One of our family traditions is displaying the cards we receive for life’s many occasions. My husband’s birthday was our most recent so the window sill in our kitchen holds the few greetings that arrived for his 35th. (When he complains about the dwindling enthusiasm for his day, I remind him that he’s not a kid anymore.)
This year, however, our kitchen window is crowded. Greeting cards are cozy up along the sill, while others hang from the wooden mullions above that lend this Vermont farmhouse its window-paned look.
The abundance of cards, however, isn’t a resurrection of love for my husband, but rather a case of synchronicity: the birth of a child–our second son, Aidan. His welcoming cards with lambs and moons and jumping cows continue to trickle in day after day, and admittedly, do look a little out of place with the cards poking fun of Casey’s age. Still, I keep them together for tradition’s sake.
It’s the cards that I’ve added of late that make me question the whole arrangement: the ones with hazy pictures of flower gardens, deserted beach scenes, and mountain-top views; whose greetings read, “You’re in our Thoughts” and “With Sympathy.” These are the sentiments that are out of place with the party hats and teddy bears and balloons.
They have trouble fitting in my heart as well.
I am as full, and as conflicted, as that window, flooded with an uneasy coupling of joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning–torn by the juxtaposition of events in my life, and blessed with the grace bestowed from the experience of both birth and death, accomplished within weeks of each other.
This summer I received the gift of motherhood, only to have my own mother stolen away–she given two months to live; me with two months left of pregnancy–the two of us, hundreds of miles apart, agonizingly separated by the birth of child who would be such a blessing at this time.
It was as if my mother and I were engaged in some kind of parallel dance–one spinning toward death, the other toward life–each facing an ending and a beginning–and both crossing a threshold of no return.
Sometimes rather than moving together, I felt like we were on collision course; and inwardly I feared that the birth of my child would bring on her demise.
As I began the work of labor with its all-consuming pain, I was acutely aware of my mother’s suffering, and of how, in many ways, we were sharing the same process–one of struggle and surrender, both surrounded by loved ones who “midwifed” the passage.
A week earlier than expected, I gave birth to a baby boy in our home in in the Green Mountains; while hree hundred miles away, my mother lay in a hospital bed in her own home by the sea, unable to walk or even sit, but there to answer the phone when I called with the news.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment. The air outside. The hushed silence of those in the room with me. The feeling of the sheets beneath me.
I knew that my mother would probably never meet her new grandson, and yet I was so grateful that she was there to answer my call.
But she did. Bonnie Kelly Bradley, age 57, outlived her sentence of two months by several weeks–dying on the morning of my husband’s thirty-fifth birthday.
My mother passed surrounded by her eight children, including my nursing babe, who cried out just as she took her last breaths.
I don’t know that I’ll ever fully comprehend the connection between their two emerging souls.
It’s funny how life gets dished out sometimes… with heaps of sorrow or heaps of joy–or in this case, heaps of both at once. Holding both the season of death and the season of birth is a mind-altering experience, I can tell you.
As these seasons pass, I’ve looked at the strange collection of cards in my window and suddenly I realize why I’ve kept them together… I am learning to be whole.
If I can integrate these experiences on my window sill, perhaps I can integrate them in my life.
I’ve learned so much being present to both life and loss, and it has helped me open to the gifts that each brings. For there was an abundance of blessings enfolded in the pain of loosing my mother.
It was the depth of our sorrow that made the expression of our love so powerful, so very palpable–as if the two needed each other, as if they were meant to be held together.
One of my greatest lessons came in the quiet hours sitting at my mother’s side, with the new baby in my lap or on hers, napping.
Ever watch a baby sleep? It’s a profoundly meditative experience–deeply soothing and spiritual.
What strikes me most is how at one moment a baby’s face will light up with a smile, and in the next, his lips will quiver, his brow will wrinkle, and he’ll let out a whimper that pierces your heart.
I love those sleepy smiles, but I’ve always worked to chase away the cries.
And then it occurred to me… maybe they belong together. Maybe the baby, in these early days, was being prepared to be present to both the joy and loss his life would hold.
Children seem to understand this without reflection, as does the Earth. For on the morning of my mother’s passing, the sun shone brightly, and a beautiful ocean breeze blew through the windows of her newly vacant home.
Her grandsons jumped on the trampoline outside the window where she lie in final sleep, while her young granddaughters sat beside her, lovingly touching her face, without any hesitation, casually considering the prospect of their own deaths “someday.”
There was so much healing in the fullness of my experience, and I hold it close as I walk toward winter. When I’m faced with a new challenge, I draw upon my labor and birth as a source of strength, and also upon the death of my mother.
On the days when I feel I can’t handle a fussy baby, another diaper change, or the cold and darkness that sometimes grows inside me, I remember Aidan’s delivery, I remember my mother’s passing, and I know that beauty lies within this moment too, if I choose to see it.
I realize now that my life is a reflection of how I hold each and every experience.
Today, my son is two months old, and his face has begun to reflect back that which he has received: countless hours of love and wonder and devotion.
It was the same with my mother.
In the end, all that she gave was reflected back upon her.
Kelly Salasin, Autumn 2000
(Published in The Cracker Barrel, 2000; & Chicken Soup to Inspire a Women’s Soul, 2004)