It’s funny, the things you can find when you sift through the backup files from various old computers. You can find old pictures that you thought you had lost. Half-finished notes, poems, a tidbit of an email you thought you might send before you thought the better of it, and just let it sit there.
Or, you can find a little document, only 24 pages in total, entitled simply “Open Letter.” It seemed innocuous enough, so I opened it. Six months of entries, here and there, some longer than others, but they all started the same.
The hurt, so far removed now, bled on the page.
In each letter, I danced and skirted around the words, like I still do. I couldn’t say “Dear Mom: It’s been eleven days since you died.” No, I couldn’t write those words. I thought it, I know I did. But my fingers wouldn’t type those words. It was always something like “since you found peace.” Since you passed. Since the light touched your face and I knew you were finally free.
Do I believe all of the above? Yes. I sincerely do.
When I bought flowers this past March 4th, do you know what I told the flower clerk? I told her I was looking for an arrangement for a particular friend, and the arrangement couldn’t have carnations. My friend hated carnations. I caught myself right after the lie slipped my lips. Why did I say that? Even I was confused at the time. I felt at peace when I was surveying the flowers, so why did I lie? Was it to avoid the expression of sympathy, the sadness, the tears? Or is my problem with the word itself? I felt silly correcting myself, especially since the look of sympathy was all the worse for the lie. *sigh*
Dead. You are dead. You died three years ago. Dead. There. I said it. More than once. It is just a word. Of course, most of you know me. I am silly and old fashioned. I know words shape us, as much as we sing and plug our ears with our fingers we know that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will forever scar us. Or mold us. We are the words we come to love or hate.
But really, I need to own this word. It cannot hurt me, to speak it, leave it, or lay it out in the open. So, for another installment in my open letter, I write the following:
March 20, 2013
It has been three years and sixteen days since I last held your hand, kissed your cheek, and laid next to you. I still miss you. The hurt is still there, but it no longer feels like a gaping empty vastness of all the things that might have or should have been. I see you now when I close my eyes and think about you. I don’t see the sickness, the illness, the pills, the morphine patches, the syringes full of liquid sustenance. The hurt and shame you tried to hide because you couldn’t face the fact that you needed someone else. I don’t see that anymore.
I don’t see your death. Or you dead.
I remember it, but more than anything, I remember you, Mom. I remember the Mom who hovered like a giant over me, who could protect me from anything. I remember the way you laughed with your whole soul, and I felt the world open up before me. I remember the walks and the banter and the singing, and the arguing. I remember the white-lipped look of rage you got when someone hurt one of your babies. It used to embarrass me, that look, because it invariably meant that someone was about to get a piece of your mind. And everyone in earshot was going to hear it.
A part of me couldn’t say the word “dead”, couldn’t really think it, because there’s that part of me that doesn’t believe you’re dead. I held you in my arms. I saw your chest fall that final time and I heard the release of your last breath. Yes, this is all true.
But in the corner of my eye, I still see glimpses of an almost six foot woman, close cropped graying hair, in a pink sweater. Sometimes she’s on a bike, sometimes just crossing the street, or picking up a piece of garbage on the side of the road, and I stop and take a second look. The woman is never you, but there’s often something so familiar in the scrunched shoulders and a look of hurt in her face. When I see her, I smile, because I feel you. I bet most of the women think they’re encountering a crazy lady, smiling at them as if she knows them, but you know what? To hell with ’em. Some of them, well, they smile back.
Literally speaking, you are dead by all modern concepts. I have your certificate of death. But much like the medieval period, there is factual truth, spiritual truth, and symbolic truth. And as St. Augustine once intimated (if memory serves me correctly, since it has been many years since I read De Civitate Dei), I do believe factual truth is the lesser of these truths. Why?
Because I still feel you in the earth, in the grass beneath my feet, in the wind, in the sun shining on my sweet daughter’s face, in the joy I feel when she points to the sky and yells “Buh! Buh! Buh!” at the passing birds. You are free. Free of all the hurt, guilt, pain and sadness you carried with you. You are free. I knew it when I saw your face relax, a smile tickle at the side of your mouth, and the pained look that I had seen on your face for so many years finally melt away. I saw that peace when you died.
And Mom? Wherever you are, there is one thing I do know for sure – you will always be with me. And I will always love you.
Your loving daughter, now and until the end of time,