Over a three month period in 1981, when I was seventeen, I attended three funerals on my mother’s side of the family. This was my introduction to grief.
We didn’t talk about grief. There were tears at the funerals, but not many before them and none that I can remember after. Communal tears, that is. One of the funerals was for my beloved grandpa, and I cried for months over that loss, but always privately.
Maybe it was my family’s ways, or maybe it was the time; Kubler-Ross’s Death and Dying had been published only 12 years earlier, and I think we didn’t have the same understanding then that we do now about grief. More and more, I understand that seminal events in my life happened a significant amount of time ago–long enough to be part of an earlier era, an time qualitatively different from the one we’re all now in. Living with a young adult will do that to you.
On the morning my daughter leaves for her new life on a different continent, I see a garbage bag on the floor of her room, next to items that look like they could be trash. “Oh,” I say, “is that stuff to throw out?”
“No,” she says. “Those are my protest supplies.” And then I really see the items: gloves, safety goggles, duct tape, a water bottle. When I was 22, I didn’t know what to do in the event of getting tear-gassed, but she does. I attended my first protest at 25, and it felt more like a parade than a meaningful political action; I wondered what the point was. Times have changed.
I also didn’t really know how to grieve, despite my three funerals at seventeen. Maybe that is why, this past year, I have been grieving all the losses from that year until now. Deaths, but also other kinds of loss, too. Loss of geography, loss of dreams, loss of beauty and agility, loss of relationships and hopes and beliefs and faith. Loss of ways of living. Living through late middle age in the midst of myriad forms of breakdown will do that to you.
I have been crying for weeks, tears coming over everything and nothing, beyond my ability to control. As a child, I could always control my tears, and I almost never let anyone see me cry. I didn’t cry often, and I took some pride in that. I remember being both mystified and somewhat scornful at my mother’s softness, so near the surface that she cried at such things as the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I remember looking over at her when the fictional news team huddled together and sobbed, only to see tears rolling down her face. I poked fun at her for that. “But it’s so sad!” she said.
Yesterday, after writing the previous paragraph, I watched that episode again, and, like my mother before me, I cried. At twelve, I’d had no context for the loss landing on Mary, Lou, and Murray. Now, I do.
Even at seventeen, I didn’t really understand what I was losing, what had been lost, though I sensed something of it. The day after the fourth funeral, I sat in my English class and listened to my teacher talk about asteroids that could hit the earth and end all of life as we know it.
“If that’s the case,” I said, “what does anything that we do matter?” I felt so weary, so numb. Even my resilient family had struggled to get through a third funeral, and I couldn’t stop seeing the faces of my cousins who had lost their 40something dad to a heart attack.
The teacher made a comment about me being a fatalist and shifted the discussion. I don’t remember how or what he talked about next because I started to shake, and then I couldn’t stop, and then tears started, and I was mortified and frozen and didn’t know what to do or how to get out of the unthinkable situation I was in.
“Can you take her somewhere?” I heard him ask my best friend, and she led me to the hallway and we sat there for the rest of class, until my body slowly calmed, until the bell rang and I could return and get my books without having to have everyone stare at me. I wiped my eyes before retrieving them, and then I went to my next class. None of us–my friend, my teacher, any of my classmates, or me–ever talked about what happened.
On my daughter’s last morning at home, we talk about what love is, what it means to love someone. It’s a topic we’ve visited more than once since she came back to me in May. I have tried to explain, and to understand myself, why I love the people I do, and what love means to me, and why I want them in my life, close to me–even if we have differences, even if they have at times hurt me. Not so long ago, confronting my history with romantic love, I wondered in a therapist’s office if I might be incapable of love, if I even know what love is.
“Are there people in your life that you will always care for, no matter what they do?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I answered, without hesitation, a list of those people filling my head. “Then you know how to love,” he said. “You know what it is.”
From the moment I picked my daughter up at the airport in May, I knew that whatever we were going to have in our time together would be impermanent. The plan was never for her to stay. In my social media feeds I see friends with young adult children who have not moved away. They live nearby, and their parents regularly post photos with their children and grandchildren doing all the kinds of mundane things I long to do with my children in the day-to-day of life: Attending games and performances, picking out pumpkins, eating dinners, celebrating birthdays. I am so envious of these friends, who have what I, because of my own choices, haven’t had with my parents, and what I am now not likely to get with my daughter, because of hers.
I know all about the relationship between suffering and attachment. Maybe in my next life I will learn how to love without attachment, but I don’t know if I can in this one. I don’t know if I really want to.
