Those of you who read my “Better Because you Spared Me …” blog will already be aware that Christmas 2019 marks the 30th Anniversary of my Mom’s passing. You will also know that I didn’t even realize the loss of my Mom had remained so unprocessed … until the words, tears and unspoken grief spilled out of me while I was writing the afore mentioned blog … a blog that I thought was going to be about something else! It is amazing to recognize just how much pain we can hide from ourselves when that unwelcome darkness is pushed way down inside of us and not invited up to see the light of day.
So … that said, and aside from another blog that I dedicated to my Mom, I have come to realize that I have never sufficiently honored my Mom’s death … or … maybe even her life, for that matter. It just never seemed right to speak aloud about her passing during the Christmas Season because I didn’t want to put a damper on my family’s ‘holiday cheer’ or cause anyone any discomfort by bringing it up.
But given my line of work as a counsellor/therapist … I am also well aware that mourning is an essential part of processing and healing our grief. Sometimes the words grief and mourning are used interchangeably, but they are actually very different. Grief is the internal experience of our unprocessed emotional pain, heartache, sadness and loss …. and … mourning is the external expression of our grief. Mourning is the vehicle that helps us move through our emotions so we can grieve and heal through our losses.
I have always reminded my clients that it’s a gift to themselves to make space for mourning rituals and outward expressions of their grief, lest it gets stuck inside them. When grief goes unprocessed, it becomes professionally described as ‘unreconciled’. The research shows that ‘unreconciled grief’ can lead to all manner of depression, anxiety and varied other unfavorable emotional, mental and even physical health concerns. And so, the writing of that blog nearly 30 years after my Mom’s death, rendered visible that I still had some of my own work to do. Unarguably, it was long past time to dust up some more of that glitter … to create some space to mourn the unreconciled parts of my own grief.
Upon reading the Better Because You Spared Me blog, my youngest daughter responded on Facebook by saying :
“This was amazing mom. I had no idea gram loved evergreens too!! I’m going to dedicate mine to her this year ❤ … “
Something in my daughter’s words spoke right into my soul! And so, with deepest reverence for my Momma, I have decided to bring her home for Christmas this year by creating a morning/mourning ritual for the 24 days prior to the 30th anniversary of her death on December 25th. I am going to call this process my ‘Advent of Love.’ And since most Advent Calendars present us with a gift each day leading up to Christmas, I decided to invite my Momma to join me as I enjoy the tranquility of the pre-dawn hours reflecting upon the many gifts I have received in our mother/daughter relationship. ❤
This is the scene within which this Advent of Love has unfolded. And, I have decided to outwardly express my reflections in the form of this blog so I can deepen my experience of honoring my Momma in these moments … and then … revisit these precious reflections in the years to come.
An Advent of Love … ❤
Day 1: Ornaments. Every year since my children were born I have gifted them with an ornament reflecting something meaningful that happened in their year. I would try to inconspicuously write their initials (and the year) onto the ornament somewhere. I wanted them to have a nice selection of ornaments to adorn their own trees when they moved out of our home. And well, the year my Mom passed, I scoured the stores in ruthless pursuit of “Grandmother 1989” ornaments. It was no easy task … because they were typically sold out by the time I got into the city after the funeral. I couldn’t get three of the same, but … I was relieved that I found one for each of my daughters … and … one for myself.
My daughters have all had their own ornaments for many years now. But … strangely … it was not until THIS year that I noticed some initials on one of the Grandma ornaments I was using to dress my own tree. It was then that I realized I still had a couple of my daughter’s ornaments. It seems incredibly odd that this was the only ornament I forgot to give them … but maybe it was by divine design that these very significant ornaments stayed with me until this very moment. And so, on this first day of my Advent of Love, I am delivering these precious ornaments to my daughters.
It always stirs my heart as we place our ornaments on the Christmas tree because, as I shared, they are all meaningful in some way. It is a joy to reminisce about places we have been and/or the times and occasions spent with our kids and grandkids reflected by each ornament. One of the ornaments that has no obvious meaning, but that has some special sentiment for me is this one.
