bereavement · family life · herkind.com · Vancouver

Consecration

Last week marked the 15th anniversary of my dear mom’s death. So, I thought it was about time I scattered her ashes.

Shrine

If only because every single time I moved them (at least 3 cross-country trips and a handful of smaller ones), no matter how carefully I wrapped the beautiful  alabaster box that contained them, first in plastic bubble wrap and then in a small postal envelope, her dust would inevitably fall onto my hands. Moving them meant opening the box and nothing can ever prepare you for seeing the grey/white ash, dotted with small pebble-like pieces – no matter how many times you see it. So, wiping away a natural tear or two left some ash on my face or even in my eyes.

An accidental consecration.

Now, the odyssey of these ashes could fill a book but suffice it to say, I’ve never felt our family, or myself individually, has done her enough justice in an exact way to pay tribute to her. And then of course, I’ve never stopped missing her and still wanting to talk to her so nothing I could ever do would be as good as having her back in my life. Hanging on to this last vestige of her physical self was the best I could do.

The little alabaster box followed me to the west coast, where I moved three years after her death. Knowing how much my mom enjoyed the one time she spent there had me believing that she should be scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

In almost 6 years, I could never bring myself to do it.

I spoke to a de-cluttering expert about this while prepping her for a segment on the TV show where I worked. I boasted about my ability to purge my life often, about how easily I could let material things go. Heck, I even burned about 50 journals in order to draw a line between the past and my future. But I just simply could not cast off the contents of THE BOX. She explained to me that emotional clutter – like, for instance, the ashes of a dead loved one, has the ability to hold a person back from life.

Hmm…

My first summer back in Toronto, I visited my mom’s marker in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery – where one full year after her death, me and my siblings scattered half her ashes (I had asked their permission to hold onto the other half). The true nature of my relationship with my mother had always been somewhat of a secret from the rest of my family – she feared our closeness would cause jealousy and tension, and she was right. So in deference to her wisdom (I thought), I couldn’t allow myself to openly show the extent of my pain. While my sisters and brother looked indulgently on, I stumbled over a stanza of Leonard Cohen’s poem, There Are Some Men , not able to really convey why I felt the words important enough to read aloud.

That summer day after my return to Toronto, I wandered around the massive cemetery  grounds only to discover I had completely forgotten where she was. I had to double back to  the office to get my bearings. Though I didn’t have the ashes with me, I became convinced that what remained of her should be where the other part of her rested. I went home exhausted and heavy hearted by a day’s wandering on sacred ground.

Yes, I realized that whatever was left in the box resting on my dresser in a mini-shrine, had long since ceased to actually be her.  Still, I waited another few years. Last year, on the 14th anniversary, I made an attempt – at least in my mind, to do the deed. I even arranged a friend to come with me. But the more I thought about it, the higher my anxiety level became. Would I really be able to let go once and for all?  Could I live without these last pieces of dust that long ago made up the strong body, spirit, brain and tender heart of my beautiful mother?

I cancelled.

One helluva woman!
On Nov. 7th, 2012, 15 years to the day after the sudden and therefore shocking end of her life, a shock that lives in my muscle memory forcing me to relive it each November, I went with my friend D. to the Forest of Remembrance at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, and I finally reconciled my divided mother with her long gone other half.

I don’t exactly know why I was able to do it this time. It could have been that D – inseparable friend of my youth,  had been returned to me recently, alleviating a great deal of my loneliness. It could be that I felt that, of all the people in my life, D knew how the loss of my mother had deeply marked me, though I hadn’t seen or spoken to her since long before my mother died. It could be that, over the last few years, I’d begun to understand how holding on to the ashes meant vital parts of my life were standing still.

