When I saw you last December,
your warm fingers on my neck felt reassuring —
it’s pure trust, letting someone adjust your spine.
“Relax,” you commanded, for I was tense.
The muscles surrounding my precious cervical vertebrae
relaxed into your palms.
I told you I was tense because I was worried,
really worried about the Trump administration…
Your healing hands moved to my shoulder, the tricky one.
You felt, you pulled, you pushed,
you said, with a chuckle: “Oh, come on, now.
You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
I said I worried about my friends and loved ones,
the non-Christian, the non-white, the LGBTQ, and immigrants, too.
And, that I was also very worried that my ACA insurance
would be taken away, that I’d not have any insurance
because hey I’m old enough now to have a track record
and anyone with a track record
involving two near-death medical experiences
looks like a big old pre-existing exclusion
Your right hand was on my thigh, left hand cradling my shoulder
You pulled me back against your body, almost lover-like,
to twist my spine
(real healing requires trust)
You said, “Oh nothing will change!
Relax! No one’s gonna take your insurance away.”
You were not the first white professional man
to hush me, tell me everything would be fine.
(I’m just sorry that you were wrong.)
Business may become very lean, doctor.
It seems strong spines have gone
out of fashion in many circles.
I’m going to say it straight out. Somebody’s going to die tomorrow.
Actually, I’m sure, lots of somebodies will die, but there’s one in particular
that I’m thinking of tonight.
Nothing lasts forever.
Joy comes, and goes.
Seasons come, and go.
Grief comes and goes, too.
Whole countries, entire species,
blazing stars in the sky—
come and go.
Tomorrow the elm tree outside
my west-facing windows will be taken down.
Chain saws will whir and bite.
It will be fast, the end.
Tonight I’m saying goodbye.
I get it.
It’s become dangerous, the elm.
Too big for its place. It has to go.
It could hurt someone.
(Hurt is part of life)
Joy comes, and goes.
I will miss her outstretched limbs
reflecting in my morning coffee in summer,
I will miss her golden leaves in the fall.
She healed me, that tree.
I spent hours looking up at her.
I owe her a lot, I think.
I wish I could tell her:
She gave me the gift of learning to just be.
To laugh and cry and and let go of what was and be myself alone.
(Though I suppose I wasn’t ever really alone; she was there?)
I’ll carry her gift with me, planted like a seed
rooting in my heart.
I’m getting more comfortable with impermanence.
Better at letting go.
Better at grief.
It’s just a tree, after all,
a little piece of heaven,
patiently teaching me how to breathe in life.
It’s your birthday, Mama. In the picture you’re about 12 or 13, but you did headstands for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager, I lived in fear of your doing one when a friend was over. The other mothers didn’t do things like that.
I’m beginning at last to see you more fully, twenty-five years after your last earthly birthday. A truer picture emerges as I learn more about life, about myself—maybe it’s you coming clear or maybe it’s me? But the veils are falling away.
For a long time, I kept my memories of you behind those veils, blurring the edges and obscuring the painfully sharp details. The veils were garnet-colored, the blood-red of your birthstone. Looking at you through them softened the memories of you, made them pink and pretty as a sunset, and as distant.
The summer I was eighteen your anchoring roles were torn away. Your last baby (me) off to college. And then: Dad died. I still remember the grief, suffocating and thick as the August air. Suffocating because we were locked into pretending to be strong and calm, you and I.
At exactly the age I am today, you became a widow. And all these years later, I am a divorced woman. Funny how both of us emerged from long marriages, newly single at the same age. I feel a new kind of kinship with you. I guess our relationship isn’t over, is it? It’s true what they say: the people you love live on in your heart.
As I find myself, I unearth pieces of you, and you continually surprise me, Mama. You are not all fierce hugs and pots of vegetable soup, not just chewy raisin-oatmeal cookies and games of cribbage and piles of books and papers everywhere, though I see you in my mail stacks and my habit of saving the tiniest bits of leftovers.
I also find your “hot-spit” spirit in the shards of my anger, I find your ancient wounds, and mine, in my middle-of-the-night panics. I hear your voice sometimes in my dreams, and in shrill of my own voice, when I lose patience and boil over. Oh, I am fine, Mama. More than fine. Like you, I’m resilient and now: I don’t have to pretend to be ever-strong and ever-calm. I can just be me, roiling emotions and all.
The last gifts you gave me are the ones I’ve spent the last couple years opening. Remember that night in the kitchen after your chemotherapy, in the window of time before you grew queasy, how you and I sat and you told me some things that maybe you never told anyone else, because I needed to know them? Or maybe you told others, it doesn’t matter. You gave me what I needed to figure myself out. I didn’t quite know what to do with most of what you shared; I was embarrassed by your shame at your human failings. My own baby was stirring in my belly, and somehow I thought it best to push difficult things aside. Pretend it was all okay. I was afraid, you see.
I told you not to worry about the things you’d shared, things that were hard for you to say. Personal things, confessions of your weaknesses. I dismissed them all away with a rushed out thank- you-for-telling-me. I put those precious words, the evidence of your humanness, your stumbles and triumphs that were just you and not my mother, into the bottom of my very deepest brain-drawer when you died. And I pretended I was ever-strong, ever-calm. I was carefully incurious.
Silly, blind me. You meant to give me a shortcut, didn’t you? You were trying to let me know: it’s okay to be human, that falling apart—happens sometimes. That the key is trusting, and sharing, and connecting. Getting up, and forgiving yourself for falling.
And all of that starts with not pretending to be strong or calm when you are not. It means not pretending at all. It was like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy realizes she’s had the power to go home all along. Pretending to be what we are not, to deny who we are, drives us into very lonely territory.
This year, I finally learned how to do a headstand. Like mother, like daughter.
I’m so glad, Mama, that you are still here, in my heart, while I figure things out.
“under loss and under hard words,
under your heart,
it doesn’t matter. They can live forever.”
I think there are some feelings that are like thistles, that’s why Erdrich’s poem and the thistles along the sidewalk speak to me like an old friend as I ponder how some losses, some griefs, some pointy bits of the past never do entirely smooth over or disappear.
They simply die back for a while, and you think they are gone. Then you’re innocently snapping a photo, minding your own business, and they come back—sharp as ever.
But they are beautiful, thistles are. They endure for a reason.