The Death of
A Mother
After my mother died, I couldn't pray for over a year. I couldn't write, either. As my mind shut down, my joints stiffened, as though our mother, who suffered rheumatoid arthritis her whole life, had dropped it on me like a cloak falling from her shoulders. I can smile now, and say, that's the kind of trick she would pull: see what it's like to be me. Because, though imagination is my strong suit, I can't imagine what it was like to be her.

This is what I do know: until you forgive someone as close as a mother, you are at war with yourself, you continue to gnaw that leg of yours caught in a trap. Why are you at war with yourself? I think because to hold a grudge against another person you have to recognize in them a quality that you yourself possess but can't admit to.

Forgiveness takes a while, and you can't help suffering because you're in the millrace of change. The process won't speed up because you think it might be nice to get back in connection with the human race. When you come to the place where you can forgive, you are a different person than you were at the beginning of the journey. The person who can forgive is different from the person who could not forgive. You have to shed millions of cells and regrow them all.

It helped me to look at my feelings systematically, in the way that Thich Nhat Hanh taught, like "older sister taking care of younger sister:" "Breathing in, I know that I am feeling anger. Breathing out, I see the deep causes of my anger..."

I do not yet, as I write this, see the deep causes, but I know that my mother and I were locked in a struggle that replicated my mother's struggle with her own mother. Is there a way in which the child shapes the parent, as much or more than the parent shapes the child? My own children have molded me to the good that's in them --- we've been entrained in a positive feedback cycle that began with breast-feeding. But what if parent and child lock into a negative cycle, as did my mother and I? I think that, in her youth and neediness, she didn't want a rival for Dad's affection, and she felt I effaced her from the moment I was born.

Walking by Siletz Bay one afternoon, I came upon part of an old doorframe, its antique knob and hook in place, floating at the tide line. It wasn't easy to haul it up and get it in the car, but who can resist the door to the ocean? There are seals, cavorting in the surf, wanting, I know, to knock. What mystery might come through this door, what alien form of unconscious life, trailing its hair of golden dulse? During our time at Sitka, both Karl Pilato and I had been working, in our separate studios, with concepts of liminal, threshold space, worlds between worlds, clearings, the sky holes these huge trees keep open: while on all sides of us, the landscape kept coming on.

I don't know the deep causes of my feelings, but I honor the door through which anyone, anything may arrive.

After my mother died, I couldn't pray and I stopped dreaming almost entirely. Stuck in the everyday world, all the usual sources of transcendence dry, I hung out with my old dog until she, too, passed on, and with my crazy, affectionate young dog, Star.

Then, when a year had passed, I tried to write about my mother's death. Immediately, Mom called me on the phone at 4 a.m. She told me in crisp, businesslike tones that she was being held prisoner in a fancy hotel and I had better get busy liberating her. I doubted anybody would believe this story, so I desperately recorded the call on my answering machine. I tried to go back to sleep, but the phone kept ringing. I was somebody's wrong number. Malevolent female voices whispered about tangled plots involving my mother. Two of them, at least, were trying to damage each other; cagily, I managed to splice the phone wires and put them in contact. They confronted each other and combusted with terrible screams, which woke me again. I was going to play you the taped evidence of this but --- there is no phone in my bedroom, no answering machine and no tape recorder.

I couldn't pray, but I put in my time. I uttered words and watched them fall with a tinkle a few feet from my body. Peter told me, "You think nothing is happening but you and your mother are locked in conversation still. It will go on and on until you are both healed. When you love somebody you sit by their deathbed year after year."

"I don't love her."

"You do."

"I don't."

--- From The Love of Impermanent Things
Mary Rose O'Reilley
©2008 Milkweed Editions
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