Monday, March 29, 2021

Life in Death

March 29, 2021

A couple of months ago, I was talking with a dear friend who had recently lost her mom.  Her husband had lost his dad a handful of years earlier.  I lost my own mom over twenty years ago.   We sat together late into the night and shared memories, shared struggles of missing our loved ones, of not being prepared to let go, and reminiscing about the times we were able to share with each of our respective parents before they passed.  We laughed about small shared moments; we cried about momentary meaningful moments, and grieved what we missed--what they missed in no longer being here with us.  We celebrated things we learned from them, and traits we share with them, and gifts they gave us, in memory or in experience, that shaped who we are.

I confessed to them something I had never said to anyone, because it seems a little morbid, in light of social norms.  I am the picture-taker, the memory keeper of my family.  The last pictures taken of my mom, just a few days before her death, were of her holding my niece, her most recent grandbaby.  By that time, cancer had ravaged Mom, and she was weak and tired.  Still, she said in moments when her fiesty spirit and devotion to family was as strong as ever, that she had never not held one of her grandbabies, and she wasn’t about to let cancer stop her from holding this one.  In the photos, we had placed my week-old niece in Mom’s arms, and my sister had her arms underneath my mom’s to stablize her, since she didn’t really have the strength to hold up even that tiny little bundle.  Those pictures are hard to look at to this day.  Mom’s eyes are beaming, proud of her precious new granddaughter, but she is hunched over in her wheelchair, her face is swollen from the medication, the wig she wore to cover her hair loss is slightly askew, and her smile is tinged with pain.  Her spirit was there, but her body was only days from letting go.  This is not the image of the vibrant matriarch of the family, filled with zest for life, that I picture when I think of my mom.

Ironically, then, my confession was that one of my strongest instincts at Mom’s funeral was that I desperately wanted to take a picture of her.  Lying in repose at the front of the church, my mom looked beautiful in a dress she’d picked out well in advance for the occasion.  She entrusted me to make sure she was buried in a dress she liked--one she knew was a good color on her.  Mom liked to look good when she was going out in public.  Her face was no longer swollen and sallow; they had taken great pains to make her hair and her make-up beautiful and natural.  She was peaceful, no longer in pain, and she looked like the mom we hadn’t seen in months.  Her spirit was no longer there, but her body looked like her.  I wanted to capture that vision of her to remember that last look, rather than her battle-weary body in the months leading up to her death.  I wanted to take a picture of the roomful of loved ones too--family, friends, colleagues, students--who came to pay their respects and to share their stories of how she’d touched their lives.  She would have loved that, honestly.  But we don’t do that, do we?  That’s somehow looked down on as perhaps disrespectful?  Uncouth?  Irreverent?

I didn’t mean any of those things--disrespect or irreverence.  I was so moved by the emotion of being in that room with all of those people Mom was important to, and feeling like I’d been given back my mom for a brief moment even as she was being taken away from me, that I wanted to save those memories, that expression of love and grief and loss and connectedness, and tuck them away to savor and reminisce about later--all the minute details.  But we don’t do that, do we?  We don’t take photos of the dead, or of the celebrations of their life.  And I wonder why that is.  We record for posterity all other aspects of life--births, first steps, milestones in school, marriages, even divorces and heartache, reunions, moves away from home, from friends, and jobs, and celebrations of new beginnings.  But the end?  Recording the end of life is perhaps too difficult, too much for us to acknowledge its finality.

It’s not really final, though, is it?  I don’t want to call too much on something as trite as ‘the circle of life’, but when we are celebrating the life of someone we love, especially a parent, what we are doing is recognizing those moments big and small that will continue to ripple out among hundreds of people with whom they spend their lifetimes.  “You have her eyes.” “I can see her in your smile.” “I went into my profession because she inspired me.” “When I look up at the clouds, I can see him.”  “She is sending me rain to say hello.” “You have your mom’s intuition.” “She had the same generosity of spirit you do.” “His sense of humor was just like yours.” A hundred little things that connect us, repeat the idiosyncrasies and personality traits and likes and dislikes, and beliefs, and traditions, and physical traits, and memories of shared moments, days, lives. In the same way that we celebrate and record all those other milestones of life, death--or the passing on of all of these gifts to our loved ones to carry on and continue to share with our loved ones in turn--should be captured as one of the most significant milestones of them all.

I wish I had one more picture of my mom.

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