"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What Remains

The early days of my grieving for Kathleen were done in the cold dark of early winter. There was comfort in the starkness of weather that matched my interior. Bare trees and hard ground. Biting air driven into bone by fierce winds. Clouds, deep gray and heavy with moisture released in torrents of rain or damping blankets of snow.

Now in the lush green moistness of June I adjust to a world without a mother. And I find equal comfort in daily reminders of the irrepressibility of life.

This is the season of fledging. There's a new baby owl in the meadow below us. The bald eagles that have nested somewhere to the north spent a recent Sunday teaching a dark and awkward eaglet how to fly. Stellar's jay babies chase parents around the bird feeders, demanding to be fed in pre-teen boy voices.

Our wildflower area surprised us this year with a profusion of foxglove. The rich exuberance of color, texture and sheer abundance offers a visual delight that never fails to lift my heart, even on the harder days.

Although this has been a cooler and wetter year than normal, the world around me seems not to have noticed. Mornings are full of wild birdsong. The river chuckles and chortles its way to the ocean. Deer visit. Coyotes claim the night with their yips and  howls. Rabbits graze the lawn.

The wind is warm and gentle, so full of promise and hope, I long to be carried away in its arms.

After Mom's service last weekend, my youngest brother drove to our old home while the rest of us began the long trek back to our lives. He posted pictures on our family site, and I wasn't far into the slide show before I realized something was missing.

The place was sold to a large corporation whose plans for it never materialized. So it has sat for years just as it was left, a tiny ghost town consisting of house, garage, barns and overgrown trees. A caretaker lived in a trailer at the back of the property, but it was always possible to visit and step easily into childhood memory.

I drove out just two years ago—walked through the house, wandered outside a bit, and knew for the first time ever that I would never find the answers I was looking for there.

Still, it was a shock when I realized, looking at Geoff's pictures, that the house had been torn down. Nothing remains but a crumpled pile of aluminum roofing and flat ground. Something about the finality of the razed house drove home the finality of Mom's death, and the death of those remaining childhood hopes and illusions.

I watched picture after picture of bare ground surrounded by trees, a disorienting array of proof that our childhood home was really gone. In the background were the barns and old garage, all soft around the edges, slowly melting into the ground. Then, toward the end, there was a shot of yellow roses that seemed out of place with all that evidence of destruction.

Mom loved yellow roses, the wildly fragrant climbing kind, and Dad had planted these outside the milking parlor where she spent so much of her time. Here they were, untended and undaunted, growing into June against cold gray concrete, as they had every summer for decades. Hardy enough to withstand the cruel North Idaho winters. Hardy enough to thrive in the short summers. Hardy enough to survive from a beginning that might have preordained them to die without the care so many roses require.

My daughter is gone. My mother is gone. Someday, I will be gone. But until that time, I journey in a world that sings life at the top of its lungs. That shines light so bright the darkness has no chance to win. That reaches into my heart and releases love, gratitude and hope.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Sitting in the living room of my brother Geoff''s Seattle area home I noticed the copper box on the mantel. "Is that Mom?" I asked my sister-in-law. We were leaving early the next morning to take the ashes of both our parents to their final resting place very close to where we grew up in North Idaho.

"No, that's Dad," she said. He'd been stored away for the last twenty years because Mom wanted him close and then buried with her. I looked at my brother Mark, sitting next to me, then back at my SIL.

"Where's Mom?"

SIL turned ten shades of pale, shrieked, and went for the phone. Mom's ashes were at the funeral home and they'd forgotten to get them earlier in the day. By the time of our conversation, the place had been closed for over an hour.

It looked like we were going to have a burial service for Mom without Mom.

Mark and I looked at each other again, and had to look away because we were both on the edge of giggles. And it was at that point I knew I'd finally let go of my last lingering expectation for how the weekend needed to go.

In the previous days I'd found myself wondering if I was going to have to retract all I'd said about the legacy of love that was our mom's best gift to us. During the planning of her burial service, every lingering bit of family dysfunction popped to the surface as we struggled to communicate through our grief.  My hopes for the weekend of our saying goodbye to Mom were first tipped off-kilter, then turned on their head, and finally shattered completely.

I had struggled to accept the changes, to resist declaring big sister edicts, to hang on to my belief that none of us were really in control of how things turned out. Once I grasped that the fantasy weekend I'd created in my mind was more about my little girl need than anything else, and that I could take care of that in other ways, I began to let go and look forward to the surprises.

My ability to laugh at the possibility that Mom might not even be at her own burial told me I'd achieved the equanimity I was working so hard for.

Of course everything turned out better than any of us could have hoped for.