There were so many gifts in these months we got, this unexpected time. Perhaps the biggest one was an opportunity to learn again, more deeply, that everything is impermanent. When I cried at the thought of her impending departure–which I did, frequently, almost from the time she arrived–I wasn’t mourning just the loss of the alternate life I dream of in which we live closer together, but also of all the lives we’ve already had and no longer do. I have grieved over not just an anticipated loss of the young woman she is, but also the earlier passing of all the girls she once was: the baby who laughed with delight when she discovered her feet, the toddler who worked and worked at learning how to dribble a ball, the child whose favorite color was rainbow, the teenager who mapped her future in color-coded spreadsheets. They are all gone, along with the lives we lived when they were here. To the list of Graces now gone I can add another: the young adult who worked remotely from the back bedroom during the pandemic, and sipped cocktails with me on warm summer nights, and woke up early for long zoom dates with her boyfriend in a time zone 9 hours different from ours, and argued with me about communism and policing and relationships, and cradled her old, dying dog with a tenderness I hope she might someday extend to me, if a time comes when I have difficulty finding my feet or knowing where I am. She is gone now, or going, and I will never have her–the person she’s been these past months–back.
After the summer of 1981, my family was never quite the same again. How could we have been? That pow-pow-pow of grief changed all of us. I didn’t understand that then, the way I do now. I thought I was only missing the people who no longer sat at our holiday tables. I didn’t know that I was also losing an earlier version of all who remained, and of the family we’d once been. Many of my tears this summer have been for that earlier family, which exists now only in memory. I miss us so much.
I’ve been learning that grieving can be a long time coming. Or maybe that it’s a thing that’s never really done.
I have a recurring dream in which I’ve lost a season. It’s usually a spring dream, and–somehow, impossibly–it’s the end of summer. But, wait, I’ll think in the dream. It can’t be time to go back to school. Where did the summer go? I’ll think of all the things I wanted and didn’t get to do, and I feel panicky and cheated. Then I’ll realize I’m dreaming, and that I have not, in fact, lost the summer, and relief washes over me. One day in Grace’s last week here, I got disoriented about where I was in time, the way I do in the dream. For a moment, I lost what season we are in. Something made me feel like it was still summer, and I had to tell myself: No, it’s October. It’s not summer any more. But then it felt like it couldn’t be October, because I hadn’t really had summer, just like in the dream.
I understand my confusion. The whole summer felt like a bubble in which we were all suspended in some time out of time. Having my daughter back in the ways I did, after having earlier let her go, while we both prepared ourselves for what’s coming next, felt like simultaneously living in the past, present, and future. Where were we in time? Who were we? Everywhere and nowhere. Everyone we’ve ever been and no one we’ve ever been and everyone we’ll someday be.
The day she left was unseasonably warm. After returning from the airport, I pulled spent tomato plants from their box and filled the compost bin with cedar branches Cane had trimmed from the tree that overhangs my shed, sweating in the sun. That evening, I sat on a front porch with friends and we talked how we might continue to safely meet when the nights turn cold. It felt like a summer night.
But, the next morning I woke to rain and dark skies. The patio furniture was soaked when I put the dogs out to pee, and they stepped gingerly on the wet pavement. The power flickered off and then on again, while I worked on these words, and just like that, the season had undeniably changed.
I hated to let it go. I knew I had no choice.
13 thoughts on “A rambling meditation on time, grief, impermanence, children, love, etc.”
You are an incredible writer, Rita! This essay… NYT’s… !!
More personal thoughts later.
Dear Rita, The reason I say NYT’s is that your writing is every bit as good as writer’s who have written for the New York Times. Yet, I do think that the content belongs right here where it is in your personal blog for documenting, journaling, memory safekeeping and sharing however you wish (public or private). This post is only one part of the whole where its family resides.
I see your blog somewhat similar to my personal photo album notebooks for me.
May you and your daughter find ways to connect as your love grows your circle of family.
Thank you for the nice compliment—but I agree with you that the writing belongs right here. 🙂
UGH. Isn’t that terrible. That is all I could think to write. UGH. I know that feeling of waking up the day after next to bad weather feeling like the world is just UGH. Except I don’t actually know because my oldest daughter is only 3 hours away at college and my youngest daughter is asleep upstairs. But I know in a way that a mother knows.
I also know about closeted grief. I grew up a child of a daughter of a woman who was born in the early 1900s. My grandmother was 42 when my mom was born, so her generation was really good at keeping feelings to themselves. Fortunately, my mom broke the hell out of that mold and taught us to cry loudly but only in our house. Don’t let the neighbors see, don’t let the public see. So she still had some of that in her which wasn’t her fault. But I know what you speak of.
This time we are in is I HATE THIS WORD BUT DAMMIT I AM USING IT ANYWAY unprecedented in so many ways. Every day feels seven days long. That is why I feel like I awaken with a new stripe of gray in my hair. There are things I am going through that I can’t speak of on my blog but I keep writing about other things so that I don’t go insane. Because right now, writing is keeping me sane. So is reading blogs. So don’t stop writing this blog. Because even though it is hard, you are keeping people going. You are the light for so many people right now and it just isn’t said enough.
