Today is the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. My time away on retreat the last few days was a time of ritual and remembering. I will post more about the retreat itself in the next couple of days. Thank you for all of your beautiful blessings in comments and emails.
Last night after I returned home we went to a friend’s house for Sukkot. It is a 7-day festival that comes after the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and during it, celebrants build sukkahs or tents and live in them as a remembrance of the Israelites time of wandering. As my rabbi friend reflected, it is a time to remember that life is fragile and we are vulnerable, that everything is temporary.
Coming on the eve of such an anniversary for me, the meaning was amplified in my heart. The invitation to be present to life’s brief and precious nature feels especially profound. The memories of being present to my mother in those final days of her life and in the transition to her death continue to be the most visceral and profound memories I have.
With my father’s death twelve years ago and the loss of my beloved companion Duke just over two years ago, I am familiar with the landscape of loss. I know life’s fragility in an intimate way. I know the terrible ache of grief when I have wondered how I can even manage to keep my lungs filled with air.
None of us is spared this experience. We may have to face it in a variety of ways — the loss of a job, a home, a dream, a beloved one or many. Each can tear our hearts wide open if we let it. And each of us can shut out the pain in the hopes that it will make life easier to bear. I have chosen to welcome in the sadness again and again.
Yet life is filled with paradox. In a world filled with losses and ending, there is also unspeakable beauty. For the many hours I have spent with my heart rended, I have spent as many hours in awe of a landscape, of a small kindness, of love. To the degree I welcome in grief is also the degree to which I am capable of welcoming in joy. Life is unbelievably fragile and fleeting and it is made of a substance solid like steel or stone, enduring in ways we had not imagined.
My mother was a radiant woman. She discovered her power in the last few years of her life and it continues to fill me with sorrow that I did not have more time to witness this gift, to bask in her ability to speak truth without apology. I was blessed to know her radiance at the time and to be grateful each day for what she would teach me. If I become truly her daughter, then I will have lived well.
This morning I awoke to discover fog laying close to the earth and so on this anniversary, I headed to the cemetery. It is not where my mother is buried, that is three thousand miles away, but that does not matter. I love fog because it speaks to me of the mystery of God, of how we have only a limited vision of that expansive love and goodness. I adore graveyards because in being surrounded by those stones lovingly erected by families in grief, I feel connected to a community that has loved deeply and I am linked to that other world in tangible ways. I experience the “thin place” of which the Celts speak and who say this time of year we are approaching is when the veil becomes especially thin between heaven and earth.
She is as close as my own breath, she beats in my blood. I see my ancestors dancing with abandon in circles around me, calling me to remember what does endure across the tapestry of time — stories of exile and stories of arriving home again.
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts
(top photo is of my mother at 2 years old, other photos taken at the Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle this morning)