Today, Mother’s Day, let’s look at some issues of living and dying Several journalists wrote eloquently in today’s papers about missing their mothers who have died. They bring home the importance of living and loving to the fullest, each and every day.
Frank Bruni wrote “Muddling Through Mother’s Day” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times. His mother died at the age of 61 in 1996, when he was still in his 30s. He’s now 47 and people make comments that assume his mother is still alive. Here are a few pithy paragraphs:
Mother’s Day, I quickly learned, was the feast of the assumptions. I say that without any rancor, but with some bafflement: in a world of so many broken and untraditional families and of so much heartache, why should there be a bouquet-primed mother in the picture? There’s no point to guessing as much.
IF I never knew exactly what to say to the people who guessed, I was even less sure how to mark the day, when I’d always had a meal with Mom if logistically possible, talked with her if not. Usually I just moped. And it’s wrong, the notion that feeling sorry for yourself is counterproductive. Sometimes it’s just the ticket.
But on this Mother’s Day, I’ll trade moping for a testimonial: I was — I am — one of the four luckiest children I know, my siblings being the other three. We had a mother who held us in esteem and held us to account; told us we were magnificent and told us we were miserable; exhorted us to please her but found ways to forgive us when, all too frequently, we didn’t; and made certain that we knew she was there for us until, unimaginably, she wasn’t.
Also in today’s New York Times is “Reading Together, Knowing the Ending” by Will Schwalbe. As his mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, he’d often go with her to chemo treatments and they would discuss books they were reading. They became a book group of two people.
Some great life lessons he offers in the opinion essay:
The book that got our club started, Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety,” prompted one of our most important discussions. When Mom said that she was pretty sure that the husband of a character who was dying of cancer would be O.K. after her death, she wasn’t just talking about that character’s husband — she was, I suspected, talking about my dad as well.
I privately dubbed our club “The End of Your Life Book Club,” not to remind myself that Mom was dying, but so I would remember that we all are — that you never know what book or conversation will be your last.
My sister and brother also took turns accompanying Mom to her various medical appointments and treatments. We all learned a huge amount from our mother. Some of the lessons I’ll be thinking about today are these: make your bed every day, even if you don’t feel like it; keep spare gifts in a “present drawer” so you’ll always have something on hand; write thank you notes within hours of receiving gifts; use shelf liner.
But this Mother’s Day, I’ll be thinking mostly of this: We all have a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. But reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her — and when I pass them on or recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her the person she was goes with them.
Which leads me to a suggestion: If you’re tempted to get a book for your mother today, why not buy or borrow a copy for yourself at the same time? That way, you can share the experience of reading it together. For me, there was no greater gift.
And in The Washington Post Magazine, Daniele Seiss wrote a lovely essay titled “A mother’s dying request sends a daughter on an endless search.” Her mother died in 2002 of a rare cancer that had been diagnosed in 2000.
The mother asked her daughter to spread her cremated remains around a large boulder in rural southern Virginia that held special significance. Her mother would go there to contemplate, to meditate, to be alone and commune with the natural surroundings. While she tried hard to remember every detail of the description, she has yet to find with certitude this specific rock.
A few paragraphs from her story:
In her morphine-drip haze, my mother had penciled me a map to the rock. But in the chaos that surrounded her death, the map had disappeared. In our numbness, my brother and I searched for it, to no avail. I didn’t panic. I was secure, perhaps overly so, in my sense of direction. And my brother had the photo she had taken of the rock. Armed with that and a loose memory of the area, I felt certain I would find it.
A few days before the summer solstice — the anniversary of her death — my husband and I set out. I asked my brother if he wanted to join us, but the difficulties of Mum’s passing had proved too much for him. And I believed it was my responsibility, since my mother had asked me. We did some planning, having learned from the Park Service that spreading ashes is allowed in many national parks, some of which don’t even bother with the formality of issuing permits.
We headed down the long and curvy mountain roads of southern Virginia through old-growth forest and rustic farms, winding round mountainside pastures full of grazing cows and sheep. We talked little. Instead, I thought about my mother’s choice to be cremated. It made sense to me then, considering the practical person she was, not to mention her disdain for organized religion. I found a certain solace in a ceremony that emphasized our impermanence. But after her death, I also longed for a lasting memorial. Since she was reduced to ashes, I needed the permanence of her sacred rock.
As the afternoon sun faded, Curt and I found a quiet little campground near what we believed to be the right area, and set up camp. It was cool here for the time of year, and we stocked the wood pile for our evening fire. We were reminded just how isolating the mountains can be.
The next day, we set out early. But narrowing down the places to look proved tricky. Mum had said her rock was easy to get to from the road. We looked around every pull-off or place to park. When we didn’t find it, we broadened our search to all of the nearby roads and their pull-offs. We soon discovered there are many rocks of that shape and size in the area. I was disheartened, and by day’s end, we contemplated spreading her ashes in the general vicinity. But that didn’t feel right. Mum had been a perfectionist. She deserved better.
We decided to try again, but the next year proved as fruitless as the first. We broadened our search area and reached deeper off the beaten paths into the forest. After a long day of searching, all of the rocks resembled the one in the photo, but none was the right one. Ultimately, I began to look at the missing rock as her gift to us, pulling us there every year, promising us some time away from the summer heat to the cool and quiet of the mountains. The search itself became her memorial.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there. If yours is still here in the land of the living, give her a special hug and kiss. Appreciate every day with Mom.