Mother Heart

I am not a religious person.

I don’t got to church or temple or mosque. I don’t pray or bend a knee to Goddess or God. But after nearly fourteen years of motherhood I have come to believe in something, something fierce and  powerful and universal. Something outside of me, completely out of my control. Maybe it is Mary, or Hera, or Gaia. I don’t know the answer to those kind of questions. I only know that I’ve felt it. I’ve been wrapped up in it, been at one with it, some Jedi force of motherhood–birthed of something primal and fierce.

It would be poetic to say this connection to some universal mother’s heart is born of having had the lullaby of another’s heartbeat tied to your own for nine months, but I don’t think that’s true. There are mothers who did not physically bear or carry their children who know exactly what I’m talking about, and of course there are fathers, whose hearts rend and tear and rip as sure as any mother’s.

Yet there is something uniquely feminine and mysterious about the moon and the Earth and birth and the way it is all knotted together in this unknowable universe. There is something uniquely feminine in this great, universal beat of motherhood.

Maybe the drum beat thrum is tied to the planet or to the tides, like the blood that flows each month or the way that waves lap and play upon the shore. Maybe the gargantuan beat is held in place by the gravity of our own selves, hanging as pregnant as a full moon, ripe and heavy. It doesn’t matter. Through everything, it beats steady and strong.

Through mist or magic, or maybe even just the mundane, when you love a child, your own heart joins the chorus, picking up the tempo.

And so you go, until another mother’s heart suffers the unimaginable. When that happens, that central heart which sets our beat slows in mourning. It grows heavy.

Today I learned the son of an old playground friend had died. It was the kind of news where you do a double take, a triple, when you are sure you have misread or misunderstood. Because of course it makes no sense, no sense at all to lose a child, a child who was not ill or sick, a child who you’d only seen smiling and happy.

In what order of the universe is that ever acceptable?

And for the briefest of seconds you imagine the unimaginable–and in that split second of time, you can feel the splinter of another mother’s heart, in tandem with her grief, in solidarity with her loss. As my friend mourns her son, the heart of every other mother she knows weighs a little bit heavier, and the hearts of all the mothers those mothers know. And so on, and so on.

Perhaps that is why women keen and wail as they bury their dead. A dirge, not only for the dying, but for the living as well, a mourning song to lose yourself in, or to hide within while you put the pieces of your heart back together. Or a message, coded in grief: our hearts are breaking with you. Let us take the weight and bear it, even for just the space between a heartbeat or two.

A collective bleeding, a collective beating. That collective is why so many women, so many mothers, are affected so strongly by the pain and suffering of any child, their own, but the children of others they know and love, the children of strangers, who are in pain, the children of faraway countries who hurt. Because somehow, even though we didn’t bring those children to the breast, didn’t swaddle them against our heart, didn’t love them with the same ferocity and tiger’s growl of their parents–we feel it, because we have all imagined it. We have all had nightmares, shuttered our minds against the unimaginable.

When the unthinkable happens to someone we know, to a child we know, we are forced to confront it.

Let the Mother heart take over, my friend. Let the collective beat of all those motherhood hearts carry you through while you pause, while you put yours back together.

Let us provide cover for you while you need it.

I’m not religious. I don’t got to church or temple. I do not pray, not to any recognized Goddess or God. But I bow down to that great beating heart of humanity, of motherhood.

I know there are those of you who do. And if you do, please spare a thought, a moment, a prayer or a word for a family who is grieving. Who is suffering the unimaginable.

 

For Deb

 

 

 

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Both Sides Now

Death and LifeYesterday, as competitors in the Ironman Challenge raced past our apartment, pushing their bodies to the limit of endurance, I was slowly cycling toward an afternoon meant to celebrate the life of a woman who endured in a different way, who pushed her body to a different limit.

I knew about her long before we met. When she first got sick, she was the center of a buzz of activity: meals were cooked and delivered, the dog walked, company provided, magazines collected. I’ve seen this hive at work before, women swooping in and taking a slice of another woman’s burden as her own. It amazes me every time, and makes me grateful to be a part of this womanhood.