I remember getting a box of these long tapered glass ornaments for my very first Christmas tree after I got married 42 years ago because … they were my Mom’s favorite ornaments when I was a child. They became my favorite too. I just loved that they were so elegant, so unique in shape and so full of glittery goodness! We used to have four of them, but now … this the only one I have left. It may sound corny, but it feels like all my best childhood memories of Christmas are honored when I dangle this sparkling gem on the tree from year to year! ❤
And … speaking of ornaments, I decided to create picture ornaments of all our departed loved ones three years ago … my brother-in-law Don, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my stepmom Gerri, my Dad and my Mom. And, since our tree is dedicated to my Momma this year, we have placed her at the top this year … right next to the macaroni angel that my dear friend Marion made for me decades ago. Yes … a couple of special angels set atop our tree this year.
Day 2: Sparkle. My thoughts this morning were still on the ‘glittery goodness’ of Christmas’s past. I might only have a couple of pictures of my mom and I together, and I am tickled that I have this one. It was taken 50 years ago on Dec 25, 1969. My spirit sings just a little as I am reminded of how much I loved to liberally dangle all those sparkly tin foil icicles onto the tree! I just loved the way that tinsel shimmered and shone in the light of the tree! I don’t do it anymore, but it was a custom I carried forward for many, many, many years … well after my own children were born.As I share this, I am also fondly recalling that our Christmas trees had to be tethered to the ceiling because it never failed that the tree would end up face down on the ground when our cat could no longer resist pouncing upwards to snatch a shiny temptation dangling high enough up in the branches to topple the whole tree. Sadly … those glittering icicles never weathered the tumble very well. 😦
Given that I was an only child, Christmas was typically pretty quiet … and became even more so after my my Mom and Dad split up when I was 12 years old. That said, some of my best memories were the Christmas celebrations we got to spent at my Aunt Mildred’s house. The succulent aroma of the roasting turkey or goose (occasionally offset by the stench of the traditional Scandinavian lutefisk) … all the fancy fixings (including the mashed turnips) on the sideboard … the tall, elegant tapers dribbling wax down the sterling silver candlesticks that were centered perfectly upon the festive table linens … the indoor Christmas lights tucked perfectly behind the curtain rods cascading colors down the sheers on the windows … the laughter … the love … the lamps. Ha ha, for some reason I am recalling the excessive number of lamps my Aunt Mil had in her house! Yes, there was a whole lotta light in her home … and … in her heart! She always shone so brightly!
My Aunt Mil was an incredibly warm human being, an exceptional cook and an exemplary hostess. Even though she was run off her feet making it merry for everyone else, she had a way of making you feel like your presence in her home … and in her heart … was the only thing that truly mattered to her. She was one of those angels that walks the earth … ensuring people feel cherished and precious. ❤
My Mom adored her eldest sister. I suspect she just felt so safe in my Aunt’s energetic embrace. You just knew that she loved you with unshakeable intensity and fierce loyalty. We were at Aunt Mil’s when the following picture was taken … 39 years ago. It captures my Mom’s first Christmas in her new role as “Gram” holding hands with the best gift she got in 1980! Our eldest daughter was exactly four months old here.
Day 3: Patience. It’s only the third day of this process, and I’m already surprised by the memories that are stirring within me. Something that I have always held close in heart was the infinite patience that my Mom displayed with me. My baby teeth didn’t develop with adequate enamel on them so they decayed very quickly. In order to preserve them until my permanent teeth came in, they all had to be capped with silver when I was four or five years old.
My smile here reveals some glimpses of that silver … but my memories of my time in that dentist chair with Dr. Kuzyk are nothing short of traumatic. Seriously. That horrible rubber damn … the whirr of the drill … the smell of my ground enamel … his cold, steely eyes … him threatening to send my Mother home from the waiting room if I didn’t stop crying. He should have been disbarred for the way he terrified me into swallowing my tears and silencing my terror.
