While we slept, autumn arrived.
Summer has been lingering for weeks, stubbornly hanging on with hazy humidity and disconcerting warmth. Deep inside me was a yearning for the cool air and sharp azure skies that only autumn can bring, the perfect backdrop against which to etch crimson and gold leaves just beginning to appear.
Overnight, my yearning was satisfied. I dug long pants and sweaters out of storage, pulled on a new pair of soft gray socks, laced up my walking shoes, and set out with Magic and Molly to take full advantage. As we walked into the brisk morning air, it was clear that my two little dogs had felt a similar longing. Magic took of flying down the street, entirely forgetting his 14 years and the occasional arthritis in his hindquarters. Molly, often a reluctant walker, gamely kept pace. When we reached our usual turning point, Magic adamantly refused to go back, digging in his heels and urging me to take the long way home.
I feel fortunate to live in a place with this marked change of season. It connects me to the deeper cycles of change in the universe, and reminds me there is beauty and purpose to everything in nature.
There has been a change of season in my heart too, a turning in this process of grief. In the past couple of weeks a sense of peace has descended, a quiet acceptance of this new world I live in. I can trace it to a couple of events that seemed particularly meaningful.
One was the Walk of Remembrance, sponsored by the hospice organization that cared for my mother in the last week of her life. On September 24 (which happened to be the six month anniversary of her death) I gathered with about 700 other people for a two mile walk through the wooded grounds where the hospice care center is located. The sun was shining, it was about 72 degrees with a gentle breeze. The atmosphere was one of quiet reflection: conversation was present, but gentle and muted. Two of my closest friends joined me, and it was especially meaningful to have their companionship along the way.
The area where the hospice care center is located is part of a large parcel of land owned by the Archdiocese of Detroit. On it stands the Motherhouse for the Felician Sisters, a grand building built in the mid 1930’s. But it’s also home to my high school, my college, and so walking along those sidewalks and pathways took me back in memory to my youth and many happy times spent in that very place. Also on these grounds is a nursing home where my maternal grandmother was living when she died in 1992; and the hospital where my aunt and uncle died within three months of each other in 2009.
I passed each of those places along the way, finally ending at the care center where my mother spent her last days. So many meaningful experiences of my life came together on that walk. It provided me the opportunity to acknowledge them, and in some ways, to let them go.
A few days later, I met with the grief counselor at the hospice whom I’ve been seeing for the past few months. I was feeling a little vulnerable and sad on that day, missing my mom like I so often do. “I feel like she’s fading from me,” I said. “I never even dream about her, and I wish I could.”
My counselor tells me that people who experience the most intense grief often report that same experience. “They rarely dream about the their lost loved one,” she said, “yet they invariably say they wish to.” She suggests I write letters or messages to my mother in a journal. “Just tell her the kinds of things you’d talk to her about,” she said. “Tell her how much you miss her, how you’re coping with life without her.”
Because I’m a writer, you’d think this would be a natural exercise for me. But something about it didn’t feel right. In life, I never wrote to my mother. We were always together, always available to talk to one another in person or on the phone, and writing to her seemed very foreign.
Then, a few days later, I heard a story on NPR about a Japanese man who lost his home and his entire family in the tsunami of 2009. In the front yard of his new home, he constructed a replica of a British call box, the iconic red telephone booth, complete with rotary phone. Longing to speak to his wife, his parents, his children, he would go into the booth, pick up the phone, dial his old telephone number, and carry on a conversation with them. Before long, word spread about his practice, and soon other people began appearing at his door, asking if they could use the phone too. Sometimes whole families would appear, and each take a turn talking to their lost loved one.
That day, while I was waiting preparing dinner and waiting for Jim to get home, I picked up my phone and pressed my mom’s number on speed dial. At first it felt odd, but then I just started talking to her, the phone cradled between my neck and shoulder like it often was as we talked while I stirred a pan on the stove, or dusted the furniture, or folded towels just out of the dryer. I told her how much I missed her, told her what I’d been doing all day, talked about the dogs, and the weather, and even mentioned the crazy political mess.
When I “hung up” I felt a huge sense of relief. Throughout that “conversation", beneath my normal chatter, I truly sensed her listening to me. I could almost hear her replies, her soft voice so much like my own responding to me.
A couple of nights later, I had a dream in which my mom appeared briefly, but quite significantly. It seemed as if I was coming home after a long trip, the kind of trip I used to take with the high school choir kids when I would accompany them at festivals or competitions. Jim was with me, as were Brian, Nantana, and Connor. We were tired, but having a good time, smiling and talking. When the bus dropped us off, we started walking toward home, but it was along the same route I used to take walking home from my elementary school. There was an unexpected dusting of snow along the sidewalk; I was wearing my flip-flops, and we laughed about snow on my bare toes.
Then we were crossing the front yard of my mom’s house. It was dusk, and her porch light cast a warm glow across the grass. I looked up to see her open the door and step out onto the sidewalk, a smile on her face, her blue eyes twinkling at me with the expression that said, “There you are, where all have you been?”
She didn’t say a word, she simply exuded love and care and happiness that I was finally home.
That was the end of the dream, but it wasn’t the end of the warm feeling I had the moment I woke up. The message is certainly clear and easy to discern: I will continue on this journey though life; my family will be with me; we will laugh together, and I will do things I love to do. It will be long, and unexpected things (like snow on my bare feet!) will occur.
But at the end, she will be there waiting for me.
Since that dream, I have been sleeping through the night (a miracle!), waking rested and peaceful instead of filled with dread at the thought of another day without her. I’ve been more open to the beauty nature has begun to bestow around me. I’ve started to feel stirrings toward working on a new writing project, perhaps even strong enough to make a plan, set a goal around it.
For many months, I’ve been hanging on to the hope of the impossible, the hope of bringing her back in the old familiar way. At last I’m acknowledging that can never be. I’m learning to feel satisfied with other ways I keep our connection - cooking her best recipes, “talking” to her, taking care of myself with rest and being with friends.
Living my life.
“Don’t grieve for me too long,” she told me the day she went into the hospital last March. The truth is, I will grieve forever. What she meant that day is that I shouldn’t let grief sink me, shouldn’t let it rob me of living life and enjoying every moment of beauty that comes my way. Like the vibrant colors of fall, the cleansing feel of cool air on my face, the sweetness of apple cider and the comfort of a soft sweater.
The weather has changed, and I’m changing with it, dying to the old sadness and pervasive longing, beginning a new journey of growth and rejuvenation.
Life Goes On. Like a long walk on a cool autumn morning, here I go - on with it.