To do this properly though, I had to send a message to my mother that would only be between us. I had something I needed to say to her. Something fairly final. So I tore a piece of paper out of my journal, cut it in half and wrote her a tiny note, folded it into the smallest square I could and tucked it into the postal envelope ready and waiting to go. D came over at our arranged time, armed with a beautiful bouquet of fall flowers. Not only was she willing to help me out with this weighted task, but having known my mother for so many years, I think she welcomed a chance to pay her respects. We drove to the cemetery, but not before we reviewed the exact location of the garden.  It took a few minutes to find the area where we’d previously scattered her and left a marker but once we did I silently dug a small hole in the soil where I placed my note, then emptied out the ashes on top. Thankfully, there was no wind, but the ashes, which had now been sedentary for the last few years, stubbornly stuck to the sides and corners of the box. With a tissue, I tried to wipe them all onto the ground. Of course, the dust fell into my hands. The effort it took to do all this almost distracted me from the feeling of doing it. D. gathered up a few wandering leaves and placed her flowers on top of the note, the soil, the ashes… my mother. She bowed her head in a silent prayer. We held onto each other for a minute, and then walked back to the car. I could feel my mother’s ashes on my face.

kindred spirits

I never thought I could live one day without my mother, yet a decade and a half seems to have flown by and I’m still here. I think I finally learned to let her go. And it turns out it’s exactly the right time. I can’t prove that exactly, I just know something feels.. something IS different.

The truth is, I could never forget my mom because every time I look in the mirror, I see her. Every time I find myself rising in passion – for a belief, in protection of a loved one, for love, or for the love of voicing a well-thought out opinion, I channel her. So much of her resides in me and that was always the basis of us anyway – we were kindred, destined to find each other in the world, but lucky enough that her giving birth to me made the meeting easier.

Life goes on, as it was meant to all along. Imagine that!

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bereavement · Books and Authors · family life · herkind.com · Media · News and current affairs · The Vault: best of Herkind.com · The Writing Life · Vancouver

The Vault: best of herkind.com/ Solo

Originally published February 8, 2010

A few months ago I went to a concert by myself. I do this a lot, go out alone. Sometimes I prefer it. I really didn’t think it was a big deal until I told a couple of people about the concert. Of course the inevitable question was, who’d you go with? The reactions surprised me.

Apparently it’s courageous to do something social on your own. Or, maybe it’s even anti-social!

I’ve often written about my intermittent loneliness and how I feel that it is something that, although difficult, can be overcome. The key is to learn how to not let it affect big decisions. I’ve let that happen and learned from it – I hope. The biggest one, I believe, was moving back to Toronto from Vancouver before I’d given my life there enough of a chance. I felt indescribably lonely and was susceptible to family and friends saying, just come home. It was a mistake, but one I am trying to make the best of.

These days I’m more willing to wait the lonely feeling out. To let it run its course, because I believe it always will.

I never felt lonely a day on earth while my mother was alive and because I believe my loneliness is attached to her death, I always think of it as situational. That she’s been gone 12 years doesn’t seem to affect my characterization of the feeling. It comes, it goes.

A new book called Lonely by a Canadian writer, Emily White has got me doubting myself and wondering if I’ve caught the bravado bug I sometimes accuse others of having, the ones who are unwilling to admit their loneliness.

White bravely tells of her chronic loneliness which she  felt most of her life, but intensely so for about 3 years in her mid-30s. Three years! Chronic? Oh dear.

I have to admit I read the book with much fear. In fact, in parts my heart was beating so fast I felt sure I was having a full out panic attack. Her early life mirrors my own: feelings of separation, isolation, too much of a gap of age and temperament with siblings, parents at odds with one another, their evident loneliness, a mother who held me a little too close to fill in the spaces for her. Hell, even Emily White’s first boyfriend had the same name as mine. Has my loneliness been with me my whole life? Could feelings of loneliness and isolation be the reason I have so few memories of my young life?

I looked up from the book at the prints decorating my bedroom – it’s not the first time I’ve wondered why every single one of them depicts a woman alone.

Picasso’s Blue Nude, hangs above my bed

Has loneliness so shaped my life that it’s the reason I am middle-aged, single, with no safety net, a tiny social circle and indistinguishable social life and, worst of all, no kids? Did I somehow make this happen? And collect the art to reflect it back to me each day upon waking?

