Five years ago this evening, my mother died unexpectedly. I got one of the phone calls that you never want to get, and joined what my sister now calls “the club that nobody wants to be in.” At the time, I wrote a bunch of blog posts about it. That turns out to have been a good thing. Those memories aren’t really available to me except by reference. I remember the images. I remember the flow of events, but those crisp recollections have faded. I’ve told the stories enough times that those stories have become the memories. If, over time, I’ve changed the stories, I suspect that I have also adjusted the memories to fit them.
This sort of thing happens to me a lot. When I pay attention, I can see myself constructing and adjusting memories around photographs or stories that we share year over year. It’s funny to feel my experience of reality deforming around my perceptions and expectations. It’s not a deliberate thing. It’s merely how the mind works. We create little trails through our consciousness. The trails where you run your mind most frequently are the ones where it’s easiest to walk. It’s a self reinforcing pattern. What we see when we look at the world, unless we are incredibly careful, is mostly what we expected to see. Without massive effort, you’ll probably believe tomorrow what you happened to believe today.
A subtle and similar thing has happened with memories of my mom. For the first few years there was a palpable and personal ache there. A feeling of her being a person, a person who was missing from every occasion. Like when a dinner date stands you up and you eat alone. Today, while I certainly wish that I could share this year’s stories with her – bemoan Kid Rock and Eminem’s fade into soft, fuzzy hipsterism – I feel like the “person” space she occupied in my consciousness has been freed up. I’m not lonely for her anymore, really. That makes me sad and happy at the same time. I have good memories, but it’s like a story hasn’t been told in too long, rather than an empty seat at the table. Like seeing weeds growing over one of my favorite walking trails, rather than missing the person with whom I used to walk them.
I guess that means that the grieving has wrapped up. It also feels like she’s really “gone” at some slightly deeper level than merely never getting to have a new conversation with her again.
I was talking with a friend this week whose mother will almost certainly die soon. By talking I mean that for once in my ever talkative existence I tried to shut up for a bit and listen to him. Something I learned five years ago is that merely being present is the best thing you can do for a friend experiencing that kind of loss. Simply showing up is everything. It’s hard to see a friend who is going to hurt, in ways he doesn’t yet understand, and to try to merely tell him that you know – without wasting his time.
These feelings don’t fit into words, per se. You can see that someone else has or has not experienced them – and with time you realize that’s neither good nor bad. It’s just dumb luck whether you’re the live or the dead one. Whether you get to say goodbye over weeks and months or get the horrible phone call – it’s just a roll of the dice.
I’m glad that the last thing my mother and I talked about was how much we liked each other. Her death was a sudden and massive blow to my personality, one that changed me permanently. Most of my beliefs remained intact. Some shattered like so much sheet ice hitting a stone floor. I’m glad that we hadn’t ended on some stupid beef about something trivial. I’m glad that I don’t have to regret it when I think of the last time we talked.
So on this, my personal little holiday: If you’re reading these words – reach out to someone you love. Tell them you care. If you have a stupid spat going on? Cut the other person some slack. Walk away from that fight.
Over the long term? If you’re lucky enough to get to see five years from now? You’ll thank yourself.