When Grieving Means Learning to Forgive

Moving On From Loss Means Acknowledging and Releasing Our Pain.

There’s a museum in my hometown that has occupied me since my childhood. The imposing structure was a place my parents took me as a child on weekend afternoons, a destination where I peered idly around hallways while my thoughtful mom and dad studied exhibits, time passing not at all. There were descriptions of Navajo culture and so many baskets, numbered sprouts of gypsum and dolomite that my parents pored over while I wondered about lunch and the gift shop.

As I got older, my parents still clipped articles from the newspaper about traveling exhibits and I went along, trying to linger like the two of them did, imitating their curious nods. The hallways gave rise to teenage daydreams, I picturing myself as a world traveler, an anthropologist, a physician, a photographer. By the time I became a young mom myself, the museum had become a sentimental stop, a place I gladly took my own children with preemptive tales: there’s a hallway here, I warned them, that is the creepiest and darkest of all the hallways. My toddler son donned a jet pack. There will be countdowns, we agreed. We will blast off. We will land on planets no one has heard of before.

I was only 25 years old when my father began to fade away. I was only 25 when he had his first acute health problem and we took him to an emergency room and wondered what would happen next. I didn’t realize then that this was an era at its beginning, a lengthy period when the hospital visits would age into scripts and the exercises would grow familiar: phone calls at odd hours. Bad news. I have a flashbulb image of that first sight of him in a hospital gown. My papa looked…vulnerable. I was young enough that the medical buildings still provoked early memories of nighttime drives there to tend to my asthmatic brother. There was a playful physician in those days who told the two of us that he could see fantastic bugs crawling in our ears. The new experience clashed with the old memory: me, wide-eyed at my ailing father’s mortality, and me, wondering aloud: oh is this the place where that funny doctor used to be?

My father declined for many years. Blood clots. A heart attack. Atrial fibrillation. Memory loss. A pacemaker. More memory loss. Edema. Falls. His list of prescription medications grew. His list of physicians grew: cardiologist, urologist. He broke a hip. Pulmonary hypertension. More memory loss.

Late last fall, I visited our museum again. For the first time in a long time, I went alone. Just outside the building to the west, there is a hill with a slope ideal for sledding. That December day, I stood just beyond the slope, neither moving nor speaking. There were indeed children there, climbing the incline behind me and squealing. I took in the familiar downtown skyline. I settled finally on a flock of wild geese padding toward a wide tree, their sounds the ambient tones that were long since familiar.

I was 35 years old when my mother began to fade away. A decade into my father’s health crises, my mother was beset with stomach pains. I took her in for blood tests. I took her in for x-rays. As her providers continued to find no physical explanation for that distress, she fell further and further into her own memory loss, her widening confusion.

A beloved friend sent me a Mary Oliver poem the night my mother died. It was three months after the morning my father died. I have always liked Oliver’s poems, my favorite her “Wild Geese.” Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.

Standing outside the museum, not quite eight months after my mother’s death, I finally understood: the flock of geese was the first thing I would have to forgive. If you had asked me as a teenager in that museum how long one needs to be mothered, I would probably say I wasn’t sure. Maybe 22 years, til you graduate from college? The answer I could not have given then: even 35 years are not enough. And when my mother dies, I must first forgive the wild geese on the snow outside this building.

My mother loved birds, I told the geese as I watched them. She and my father often talked in silly voices for animals and made me giggle, even as an adult. I explained to the geese that my father helped my mother install bird feeders in the backyard, and when the squirrels stole the birdseed, my father fashioned a clever barrier to keep them away. I told the geese that my parents both loved this museum and this city. This snow like this. This hill like this. You geese.

I forgive you.

So began the journey to forgive the world for whisking my parents into emergency rooms and diagnoses. There has been much more to forgive. I have to forgive January, for that is when my father died, and I have to forgive its proximity to the April that claimed my mother. I have to forgive all the appointment reminders and summaries and my mother’s test for Alzheimer's disease. It is only the most ordinary set of questions. Draw the face of a clock. My mother hesitated. I have to forgive the missing clock.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.

I’ve always been interested in what we reveal in our collective choice of words — that we fall in love, for example. Grief, like love, is an unfolding. It is component parts that lock in place but then shift and tumble again, surprising. Nothing can be added together neatly because there are no rules. It is the pang and the joy of memories. It is the relief and the anguish of time passing. It stills. It hushes. It draws into fists, then pulls crudely into solitude, then falls into comfort and, at the same time, eyes full of tears. Grief knows.

There is much work involved to forgive it all. I have to forgive the final hospice beds, the days-long vigils. My mother died with her head on a pillowcase I had used as a teenager. I have to forgive the laughing sob when I realized this, my mother still alive in that moment, me again the teenager in those museum hallways. She was always practical. The sheets were faded but sound.

I have not yet forgiven it all. I have not yet forgiven the cocktail of drugs they gave my mother in her final two months. I have not forgiven the employer I returned to the day my father died, who let me return numbly to my cubicle as if I’d left for a long lunch. My father died, I want to scream at them all now. I have not forgiven my mother’s bone thin arms as she lay dying nor the sunken look of her eyes, already gone. I have not.

I did not know that forgiveness — whether I manage it at each mile marker or not — would be such a vast part of my grief. There have been intervals when all I can do is forgive something tiny. The windows. The hand-sewn rag doll someone transported with my mom from the psychiatric ward to her death bed. I can forgive the pill boxes we hid from my mother as her self-care receded — and I can forgive the day she pulled open the proper drawer to find the boxes herself next to the spaghetti.

I can laugh now around those edges. I don’t have to forgive everything at once. I can let myself feel like that impossible old pillowcase. I can be faded but familiar, soft and frayed, full.

I included the final lines of “Wild Geese” in my college yearbook entry twenty years before my parents died. Perhaps I knew that the geese would be first, and these crossroads I pass toward forgiveness would be among my moments most exposed, most human. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.