Do people look at me walking down the streets of my neighbourhood and say, there goes that lonely woman. Always alone. (no wonder I feel giddy when I can go into a local coffee shop once in awhile accompanied by a – usually male – friend. Phew, they will know I have friends and maybe even a boyfriend!)

White makes a case for loneliness as an affliction caused by genetics and nurturing. She believes we are wired through DNA to be lonely. And that sometimes our loneliness mirrors that of our parents, in her case mostly her mother. Because she wants it more out in the open, she believes it should be listed in the updated version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), due to come out in 2012. This, she says, would ensure it gets properly funded for research and treatment, the natural progression of this being medication.

Now, I haven’t done the exhaustive research she has but I disagree.

I think loneliness is a periodic state of being that visits itself upon each and every one of us at various times. Let’s face it, more people live alone now and gone are the days of close knit communities and extended families. The key is learning to understand how it affects you and what to do to work through it. After all, we’re supposed to grow and learn in life. Sometimes my loneliness is acute and it feels like nothing can alleviate it. Since I’m pretty comfortable alone it’s not being alone that triggers it. It’s being alone when I don’t want to be and feeling like I can’t connect with anyone. It’s that feeling that there’s no way to communicate my deepest feelings that makes me the loneliest.

Admittedly, the biggest reason is not having a one and only – which isn’t necessarily a love partner, though that would be nice. And I’m trying to find a way to understand how to make that very neglected part of my life work. But, just one or a few good companionable, compatible, supportive friends would do the trick.

I have friends like this, but they are mostly busy with their lives of husband/wife, active young family connections. Or they’re too far away to connect with very often. I’m a natural sharer and sometimes feel unbelievably bereft, and afraid for my future with no safeties in place. Also, being alone so much means that my nurturing instincts can go numb with disuse, or worse, get misplaced on someone entirely inappropriate. Something that can catch me unawares if I’m not careful.

Emily White thinks this type of dulling of the senses is a result of loneliness. She also offers up plenty of studies, although they are relatively small ones, that show how loneliness affects heart health, and is implicated in dementia. These pieces of information are nothing short of terrifying to me and the surest way to get me to try any outlet at all towards connection.

White says lonely people are reluctant to tell their families and friends that they are lonely. It’s true. Most people end up feeling responsible for how you feel and it only serves to turn them further away, not closer. I prefer to just bare down and get myself through it. But I’m also not afraid to say it’s a pretty big part of my life right now. But that really is my challenge, not anyone else’s.

I do know how to reach out and I enjoy sociability. I welcome it, when I’m feeling up to it. The truth is, through many years of therapy and 5 years of living away from home, I discovered the original me and that person requires more time and space, which usually means plenty of solitude of the chosen variety.

Most lonely people I know -whether they admit to being lonely or whether it’s something I sense – are creative, singular,  and as I like to call it, living outside the much touted “normal” lines. I can’t really complain about feel lonely when I bring it on by leaping out of my life every five years, at least.

My worry is that I will always do this and never settle down and that my innate (not genetic though) loneliness causes me to do this.

Perhaps I will never know. It’s not a worry I really want to take on. I prefer to believe it’s a badge of maturity to learn to live with loneliness. or should I say, live it out.

But I certainly have no intention of taking a pill for it. Nor will I stop my solo, apparently oh so courageous, outings to concerts and social gatherings.

family life · herkind.com

Imaginary Friend

Today is the birthday of my oldest sister. She would have been 63 years old, which is mighty hard to believe. To me she is frozen at 25, the age she was when she died., or even younger since the very few memories I have of her lie in her teenage life, when she was my favorite babysitter.

Donna and me, circa 1961

And I can’t really say I know that much about her either, just the usual milestone information and a kind of idyllic remembrance of her that happens when the young die.

This is a photo of us – me about one, and her at 12.

I have always imagined that as adults we would be compatible friends.  It’s a thought I like to entertain.