This week is always a difficult week. I do not think it will ever get easier as the years go by. I have come to accept that.
You would think it would, because eventually it should get to the point where I’m like, “Oh, hey, see … mom would probably be dead by now anyway, because this is the year she would have turned 100.”
Not this year. This year, she would have turned 72. Still young. Young enough to be with us.
She always feels alive in my heart, just a step away. She died too young, and as a result, her life will always feel … incomplete.
She didn’t get to see her grandchildren grow from wee lil’ babies into the amazing teenagers they’re turning into. She didn’t get to see my sister go on a mission. She didn’t see me graduate college, or finally learn how to sew a straight seam, or how to can my own jam and bake my own bread. She didn’t meet the rest of her grandchildren. She didn’t watch my older brother’s career develop, or watch my other brother buy a house to raise a family in just a few blocks away from the house he grew up in.
I will go to her grave two days from now, on the anniversary of her deathday, and sweep the dust out of the cracks of her name.
I hate going to the grave. Nothing of her spirit, of the essence that made her her is there. There is none of her laughter or personality or wicked sense of humor. Nothing of her kindness or generosity of spirit or compassion. Nothing of the struggles she endured with bipolar or her bravery in overcoming for so long. Nothing of her talents at calligraphy and tole painting, nothing of her ridiculously over-the-top love of Christmas. Nothing of her devotion to her faith, nothing of her tears and heartache, nothing of her flaws, nothing of her.
I miss her so. much. She was my mother and she wasn’t always a perfect human being, but she was the perfect mother for me, and I miss her.
These days, twelve years past, it’s mostly it’s fine. Most of the year, I transmute the grief into positivity. I met this chick recently who was all, “You’re an atheist? How do you handle life after death?”
And I was all, “Well, I don’t,” and kinda laughed, because people get weird and intrusive about my grief.
But she got very serious and started talking about how when people had to deal with grief and end of life counseling (she’s a nurse or something), they need something to believe in.
So, first off, Greta Christina has a great piece on Alternet that addresses why the assumption that no belief in an afterlife renders this life devoid of meaning. But second, just because I don’t believe in a traditional (or nontraditional but still afterlife-oriented) afterlife doesn’t mean I don’t have a set of beliefs that help me deal with death.
For the body, I believe that it decomposes/ composts according to the laws of nature. Eventually, over the passage of years/ centuries/ eons it turns into soil/ stardust/ whathaveyou. For the “spirit” or, I guess, essence of the person — whatever neurons firing that make me “me” … well, I personally believe that when the lights go out and the neurons stop firing, that’s it. There is no more spirit or soul. We’re all just, for lack of a better term, organic robots.
However, I also think that we house our “souls” (sorry for such religious terminology, but our language has been shaped/ crippled by centuries upon centuries of societal stranglehold by religious institutions, and the shorthand “soul” is easily understood for the purpose of this discussion) in our art and culture, and our relationships and society, and our treatment of one another. So although the organic matter dies, our soul lives on in the memory of us that remains by those who survive us.
Consider Anne Frank — an ordinary girl, whose “soul” has been kept alight and shared through the stories and memories passed on about her. In this case, those stories and memories were recorded by her own hand. That’s not always the case — sometimes the stories and memories are shared orally, and passed down as old wives tales or parables or family history/ legend. Sometimes they’re rediscovered journals. Not all memories live on in big splashes: A lot of the memories that we carry and share are precious only to us and our families.
Probably not many people outside of my family line care about my great-great grandfather, who emigrated from Norway as a child after his parents converted to Mormonism. One of his siblings died in the crossing. A few of my relatives and I care, though, and one of my ancestors cared enough to interview my great great grandfather and write a biography of the man, which was self-published and is available to his descendants. I have a copy in my possession.
In this way, my great-grandfather continues to live on, his soul and personality still alive as his wisdom and experiences and sense of humor are shared and repeated and brought back to life from the pages of history to the lips of those living and breathing today.
That, to me, is the afterlife. That is the soul. And that is why I talk about my mom a lot. Because every time I share a memory of my mom, I am keeping the flame of her wonderful, compassionate, wry, clever, sarcastic, loving spirit alive.
I share her stories and wisdom with ease and candor, and take joy in reliving the happy memories of being raised by her. In the 12 years since her death, the sharp sting of loss has eased through most of the year, and it’s mostly a sense of nostalgia instead of painful grief.
But just now … right around the anniversary of her birthday and deathday … all I feel is weary and very sad. The grief is just as impossible and immediate as the first year.
Actually, I guess the second year.
The first year I was numb with disbelief and unable to cry. It was the second year things started getting emotionally devastating the week of.