Perhaps the worst losses are the ones that we don’t expect: the children who die before their parents, the young mothers or fathers whose lives laid ahead of them, the mothers we expected to be in our lives for so much longer.
With these premature deaths, we wail with no less intensity than the mourners of ancient Rome, albeit through all the ways that we communicate now. Whether poured out in text messages, or emails, on Facebook or by telephone, it is awful to behold, and worse to feel.
With the loss of my “other mother” in October, I find myself compelled to unpack some Christmas decorations that I haven’t displayed in years: my mother’s angels. Back in the 50s and 60s, my mother collected small angel figurines that she displayed on a bed of “angel hair” (spun fiberglass) that glowed from the string of tiny white lights beneath. Each was lovely, but one in particular stood out: a small girl angel, clad in pink, rosy cheeked, curly haired, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer.
Angels weren’t just a symbol of Christ’s birth to my mother; she had her own little angel in heaven. Before I was born, my sister, Midge, died of leukemia at the age of four. I don’t remember seeing obvious signs of grief in my mother or father during my childhood. But much later, after my mother died in 1999, Dad poured out his heart to me. He repeatedly slapped his palm against his forehead as he described her calling out to him from her oxygen tent in the hospital, “Daddy, help me.” “I couldn’t do anything,” he said, “I went out of the room and pounded on the wall. I couldn’t do anything.”
In the past few weeks, I have borne witness to and experienced that stabbing kind of pain that comes with unexpected loss: the continuing fallout from the death of a young mother to alcoholism, the sudden loss of a joyous and loving young father, and my “other mother,” Miss Ann.
My other mother’s family gathered to make her favorite foods and set the table just as she would have, harvest colored candles arrayed on her heavy brass serving tray. My friend who lost her childhood buddy to addiction wrote a eulogy filled with beautiful stories of her wit and strength. My friend who lost her brother, the young father, raises beers to him to re-enact the fun times when they met at the Whole Foods Bier Garten. These moments were nothing like scenes from a TV drama in which survivors look beautiful while they delicately weep in their time of grief; they were – and are – red-eyed, snot-riddled affairs where people try to do something, anything, to make a terrible reality less terrible.
In reliving traditions – even privately – we summon the people we have lost, the people we feel we should not have lost. Are we hoping that their ghosts will be with us as we go through our rituals? Do we imagine that they will be near as angels, hovering over our lives? I think my mother imagined Midge as an angel, captured in the likeness of the little pink-clad figurine.
Caroline Kennedy, who knows a few things about grief, devoted a chapter to death and grief in her lovely collection of poetry, She Walks in Beauty (Hyperion, 2011). Among the poems was this excerpt from “To W.P.,” by George Santayana:
With you a part of me hath passed away;
For in the peopled forest of my mind
A tree made leafless by this wintry wind
Shall never don again its green array.
Chapel and fireside, country road and bay,
Have something of their friendliness resigned;
Another, if I would, I could not find,
And I am grown much older in a day.
But yet I treasure in my memory
Your gift of charity, and young heart’s ease,
And the dear honor of your amity;
For these once mine, my life is rich with these.
And I scarce know which part may greater be —
What I keep of you, or you rob from me.
Those who lose someone too soon know what it means to grow older in a day, and to feel robbed by the loss of someone who died before we were ready. As I pull out my mother’s angels, one by one, I call her: “Mom – whether you are angel or ghost – be with me.”