I’m guessing my Mom interpreted my stoic silence as bravery rather than oppression. I honestly have no idea how she walked me through my fears time and time again … until all my teeth were done. Perhaps it was the bribery? I fondly recall her promising me to take me for “chips and gravy” at the lunch counter of the Met Department Store after each of my appointments. They were such succulent morsels … even if your mouth was frozen.
My Mom also lovingly convinced me to go to camp one year as well. Arghhh … it was entirely horrible! I was such a shy child and so desperately afraid to be sent off on my own in a bus full of strangers, but somehow she motivated me to step onto the Greyhound. Yes, over the years my Momma inspired that timid little freckle-faced, red-head to forge through many of her most formidable fears.
Most amazingly, though, is the fact that I never remember feeling forced or coerced by her. My only recollection is of her patiently supporting me to do hard things. Yes. She instilled a belief in me that we can get through any adversity that lands upon our paths. Thank you for that Momma … that belief has got me through some tough stuff in my life. xo
Day 4: Integrity. My Mom and Dad both smoked. For that matter … I vaguely remember reading somewhere that nearly 70% of people smoked four or five decades ago. ‘Players’ or ‘Players Light’ were the most popular brand, but my Momma opted for‘Craven A’ cigarettes. Back in those days, it was still acceptable for folks to smoke in vehicles! I still get nauseous when I think of my parents pressing in that cigarette lighter into the dashboard in the car. I detested the sickening stench of it’s red hot coils.
It was so entirely offensive that I’m questioning why I ever got the notion to try smoking myself? Perhaps it was peer pressure? All I can remember is that one evening when I was 13, three of us bought a pack of Craven M (the menthol version of my Mom’s favorite brand). I got teased by the other two for calling home to get permission before I actually lit one up. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but confirmed that she’d rather I tell her I was going to try smoking than compromise my integrity by hiding it behind her back. When she realized I was going to keep smoking, she never chastised me or tried to change my mind. No. She just bought a pack of ‘Craven M’ for me when she purchased a pack of ‘Craven A’ for herself. My Mom said she couldn’t, in good conscience, promote hypocrisy by expecting me to quit doing something that she was doing in her own life.
I revered her intention to stand in integrity in that moment, and yet in retrospect, I can see clearly that there were also times when my Mom really struggled to stay in integrity and resist hypocrisy herself. While I have shared more transparently about this in another blog, I am not going to speak to any of that here. I just don’t want to leave you with the impression that she always walked her talk. She did not. And, I knew it. That said, I am not sure any one of us has successfully maintained our integrity 100% of the time.
But before you judge her too harshly for compromising her integrity and/or for allowing me to smoke, I should share that I did quit smoking of my own volition when I was 21. I had offered to support a friend who needed to quit smoking for health reasons. And, even though I had no real intention of quitting forever myself, I did keep my word to not take a puff while she was trying to extinguish the habit. When all was said and done, however, I was the only one of us who had successfully quit. As I reflect upon it all now, I don’t like to feel guilty about my choices, so I’m really glad I maintained my integrity in those moments … with both my Mom and my friend.
Day 5: Family. My Mom was the youngest of seven children. I learned on Ancestry.com that my maternal grandmother, Anna Gunhilda Nasenius (Nezenius), gave birth to 8 children in 13 years. She was 41 when my Mom, “Muriel” Pauline Star Edlund, joined their family on April 13, 1925. My paternal grandfather, Nels Fridolf Edlund, was already 49 when my Mom arrived. My Mom’s eldest brother Hjalmar Fridolf “Douglas” was born on August 21, 1914. Then came another son, Thurs “Arthur” Alexander, who was born little more than 14 months later on November 12, 1915. My beloved Auntie … Ruth “Mildred” Armida arrived on September 23, 1917 and their brother, Werner Wilfred “Woodrow” was born on the exact same day and month as my Mom … only six years prior in 1919. Uncle Woodrow was followed by the birth of another daughter, Helen “Doris” Elvera was born on March 18, 1921. My Uncle “Paul” Warren David joined their family on July 25, 1923. My Mom never even told me that she had a little brother! Joseph “Immanual” was born on October 27, 1927 but unfortunately, he died a week later on November 3, 1927.
