For several years, some of the people closest to me have encouraged me to write and share the journey I have taken the last few years. More accurately, the catalyst to the changes in my life. Recently, my wife suggested perhaps I should fictionalize it in some way. My life, like everyone’s has been fraught with both comedy and drama. And, it is the totality of those experiences that has led me to where I am today and who I strive to become with each day that passes. The two weeks that surround Mother’s Day are emotionally challenging for me every year. I do not share the reasons why in depth with most people. People tend to gasp and groan and offer heartfelt sympathy. That has its place and while I appreciate it, the reality is that every experience we have in life teaches us. Just as welcoming new life changes the shape of our future, so loss in all its many forms changes the course that we are on.
As I recount this, it is not in the hopes of gaining anyone’s sympathy. I have been, and continue to be incredibly blessed in my life. A blessed life does not shelter anyone from pain. Pain is part of living. Seven years ago this week my life began to change drastically and without warning. I remember almost every moment of the first two weeks of May 2009. In fact, I recall moments with such clarity that when I allow myself to travel back, I often feel as if I have entered a time machine. Some moments in life are so defining, they are embedded in more than your consciousness; they become imprinted on your soul. On May 4, 2009 my father and I sat in a doctor’s office and heard the unexpected news that my mother was dying. I have never forgotten the expression on my father’s face nor the instant plummeting of my heart. I am certain that I never will.
Two days later, on Wednesday, May 6th as I was lacing my boots to drive to a meeting with the hospice nurse, I received the type of call no one ever expects to get. There had been a shooting in the café of the bookstore I managed. The perpetrator had held some of my staff at gun point, and the prospects for the beautiful young woman he had shot were not good. Less than an hour later while I was sitting in a family room with my father, my wife, and the hospice nurse, CNN flashed the story in my face on the television screen above us. I left the hospice meeting for the store so that someone was on hand for the major crime squad in case they had questions. I spent the afternoon calling my staff, talking to executives at the company I worked for, people from the university, and helping to coordinate grief counseling for the next day.
All the details are unimportant. Exactly a week later on Wednesday my mother passed away. That Thursday while my staff attended a memorial service at Wesleyan, I sat writing my mother’s eulogy. The next day my staff attended my mother’s wake along with a couple of the people from the café. And, on Saturday several of the young men who worked for me served as pall bearers at my mother’s funeral. It was an inconceivable week—overwhelming to the point that I do not think I started processing it for another two years. A few months later, my son left for the Navy. Life changed completely for me. I had spent my entire life being a daughter and half my life being someone’s mother. I had no idea who I was anymore. And, I did not know how to begin to find myself again.
Often, I hear people reflect on the senselessness of loss. Sometimes, loss seems senseless. Violence perplexes me to this day. Without question, some loss is avoidable. Death and loss, however, are part of the cycle of life and neither are without purpose. Today, I was walking through the woods and as it often happens, I found my thoughts drifting and contemplating life, love, and loss. The lessons that nature provides me when I am walking continually astound me. In the autumn, the leaves change brilliant colors, so vibrant that the scenes can take your breath away. They are most beautiful right before they die and fall away. It almost seems wasteful—pointless. But, the leaves only fall so that throughout the winter they can feed the tree that gave them life in the first place. There is a purpose in everything.
The trees are just beginning to sprout small buds now. As I walked, I could see clearly the path ahead of me and behind me. Death and loss in our lives work in much the same way. They force us to look back at where we have traveled and look ahead at the changing landscape—even when we might prefer not to. In a few weeks, the trees will be thick with leaves and the life that teems all along the path I walked toady will obscure the view in both directions. Sometimes, in our living we forget that we are walking an ever-changing path. We lose sight of how far and with whom we have traveled, and the compass that points us forward begins to go haywire. Loss is a reminder. If we look at nature for just a moment, there is evidence everywhere that life never ends. It only changes. With a single breath each of us leaves a unique mark on this world. That, to me, is the definition of miraculous.
My journey back to me started with loss. Loss cleared the trees. I didn’t realize at the time what was happening. In the everyday living, I had not taken the time to look at the path I was traveling. I lost sight of where I had been and I lost my way to where I was traveling. I lost myself. There was not one moment when I realized it. It was a quiet awakening. I was still a daughter. I was still a mother. I was still a friend. I simply began to rediscover the woman at the center of all of it.
Life sends us messages in every moment. It instructs us with every interaction. Sometimes it screams its messages. More often, life whispers. You hear it calling out its truth when you stop thinking so much, stop trying to understand everything, and allow yourself to clear away the leaves and see through the remaining branches. I write this in the hope that someone who is struggling amid the pain that accompanies loss hear the message that there is healing, there is hope, there is tomorrow. There is always tomorrow, even if you can’t see it through the trees.
I miss my mother every day. I think about those two weeks often. That time has shaped my view of life and living. There is always a tomorrow, but it is often not the tomorrow we expect. The greatest gifts you will find in life come when you begin to embrace the idea that every moment is precious, every person is worthy (including you), and every second is another opportunity to love openly and without restraint. That is how I found myself again. And, in the process I began truly living for the first time in many years. Death and loss are never pointless. They are part of life. Remember when they happen that one day the leaves will fill the trees again. Take the time to look through the empty branches and appreciate how far you have come and recognize the journey ahead has no real end.
Wishing you peace on your journey.