Over time, as her illness ebbed and flowed I met her in person, but it was through these pages she got to know me, and I her. Somehow these words and sentences reached out and connected us in the way that stories have been connecting humans since the beginning of time. Our shared experiences became the thread that tied us together. The knots were newer and looser than the ones which connected her to others, but no matter. Once tied, you’re forever knotted into the fabric of a life, no matter how loosely.

Recently her body reached its limit. All those binds and ties and knots were teased apart and released, but not before they came together one final time to weave a rich and colorful tapestry. Yesterday was meant to be a celebration of that tapestry–of that life–and I was honored to be included.

Yet as her husband talked to us about her wishes after death, I felt sightly fraudulent. Surely all of these people knew her so much better than I had, surely they were more deserving of this celebration. He continued, shifting between Danish and English, and I caught the song playing in the background.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow
it’s cloud illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all.

It’s impossible for me to associate Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now with anything other than the moment Emma Thompson faces the truth of her husband’s infidelity in Love, Actually. It’s one of those snapshots of everyday life which make you question if love–and fear and happiness and anger–all the emotions that boil and bubble together to make a life, are worth the pain of loss. The soundtrack to that scene is part funeral dirge, part broken heart. It is mournful, haunting, and rueful, the warble of a woman who has seen, lived, loved. And lost.

We’re allowed merely a glimpse of pain before the character swipes at her eyes, straightens the bed sheet, and throws open the door with a forced smile. Endurance of a completely different kind than those athletes hurtling toward a finish line.

Those sixty or so seconds of music and emotion get me every, single time. Yesterday was no exception.

Yet the day was not about mourning a death, but celebrating a life. There was food and wine, music, bright colors and funny quotes. No one seemed to be weighed down by the mantle of her death, what there was instead, present in every breath, was life. Hers, and ours, and in that moment, the culmination of the two.

Both sides now. Life and death, before and after, with and without.

At the end of the afternoon I cycled back home. The athletes were still going, doggedly pedaling by, pushing their bodies to the max. Most of them had a literal marathon still in front of them. It is a stamina I don’t possess, but then perhaps, none of us realize the strength we have until we are tested. Endurance, after all, comes in many forms.

fly free

To swipe at your eyes, straighten your bed sheets, and throw open the door to the unknown.

Is it worth it? How can it not be? I hope that when she threw open that last door it was not with a forced smile, but with the knowledge that her life, though ended, will still live on in the knots of ours., in the stories we tell to connect to one another.

I hope that as she crossed that finish line, the promise of both sides beckoned.

Fly free, Trish. May you look at clouds from both sides now.

 

An Otherwise Ordinary Day

butterfly 3
Mourning Cloak Butterfly

My father died in the early hours of an otherwise ordinary, August day.

As his body lay still, no longer hostage to late summer stickiness or mosquito whine, I was three states and a thousand thoughts and moments away. As the last thread binding him to me, to us, to this place and time finally tore free, I was stumbling to my son’s bedroom. My ten-month old was standing at attention, awake. Alert. I must have comforted him, laid him down and smoothed his hair, damp with the sweet sweat of baby dreams. Surely I shushed him, stroking my finger down the length of his nose before falling back into the expanse of my own bed, the expanse of my own oblivion. The truth is, I don’t remember. I remember only that he woke. I remember because it was unusual.

An expected death, a waited for death, a death which comes uninvited but not wholly unwelcome, drags behind it a range of emotions demanding admission. There are the tight contractions of your heart still beating like a traitor inside your ribcage. There is the leaden realization that nothing, not one single thing, will be the same. There is a sense of relief and a deluge of guilt and, if you are lucky, a quiet, enveloping numbness. There is a small pocket of air in which to breathe again.

Two weeks before that otherwise ordinary day, I said good-bye. My father knew he was loved; that his laughter, his stubbornness, his simply being would be missed. I needed him to know I was happy. A happy that went beyond the sickness, beyond the grief. A happy that waited, patient and quiet, to be reclaimed.

