Something Lost, Something Found

My mother died six years ago today, on the eve of Earth Day. She’s been gone a few weeks longer than the time I spent with her. In the interim, we’ve experienced a pandemic, a horrific presidency (and the terrifying threat of a repeat), a world and a country increasingly in chaos and crisis. And the sun keeps rising and the trillium faithfully blooms every spring. Time marches on, through beauty and ugliness, even in the absence of those who once filled our lives.

I won’t say I miss her everyday, that would be rewriting the truth, false sentimentality. Frankly, some days those six years felt like an eternity. But there is an empty space in the biosphere and in my heart she used to fill, and now those years with her feel like a flash. I walk into the kitchen and sometimes see her standing at the counter, back to me, legs widespread for stability, trying—sightless—to measure her oatmeal. The mirage is gone as quickly as it came. At a book talk, recently, someone asked if, in hindsight, I would spend those years with her if I could make the decision to do so again. “Yes,” I said, without hesitation. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And the best.”

She loved the trillium in the woods by our home. In the spring, I would try to get her onto the trail to look for them. She couldn’t see them, but she would point with her cane to the spots they would be when they arrived. She knew where they were by heart, as I used to say of a memorized piece on the piano; a kind of muscle memory. When she could no longer walk on the uneven ground, she started asking me in February if the trillium were up yet. She remembered where they were, but not when they bloom! 

Next month, the bright white trillium will turn pink then purple, then decay to the ground. Over winter the plant will work underground to reproduce for next spring. Meanwhile, the leaf buds in the forest are bursting out to replace that which departs.

Another spring phenomenon is the disappearance of the cotton candy/opal sunrises from my house (my friends have great descriptors), as the upper atmosphere warms. I miss them, but the tradeoff is earlier sun and warmth. Eventually, I can have coffee on the deck with the singing birds, rather than in the study with the electric fireplace.

Yet a further loss when spring arrives is the end of boot season. I love my boots, and I’m sad every year to put them away. But with the change of season came a month-long concentration on feet and ankles in yoga, which is my favorite. Elizabeth says our feet and ankles work hard for us. During boot season, we keep them encased and they don’t get much wiggle room. It’s time to set them free, and get them back in shape. So we’re twirling our ankles, massaging and stretching our feet, spreading our toes. I’m feeling the call of the trail.

Between hikes, I’m rebuilding my garden in the meadow. I built a gate for the fence my brother-in-law is helping me build. I’m pretty pleased with my (almost) 72-year-old self, both that I didn’t give up on the garden (yet) and for saying “I can” to the gate. You can read about the gate build on my blog (here). While I am pretty successful at living in the moment, and not looking too far ahead, I appreciate these days and months and—for now—years more fully, knowing that different times are just a few switchbacks in the trail away. And I will learn—hopefully—to accept different abilities.

My friend, writer Christina Baldwin, says the journey of elderhood is to refocus on what remains, while acknowledging what is lost. It’s a good goal, I think, in both nature’s seasons and the seasons of aging. Spring is both full and somehow, for me, a void. I grumble about the outdoor work that needs to be done, and rejoice in the fact that hiking season is here—at least where the snow pack is melted. I love the warm air and the emerging flowers, and miss the cozy fire in the fireplace. I rejoice in rediscovering my strength and my mojo, and want to stay in my father’s recliner under my lap robe. I miss my mother, and I’m glad to be free. I’m especially glad she is free.

What remains are new adventures. Some may be challenging, and we will find our way. I won’t say my mother accepted her losses with grace, or even that she always appreciated what she still could do, but she always found her way. 

 

How is your spring is shaping up? What’s on your mind? What has been lost, what has been gained? Leave a comment below.

🌿

“The world doesn’t need our despair—
it needs our love, kindness, and hope.”

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Sharyn

I had been caring for my mother with help from home hospice. She died March 31 on Easter Sunday. This week both of my cats were killed by coyotes. My mother’s house, where I live, will be sold by a hostile sibling. I am sorting through 64 years of Mom’s possessions. Endings. Beginnings.

Lynet Uttal

Your words touch me again, helping me to accept the first death anniversary of my own mother’s death. Her death anniversary was April 15. She was 92 and in perfect mind and health til she fell down and hit her head. She was just starting to be slow in her responses. The first six months after her death were protected in some kind of Novocaine but the last six months have been harder. 
In Jewish tradition the one year anniversary is the day to start celebrating that my mother existed instead of continuing to mourn that she stopped existing as a human.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush I am the swift uplifting rush Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die. “
 by Mary Elizabeth Frye
“There are many stories for what happens after you die. You become light or become the dead light of stars or you swim the river in the sky or you become the soil in the earth. Angels and demons and ghosts. Anything is a story we tell ourselves about a silence. But stories are for telling after the fact. And the one true fact about the afterlife is that nothing comes from there. Everything goes there. There will be so much you still do not know when you leave about how you got here.” 
By Tommy Orange, in “Wandering Stars” 
Four grandchildren under three years old, including the latest one given her name as their middle name, are evidence that she existed. Their faces frequently reflect hers and remind me to go forward. 
Thank you for your words about how you are feeling about loss!! Just seeing your name soothes me!

Deb

Gretchen, as always your words have touched me. It seems as though I feel your words as opposed to simply reading them. In less than one week I will reach the one year mark since my husband who had Alzheimer’s died. That dementia journey took his life and at the same time it profoundly changed me; I am still trying figure out who I am these days. My hope is that as I unfold and bloom for my own final chapter of life that I am emerging a better person. Thank you for continuing to share your experiences.

Nancy friedland

What a stunningly beautifully written piece Gretchen. Send this to a publication. It’s built beautifully, and not a word is wasted.
I love acknowledging the losses as you appreciate the gains. This is a tremendous thought that I will be thinking about for a while, and you illustrate it perfectly.
You can call yourself 71 for a little while longer. 🙂

Judy

Gretchen, Beautiful writing, as always. Makes me reflect and appreciate all the good and beauty there is around us. Thank you!

Shelley Waia’u

Enjoyed reading your thoughtful words Gretchen. Imagining your mom pointing out where her beloved blooms should be in those beautiful woods.
Felt a bit jealous that Maui…at least where I live, doesn’t have a real boot season. Determined though, that the next rainy season will see me in boots at least occasionally;)
Moving those amazing aging ankles and toes right a long with you every day so I can stay in the routines of life.
Would love to take a walk down that path someday and soak in some Seminary Hill beauty ❤️
Aloha to you Gretchen 😎

Bonnie Rae

I heard two things this week that have been enormously helpful. Maybe you will find them meaningful too. First: “We learn as much from our mistakes and disappointments as we do from our accomplishments”. And the second thing (I am adopting as a daily practice): “Learn to appreciate every moment, both good and uncomfortable, as if you’ve invited them” (both compliments of Pema Chödrön). Life becomes vast and wide when we open up to it. Glad you took a walk on the hill. Her spirit there is so alive 💕