In which the end is the beginning.

I’ve been trying to figure out since June 23rd how to talk about the fact that my mom is dead.  You see, I haven’t spoken with her or been in her presence since September of 1998, but the death of a person is more than the simple absence of their body from a familiar space.  Unlike most people who lose a parent to death, I don’t walk into rooms and miss seeing her standing in that certain spot at the kitchen counter, or find myself following a woman with a similar walk at the grocery store.  I haven’t thought I saw her since 2000, the year when, for the last time, I was certain Mom drove past me in a navy blue Volvo station wagon on a high way between Toledo and Columbus, Ohio. Despite that absence, she’s been everywhere in my life, fingerprints all over it.

In the intervening 11 years between the morning she walked out of our house, January first during my sophomore year of high school, and last month, I have moved through the stages of grief.  I’ve been angry, accepting, and depressed.  I’ve bargained with God, and with Mom.  I’ve forgiven and learned how to appreciate the wonderful things she gave her daughter, the tools and resources she shared, the weirdnesses and joys, the damaged and broken places she handed down across a generation to her girl.  January of 2008, I sat ten years to the day of her leaving in a crowded church in Madurai, India, and let…mom…go.  Intentionally, peacefully, I transitioned from one decade into the next, opening clenched fists and releasing into the world my sadness and my hope that this person who had parented me would someday figure out that her kids were waiting, if she would only turn around.  The Prodigal Son story has always been a favorite of mine, but mostly because I liked the fact that the son came back at all, that he took the risk.  After January, I found, however, that my moments of letting go had been mere preparation for a year that would show me forcefully that in fact, no matter how much letting go I do, I will always and forever be my mother’s daughter.  Her legacy follows me, is inherent in my nature and in my body, in ways that I can’t even begin to describe. And I realize that being aware of those things, the way my very self is shaped by her being, the way that despite death her voice is one of the strongest in my head and her way of living one of the most influential to my own, is one way into the future.  I can do nothing other than honor her presence here, in my self and my history.

And so, as the only daughter of Jerri Lin Cahill Nielsen Fitzgerald, I will.  I honor her life and her death.  Her absence and her presence, both.  Her blazing triumphs and desperate failures, incredible risks and heartbreaking choices.  Mom, I honor your awful silences and your eccentric laugh.  The energy you brought to living, balanced by the way you ignored and avoided difficult things.  The beauty you found in language, your cruel use of it.  Your efforts to teach, and the things you taught that I wish you had not.  Your appreciation of nature, and the nature you imparted to us, your children.  We all fail sometimes.  I promise this is not how I remember you, defined by your shortcomings.  Your way of being in the world would lead to pain as well as wonder, that’s the way such a life works.  Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself reminds me that despite death, you are still alive, in those of us your soul touched.  In a year where you might say everything has collapsed, I take sustenance and find peace in this line: to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.


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