In our family, happiness is not a given. It is not a trait passed down like blue eyes and long legs, like heart disease or depression. There are several boughs of our family tree crumbling with rot. There is a real danger of breaking your neck on the way down. I wanted my father to know I had found my footing, my counterbalance: despite rotten branches and a dying parent, I had found a place of happiness.

My father was wasted away from the cancer. He had tumors you could see and touch pressing through his skin. Yet he understood. He was still, in every capacity, my father; slightly watered down, but my father nonetheless. He understood. For that small mercy, I am grateful. It is the only thing that allowed me to breathe when I got into my car to travel home. Those breaths did not come easily, but they came.

My father died in the early hours of an otherwise ordinary, August day. It was as peaceful as dying can be, the fleeting moment of time and breath that takes you from the living to the dead. The lights had flickered dim, then bright, my mother said. There were no storms, no faulty fuses, no electrical surges, simply a flicker. Dim, then bright. A small, wayward movement in the universe, a butterfly flutter between two worlds.

butterfly 2

Dim, then bright. The same time that my son had woken the night before.

That summer, I learned to look for the unexpected. What I found was my father: in the sweet night sweat of my son’s dreams, in the corners of a room that went dim, then bright, in the shiny copper of a forgotten penny. I found him in my own happiness. Though my foot sometimes slips on a rotted branch, he is always there to guide my way, his hand at my back.

First published on August 1, 2014 as the winner of Paste’s That Summer writing contest.

As August 2nd marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, I conintue to honor his memory by sharing this memory here.

There but for the grace of God

155Until Friday afternoon Denmark time, my next post was gearing up to be a parenting piece.  During the early evening here I caught brief glimpses online of what was then unfolding in Connecticut, but it wasn’t until my own kids were safely tucked into bed that I sat down and began to understand the magnitude of what had happened.

There is simply no way to wrap your head around the horror that took place on Friday in that sleepy Connecticut town.  How could there be?  Acknowledging that even on some small level we can comprehend this—-well, that would be admitting that we could see into the abyss ourselves.  That there is a small blackness within us that understands.  Yet there is an almost driving need to make sense of it.  And so we continue to read the news coverage, to see if somewhere in those lines of newsprint or in the unspoken words of the interviewed there is a clue.  We wait for press conferences that give us pieces of the puzzle, that serve as some small measure of comfort, that give us a desperately needed feeling of security that this will not happen again.

Or you write, to make some sense of it on the page, to make yourself feel a little less haunted, a little safer.  And for that selfishness, I ask your understanding.

Every day children are hurt and wounded and killed.  On any given day, children are starving, getting caught in the cross fire, in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb falls.  Children die of illnesses and in car accidents or at the hands of those that are supposed to love and protect them.  And my heart bleeds for them, for their parents, for those left behind.  When we hear of the unthinkable happening, we look at our children, safe in their beds.  We look at our spouses, hug them a little tighter.  We look toward our families, and think about the what ifs.  But today, for 26 families, the what ifs are now a reality.  Instead of anticipating the holidays, they are planning funerals.

This story is haunting me.  Part of it is because of the sheer numbers and the ages of the victims.  But a larger part is because there but for the grace of God.  Because, as selfish as it sounds, as selfish as it is, these people were like me.  They felt safe.  Living in a small town in the most liberal part of the United States, with some of the strictest gun control laws in the country.  Their kids were surrounded by people just like them.  They weren’t living in a war zone.  There was food on the table and there were presents under the tree.  When you kiss your child good-bye at the gates of school you never for one minute, not even in your most horrific nightmares, imagine something like this.  Until Friday.  And now no parent in the United States will ever feel completely safe sending their child to school again.

I mourn the loss of those poor children’s lives.  I mourn the loss of those heroic educators that shielded their charges with their own lives.  I mourn the loss of innocence.  My heart goes out to the families left dealing with the aftermath.  To those left behind.

For a while we will all stay a little closer to our children, shout at them a little less, make sure they know how much we love them.  Until the horror of Connecticut begins to fade from our memory.  And then, for most of us, life will slowly return to the normal status quo.

Until it happens again.