Not an elegy
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground
What to say about my mother’s death? That the pain of her absence was expected but the terror of her dying was not? Should I seek to console? Is there any consolation greater than truth, even when the truth is terrible? Should I compare? Should I say, “I know that I am quite old for this shock? I am quite lucky to have had her for so long? She suffered but was surrounded by love? Others have suffered more?” Should I say that?
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind
There was a fall, but the fall did not kill her. Before the fall there was a virus, but that, too, had passed. No one can say, actually, why my mother died, though there are those who think she made a choice. She was in and out of reason for much of the time; saying things some believe were fashioned from the debris of her mind. At one point she said, “the words are dripping from my mouth,” and I thought how it sounded like one of my stories.
She, who had remained a loyal Catholic throughout her disappointments with the church was so annoyed with them in the days before she died, because, she said, they had banned my book! She, who rarely expressed anything like anger was angry, though I promised her that if such a thing were to happen it would likely be good for sales. She could not be consoled, however.
In her struggle between worlds she found odd phrases to turn over and over again, repeating them in a torture of anguish I wish she had not suffered. In an attempt to release her from the gyre I offered other phrases, once saying to her, “Mom, everything good I’ve done, I’ve done because of you. All my words are your words. All my stories are your stories.”
Maybe I should focus on that. My mother was my first writing group. I used to follow her around reading my poetry to her while she did household chores, and then I would ask, “But do you understand? What it means?” She didn’t really like that, but humored me nonetheless. Even as a child I wrote some strange stuff but she never shamed me or made me doubt my course. Only once, when I was well into my thirties, did she say, “Maybe you should forget about this writing thing. I worry you’ll become a bag lady.”
Her concern was not exactly unfounded, though the danger seems to have passed. I presented her with my second short story collection one Christmas and I can still remember the look of pleasure when she discovered the dedication to her. In hindsight I wish I had saved that for The Memory Garden, which is a novel about mothers and daughters and aging, but that book wasn’t even a notion yet, and I did know I was running out of time with her.
Still, she was here to enjoy its publication. She loved my book! She was so proud of me! I am so lucky. I am so rich in the midst of my bereavement to know that I made my mother proud. I mean, really proud. For all that the writing life has disappointed me, it gave me this. Dying, my mother said, “Mary wrote her book. And I wrote my book.” And she smiled.
I read Dirge Without Music, by Edna St. Vincent Millay at Mom’s memorial service. It’s an odd piece, really, because it does not offer platitudes, and the solace it provides is in recognition of the mourner’s struggle.
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned /With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Yesterday was my birthday. I marked it with a spiral of fifty-five tea light candles in my backyard. Later, I read the last chapter of my novel out loud while watching over the flames. I did not know, when I wrote my novel, that I was writing it for this woman who watched the light flicker on a winter’s night and remembered the way her dying mothers’ face shone when she said, “Mary wrote her book. And I wrote mine.”
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world./Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/ Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;/ Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./ I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.