Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Culminations and Arrivals

‘Tis the season of culminations, celebrations, and changes. It marks a passage for me as I begin semi-retirement and open the way for other pursuits. Walking the mourner’s path has led me to this place of uncertainty and possibility, though it doesn’t yet feel real. 

More imminent are culminations linked to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, with symbolism that may have meaning for others in a state of flux. The holiday commemorates the Jews receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai after years wandering in the desert. It is connected to Passover by the agricultural practice of 49 days of Counting the Omer in preparation for the wheat  harvest, which has been reinterpreted as a spiritual practice of moving from slavery to freedom. Rabbis Zimmerman and Enger suggest an intention for each stage of the seven-week journey: Waking Up; Setting Out; Entering the Wilderness; Being in the Unknown; Finding Our Way; Becoming the Vision; and Arriving. These evocative themes map onto the journey of suicide loss as we try to rebuild our lives and recover our balance.

I’m more familiar with the early stages of the journey; I hesitate to say I've arrived. I haven't reached any closure, peace, or enlightenment, nor is that clearly the goal. I'm still overcome with intense, though shorter, bouts of grief and guilt. But I may be reaping the first surprising fruit of the harvest on this journey: I have recovered my breath, and it is deeper and fuller than I remember. Many mornings, I come awake bathed in long, sustaining breath. Instead of being constricted by mourning, the breath flows free and expands. With this fuller breath comes a fuller sense of gratitude that I worried I'd never recover. I’m grateful that I knew and loved my lost child. I’m grateful for the love and support that got me through the worst of the pain so far. I’m grateful to be alive and healthy.

Next week brings another chance for arrival as I take part in an adult bar/bat mitzvah celebration. It’s the culmination of two years of study and the choice to deepen my Jewish practice and membership in community. When I hold and chant from the Torah, I will be symbolically—like my ancestors in the desert—“taking [my] place at the mountain with all of the Jewish people, . . . coming home, being whole.” With the momentousness of the occasion, with all those who are and are not present, there will be tears. The difference is that these tears will be bittersweet and shared. On Mothers Day I could focus on the affirmation I would never receive from my lost child—or affirm my love for him and my living son. At my bat mitzvah, I can choose to focus on who is not there to give me their blessing and on the mountains that Noah can no longer climb—or I can be amazed by the blessing of all those who have helped carry me on this journey and who are rooting for me to have something to celebrate.

The two years of preparation for this day coincide with the two years that we have been living with the loss of our son. For much of the first year, I couldn’t concentrate on learning and couldn’t help seeing everything through the lens of loss. I stuck with the class because I had wanted to do it for a long time and dimly thought it might give me a stake in the future, beyond loss. That it has. I thank God and lots of people for allowing me to reach this season.

To those who are suffering: may you let in a little light to be present to the joy and power of culminations. And may you honor wherever you are in your journey.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Another Mothers Day: Hallmark and Anti-Hallmark Moments

(With baby Noah, Isle of Mull, Scotland, 1992)

Another beautiful spring Mothers Day. I hadn’t thought much about it in advance, unlike the dread of the past two years. I knew there would be another breakfast out with my in-laws, then quiet time by Noah’s stone in the Children’s Memorial and Healing Garden, plus a call from my living son. As if these plans might blunt the longing.
It may be a Hallmark holiday, but it speaks to a deep need for affirmation, appreciation, and connection. Many women feel conflicted, disappointed, or alienated on this day. For us mourning moms, there will be no chance of a message from a lost child or a simple meal together. Not this year, or ever again. We are banished from that particular Hallmark moment.

Instead, there are texts, cards, even an impromptu visit from women friends who are watching over me on this bittersweet day. One card said: “There are no words for the ones we have nurtured, lost, and hold in our memory.” I am touched by the mothering in these gestures. 

How to feel affirmed as a mother when your child takes his life? When you can’t shake the sense that you’ve failed in the most fundamental way as a life-giver and nurturer, whatever the complex circumstances surrounding the suicide? Early today, I couldn’t help sinking into the catalog of my flaws that sits at the ready for these anti-Hallmark moments. I’ve been trying in recent years to cultivate compassion and learn to be gentle with myself and others—a gift my own mother couldn't offer. Had I learned that lesson sooner and modeled it for Noah, might he have been gentler with himself for feeling so adrift and depressed? 

At the restaurant, I see a beautiful boy of about five strapped into a wheelchair, barely able to eat or talk. I am mesmerized by him and by his mother’s attentiveness and smiling ease. Does she enjoy this day and get the appreciation she deserves?

As I walk into the park with the memorial garden, I think of how our boys used to flop down on the grass here, sweaty and satisfied with themselves after juggling their way along the mile-long stretch of the small town’s 4th of July parade. I am grateful to have had the chance to be a mother with two beautiful, healthy boys who could take care of themselves, learn and grow and live full lives. 

(With both my sons, Thanksgiving, Chapel Hill, 2010)

If we wait for others to affirm us, we may always be disappointed, I think as I sit by Noah's stone. Rather than wait, rather than enumerate the many ways I fell short as a mother, I can affirm my love for my children. I am grateful that I got to raise Noah and love him and be loved by him and shape him and be shaped by him over 21 years. I am grateful for our walks and talks and stories and meals and travels and movies and holidays and memories. I am supremely grateful to have known Noah and been his mom. And I am grateful and so fortunate to continue to be a mom with a living, loving son (below).

To my fellow mourning moms: I hope it hasn't been too hard a day. I hope that today or on some future Mothers Day, you can allow yourself to count blessings rather than failings. Instead of waiting for the affirmation that will never come, to affirm our love of life and within it, our bond with a lost, much-loved child. And to celebrate the bond we have with our other children or loved ones.