Love you, Rita.
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My mom’s mom was a first-generation American, and I think being stoic must have been a survival strategy. My great-grandparents had to leave behind so much to come here. I’m guessing that either they felt they couldn’t give in to sadness (or they’d never get out from under it) or after the losses they’d endured nothing else was that big a deal. Either way, they were tougher (at least on the outside) than I’ve ever been.
I’m sorry you’re going through things. I get it. (There are some I don’t write about, too.) I’ll keep showing up here. You do the same. We’ll get through one post at a time.
You always have the words to describe what I am going through. Thank you for writing and you need to write a book! Take care.
Thank you so much for those kind words. You take care, too.
I know I’ve said this before, but the bittersweetness that comes with parenting is so hard—I think most of us wish for a Goldilocks mix of roots and wings, but it doesn’t always work out that way, and it’s really hard when it doesn’t. I can relate to so much in this post, Rita, especially the loss you’re anticipating with Grace moving half a world away. As a child of immigrants, I grew up without grandparents, and sadly, when my husband and I moved away (and then kept moving farther and farther) for his career, we ended up doing (to a lesser degree) the same thing to our children. I tell myself it’s a lesser loss because my children at least speak the same language as their grandparents, but I’ve often noted the much closer relationships our niece and nephews have been able to have with their grandparents, and this always causes me to feel both envy and guilt. It’s hard knowing our choices have robbed our children of these close relationships. (I have to say that our moving away didn’t HAVE to result in these lesser relationships, and that there were ways to make sure this didn’t happen; for a number of reasons, though, those things didn’t happen, and this is where our family is.) I also have to admit I still feel a whole wash of emotions when I think of my own experience growing up without (for all intents and purposes) any grandparental involvement in my life. This is most definitely a grief I will carry forever, but it hasn’t been something I’ve ever been able to discuss with my parents. My experience growing up in the 70s and 80s was similar to yours—my family didn’t discuss emotions at all, not even after deeply traumatizing events had taken place. (Strangely, when I’m able to ponder the impermanence of all of this—when I lose myself in existential philosophizing—that lessens the sting.)
Sending you love as you get used to what you have no choice but to accept—
Once again, I’m wishing we could sit together somewhere face to face and have a good long talk. So much to say. I was lucky to grow up pretty close to grandparents, and I will never be able to convey what they did for me and what they meant to me. My kids did get to spend quite a bit of time with my parents, but not as much as I wish. I wish I’d lived closer to them. I wish I did now. I regret moving away from my parents, and I know that many of my feelings about Grace are about that. Also, I just really like her and I wish I could spend more time with her. One thing I realized having her home is that proximity does have a big impact on relationships. It has nothing to do with how much you love, but it does change the quality of your relationship. There’s just a different kind of intimacy that comes from frequent, casual contact. That’s what I miss, with almost all the people I love most. My feelings I’ve been wrestling with are about all of them, not just her. I hope she knows that.
I, too, find impermanence to be comforting. I’m guessing in the same way you do.
I admire your ability to put into words the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing. I went to many funerals as a girl then teenager. No one cried. That was not how proper WASPs handled grief. Better to ignore it and get on with things. I’ve relaxed into the ability to grief now, but it is almost a conscious effort to do so. I am glad you had the time you did this summer with your daughter, but onward she must go. Letting go of people is difficult, but that is growth, something we all have to accept if we are to live whole, not broken.
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Yeah, letting go is hard, and necessary. I have grumbled more than once that she grew up just how I raised her to be. Dammit. And thank goodness.
One of my favorite things about your blog is that it reminds me to really appreciate these moments with the awesome people I have under my roof.
I’m fortunate enough to have two grandparents still living, but we moved to Wisconsin in my teen years and I miss both the living and the gone so much and I still tease/needle my mom that I moved to this town to be with them and then ten years later they up and move to the opposite side of the state.
I’m comforted by the idea that many have done this before and many will do it again and nothing is really new even when it feels so…hard and personal.
2020 has just been full of so many different kinds of grief. I think that all intermingle and layer and everything feels connected by 2000 different threads. I appreciate what you write here. You have a way of weaving all the threads together beautifully.
I’m not sure why I didn’t respond to this sooner. The last two weeks have been foggy. I, too, miss the living and the gone so much. I struggle with knowing that “nothing is really new”–I know I am not special in my experiences and pains and joys–and yet, it’s all new to me. I think lately I’ve just been feeling worn out from it all.
I’m glad you have awesome people under your roof. 🙂