Three months ago today you left us. Some days my sisters and I refer to it as being “three months in”. Other days we call it “three months out”.
We are a few weeks out from having last held your hands, a few weeks out from the last time we heard you laugh or saw you smile. We are a few weeks out from sharing our secrets with you, a few weeks out from the last time you played referee for us – three adult women who still need their mother to catalyze their communications at times. We are a few weeks out from sharing with you newly discovered songs, you with your impeccable taste in music. We are three months out from those final days in that room where we piled in around your bed like little girls climbing into your lap to find comfort. We are three months out from you finally leaving behind a life and a body that was never very kind to you.
And at the same time, we are three measly months in. Three months in to a winding and interminable lifetime ahead of us where you aren’t there. Three months in to being orphaned children, motherless daughters before we felt remotely prepared to face the world without you. We are three wearying months in to an existence where we simultaneously battle the desire to walk right off the earth, and the need to somehow anchor ourselves down, lest we float away. We are three months in to a sea of pain that will never fully disappear, an ocean whose tides will secede at times, but whose black waves will always return to wash over us. We are three months in to having to explain to head-cocked strangers how we lost our mother in the summer of 2013. We are three months in to bitter and unforgiving mornings soaked with tears, and lonely nights whose deep darkness keeps us even from the warmth of one another.
We circle back to this pain, so large and consuming. It gnaws on our hearts every moment of the day, eats us up from the inside. We are battered and broken and so very, very tired. We feel worn and haggard, aged decades beyond our years.
I went camping last week, searching for something in the woods that I was unlikely to find. This is one of the many hallmarks of grieving you: this restlessness that won’t be soothed, the feral scratching at the back of the back of the psyche, the white noise that never fully goes quiet. Perhaps peace will come in the form of time off work. Maybe I’ll find it in the evenings I spend with my siblings and my nephews. Perhaps there will be rest in the beauty and splendor of the landscape, or maybe I will be at peace with my nose buried in a book. Possibly I will find it in overeating and sleeping too much, or maybe it hides in sleep deprivation and eating too little. Peace is elusive, and like the pot of gold at the end of the fading and shifting rainbow, it may never materialize in this life. It seems counter-intuitive to fight for peace, yet this is how I spend so much of my time, fighting and grappling for a settled feeling in my soul, clutching to the rare moments when I find that I am even slightly at ease. It makes many of my interactions neurotic and disingenuous, this distracted broken brain of mine, this fractured heart.
You would probably tell me that this is okay, that I should go easy on myself, that all I can do is my best and that my best doesn’t have to be good enough for anyone but me and God. You would promise that no matter what, things would work out, and you would do so with complete confidence, so sure you were of the success of your children. Even to the very end, your hope burned white hot for us, a facet of you that I will never understand, but a trait that I fear I may have inherited. For you the world was a hopeless place. For your girls, the future was bright and limitless and teeming with hopes and dreams and successes just waiting to be discovered and claimed. I know there was a time when your own future felt that way, and that reality hit me over the head like a mallet when I was in the woods, and I clenched my teeth and wrapped my arms around myself while I sobbed for all of your dreams that died years before you did.
The dog and I walked from the campground to the lake on our second day camping, which would turn out to also be our second-to-last day. It is a quarter of a mile down a dead-end road. The lake is actually a reservoir, a man-made endeavor to stop flooding in the area that came to fruition more than half a century ago and culminated in many people who lived in what is now the lake bed giving up their homes and their land. Roads dead end right into the water, roads that once went straight through what is now the lake all the way to the shore on the other side. When the family bought what is now our family compound and you started spending time there, the lake was young and the land around it was young and there were no fences or barricades. I remember crowding into the back of my dad’s truck with my sisters and my cousins and you, all of us in swimsuits and shaking with excitement at the prospect of swimming in the lake. Our dad would back the truck all the way down into the water, and you would holler at him to stop, scared for all the kids, nervous and bossy and Type A. You and your sister-in-law would soak up and the sun, ever watchful, always mentally counting us girls and our cousins. Our dad was an Eagle Scout and would die before he would let anything happen to any of us, but like a border collie, you could never fully relax. If you stopped worrying, if you let yourself be at ease, something might go wrong and you might be to blame. You carried the weight of the cosmos on your back at all times, the responsibility for everyone else’s happiness and safety dangling around your neck like a half a dozen concrete blocks. You never learned to speak the truth of what you wanted or needed clearly and honestly and with vulnerability.
