Inside: We think life is all or nothing. Straight up happiness or abject misery. The truth falls somewhere messy in-between. Hope is the thing with feathers.
The day was bright and clear. I sat in my little living room, chair pulled up close to the big picture window shaded by the Mountain Ash tree, heavy laden with orange berries. The sun flitted and sparkled as it pushed its way through the branches, spilling wavy patterns over my lap and onto the wooden floor.
My mom sat across from me on the couch. She was dying. Except in that moment, we still believed there was a chance. I’d always struggled with anxiety but when my mom was diagnosed I felt like I started unraveling; the earth slipped on its axis and everything tilted just a little to the left. I stumbled along, unsure if I would ever regain sure footing.
I started having panic attacks around that time except I can’t recall exactly when they started. Was it before this visit or after? Not every detail is so clear anymore.
But there I was and it was sunny and the Bohemian Waxwings filled the tree just outside my window. My favorite bird. And for a moment I felt something stir within me. Hope maybe. Or the realization that the world was still beautiful after all. A flicker of happiness.
How strange to feel happy in that moment. Sacrilegious. But she was there with me, talking as we always had, and in that moment my cup was full. And as I already mentioned there were the sun and the birds and they felt like gifts, handpicked and wrapped up special for such a time as this.
Reminders that life is never all bad or all good.
It is a messy, unwieldy tangle of both, unwilling to be clipped and ordered like the shrubs that border the sidewalks where I walked, foggy with grief after she was gone.
In that little, imperfect house, on that otherwise ordinary day, I learned something that I needed. Not “needed” like one needs a new cute pair of summer sandals or maybe a set of dishes to replace those that are a little chipped but still entirely functional.
What I really mean was desperately needed to survive the aftermath. A glue that would patch me up just enough when I broke and was completely filled up with a nauseating fear; when I began binge eating again to try and numb the pain just for an hour or so in the middle of the night when the horrible dreams came steadily the second I drifted off. When I doubted life would ever be lovely again.
It was a quiet moment. We just sat there like old friends. Safe and comfortable in each other’s presence. We liked each other so it was easy in a way that it has never been easy since she left. But I knew that something significant had just taken place. A slight shift. A knowing that could never be unknown.
The tiniest tendril of something had sprouted within me. An awakening. A whisper that I did not exactly understand but somehow caught the gist of. Like when you’re learning a new language and you begin to absorb some of its cadence and character; you can’t explain how you know, just that you know something to be true.
Joy and pain can coexist.
Beauty and suffering are old friends; they hang out together all the time.
It is possible to feel happiness as someone you love is dying.
It was just a taste. A furtive glance. A quick peek. Just enough to wet my lips and remind me there was more where that came from.
The Waxwings brought it to me. They pretended they were only there to eat the berries. But I saw it – the stroke of vibrant yellow brushed boldly along the tips of their otherwise somber tails. The tiny pop of bright red splashed onto their wings like a creative afterthought. Hope. Hope is the thing with feathers.
And then, of course, they were gone. And so was she.
And I remember the day, not that long before she left that she called me on the phone and told me all was well with her soul.
All was well with her soul.
I hid in the bathroom, in the shower with the water loud to muffle my sound so my young children would not be frightened. And I wailed. The angry torrent of sound that poured out of my body was unlike any I had ever heard; I didn’t know at first it came from me.
I knew she was leaving then, even though she said she didn’t know what it meant.
Only that all was well with her soul.
How could it be? She was leaving behind her babies and the man who had loved her since they were teens and he drove the milk truck and they flirted with each other and there was the promise of a happier tomorrow. And nobody had asked her if she wanted to die.
But we think life is all or nothing. Darkness and light. Straight up happiness or abject misery. And the truth falls somewhere messy in-between.
Joy and pain.
Beauty and suffering.
A simple, ordinary day brimming with love and friendship.
Death is not the end.
Given the choice, she would surely have chosen one more messy, ordinary, scruffy day just to be with her children. She wouldn’t have cared that the floors needing mopping and money was tight and the boys were roughhousing in the living room. She wouldn’t have mourned an imperfect body, a mismatched home or withheld forgiveness from someone she loved. She would remember that perfection was not required.
It took years for me to regain my footing after she left. Slowly but surely, one foot in front of the other. The terrorizing dreams finally relented. I broke out into tears a little less frequently. I practiced looking for hope.
Today, I sit on a different couch looking out a different living room window overlooking a different tree. The ornamental apple tree out front, with its rough flaky bark and wine-colored miniature apples, has offered me great comfort over the years.
The waxwings come still, here and there, and varied flocks of other birds visit me too. Singing their familiar tune. They clean up my tree, chattering, squabbling, going about their ordinary lives; pretending they don’t see me. But even though my windows need a good wash I see more clearly now.
I see hope. It is the thing with feathers.
NOW WHAT? In the years since my mama left, I’ve also had to say goodbye to and learn to live without many more people I love including my dad and my son who left this world October 23/19 at just 23 years old. I started the FB page Holding Your Breath as a place to connect on grief, mental illness and mental health, self-compassion, and finding our way forward – gently, after losing a child.