The legacy of loss in my Mom’s history looms large. My Uncle Douglas passed away suddenly in an accident when he was 32. My Aunt Doris died unexpectedly in her sleep when she was 49. My Uncle Woodrow died a year after my Aunt Doris … he was only 53. My Uncle Art sustained a major brain injury in a car accident and was bed-ridden for most of his lifetime. My Aunt Mil compassionately cared for him in her home until he passed away in 1975 … just a month shy of 60. My Mom was the next to depart in 1989, at the age of 64 … followed by my Aunt Mil who passed away very unexpectedly nine months later on October 13, 1990. She was only 72. My Uncle Paul survived them all. He died in 2005 at the age of 82.
Sadly, I don’t recall spending much time with my Mom’s family members. I do have some very fun memories of riding down the stairs in a laundry basket with my Uncle Paul one time when I was young. I was staying at my Aunt Mil’s … and we went out to the farm to visit. It was entirely exhuberent and really a very exceptional experience!! Neither my Mom or my Dad would have dared to do something as playful as taking a wild ride in a plastic hamper. Unfortunately, our engagement with Uncle Paul’s lovely family was deeply fractured by a heartbreaking rift over my Grandmother’s Estate. My Mom had been named Executrix. It was tragic to witness the loss of connection that my Mom endured with her brother during the years of conflict.
The precious and yet tenuous nature of family attachment has always underpinned my understanding of family. And yet, as an often lonely only child, I was always so envious of people who had brothers and sisters. I imagined it must be so incredible to be part of something bigger than yourself … to have people in your life that you didn’t have to explain things to because they already knew … because they were there from the beginning.
Its no surprise that I was quick to embrace my husbands four siblings and parents when we got married. I really relished the feeling of being part of their ‘big family’. I inherited three brothers and a little sister in the deal. Their presence in my life was elevated in my heart. And, over the years, I embraced the jubilant joys and weathered the saddening sorrows of being part of a ‘big family.’ There was no shortage of either.
Day 6: Destiny: I woke up in the night thinking about a blog I wrote many, many years ago called “Mama Knows Best”. In it, I talked about a very vivid memory I had of my Mom. It must bear repeating, because it found it’s way to my awareness during this meaningful morning/mourning process. As I shared in that blog, one of the most meaningful messages I got from my Mom did not come in words:
“I must have been about 8 years old … and … my mom wanted to take me to the movies in order to get out of the house. After consuming more 5 Star Whiskey than he could handle – my dad had, once again, passed out on the couch. She could see it coming and she had asked him (when he was still coherent) if she could have some money to take me. He had refused. I can’t remember his rationale … but …
Once he was snoring, my mom proceeded to put her hands down the cracks of the sofa around him, searching for coins that had dropped out of his pockets over time. She kept searching … and counting … until she had collected enough pocket change to get us on the #2 trolley bus … which would take us to the theater downtown. I don’t remember the movie we saw that night, but … here is what I heard her saying:
“If there is a will, there is a way.”
I also heard her saying … don’t let anyone else unfavorably or unnecessarily determine your destiny. And, I wish I could say I had been better at heeding that sage wisdom over my lifetime. Unfortunately, it has taken me many, many years to really integrate that lesson into my life. And, it is still hard for the recovering people-pleaser in me to elevate my own needs if it feels like I am abandoning another in the process. But … I am ever grateful that my Momma got a bee in her bonnet every now and again … so I could bear witness to how it looks when you choose to have your own back. The real trick it learning to set strong, compassionate boundaries without needing anger to be the catalyst. I’m getting there.
Day 7: Connection. I remembered a couple of things this morning. One, it’s my Dad’s birthday. Were he still with us here in the flesh, he’d be 91 today. Happy Birthday Dad! I wish we’d been able to spend more Christmas’ together. And, although this is an Advent of Love in honor of my Mom, in this moment I am remembering my very last Christmas with my Dad. It was the best one I ever had with him. We’d finally healed our relationship and it was so good to share that unfettered space with him. It’s funny, because in the last five years of his life, I caught some glimpses of the man my Mom had so deeply loved … like the energy captured in this photo. ❤
For as long as I can remember, we had always had a stack of index cards in the desk. We typically used them for recipes or flash cards for studying when I was in school. But, in 1987, one of those cue cards became my birthday card! I am suspecting she wasn’t well enough to get out to the store to buy me an official Hallmark card, so … she improvised.
