Below is excerpted from my Dharma memoir, a work in progress with the working title of Mother, Where Did You Go? I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it.
I find myself thinking a lot about my mother, now that I’m visiting family in South Carolina. She was one strong woman, a pioneer who would have been just fine living on a homestead in Kansas in 1840 (and maybe she did). The first 19 years of her married life were spent in just such conditions; yet, despite limited formal education, circumstances supported her to expand her mind and develop her love for travel and her talent for serving her community. She was a woman imbued with unstoppable determination, enthusiasm, and love for Life whose favorite color was red. She was affectionately referred to, posthumously, as Mamie Lane, an “Iron Magnolia.”
I slept in my mother’s bed, enveloped by the sweet, old woman smell of her, while she lay in a coffin a few miles away. The last time I had been in this house, just twelve days earlier, I had slept in this same bed. Usually, I stayed in a guest room, but that night we had curled up together, watching TV and chatting, while eating our supper on trays.
At one point, she had suddenly said, Trishie, you know, I could die here, all alone, and no one would know. I squeezed her hand, replying, Mama, you’re not going to die!
End of subject. Continue to eat. Watch TV.
A friend has asked me, “How could a 47 year old woman be affected so strongly by the death of her 82 year old mother?
How to understand my experience? Why was I so devastated by this very natural and, actually, very beautiful end of a long life? Hers was not a traumatic death, nor was it a tragic, early death. She had not had to endure the suffering of a long illness. She had lived relatively healthily until she died. None of her fears of passing her last days in a nursing home had come true. She was physically and mentally active. She was independent, living alone, caring for herself and those in her community who were less fortunate. She still mowed her own lawn, for heaven’s sake!
Why the intense pain when I first saw my mother dead, lying in a coffin, my body doubled over with the feeling of something being ripped from deep in my abdomen? And, why did I hold on to her for so long?
She had spent Easter weekend with us in our house in the country, near Charleston. Like two young girls, we shopped together for new Easter bonnets to wear to church. We both liked the way we looked in them. These were special “church-lady hats,” still standard church and funeral attire in the ‘80s in the South, at least for those of us who were vain enough to wear them.
We weren’t members, or even regular visitors, at the churches in the area. We, therefore, chose to attend services at a new one, attracted by its architecture, rather than any spiritual comfort we might find there. The entrance was on the second floor, with seriously steep steps to negotiate. When the greeter suggested we take the elevator around back, my mother refused. She didn’t need that elevator, thank you, though she had to rest a few moments at the top, panting and red-faced.
The long weekend had been weather-perfect. Springtime in the low country of South Carolina is unrivaled for natural beauty. The combination of blooming azaleas and dogwood, the lavender-colored wisteria entangled in the pine trees, and the majesty of sprawling and ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, is truly magical.
I drove her home on Monday. As we pulled away from the house, I stopped. We sat, not talking, drinking in the beauty of our surroundings. The purple, pink, and white blossoms along the driveway, the creek and golden salt marsh, the heavy scent of its mud; they were all so much a part of us both. My mother stared, then took a deep breath and turned to me, one tear rolling down her left cheek, You know, Trishie, I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to leave.
Two times she tried to tell me. I couldn’t hear her. She knew that, and so she did what she had to do. She died alone.
Her death shook me to the core and opened my heart. For 24 years, since that Spring day that changed my life, I’ve worked to keep it open, so I can hear the answers.
Where did she go? Where will I go? Where did I come from?