About six weeks ago the best friend/roommate of a girl I was dating (yes, you’ve read about her here before) had her dad pass away after a long up-and-down battle with cancer. It came on quickly and ebbed and flowed; there were several times she had to fly back home to see him and say her final goodbyes. Or so she thought. Just as quickly as he was expected to die, he would make a miraculous, but brief, recovery. This obviously tugged at her heart strings (the friend’s) because she was constantly getting herself ready to lose her dad. Well, finally, one day she got a call that his time was near the end. There would not be time for her to fly home one last time; this was it. So on that day, a Sunday, she spoke to her dad via Skype one last time. The girl I was dating was there too, and she recounted to me that it was overwhelmingly painful to watch this final conversation, not just for her friend and her dad, but because she had known him her whole life too. Then like that, once the call was over, there would be no more conversations…
The girl I was dating called me that night, obviously deeply saddened. She had always had a somewhat rocky relationship with her parents, and only over the course of the last year or so has she been able to navigate and start to make things better. She had gone home earlier in the summer, and that was helpful, and now over this loss of a family friend, she was able to find an emotional connection with her folks once again. It was her mom where the rift was most apparent and most difficult to sew up, and this fragile life lesson provided a glimmer of a silver lining: confessions of love and caring between mother and daughter. She said she couldn’t imagine losing a parent. Maybe these wounds could heal, in time…
Then a little over a week ago I woke up to a missed call and message from her; it would’ve been 2 a.m. her time, so I figured a drunken call. When I listened to the message, through crying gasps for air, she relayed that her mom had died. It was surreal. I called her back immediately, but obviously you never know what to say in those situations. There is nothing to say. Nothing will make it better. Nothing will bring her mom back. Her mom was only 50 years old. She died of a heart attack moving furniture. My ex made her plans to fly home that day, unsure of what was to come and not wanting to face it. It was heavy. She had only one year earlier moved 2,000 miles from home on her own. Now in some ways she would be on her own again for good. She told me that she never hoped to get married, never planned to have kids, but that there were so many other things a mom was supposed to witness that now would not be seen and celebrated. Most of all she worried about her dad and her little brother who was only 17. She’s good like that; thinking about others before herself.
While sitting with the remaining family and the minister as they talked about the plans for the funeral, the clergymen asked her dad how he should describe the relationship. His response: “Meant to be.” This was a powerful statement as it settled in on the ears, mind and heart of my ex. She didn’t know how her dad would go on. But he would. They all would. There isn’t another choice…
At the services she said it was standing room only. She had no idea how many people her mom had touched. She didn’t realize how many of her own old friends came seemingly out of nowhere in a gesture to help her carry the burden, at least as much as it is possible for someone else to do that in a situation like this. She sorted through old pictures of her mom and saw her in her happiest moments, her most candid moments, and her earliest moments. Then one picture, of her mom holding my ex at about age 2 stuck out to her. Here it was, mom presenting her child to the world, buttressed by the strong shoulders, loving heart and genuine concern for her daughter. Now that foundation is gone in physical form, but that picture, and the memories, will serve as the reminder of what was and could still be through developing a personal connection.
Our reconstructive memories are very powerful. They are often tainted by our expectations as well as our peak or final moments. And in a situation like this where grief comes through like a tidal wave wiping out all the bad memories and the rifts that fractured our relationships, what’s left when the tide recedes are the grains of our lives. The happy ones. For there is no value in holding on to the bad times, the arguments and the natural inability to see eye-to-eye with a parent in adolescence and early adulthood. That won’t lend to healing. And hopefully, those issues were far less than they appeared on the surface. Either way they offer no support. Support is in the positive emotions we link to our past and our connections. Those same emotions will be drawn on to tighten the bond of the family going forward, hopefully. “With or without you the world still turns” (Jerry Joseph). And she has realized this. Saddened by her loss, empowered by her ability to reprioritize her mom’s memory and her family in her life.
I didn’t offer any advice or condolences, not really. We talked, and I think she found some of it helpful. But no one can get you through a situation like this. Sure, it’s great to have family and friends to rely on for support, but they can only prop you up, not make you walk. The one thing I did tell her that I thought might help was this: “The meaning is in the response” (Gene Weinstein). How she chooses to respond to this situation will make all the difference. To be crushed by it and never rise again would be to admit defeat and disempower her mother’s memory and love. To learn from it, to let it be a call to remind the very ephemerality of life is to prosper. To try as hard as you can to never take anything for granted again. Much easier said than done, I know. But all she has to do from now on when she feels apathy setting in is to think of her mom. That will be the match that reignites her candle and her light for life.
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