Living in the Shadow of Death (2007)

It is a curious thing to live within the shadow of a parent’s death, instead of within the light of his or her life. I was six and a half years old when the pall bearers lowered my father’s casket with the red rose centerpiece into his grave. From that day forward, death was real. It no longer resided in the rooms of fantasy in my mind, the endless games of cops and robbers and cowboys and indians my brother and I enacted. It encased my father, held him deeply within the earth, established an impenetrable barrier to our connection. It had finality. Finito. Fini. Done.

The echo of this loss has stretched across the peaks and valleys of my life for over 40 years. But when I became a parent, the sound became a crooning underneath a surface of prickling fear that has ebbed and flowed. I am terrified of dying and leaving my children. No, correction: I am terrified of leaving my young children. I don’t fear death and haven’t for many years. At 47, I have lived a long life already. I have thrived despite childhood experiences of poverty, divorce, orphanhood, neglect, abuse, and domestic violence, the latter a type of homebound terrorism. I have had as many or more blessings: advanced education, professional success, the current wealth of a strong, loving community, and the privilege of parenting. Every night before I go to sleep, I start a prayer that begins: I am grateful for another day of living.

However, despite my gratitude and fledgling Buddhist attempts to not be too attached to this singular life, I find myself grasping toward the future with my daughters, instead of relaxing in the present. I want to know I will see them through their most precious growing years, to some nebulous age or point in their lives, in which the loss of a mother would not be so stunningly devastating. Because this is my association with the death of my father, the experience I struggle to capture in conversation or print. It feels amorphous, huge, stultifying. It is an endless midnight in the oscillating sunrises and sunsets of my days. It is the longing for the warmth of a fatherly embrace, comforting words, sage advice, that still occasionally springs forth, surprising me in unsuspecting moments with its freshness and intensity. These are the feelings I want my children to never know. Because this is the truth: to grieve a parent as a child is not the same thing as to say goodbye to them as a mature adult. One is to grieve what barely existed and the infinite void, the other is to grieve decades of experiences that will never be again and/or the imperfections of the known.

All of these unimaginably messy feelings inhabit the core of that sorrowful echo. It is the intrusive background music that interjects angst when I’m envisioning the future I want with my children and that whispers quietly: “It will not be so. I will not be that lucky.” The Grim Reaper is visiting the neighborhood and may have my address. So I run around the house, desperately looking to vanquish the shadow, shut-off the sound, and turn toward the light.

There are moments of quiet respite, weeks or months that go by in which I mostly forget and relax. But other times, I become preoccupied with the niggling aches and pains or changes in my aging body. Or I’m at my annual exam and have to review our family health history that is diverse in pathology (e.g., heart disease, breast cancer, cervical cancer, diabetes.) A second small breast lump is found for me to monitor, the sporadic arrhythmia diagnosed four years ago is prominent again. Perhaps predisposed will in fact become predestined, despite my refusal to think in this way. The croon intensifies, the notes sharpen; I’m breathing shallowly again. Suddenly, I’m anticipating catastrophe. I’m just plain neurotic, a hypochondriac; the voice is low, unkind, chattering, self-critical.

Maybe I am more or less than all of this. I only know this with certainty: I am a mother, who deeply loves her children and wants to see them grow-up. Completely. Until the light in their lives is no longer predominantly sustained by the light of mine. Until the maternal love they experience circles back through them into self-love and the establishment of their own wealth of extended community. Until saying goodbye, while still deeply sad, is but a natural completion of a life’s cycle. Finito. Fini. Done.