WASHINGTON – One of the worst parts of grief is thinking, at a random moment, “I should give Mom a call,” before reality crashes back in. A great loss is many losses, as the mind adjusts to living in a different universe.
These are the aftershocks that still come five months after my mother Betty’s sudden death. The experience of an adult losing a parent is predictable, nearly universal, but still painful as hell. Getting hit by a truck, it turns out, doesn’t hurt any less because you can see it coming from afar.
I write this on my Mom’s birthday, so maybe I can be excused a little sentiment. She possessed a vitality that forbids morbidity. Escaping from a dirt-poor, Kentucky tobacco farm as soon as legs could carry her, she was a bit of a rebel. Her own mother, a strict Nazarene, had never once cut her hair or used makeup. My mother won the Miss Tristate beauty pageant. She married into a loud, vividly ethnic family from New York, but always managed to hold her own. She was an artist – a painter – in a conservative religious community where creativity was considered suspicious. She was kind but restless – often in revolt against conventionality in favor of authenticity and the life of the mind.
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At the visitation, her paintings surrounded the casket, making her strangely present, as if her personality had been poured into paint. Afterward, I could not bring myself to enter my mother’s apartment to help clean up – unable to see her life sorted, culled and packed into a few boxes.
With the death of a young person, we are conscious of what will never be. When an older person dies, they take a whole world with them. Millions of experiences end in an instant. Voices that won’t be heard again. Sights that die with the dead. A little girl’s memories of hot, cricket-loud evenings, of playing with dolls made out of rocks, of plugging her ears while the pigs (which she had named) were slaughtered.
My son, also a painter, did a portrait of my mother after her passing, taken from an old picture. She is perhaps 13, wearing a polka-dotted Sunday dress. But the painting presents her only from the neck down. The face we will never see again in this life.
It is funny what you remember from childhood. One of my first memories is slipping my mother’s hand at a grocery store and finding myself alone and terrified in a crowd. Retaking her hand was my first definition of safety, of home. I realize this is not every child’s experience of a parent. It is hard for me to imagine the feelings of betrayal that result from abandonment or abuse. But my mother loved with an irrational extravagance – a love that covered all past error and contained all future forgiveness. As Wendell Berry said of his mother: “So complete has your forgiveness been/ I wonder sometimes if it did not/ precede my wrong, and I erred,/ safe found, within your love.”
My Mom was a Christian. She was not afraid of death, though she resented old age. She believed that the dust would be re-gathered, that the knot would be retied. And I believe the same. But if I’m honest, the comforts of religion mainly touch the surface. The connection of child to parent is deeper than conviction or memory, formed even before the establishment of a self. Beneath even the strongest faith, the loss of a mother or father leaves a pit, a void. Whether religion is true or not, at this point, Lazarus remains in the grave. The woman who took my hand is in the cold ground. And, in one deep, unrecoverable way, I am alone.
Well, maybe that is morbid. And incomplete. I am blessed with many kinds of love in my life. But losing its original form is not a minor thing. It makes the universe feel colder.
And it brings to mind the experience my boys will inevitably have. I apologize in advance that there will be so many boxes of books to deal with. But I hope you will know how much your awkward, reticent father loved you – lavishly, totally, more strongly than anything you could do to forfeit it. And if I succeed in making this clear, it is because my mother showed me how love could be done.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.