How my mother’s love for life reached into me on the day of her death.
I went to the woods to be angry. Mom had died earlier that day, and I needed to punch something. The anger surged like a fit of vomit just moments after she passed, but I held it in. My sister and stepfather were nearby, and they needed me to keep my cool.
People texted, called, came over. Your mom is where she wanted to be now, someone said, and I started to disagree, but held that in, too. They meant well, but they were wrong. I’d been by her side, hearing her prayers. Mom wasn’t longing for heaven. She was longing to stay here, with us. She fought to live, she pleaded with God, she made plans for the summer and fall.
You don’t suffer the ravages of chemotherapy so you can go to heaven. You suffer to remain, to keep loving this life and the people you’ve been given. She won the battle, someone else said, and I managed not to scream: THEN WHY ISN’T SHE STILL HERE?!
Sometimes anger is the heart’s confirmation of an injustice. There was no justice here: For forty years my father had weighed her down, gutted her life of everyday joy. (She had always found joys — and created joys — in spite of him. Her superpower was Living Well Anyway.) But ten years ago, she finally broke free, and she found love with her old high school sweetheart. They built a new life together, a life of grandchildren and gardening and volunteering and an ever-widening circle of friends.
Since I was a boy, I had wanted a better life for my mom. She deserved it as much as anyone can. The woman was something of a legend among those who knew her, simply because she loved everyone who came her way.
My friend Mike tells a story of the first time he came over to my house, while we were in college, and how my mom hugged and welcomed him in a way that made him think: If I ever become a parent, this is the kind of parent I want to be. He says he’s thought back to that moment for twenty years. I’d watched such moments happen my entire life, watched her love people well.
I also watched her caught in the vice grip of my father’s addictions and sicknesses. So it was a gift to tell people these last ten years that she was free, that she was building a new life with Jack, who loved her as my dad never could. The Lord will return to me the years that the locusts have eaten, Mom used to say, quoting the biblical prophet Joel. And so he did.
For a while, anyway.
Not long enough, if you ask me.
And you’ll excuse me if, in the first hours after she passed in mid-February, my main desire was to put my fist through a wall.
Plus — and this is the leak that broke the dam — the way she died was so unexpected and unworthy of her. In the first season of the TV show This Is Us, a middle-aged man named Randall watches his father pass away peacefully. They exchange tender last words, gazing into each other’s eyes. Call it a fairy tale, call it sentimental, call it ignorance — I just don’t see how you could write a death scene like that if you’ve ever seen someone die.
Maybe we need the myth. Plenty of people told us Mom’s passing would be peaceful — that once she entered hospice care, she’d go gently into that good night. The end would be a crossing over; this life one moment, that life the next, like slipping a fish into a river. But Mom’s last few hours were not an unclenching. They were a gasping, disfigured struggle.
My advice to anyone who asks will be: Don’t watch your loved ones die. Or, no, that’s too sacred a choice to try to shape. So instead, I’ll just say: Brace yourself.
As soon as I turned away from her lifeless body, I wanted to break something. I wanted to snatch knives from the kitchen and tear apart the sofa. I wanted to fall to my knees and scream until my lungs retched onto the floor.
I kept all this inside for the sake of my sister and stepdad and the nurse and other family and friends soon arriving. But I knew it needed to come out eventually. It always has.
Getting alone to get angry — this has been my habit since I was a boy, closing my bedroom door to punch the wall and kick the bed, overturning furniture and throwing pillows across the room, but only when no one was home. I’d pick up before they returned, except that one time I wanted my dad to see what I had done so he’d know I’d found his jugs of cheap wine stashed behind the paint cans in the garage. I’ve banged steering wheels so hard they’ve almost cracked; I’ve stopped mid-jog to punch the ground with my fists; I’ve gone deep into the woods to smash trees and yell at the sky, embarrassing myself in front of no one but the birds. (And maybe a poor hiker or two.)
Private rage; public calm. Not a secret, really. Just an outlet. A public service, even: I can let the rage out without making anyone feel bad.
So on the afternoon of mom’s death, I asked around and I Google Maps-ed, and I chose a nearby trail winding through a few miles of hilly woods. It looked dense enough to offer solitude. I made plans to get there by the end of the day, told my sister I needed a couple hours away. I watched the clock, biding my time until the release could come. I’d run uphill until my chest burned. I’d yell into the woods and at the God who made them. I’d let the anger out, and no one but the birds would have to hear my cry.
Finally, close to dusk, I got to the woods and took off uphill. The trail began with a long, sometimes steep incline. I figured I’d give it half a mile or so before I commenced with the screaming. I clinched my fists to attack the first tree that looked at me sideways.
The woods looked like this:
Alabama in late winter. You can’t tell it from the photo, but the sun was just beginning to set. The day had been mild, but the temperature was dropping with the sun, and the air was remarkable. The cold made everything still. After a while, the gray sky received pink hues of the fading light. Pink is my signature color, Mom always joked, and her voice hovered in the trees.
I kept pushing uphill, and felt strong. I felt good. Better than I had any right to feel, after long vigil nights and weeks of eating whatever kind folks brought to the hospital and home. Better than I wanted to feel. Where was the anger? I kept looking at the trees. I watched for a place to stop and scream, let it all out. But it didn’t want to come.
The gray-pink sky turned to deep purple, and as I crested the hill at last, I stopped and looked up into the winter trees. A few brown leaves hung on here and there, but with most of the foliage removed, the most pronounced occupants of the branches were birds’ nests. A half dozen or so were in view, the marks of mothers and their babies.
It was all so beautiful, and Mom would have loved it.
She was good at loving things. Not just people, but delights of all kinds. She’d exclaim over a bite of pie — My law, that is good! She’d thrill to a rush of snowy air barreling through a door — Polly Wolly, that is cold! She’d revel in the small actions of my children or the everyday insights of my wife — I do believe that is the sweetest thing I have ever heard! I called or texted her when any good thing happened, because her delight upgraded my delights. Her joy added to my joy, like a contagion.
I stood at the top of that hill and pretended for a moment that I did not know what I was feeling instead of anger — but I knew. I knew even as it welled up within me and pushed everything else aside: it was joy. I could almost hear Mom sharing it with me.
I admitted it to myself: The anger was gone. It would come back, later, here and there, in other forms. But on this day, the day of her passing, when I thought I needed it most, the anger was gone.
I went to the woods to be angry at the loss of my mom, and all I could feel was the joy of her presence. The joy of her joy.
I ran down the hill.