About a month ago, when I was just beginning to recover from Christmas, I got a call from my sister-in-law in Wisconsin. She’d found a lump in her groin–not a good thing for a woman just two years out from major surgery for melanoma. The next call confirmed her fears–it was a recurrence. Her surgery was set for early the following week–an extensive and painful surgery, which left her weak, bed-ridden, and as hopeless as I’ve ever heard her. The following week her lab report came back–no clear margins. On the phone, she tearfully asked me “why?” Already stricken with fibromyalgia, and the common lack of understanding about that by those around her, she had spent the better part of the year taking care of her mother with Alzheimer’s. “Why?” she cried. I had no answer. She might not make it to the wedding, she had said, but she would try. After I hung up, I walked around in a daze, a cold stone in my stomach.
The same week that her labs came back, I learned that my beloved aunt in Maine, who had just buried her husband, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. My beautiful, earthy, spirited aunt who grew blueberries and swam in finger lakes and taught me an awful lot about having an open heart. Then came the call that it had gone into her bones. Before she had time to process the shock of the first diagnosis, she had to make decisions about treatments, and come to terms with the short time she has left. “It’s damn awful,” she said over the phone. I was glad she could say it. She still had her moxie. I hung up the phone, a jumble of memories surging up–of how she’d always been there, a steady loving presence. Now there was a cold stone on my chest.
By then I was sodden with grief. Just when I thought I could take no more, that my mind, my tissues could absorb no more, I come home to my husband on the phone and overheard him saying, “Yes, I’ll have her call you back. But be warned, she’ll probably be crying….” “I’m here,” I said, lurching for the phone. “It’s Lil’s son… not good news, honey.” My dear friend, Ms. Lili, was dying. I wasn’t surprised–she had been declining for the last two years. In her late eighties, she’d lived a good, full life, and she would be the last to consider her own passing a tragedy. The sadness was all for me, for losing my “Jewish” mother, the one who thought I hung the moon, who called me darling, who once sent me an erotic love poem, saying if she was younger she would have given to her husband. She often sat in my kitchen, drinking tea without sugar, “so I can taste the tea,” and eating my husband’s homemade cornmeal bread without butter, “so I can taste the bread.” She supported me through rough years, when my illness and my husband’s heart condition, and the normal strains of life threatened to take us down. She gave me prize-winning day lilies, and never, ever lost her zest for life and her love of people.
I would like to tell you that I went straight to my journal to deal with my grief. I did not. I went straight to Tuesday Morning where I bought a red enameled braising pan I’d been eyeing, as well as unnecessary lemon soap, and skeins of moss green cashmere and silk yarn to add to my stash. I went to the nail salon and got massaged. I bought glossy magazines. “Good, Mom, good,” my son Adam said, “that will make you feel better.” I could not read a poem or write a line. I stared at recipes from Provence and envisioned using my red pan to make rich and tender dishes. I was buffeted by gusts of grief and gratitude, by memories, and a keen sense of the shortness of our time here. I picked herbs, I cooked, I listened to Satie and Arvo Part. These things tethered me to the earth. But I could not find language. I could not find myself as I had been.
But that’s it, isn’t it? We are not supposed to be as we had been. A friend of mine used to say, “Life is real. Too bad.” There is no distancing these losses, there is no denying them. They are experienced in our bodies, they alter the narratives of our lives. There is only the living through them, and that takes energy and being willing to say yes to this, even if it is not what I would have chosen. Even if it means I lose the illusion of control. I would like to think that Rumi’s poem applies here:
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.
Next week I fly to Maine to say good-bye to my aunt. I know nothing but that I hope to be present to her, as she has been to me all my life. I hope to be given wings.