Ten people: Mom's four children, two daughters-in-law, two grandchildren, a favorite cousin, a friend. Each of us there because her life mattered to us, and because we loved her enough to drive the many miles and brave the blustery weather to gather and say goodbye.

Mark led the ceremony, and as he told stories about Mom's life that made us laugh and cry, I thought about what a gift he has for speaking. Frank, the older brother, had organized the tent and chairs and flowers in addition to making all the reservations for the weekend. He reserved a room for the dinner afterwards and created a game involving facts about Mom's life that had us talking about her and our growing-up for hours. Geoff had taken on all the responsibilities around Mom's care for her later years, including the end-of-life jobs of the last days.

And he managed to get someone to open the funeral home and give us Mom's ashes on Friday evening.

My role was small. I read a letter to Mom at the service. I asked tons of questions and shared information. I stood back, and looked for ways to help. I released my expectations, stepped out of safe roles, and kept my whole and best self as present as possible.

As we placed the ashes of our parents side by side in the small hole, and left them with two roses—one white, one red—there was a definite sense of completion. Mark had shared with me a vision he had of Mom walking away from her old body into the light—radiant, forever young, joyful. I walk forward now in a world without a mother. Missing, perhaps always, the lost possibilities, but free in ways I'm just beginning to realize. Backlit by the place of all Love where she is finally at rest, and walking in the company of my beloved brothers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Webs of Memory

As I sort through the box of old pictures and papers in preparation for Mom's burial service on Saturday, my history takes shape like glorious and intricate spiders' webs revealed in bright sunlight. New images surface. Pictures appear that I would swear were not there before.  Or I'll see something in a familiar picture that weaves an entirely new connection.

There are contradictions and confusions. A last name spelled three different ways. Two different wedding books with two different dates and locations for one marriage. Evidence that the stories heard in childhood might not have been completely true.

Mom's mom, always more legend than human, reveals little of herself, even after a thorough focused search through the box.

Velma LaJene Conley Cain Williams. Mom used to tell us she'd died when Mom was eighteen months old, of alcoholism. In the childhood stories my grandmother Velma was half Cherokee, the daughter of royalty, a princess. Mysterious. Wild. Romantic. She and my grandfather Mahlon had loved each other deeply and he was devastated by her death. I used to stand and stare at her picture, hoping beyond hope that I might grow up to be that beautiful. Wishing beyond reason that she had lived, certain she would have been the one person who truly understood and loved me.

There is no information about Velma's family. No way to know for certain about her Cherokee heritage. No explanation for the fact that her last name has a number of different spellings, or why she had a second last name before she was married to my grandfather. No explanation for the two different wedding dates. And of course everyone who might be able to answer those questions is gone.

The fact that Velma was twenty-two when she died really hit me for the first time this week. Married at seventeen, mother to Mark at eighteen, mother to Joyce at twenty, and gone less than two years later. Twenty-two is so young, and seems too young to me for alcohol to have been the primary cause of her death.

I also noticed that there are many pictures of Velma with her first-born, her son, and I only have one of her with Mom. It's a haunting picture—she had to have died not too long after it was taken. What stands out even more is the gleeful grin on my mother's baby face. A smile none of us ever saw from the adult version of her, and that isn't evident in any of the pictures taken as she grew into womanhood.

I wonder at the webs of memory Mom wove to create a mother for herself. She wouldn't have remembered much beyond what her body held from a year and half of whatever love and attention Velma gave her. Any stories were told by her dad's family: the grandparents who raised her and the aunt who big-sistered her. A family who felt their son had married beneath his station. A family who did not approve of his half Indian wife.  It seems likely her best pictures of her mom would have been woven of imagination and longing.

I hope a circle has been fulfilled with Mom's death—that she's somehow with the mother she needed so badly and learned to live without. That she's bathed in the maternal love she spent her life convincing herself she didn't need. And maybe even that the two of them are caring for my daughter until it's my time to join them all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Legacy of Love

The two men worked side by side in a state of perfectly synchronized concentration on the job before them.  Both in their fifties, their mirrored hairlines and mustaches marking them as brothers. I stood by as invisibly as possible, thrilled to be witness to their closeness and their ease with one another.

As we worked throughout the day setting up Mark's expanded antique space, I felt such gratitude for the relationships the four of us have forged in the last few years. Our older brother had been there helping the night before and would check in with us repeatedly throughout the day.

As adult siblings raised in a home where we rarely got beyond survival, the fact that we've grown so close is a blessing beyond belief. It's not always easy to find common ground, and our differences often create challenges that require a strong inclination to forgive. However, these three men, my younger brothers, are the people I love the most and feel the safest with (except for Walt). I know without doubt that they'd do anything for me, as I would for them.

