A year ago I was in Salem and, for once, I wished I wasn’t.
I got the call that my mom’s street fight with cancer (we say “battle” a lot — but that’s too clean and dignified a word) was coming to an end. That was in mid-May. Three days later I was home, sitting in her hospital room at the foot of her bed. Family members paraded in and out of Salem hospital.
I arrived in town on a Wednesday. Mom breathed her last on a Saturday night. That was May 25th. A week passed, and we held her graveside service. That was June 1st. Another week passed, and I headed back for Texas with my life and world stripped of one of its central figures.
Not all moms are terrific. Some are abusive or selfish or distant. My mom was none of those. She was nurturing and unselfish and near. I never doubted her love or even her “like” of me. As a kid, she was a North Star, a wise sage, a worthy role model. As an adult, she remained all of those — and “friend” was added to the list.
A year later, her absence remains obvious. You don’t un-lose that kind of loss. Anyone who has said goodbye to a beloved family member knows this is true.
Shortly after mom died, I shared with my daughter that this was the kind of pain that was at my center. Whoever the core of my being was, that is where this pain would reside. It might shrink and expand at different times, but it will always be there. I can remember my mother saying the same things about missing her parents, and they’d been gone for decades. No, this is a hole that does not get filled. Not after a twenty years, much less one.
Still here I am, twelve months after I watched my dad tenderly mix mom’s ashes into the southern Missouri earth, and accompanying all the grief there is also gratitude and joy. That doesn’t go away, either. Sadness doesn’t cancel out all the beauty and truth my mother brought into the world.
I experienced it in the immediate wake of her death, as people who knew her and loved her told me so. They still tell me so, when I’m back in town and bump into someone at Walmart or wherever.
No, the missing and the emptiness cannot be undone by all the good memories, but the goodness and affection can’t be reversed by the grief, either. Both are true. They always will be.
I really believe there is more to life than that it ends in death, and I equally believe there is more to death than the life that precedes it. In life and in death, there is an intimate oneness that we experience with those with whom we are willing to be vulnerable and known and forever linked. Even after death parts us physically, that oneness remains.
It is why we grieve. It is why we laugh at memories. It is why we pick up the phone to send a text before we remember they’re not on the receiving end anymore. It is why the passage of time is almost arbitrary — changing nothing about our feelings, because time can’t do that. Not with people to whom we’re so enmeshed.
A year ago I was in Salem and, for once, I didn’t want to be.
No one wants to say goodbye like that. But when we do we can learn an important lesson. Death may part us physically, but it cannot part us completely. We aren’t “parts” to begin with. We are a whole.
A year later, a piece of me may be missing, but the love and memories and relationship is still whole. Death can cause great grief, but it doesn’t get to have all those things.
And like the pain, time can’t take that kind of unity away.