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—the point at which something starts
Ninety-One Roses, one for each year of my mother’s life.
I became a thought in my mother’s heart a little over a year after the worst devastation to ever strike her life. Back then, in the 60s, we didn’t know the science behind the connection between the mother’s emotional state and the gestating child—i.e. trauma as a teratogen. This fact sets me apart from the rest of my 5 siblings, who also have different father than me. My father did not want me at first. Like a good + bitter ale I had to grow on my Baba, whose big life plans I ruined. Mama loved me from before my life formed, when I existed in that place where we keep things we wish to have and dare not dream of having. The truest love I ever did have, the only hooman to ever have wanted me every minute of every day of my life, even in my biggest asshole moments, died just two weeks shy of her 91st birthday from aspiration pneumonia1. My heart burns having to write these words and look at them: my mother died on May 11th, 2022.
The truest love each of us will ever know comes from our mother and if you did not know that love then you do not know love.
I never gave any thought to my mum’s death in any way, not even as a trained nurse who worked with the dying and pronounced death more than once and shrouded corpses and filled out the paperwork. I know physical death so intimately that I know the visage of a corpse does not quite capture the way a person looked when they were alive. In fact, I made a concerted effort not to think about those I love in the context of the work I did as a med-surg hospital nurse, in the dregs of caring for the sick and cancer-stricken and dying. Nursing care does not look like Chicago Hope or whatever Hollywood horsesh1t y’all watching. It is not that pretty and glamourous, it is ugly and drab and cold and humbling. Caring for the sick and dying can leave you feeling like a small + insignificant ant secretly carrying the weight of the death and untold pain of the world in your heart.
Once in a while I would test myself and think an existential thought about my parents dying and I would feel like vomiting and that thought would stop. It always felt like holding my breath trying to think of existence without my mother—a thought too heavy to sustain that I must terminate lest I drown in the enormity of that thought and what it means. I lived my life like this—cleaving to that original fear, hers perhaps and inadvertently so, that she and I would get separated. It hurts my heart in a way I cannot describe to think of my connection to her in this way—particularly to think of what she had to live with, in secret. In her death my understanding of her has exploded and this has felt very strange and wonderful and poignant. As Silvia Plath wrote once, gaudy as poppies—that describes how I feel about all the things I finally understand about Mum. That’s a slightly different phenomenon than grief and I wonder if we discern that well enough in the modern grief journey.
Often I feel overcome with emotion that I cannot describe when I think of her because that kind of love has no words, not even the great Rumi has a word for that beyond the indescribability of R-H-M. An early memory I have involves the frequent presence of my grown brother, the person who saved her life and helped her escape his own father, because she would trust no one else with me in my parents’ absence. She would only trust W to stand up to his own father. You sit there and think about that for as long as you need to. It’s several ways fcukd up. So much did she fear that her ex-husband would take me like he took their two youngest daughters, aged 9 and 5 when she had to flee for her life on that day in 1966 when his hands wrapped around her neck and tried to squeeze the life from her.2 She never stopped having nightmares about him, despite outliving him by over thirty years. It’s as though he lived on after his physical death in a way no one wanted.
Once in a while in our deep + lengthy conversations (we had many over the course of my life) Mama would pause, look at me, and say softly in her serious mama tone: after I’m gone remember I love you. I could not stand to sit in that rahma and acknowledge that one day I would be without her. I would instantly dismiss that as silly dramatics and pretend she would live forever. No one can love you better than a mother who never felt love from her own mother, how does that even work? In her book The Long Goodbye Meghan O’Rourke wrote about the weirdness of conceiving of the death of the membrane through which she entered this life. What does it mean when the place where my own life began has ended—shoved in a crematorium and reduced to a pile of ashes that can fit in an urn?
I don’t know what it means. Ashes to ashes. He gives and takes away. She didn’t belong to me, and yet I feel as though she did because I germinated inside her.
I only know that love created me, sculpted me, forged me and that it fuels me. Like the sun—my mother felt like the sun to me, a source of all love and R-H-M. And that’s why I marched into that funeral home on May 19th, 2022 and retired a resentment for my sisters that I had romanced for the better part of 4 decades, in order to honour the life my mother led. I cannot describe the thought process surrounding letting old the sibling rivalry go, because none happened. I didn’t think of it, it simply happened because that’s what mum would have wanted me to do. And I did it. My mother died, and in that instant none of that stupid sister-hating horsesh1t mattered anymore. It’s the oddest thing and has me the most surprised of anyone, I assure you.
In the years between my father’s death and the end of my mother’s life, I harboured a lot of rage toward my mother and everyone in the Winnipeg family actually. My father did not have the great end of life he deserved to have, given his level of devotion to the white people of my mother’s family. Also no one asked his only daughter what she would want for her father’s death because the French Catholics and their sycophants already knew far better than I what the brown man needed at the end of his life. Mama chose to take one last shot at belonging to a family that had long cast her out as the black sheep, and she used my dad as currency. It didn’t work, because those people who controlled his death had their own agenda and dad’s well-being wasn’t it. That still hurts when I think of it, I have to say no to getting into a contracted state of grief over a reality I cannot change no matter how many tears of rage I cry.
It all hurts a great deal. Like a partial thickness burn. And it’s all okay. Debridement takes time. Tunneling wounds take time to fill back up. Hard and unpleasant emotions do not mean bad. Emotions simply are the weather, I am the sky, as Pema Chodron says.
I feel as though mum is closer to me than my own jugular, it is the greatest comfort her death can bring, that she never left me. I belong to a very exclusive club of people who have heard her heartbeat from the inside. She never left us, she only transformed.
How a vulnerable person in care who relies on care staff for being fed gets aspiration pneumonia is baffling and enraging to me and a thing I do not feel prepared to address or discuss or think about now.
please don’t ask that question that is in your head—don’t write me or tweet or or talk to me about it—believe me we have all agonised over that (no one more than mama) and nothing good will come from asking why she left without them. that’s not my story to tell anyway.