It’s been more than three months since my mom passed away. Her struggle with cancer lasted four and a half years.
Sometimes, the most unexpected things will set off a memory that makes me sad again, shocked at the change, the disappearance of her from the plane of the living. Someone asks me how I’m doing, and I spin off some capsulated stories to render a fond memory, to illustrate how we’re mourning, to reassure that we’re healthily moving on, all appearances that I am fine and emotionally reconciled. Then, in another unguarded moment, the stranger next to me wiggles their finger on the table, I’m reminded of mom’s physical tics in her last months when she was worn thin, hair grayed, not the same mentally, and then a deep sadness and longing for her sets over me, pulling my guts to the ground. I realize mom doesn’t breathe this air anymore, and the thought is still a vague shock.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for my dad, who is still living in the house she lived in, who cared for her with unfathomable intensity in the last year and a half. I wonder if he rounds the corner to the dining room and remembers again the chores and labors that must have broken his heart, happy as he was to do them, all the daily compounding signals that his wife for life was losing her functions. They’d been married a dozen years longer than his life before her; adulthood, America, aging, all must’ve been impossible to imagine without her. The impossible to imagine is now a daily reality, which must saddle days with a strange un-reality.
That’s what it feels that her physical existence is ashes in an urn in a niche in a wall on a hill in a cemetery. A strange un-reality. When she was sick, during the long bout, from the first day she told me on the phone about the cancer to the last days by her side, I would occasionally slip into a moment of recognition, like an alternate universe, where she was no more. I didn’t want to fear that thought, much as I didn’t want to entertain it. The thought of her smile not flickering over her face, my mother’s arms no longer available for an embrace, the mirror I saw in her zest and anxieties, her hungers and her fondness. When that disappearing wasn’t real yet, just the thought of it would govern me, govern my thinking so that I lived in the now (then) differently. I’d let the thought of my mom’s future passing reorient my present, and watch as subtly things realigned themselves to an ordering that felt more right. Important things first. Cherishing the time. Forgetful about the inconsequential. First things first.
I suppose that over the four years, I let that not-yet-reality in often enough that it changed me and changed my faith. The unknown end of her life, just over the horizon, kept me marching differently. I slacked on several rat races, sharply aware that I would be horrified to look back and to have spent my emotional energy on a career and left none for my mother who raised me. Or for that matter, for my wife and daughter who love me. Slipping into that unavoidable future, like a parallel world, would jolt me into a different way of being in this one. The clock was ticking, and so, all clocks ticked louder. With that ticking time, yes, anxiety. But also, perspective.
Now, it’s a strange new discovery to be on the other side of that great divide. Now, the strange un-reality is the present-ness of her no longer being here, the fact that it’s true and has come to pass. I am on a plane, and by habit, I think of mom when I’m on a plane. Informing her I’ve landed. Talking to her next time about this airline’s amenities, that airport’s newness, this luggage’s efficiency. I’m used to the tray tables reminding me of sitting beside her on a plane, eating her peanuts, putting my legs on her lap as I laid down. The un-reality is that none of those are supposed to happen on this plane of existence anymore. It’s so strange.
So now, just as her last years gave me a horizon of the future to orient my eyes for the present, so her passing gives me a horizon of eternity to orient my walk into the future. Faith no longer just involves prospects for the future, but almost like geographies of the present. In my egocentrism, faith used to entail a belief in future justice, future vindication, future hope. Yes, that’s still the case. And yes, in the past my faith also involved an imagination of angels singing and God in the present, acting and grieving.
But now, faith also involves where my mom is. “Over there.” Not just gone. Over there where we go, where we are held in God’s hands, where we wait. In the present, right now, the one whose hands wiggled, the soul behind those eyes that wrinkled into a smile, the person who is not just those ashes in that urn in that niche. That person, my faith says, in a way that is more real than I have ever had to grasp it, is in a real place, a place as real as New York where we’re landing now, a place as real as California where I just left. The geography of faith that isn’t just about our future reorienting our present, but the present “elsewhere” that comes to us in a new nearness.
In times when technology brings new nearnesses to our attention, somehow we easily escape death, imagining these tools and words in them to exist in perpetuity. The photographs I ran across of Mom all the time aren’t her continued existence, they’re just a repository of memories that flit into my consciousness again, calling up the love and regard she wished so much she could have received more of from me when she lived. They are not who she is now. Not where she lives.
Where she lives is Somewhere, and if she is there now, then this Here is not the same as I thought it was before.