Saturday, February 23, 2008

Of Loss And Living On



Still she haunts me phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes…

Lewis Carroll

Recently, my mother told me she would not be able to see me or speak with me for a while. I did not know what she meant at the time, because my mother is dead, and she said this to me in a dream, but I think I am beginning to understand now.

On January second of 2006, my mother and father went to their friends’ home for a New Year’s celebration. The party was a yearly tradition among friends who had known each other since high school. My mother, a diabetic with multiple sclerosis, had too much to eat—sweets, cakes, candies—and was struggling to breathe. My father took her to the bathroom where he helped her use her inhaler. Her breathing was still labored, so they decided to call it an evening. On her way out, steadying herself with a walker, my mother could not help herself. She grabbed one last candy, or maybe a piece of fudge.

Out on the driveway, in the cool night air, she was unable to climb into the truck with my father’s help. She asked him to wait a moment, and give her some time to catch her breath. “Okay, I can make it now,” she said, and fell over into the passenger seat of the truck.

My father was used to my mother passing out from too much sugar. He simply wanted to get her upright in the seat, belt her in, and take her home, but something about the way she fell over panicked the friends who had gathered around the truck. One ran around to the driver’s side and climbed in. Together, my father on one side, the friend on the other, they tried to raise her. They could not; she was dead weight. And more frightening, she appeared to have stopped breathing.

The paramedics were called, and together with the firemen, they pulled my mother from the truck and worked on her failing body for what must have seemed like hours on the driveway, in the ambulance, and later at the hospital. By the time I arrived, she had been pronounced dead; she had never regained consciousness.

It was not until several weeks after the funeral that I had my first dream of her. She was confused about her death. She claimed to have died of an infection. I could hear her voice, but I did not see her lips move. In fact, I am not sure I saw her at all in the dream; I just knew she was present.

Later on, I would see the corner of her sleeve in a darkened doorway in the middle of the night in my home. I would catch shadows and flashes in darkened rooms. None of this disturbed me. I knew she was around, probably trying to figure out this new existence, this new dimension.

I believe in this other place that she has gone to. It is not the heaven of my Catholic childhood. It is a transition between this life and the next. I have no scientific proof of such a place; I simply feel it beyond a shadow of a doubt. The place is beyond our senses, and can only be accessed in our dreams. The dead do not linger there for long. They transition on to the next life, the next stopping place.

And this is what my mother was trying to tell me. The transition was over. She was moving on, maybe had to move on. All I know is that I must now live without her in this world.

I am a teacher of literature in life, and my students often ask me why poets always write about death and love. Every poem, they say, is about death or love. I know secretly that poetry is written for the young, but is only understood by the old. Poets write about death and love because we all fear death, and wish to be loved. There are other things: work, play, friendship. All of them are important to a rich life. But death and love are the things that keep us up at night. We are afraid no one will ever love us for who we are. We contemplate such a life in a vortex of swirling ghosts and shades of who we once were, a long time ago.

In the end, we must learn to live on without our loved ones. We must hope that others will come to love us, and mean as much to us, as those who have passed over. We must wait for our own ends to come, when others will miss us, and must learn to live on without us.

In the years since the death of my mother, I am struggling to continue on, much more than I will tell anyone. It is my secret. My mother and I never got along very well in life, so I am uneasy with her death, thinking about things said, or left unsaid.

There is anger. If she could have found some measure of self-control, found a way to get her life back on track and defeat her weaknesses, we could have had a chance for a better relationship in the future. She was only sixty-one years old.

And sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I see as if forged in light, her face superimposed on mine. In many ways, I am her twin—diabetes, hypertension, history of obesity. How will I defeat my own demons? If one cannot imagine overcoming an obstacle, what chance is there for victory? Is not some of the anger reserved for her really directed at me?

But she is gone now, and words no longer can be spoken between us. At least not in any coherent fashion. Her words can only float to me in the smoke of a dream. And anger is irrelevant to the dead. In the light of day, all I can do, in the midst of my own journey, is to wish her Godspeed and hope that for once in her tumultuous life, she is at peace.