There is a blog I enjoy, written by a man who pulled himself from homelessness writing and knitting teddy bears. In his blog two weeks ago (a particularly lovely one about coming spring, read it here), he writes:
“Should you seek peace, look to the trees. They hold the records of everything we never see, the truth that all seasons come back round again, back to rebirth, back to spring.” —Gregory Patrick, Mad Man Knitting
I thought of that last week, as I beat back the salal and blackberry vines to the big leaf maple that once held the tree house my father built for his grandchildren. It still holds ash from Mt. St. Helens in its bark. The barnyard I’ve been clearing has one bent post from the barbed wire fence that kept the horse from going off into the forest. I once found the mouse-chewed thumb from one of my father’s gloves buried in the dirt floor of the barn. There are bits of the old wooden fence that surrounded the meadow, falling down into what is now woods but wasn’t then. Even the “new” fence my father and my son were building when he went to the hospital and never came home, is becoming old and worn.
The new heat pump purrs next to the house, and the vegetable garden I created will soon be replanted for its third season. The hostas I planted in the side yard where nothing has ever grown before, have pushed their way through the moss for their rebirth. If I squint my eyes, I can imagine the tiny house I want to build for myself at the edge of the field, and visualize the big house with less stuff in it. Well, that last is difficult.
The seasons come and go on this property, with its reminders of the past and its promise of the future, and the reality of what is right now.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading and transcribing the 100s of letters my father and my mother wrote to each other during the war. My mother has hung onto these journals of a life interrupted for 70 years, buried in a trunk like the ash in the bark. I deeply regret not reading them before now. I ask her questions and she doesn’t remember. I deeply regret not reading them when my father was alive, so I could have asked him questions. But I didn’t know they existed then. “He wouldn’t have told you anyway,” my mother has told me.
I asked her again last night about her insistence that they never talked about what wasn’t allowed to be written in letters, even though he writes that he’ll tell her when he comes home.
“You weren’t even curious?” I ask incredulously.
“We just wanted to put it behind us and look forward,” she says.
“Like four years of your life never happened?” I want to scream, snatch my father back from the grave, shake them both, tell them, for God’s sake, to talk it out before you let it go! Tell me before you leave!
I understand living in the moment; I don’t believe that means obliterating the past, even when it’s unpleasant. And judging from the letters, it was not unpleasant for either of them, though I know they were putting on happy faces, and not because they were sunny, optimistic people—at least my mother isn’t, she’s a stuffer. So I don’t know, won’t ever know, what it was really like.
As I wrote last week, my mother is a most curious person, and asks me and my sister questions about things we don’t know the answers to. She listens to recorded books and regurgitates what she has learned and asks me to look up things on the internet. To be honest, I am not curious about the same things she is curious about, so maybe I can appreciate that she isn’t, and wasn’t, curious about what I want to know. She wants to know about plants, and disease—particularly if it’s a malady she could possibly have. I want to know about relationships and human nature. And emotions—which she and my father believed have no place in the scheme of things. You think I’m kidding. I’m not. (Reference sunny letters from the war.)
A friend’s elderly mother unexpectedly died this month. She is the only other person I know who lived in her mother’s house. It was a bond, a commonality, that is broken now; and I feel that loss. She died well, two days after making marmalade, with time to say goodbye. I want that for my mother, but it’s already too late.
I woke to that news one morning last week, then fell apart in the shower. The water rained over me, mingling with my tears. I can’t imagine this house without my mother in it. I don’t know if it will be an exaltation of space or a vault of emptiness. I can’t imagine that it will ever come to pass. She will always and forever be here. And that may be true, even after she’s physically gone. Sometimes my body remembers having my own home—being a grown-up—and it feels so different here in my mother’s home. When she’s gone, will I have that feeling of “this is mine, I made this happen” again? Or will it always be my parents’ house and I a squatter?
And what, I wonder, is it like to be at the end of life? Waiting. My mother tells me I don’t understand—when it seems I don’t care—about her physical issues. You don’t know what it’s like to be blind, she says. You don’t know what it’s like to have to be careful of what you eat. No, I don’t know what it’s like, I say, tell me. I can’t see to cook my egg. Yes, but how does it feel? Are you afraid? Do you want to collapse in tears? Do you wish you could just die? Do you long for the past? I just want my egg cooked soft, she says. She’s right, I don’t understand, because she won’t tell me what I want to know.
When someone close to us dies, especially a parent—or, as I have experienced, when a marriage ends—we don’t only mourn for what we have lost, we grieve for what we never found and wished we had. People say, “and now it’s too late.” But what we grieve is often something that was never available, in my case a different relationship with my mother. I have been here long enough now to know that.
Rather than wishing for what will not be, I am going to notice what is here that I will miss: my mother’s curiosity, her love for the natural world, her courage, her independence, how hard she tries, how she took care of this property. Her love—in spite of it all—for me.
Sometimes it’s hard to see those qualities under the blackberry vines—but I am going to be watching and storing them in my heart for later.