bethetree · Family · Grief · Life

Backward and Forward

Four years ago today, my mother died.

Today is pretty good. Yesterday was pretty bad.

Yesterday, I wanted to crawl under my desk, turn off the lights, and shut the door to my office. I didn’t. I had a Dairy Queen Blizzard for lunch instead. I got home and waved the babysitter away, and stretched out facedown on my bed.

“Are you crying, Mom?”

You can’t get anything past Elias. A single tear, the noiseless opening of a Dorito bag, nothing. I explained that I was feeling a little sad because the next day was the anniversary of when my mama died. He gave me a hug. Later, Levi asked me why I was sad it was going to be my anniversary. I explained, but if he tells you a story about me crying because I’ve been married so long, maybe take it with a grain of salt.

Today I went to the gym and sweated hard, came home and walked the boys through a rudimentary cooking lesson, and we all went and met my sister at the movies. And I was fine. Really fine, not fine like we say when we don’t want to talk about it anymore.

I don’t know why yesterday was worse than today. Grief is unpredictable. People are weird. Last year was not like this, and next year will be different yet.

There’s a picture of my mother at Niagara Falls, three years before I was born. Three of my siblings are with her (my oldest brother is not pictured), along with a foster daughter.

My parents had foster children. I know this is true, but they never did again after I was born (insert your own joke here), so it’s always been a little surreal to me. I don’t ever remember my mother without a little bit of gray in her hair, but in this picture, it’s nowhere to be seen.

There are so many things there I don’t recognize, and yet, there she is, her hand looking just the way I remember, tiny watch shoved up high on her wrist to be out of her way. I know the way she’s holding her purse up near her elbow, and the angle of her neck as she leans down to say something to one of the children.

Humans are unique among the animals in this: we can look backward, and we can look forward. We can be present, quiet, in the heavy air of a summer afternoon and sit with both our memories and our hopes.

Yesterday, a friend stopped by my office, and I told her I was a hot mess and why. She told me she too is anticipating an anniversary of loss this week, and we were quiet for a few moments, together with our separate griefs. Yesterday, I could only look back.

Today, I am looking both ways. I am grateful for the years that I had with my mother, even the difficult bits. I can sit and hold those memories and look forward at the same time. I can look around and see how my life has changed in four years. How my children have changed since their grandmother knew them. The way a few people have exited my life, but more have entered.

I went to a writer’s conference in April, and I met a woman named Kim. We had one of those odd instant connections that doesn’t make much sense, or need to. We’ve kept in touch, and one day she told me there was a picture of a tree that I needed.

Some time later, this arrived in the mail. It’s a tree in Texas hill country, standing alone in a field, a cousin to my tree across the road here in Ohio.

My mother would never have guessed that someday someone would send me a picture of a tree because it reminded her of me.

If you want it to be, that can be sad. She’s missing this. She missed both of my boys in the stage with both front teeth missing, and she never got to lie in the hammock on the porch, though she might have declined that last privilege.

Maybe it is sad. But I think it’s marvelous, too. Loss feels like the end of all things. Like nothing will ever be the same, and certainly never as good. But it’s not the end. It’s a waystation. There are things ahead we can’t begin to imagine. Four years from now, there will have been more surprises.

Because we are unique among the animals, we can look forward to that time with hope and anticipation. We can look back with love and gratitude. And if we are lucky, and practice hard, we may be able to do both those things at once.


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