“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately, noticing where it thrives in my life (and where it doesn’t.) There’s a moment around my mother’s death that I’ve yet to embrace, and it has become more and more commanding of my attention.
“Look at me,” it whispers. “Time to let go.”
But I’ve been too afraid.
I’ve never really thought of myself as a courageous person. I’ve never jumped out of a plane or skied the trees. I’d never be able to run a marathon and I never wanted to do any of these bold things.
I did backpack through Europe and even ventured a bit into Northern Ireland during the peak of the fighting there. That was kind of brave, I guess– or stupid. I gave birth to my last child at home, and walked to the ambulance rather than be carried out on the stretcher when my first delivery ended up at the hospital. I even wanted to watch my own c-section. I guess that makes me more strange than courageous.
I could call myself bold. I speak up a lot. I say things others don’t say. I share things others would never share, and I put myself out there in a way that makes even me uncomfortable sometimes. Like I’m doing right now. Like I did the morning my mother died.
Do you know that kind of courage that bubbles up inside you, but isn’t of you? That’s the kind I most demonstrate, I think. After my grandfather died, I was able to stand up at his funeral and share all the things I loved about him– without falling apart until I slumped into my seat. When my beloved great-grandmother Mildred lay dying in a hospital bed, I was able to reach under the covers and massage her beautiful ninety-year old legs, saving my sobs for the floor of ICU’s bathroom.
This kind of courage doesn’t climb mountains, but is born of devotion and determination. I didn’t cry when my mother took her last breaths, I sang. I wanted to welcome her into the light; I wanted her to have wings. And I remained there with her when the undertaker arrived to take her body and everyone fled into the kitchen and out the backdoor, and the last lingerers were chased away by hospice workers who said, “You don’t want to see this.”
Who would want to stay and see their beloved folded up like a cardboard box and put into a bag. Who?
And yet I could not leave her. She was my mother– still– and I had not been here with her in the months when she struggled to stay alive. I had only come now, at the very end, after the baby was born. With him at my side, with God’s pure grace shining through his bluest eyes, I could do anything that was asked. Even this.
I sat in the space that had been her dining room- where she had drank her morning, and afternoon, and evening coffees- black, no sugar; read the paper, did the crossword; listened to the scanner, checked her email; caught the game, the weather, the latest deals on QVC. I sat in this place where each one of us had sat across from her– at the table- all of our lives.
Only now the place where the table stood was filled with air mattresses and I wasn’t talking to my mom, I was watching… as her old highschool classmate- turned funeral director- lifted her rigid body from the hospital bed.
Ben had visited my mom in the hospital when she was first diagnosed with stage-four cancer, just a three months ago. “Not the kind of visitor I want to see right now,” my mother remarked wryly once he had left the room.
“He seems like a nice guy, why not, Mom?” I asked, surprised at her uncharacteristic coolness.
“He’s the undertaker, Kel,” she replied flatly.
How did he do it, I wonder? How did Ben pick up “good-natured Bonnie” from his senior yearbook and zip her into a bag?
But he did. That was his job.
And I did too. I stayed there attended my mother’s body. When I couldn’t bear to look anymore, I watched through my grandmother’s gilded mirror that Mom had frost pink and purple, as worked to lift her from the bed where her workout equipment had stood just a season ago. I waited and watched even though no one, no one, should see something like this.
I followed them out the front door as they carried my mother to the back of the undertaker’s wagon. She’d always been the one in the front seat- driving one of the eight of us to school, to practice, to birthday parties or dances.
I stood there frozen on her porch- where she had smoked her cigarettes, and watched the cars go by, sitting on the furniture she picked up at the wicker store, next to the tomatoes she had planted that spring. She never got to pick a one.
Suddenly I was drained of all the courage that had sustained me. It slipped from my shoulders and onto the floor. I stood alone sobbing, my hands covering my face and gripping at my hair.
All my life, I’ve had to be more together than I wanted to be, and this moment was like none other. I lacked the courage to reach out, to be held. I lacked the ability to be noticed as needing.
I wish I could say that I’m ready to change, but I’m really not. I take baby steps and those are hard enough. That’s all the courage I have.
Today, I took out the folded check my mother had given me in the weeks before she died. I had come to visit for the weekend just after the baby was born, and when it came time to leave, she asked me to wait, whispering for someone to get her the checkbook. And though by this time, she could hardly sit up or lift water to her lips, she managed to covertly scribble our names and hers on a check to hand to me as we kissed goodbye, a gift to celebrate her grandson’s birth. I could never bring myself to cash it, even to buy him something to remember her by. I kept it folded in a bag of runes that were hers, and everyone once and awhile, took it out and looked at it to marvel at her determination and devotion; and at how her perfect Catholic school girl writing had gone bad. It always made me sad, but I couldn’t let it go.
It’s been almost five years since that time, and today I’m going to give that beautiful testimony of her love back to the bank (or to the compost pile since it’s too late for cashing). I’m going to spend that love on something for our garden as we celebrate our first summer in our new house. It will be something that makes me smile, remembering her. Something that celebrates my tremendous courage in letting her go, one more time.
Kelly Salasin wrote this piece from her home in the Green Mountains of Vermont where she has just painted her studio walls, “Bonnie Cream.”