This issue of The Phoenix Spirit is about retreats. This is when I usually blather on about retreats being my favorite topic of the year and that there exists a retreat to fit every budget, temperament, and shoe size. But this year is different. While all of the above is true, I’ve ventured, rather involuntarily, into a retreat of a different stripe this past spring.
Dolores, my 88-yearold mom, passed away on May 4. Her death was both expected and unexpected. People ask such things, and it’s a good question to ponder. Mom was declining rapidly with her physical health, and as a result she was in significant and constant pain. She was expected to die, as are we all for that matter, yet as the months and weeks went by, and then the last days and hours of her life, it still seemed to me so, well, unexpected when she died.
And so, from this odd the-end-is-nigh vantage point, my mother and I went on separate retreats together these past few months. She, from a morphine- enhanced stance of pain relief and myself from a surreal my-momis- leaving-this-world place that left us both teetering on our own precipices. When I fell off mine, it would be into sadness, perhaps unidentified and unexamined regret, and a closer look at my own mortality. When she fell off her precipice, it was into unknown and unexplored territory.
Mom and I retreated together. I spent as much time as I could traveling to Chicago to be with her. We went through drawers and boxes full of black and white photos from the farm in Iowa, trying to identify this or that relative by the wave in their hair or an old chiffon dress. We found my father’s class ring and my mom’s birth certificate. I was surprised and heartened by the fact that my grandmother didn’t keep up my mom’s baby book any better than I did my own sons’.
During this time my life at home took on a different hue. Paler. Not as vibrant and full. And that was ok because in order to time travel with my mom into our family stories, I needed to let go of some of my present life demands and desires. I was less present for my 16-year-old son and my husband, took time off work, and my social life turned into a trickle.
But I got to wander with my mom through lifetimes of memories. We laughed at the hundreds of recipes she had clipped to send to me. We unearthed an emotion filled letter I wrote from college in which I defended my character. We salvaged decades of birthday cards, and my father’s obituary. All the while Dear Abby clippings and stamps fell from random timeworn envelopes like confetti on our parade.
The part I’ll never forget from these past few months though, is the moment Mom and I locked eyes, and without speaking a word, told each other that this was the end. She was going somewhere where I couldn’t follow for a while. Mom knew it, and I knew it. And yet, when she surrendered, it was as unexpected as the call of an owl in the still of the night.
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