Our mom died on Monday, two days after we set up Mark's space. She'd been in a nursing home for years, and just recently been placed in the care of Hospice. So her death wasn't unexpected, but neither were we prepared for it to be so soon.

In the hours after we were notified, I was amazed at the flurry of phone calls between us. Everyone talked to everyone else, and some of us talked a number of times. Through the physical shock of the first onset of grief I was aware and deeply grateful that we were reaching out to each other automatically.

As many of you know, I had a complicated relationship with my mom. One which I've spent most of my life reconciling, and one that I'd come to accept for what it was. I discovered in the last few years that I'd forgiven her to the point of loving her and feeling compassion for the difficult life she endured.

She was 79, and had been lost in the canyons of dementia for years. Before then she was reclusive, shy, and intensely private. Her childhood was a nightmare we only learned the barest bones about well after our own childhoods were distant memories. She was an equal partner in our dairy, kept books for other businesses, raised four children, and cared for her sick husband in his last months. She loved flowers and puzzles and little dogs. Giving gifts made her happier than just about anything else. She was a bad cook who still managed to create memorable meals that continue to speak comfort to us. She believed God would provide. She had beautiful hands, and when I was a girl I thought she looked just like a young Elizabeth Taylor.

There weren't many calls to make, and there won't be a public memorial service or a funeral. There aren't many people for whom her death holds any meaning at all.

Except for her four children. We are her legacy, and I hope that she can finally enjoy what she created and shaped. We are resilient, productive and resourceful. We are creative, amazing problem-solvers, and easily generous. By a number of different measures, we are successful and contributing members of society. And we love each other.

As we've spoken in the last couple of days, it's clear we're all grieving. And that may be the greatest part of her legacy. That somehow, in spite of enduring all her wounding words and coldness and mercurial  moods, we emerged as adults who love. Somehow, in spite of the crooked brokenness with which she loved us, each of us has found a way to encircle her with love. Somehow, the love she felt for her babies, and lost hold of along the way, was enough for us to remember - was the seed from which a stronger softer love could grow in each of us.

The first picture of Mom as a mother.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shooting Star

We arrived an hour early and discovered the parking lot to the high school was already full. By the time we parked at a church a block away and walked into the gym the chairs on the floor were full and the bleachers nearly packed. By the time the minister began speaking there wasn't an empty seat in the house.

I sat in the midst of those hundreds of people and wondered how it was possible for that much love and caring to miss the mark so completely when it might still have made a difference.

The 18 year old daughter of one of Walt's colleagues took her life on May 23. She was athletic, beautiful, and known to be a person who sought out ways to help others. Her radiant smile in the pictures of the slide show was its own form of sunshine beaming out into the darkened space. In many of the pictures she was surrounded by girls of equal grace and gorgeousness. She belonged and was treasured. She had a loving boyfriend whose speech at the service was heartbreaking. She was headed to college in the fall on a soccer scholarship. She was a hero, a role model and a young woman with everything to live for.

She also had an eating disorder, and deep wounds referred to but not identified as the minister worked to both celebrate her life and to help those sitting before him begin to mourn.

I thought I could see pain in her eyes in the most recent pictures, but wondered if I was projecting.

The minister called her a shooting star. Her time here so short, but every minute of it burning bright and leaving a trail of light that changed the lives of everyone she came into contact with.

Hers is the fifth suicide of a young person in our county in the last few months. It's the third in my life in the same amount of time. While I didn't know this young woman, I feel this loss as though it were my own. And maybe each death like this does belong to all of us just a little bit.

I find myself asking the same questions I asked when Kathleen's death was so fresh: How can a much loved person not feel that love? How is it possible for a person surrounded by people who love her, knowing everything about her, to still believe she's that alone? What makes one person able to walk through despair and another not? And where is God in all of this?

Still no answers. Only sadness.

At the end of the service, the minister asked the family to stay seated and just absorb the round of applause that was about to be offered to their daughter/sister/niece/cousin/granddaughter. In seconds every other person in the gym was standing, clapping, and focusing their love toward the front rows. It sounded like a heavy summer rain on a tin roof—cleansing, intense, enveloping.

The very last thing we saw as the service ended was the parents hugging. In itself not unusual except they've been divorced for years, and not amicably. Dad sat on one side of the aisle. Mom on the other. So even in her death, this shooting star managed to be a healing force.

And perhaps that's all we can do: Allow the pain of loss to soften our hearts. Enlarge our capacity to love in the soft soil of that new vulnerability. Seek ways to share the healing light born from that tender love.