to make her own decision and live with the consequences. Against everyone’s advice, Mom joined the sorority and was its president her senior year.
So began in her the curious blend of traditional values mixed with nonconformity. She was a strange confluence of compliance and rebelliousness, as if Lawrence Welk and Janis Joplin had birthed a child together.
Mom was taught to be that way. She was raised to respect authority and the dictates of propriety, but she also had a rebellious streak and a lifetime commitment to independent thought. As a child, she never missed church on Sunday, but once a month my grandma took her to attend services at one of the black churches in town. Sometimes they would visit inmates at the prison near their house. Grandma was trying to open Mom’s eyes to other people’s life situation.
Mom was expected to wear white gloves to church and in all things to keep standards high. She made her bed every morning of her life (until she was physically unable to make it, and then she made sure I did). On the other hand, she didn’t allow herself to be confined by tradition or propriety. She was eighty-three when she got a tattoo on her arm, and she sported a bright blue streak in her crown of white hair.
My grandma’s dream for Mom was that she go to Barnard College. How she came up with Barnard is not clear. Grandma had no personal experience with the Ivy League or Seven Sisters schools but had read about Barnard and knew it was one of the best girls’ schools in the country. Mom was a good student in high school and Grandma believed in shooting for the stars, so why not?
The high school administrators were true to their word and did not help Mom apply to college or seek financial aid. Without it, Barnard was out of reach, but Grandma told Mom that Washington University in St Louis was a good school and offered to somehow find a way to pay for her to go there. That’s what they eventually did, but not without a lot of effort and hardship.
Grandma told Mom she should go Wash U, so that’s what she did. She applied, interviewed with an alumnus in Little Rock, and was accepted. Until she arrived for classes, she never visited the university nor set eyes on the campus, which at that time consisted mostly of the quadrangle and fraternity row. Mom boarded a train in Little Rock and got off at Union Station in St Louis without knowing anyone. She didn’t recall exactly how she got from the train to her room at the women’s dorm, but somehow she arrived on campus and got a college education. She was homesick at first, but loved college and went home seldom after that.
She enjoyed all of her classes in the liberal arts, but not surprisingly, majored in Botany. She considered medical school, but women weren’t really doing that back then. When she met and fell in love with my dad, home and family became her focus. Occasionally, she would ponder the “what -ifs”, but not very often. She was wise enough to not second-guess herself.
I sometimes wonder how my mother and father got together in the first place. They had some similarities, but in many ways were very different from each other. Opposites often attract, I guess, and people are complicated—nobody is only one way or another. I’m the by-product of each of them, of course. From my mother I received a love for plants and poetry. From my father I learned to hear the call to adventure. From both of them I inherited an innate curiosity and a desire to follow the road less traveled.
Mom liked to collect and send greeting cards. Her children and grandchildren would receive them for all occasions, sometimes when there was no occasion at all. One of her favorites showed a little guy walking down a path in the woods and facing a sign placed at the fork in the road. The sign had an arrow pointing one direction that read “Your life” and another arrow pointing the opposite direction that read “No Longer An Option.”
My mother died at eighty-nine, not of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. She died of being eighty-nine. It turns out that being old is just as much a disease as the rest of them. She stopped eating and she stopped moving, and her body shriveled, like when a grape becomes a raisin. She kept getting smaller and smaller until, eventually, she just faded away.
Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes it is, but I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it clouds a truer one. Beneath it is a deeper, more complex image made from my memories. I see a shy little girl, walking though a garden with her mother or favorite uncle; a cerebral college student, ahead of her time, dreaming of both career and family and having to choose only one; a smiling young mother, pushing her children out the door, even though her heart was breaking as they left; a learned woman, always reading a book or teaching a class; a beloved grandma, looking for seashells with her grandchildren or teaching them the wonders of a feather or caterpillar.
I can see, for a moment, all that at once, the spirit shining though all the years. The author Ursula le Guin said, “That must be what the great artists see and paint.” She thought that Rembrandt’s portraits are admired because he painted more than just the tired, aged faces of his subjects. Using paint on canvas, he captured that inner spirit and showed us that “beauty is not skin-deep, but life deep.”
Saying Good bye
Mom’s parting was gentle and I’m grateful for that. Even so, I feel the loss every day. Her absence is like the sky, it covers everything.
Many of the cards my sisters and I received mention her smile, but Mom wasn’t always smiling on the inside. There was more to her than flowers and my relationship with her was not coated in sugar. Still, it is hard to say good bye and I miss her, maybe more than I thought I would.
That’s how it works. We must gaze into the heart of loss and know the preciousness of what we are losing, and not look away. Saying goodbye is an opportunity for kindness, for forgiveness, for intimacy, and ultimately for acceptance of life as it is instead of what we may have wanted it to be.
Mom was a traveler and an explorer. Some of her adventures were in person and she had many others while sitting in a chair in her living room. She loved to read about women who went out on exploits alongside the men, or sometimes in front of them: women like Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Carr. Karin Blixen, whose pen name was Isaak Denison, was one of her favorites.
There is a scene in the movie Out of Africa where Karin leads a caravan from Nairobi into the bush in order to bring supplies to her husband and others who are fighting for the British in World War One. Each day, her faithful Somali headman, Farah, goes ahead of the main group in order to find and prepare a place to stop for the night. As the days fold in and darkness gathers, Farah builds a large bonfire that signals to the caravan how to reach the campsite and a safe spot to rest for the night.
Later in the movie, Karin has to leave Africa for good. Saying farewell to Farah is one of the hardest things she ever does. They say good bye with these words:
Farah asks, “Msabu, how can it be now.”
Karin replies, “With me or yourself? You will have money. Enough, I think.”
“I do not speak of money,” says Farah.
Karin, “Do you remember how it was on safari? In the afternoons I’d send you ahead to look for a camp and you would wait for me.”
“And you could see the fire and come to this place.”
“Yes. Well, it will be like that. Only this time, I will go ahead and wait for you.”
“Is it far, where you are going?”
“Then you must make a very big fire, so I can find you.”
After a long journey, my mother has arrived at last.
I don’t know what happens after we die; nobody does for sure. Mystery is an integral part it. About death, there are two fundamental truths. That it will happen. That we don’t know when. In the television series “Game of Thrones”, the master swordsman Syrio Fotel says to his pupil Arya, “There is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today.'”
I like to think that my mom, after she reached a peaceful place (like Farah’s campsite), set off again to some territory ahead. I like to think that my mom is out there somewhere, making a very big fire, waiting for me to join her someday.
“Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from,
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done,
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me,
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”