The road is gated now at a certain point so that no vehicles can directly access the lake from here. There are signs instructing snowmobile riders that they are not allowed beyond this point. There are safety notices and warnings posted along the trail, nailed into the trees. The dog and I descended the hill toward the lake, surprised at how overgrown the roadway was this time of year. As we got nearer to the water, we could see the sun bouncing brightly off its surface, could feel the unseasonable warmth in the air. As the dog lost her mind playing in the water and I walked solemnly down the shoreline, I was not thinking of you in the forefront of my consciousness. You were there, in the back of mind, pulling at my seams like you always are.
When I sat down on a huge piece of wood on the beach and watched the breeze blow ripples in the surface of the water, the dog came to rest at my feet – dirty, wet, and exhausted. It came upon me like an explosion of emotion, the realization that you had undoubtedly watched the sunset from this very spot, the reality that your bare toes had been in that water, your laugh had echoed off these muddy banks. The hope that you once possessed had perhaps been spoken into the atmosphere here, had filled the air, your words tumbling over each other out into the universe. I imagined you then, before I was born, when you were young and life retained possibility and wonder.
My heart tightened in my chest at the thought of how the cruelty of this life slowly chipped away at the dreams you had for yourself. There was a time when you were on top of the world. You and I talked about this not long before you died. We discussed how you truly believed you had it all at one point, modest though your life may have been by most standards. All you ever wanted was a family. You wanted to create a safe and healthy and happy home life. You wanted to raise your children and take in the neighborhood children and live simply. You wanted to develop space and distance from a past that had pummeled you, and you wanted to embrace forgiveness and grace in doing so. When you got married, and you were able to conceive your first child and she was born healthy, you were as filled to the brim with joy as a person can be. In those moments you were free, and the process of slowly disentangling yourself from a lifetime of heartbreak and brokenness was accelerated because darkness pales when bathed in such gleaming light. I think of you then, gingerly stepping onto a path of happiness, fearful that the rug might be jerked out from under you, proceeding with caution and abandon all at once. Five months later your mother’s body would be found in a creek bed, beaten and left to freeze to death, and you would never forgive yourself for that loss. You would spend the rest of your life mourning, aching, longing for the joy that froze alongside her that night. Most of all, you would spend the rest of your life missing your own mother, just as my sisters and I will now do.
The dog and I sat quietly in the woods until I could gather enough composure to walk back to the campground. I spent the rest of the evening writing to you, writing to myself, just writing and crying because it was the only thing I could think to do to keep from imploding.
We are three months out from the day you left us, and three months in to a new life. Some days this reality stops my heart in my chest and I can’t imagine how I am supposed to go on with my entire future ostensibly still ahead of me. I feel so marred and weathered that I cannot fathom how I still have such supposed brightness in front of me – a path that includes a real career, marriage, children. A whole life. But it’s in considering this path before me, it’s in seeing the myriad ways my nephews grow from month to month, that I realize not all of your dreams faded and drifted away into the sunset. We were your ultimate dream, we three girls, and eventually the grandsons my sisters gave you.
Just before you died, when you were drifting between this world and another one, you would sometimes speak things that seemed nonsensical to us. At one point you mentioned your granddaughters, though you have only grandsons. I can’t know now what that meant, if it meant anything at all. Perhaps it was the morphine-induced confusion of a dying woman. Or perhaps it was the remaining seeds of your dreams and hopes for this life coming to rest in the hearts of your daughters, we three girls who are three months into a life where you are everywhere with us, even if you are not here.