Buckets and Begonias

Today marks a year since my mom passed away. 365 days, four seasons, countless family dinners, a new baby, an emptied nest, moves and holidays. Without her. Without either parent.

This past summer I was visiting my daughter in her new hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. I saw the most luscious begonias—the size of shrubs—hanging throughout the beautiful Indiana University campus. I thought immediately of Mom. Begonias were her favorite spring flowers. Like so many other times this year, I thought to reach for the phone, only to remember.

In his book, The Orphaned Adult, Alexander Levy explains that when your last parent dies, you make the passage into full adulthood. Indeed, it is a shock to the system, and I found myself grieving not just Mom but Dad too. Although he’s been gone for 5 years, Dad’s loss is new again and my feelings raw. At some point this year, I realized that there is no longer anyone who has known me, loved me, since I first drew breath. That the childhood mishaps and heartbreaks and triumphs are now mine alone.

As trying as they were at the time, I see now that those final days and hours with Mom were a gift. I remember a sunny January afternoon a few days before Mom died. I sat beside her as she drifted in and out of consciousness. I knew she knew I was there because she would reach for me. I was struck then by what a profound privilege it was to be beside her. You see, in all other areas of my life—work, motherhood, friendships, social interactions, I have to be diplomatic, organized, congenial, positive. But as I sat with Mom, counting the breaths, watching the life eek out of her frail body, I realized that I, with all my flaws and shortcomings, was enough. I’m sure my brothers felt the same way when they sat with her. I could bestow an amazing gift without uttering a word, without makeup or cleverness or solutions. I could hold her hand and simply be.

One of the hardest parts of the last year was losing my auditory dumping ground. No matter how busy or tired she was, and no matter what I needed to vent, cry, or laugh about, I had a ready audience in Mom. But unlike every other significant journey of my life, this time there is no one to call, no one to offer advice or support. I have found myself voyaging into full adulthood compass-less.

I have come to understand that grief can segue into some of life’s sweetest moments. This time last year, I was in her apartment spending what would be Mom’s last night. We had been told that death was imminent, and I remember staring into the blackness beyond her window, dreading, fearing the long hours that lay before me. All at once there was a knock at the door—my friend Marian. She sat with me for two hours, chatting about inconsequential things, as one of the most consequential parts of my life drew in shallow breaths. It was one of the kindest acts anyone has ever done for me and reminded me in the darkness that I was not alone.

Two weeks after Mom died, another friend, Linda, asked to treat me to dinner.

“What’s the occasion,” I asked.

“Grief,” she said.

She recalled the deaths of her own parents, only a few months apart. Linda went on to explain how, after the meals and the visits and the flowers, she found what she really needed was to give voice to the grief—to talk to someone about her parents. So she extended that gift to me, and her generous ear was just what I needed.

What I learned about grief over the past year is that it comes in waves and keeps its own timetable. It cannot be postponed or mitigated: when it comes, it comes. I find grief to be like a full bucket of water: if you don’t tip the bucket, spill a few tears, you will drown. As for me, I cry mostly in the car. This practice is not without its perks. You are mercifully alone and you can wail as loud as you wish. In addition, I will say that more than once, upon seeing my contorted face, a fellow driver has offered to let me go. Sometimes the tears need to come but won’t. For those times, I recommend music. Ed Sheeran’s “Supermarket Flowers” is pepper to the stubborn sneeze.  

My favorite picture of Mom, pictured here in her 20s.

It occurs to me that if we don’t spill our buckets, we cannot refill them with the happiness that inherently comes from being alive. For even as we grieve, we find situations and people that make us laugh. Even as we feel we are walking in darkness, the sun rises and beckons us out of bed.

Grief forces us to move on—to forge new paths. According to Levy, grief “alerts us to pursue those important goals that we otherwise tend to postpone in the naïve belief that our time is enduring.” As an orphaned adult, I see now that my time will not endure. Although facing my mortality is frightening, I know there are (hopefully) years ahead of me that can be whatever I make of them. This past year has been one of new revelations and experiences for me. There is a relief in knowing—for I strongly believe—that Mom is at peace. My work is done, and my brothers and I were enough. I don’t feel guilty for the relief. I belief it is grief’s necessary and strange bedfellow. Relief reminds us that there is life to be lived, horizons to be sought.

Cry. Wail. Fill your bucket to the brim, but then let it spill. And decide with what you’re going to fill it. As for me, spring is coming. There are begonias to plant.

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