Her handwriting was so very small, it was often very difficult for the untrained eye to read. So, I will translate for you:
“To: Karen a wonderful daughter on your 29th Birthday. This was intended for your 30th Birthday, but like most of us, it will probably be another 10 years until then!!! You are so special to me and always remember – I love you very much and pray this year will be the best one ever. Affectionately, Mom J”
My Momma had a great sense of humor. I think she was 29 for at least 20 years. And then 39 for another 10 years … at least. 🙂 But, she was very quiet and very much an introvert … so one of her favorite ways of communicating was through the written word. Her penned sentiments represent such tangible tokens of her affection. I am really glad I had the foresight to save some of the little notes that my Mom had written to me over the years.
Day 8: Time. It’s been fascinating to notice the memories that have emerged for me during this Advent of Love. I thought this was going to be a much tidier process. I expected to wake up in the early morning … and then … as I was sitting with my coffee in front of all the lights … I would invite Mom to join me and see what memories would be sparked. But no. More often than not, I have been awakened in the middle of the night with thoughts flooding through my awareness … washing warmly over the window of my soul … fostering tidal waves of gratitude. So, I jotted the ideas down for the days to come … where I could try to make sense of it all … and … feel my way into the layers of ‘why’ a particular memory was alive in my awareness.
For example … I was thinking about the twin beds in my Mom’s bedroom. I remember in my teens that I would climb into the extra bed and we would watch “The Merv Griffin Show” together. For those of you who are too young to remember, Merv had a late night talk show from 1962 to 1986. He also created the popular game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. My Mom loved spending time with Merv. So did I.
I mean … just look at that smile of his!! You can tell why we were drawn to him. You can just see the bright light of this man’s soul shining through that grin and casting a glow onto everything around him. I can see how he was likely a bright spot in many of my Mom’s long and uncomfortable days. Perhaps just knowing she’d be spending time at the end of the day with Merv gave my Mom some light-hearted energy to anticipate.
Personally, I have come to believe that having something to anticipate is one of the secrets of living a happy life. And, as a result, I make it a habit to put something into my days, weeks and months to look forward to …
Day 9: Treasures of the Heart. These first two pictures capture a snippet of Christmas on the farm in1982. Brittany had not yet arrived into our family. Sherisse was only two months old and Tiana was a lively little 28 month old toddler! My Mom was still well enough to come out for a Christmas Eve ‘sleep over.’ She always loved a nice cozy sweater. In fact, in the final few years of her life I recall her layering up … two or three sweaters at a time. She had become so thin that she got chilled very easily.
Here we are … a couple of years later … Christmas 1984. It is so hard to believe this was 35 years ago. I love seeing the delight in her energy upon receiving these photos of her littlest loves. Oh, how she adored her grand-daughters.
I had no way of knowing at the time that we were only going to have three more Christmas mornings together. I find myself wondering if I would have done anything different had I known how limited those shared moments were going to be? Maybe I would have savoured them just a little bit more? Maybe I would have made it more meaningful in a very deliberate way? Maybe I would have snapped more photos with my camera? Maybe I would have taken more pictures with my heart?
Day 10: Decorations. When I got looking through the albums in search of pictures of my Mom, I was over the moon delighted that I came upon the following photo!! I am guessing this was a year or two after Mom died. I have no idea what I was smiling about … but … my heart looks blissfully happy. ❤
I’d like to draw your attention to Mr. And Mrs. Claus in the background. My Mom created them for me during one of her stays in hospital. I know their bodies were crafted from carefully folded Readers Digest magazines in one of groups run by the Recreational Therapists in extended care settings. My Mom always contended that she was never crafty … but seriously … look at those precious gems!!! I LOVED them and had them for years until they somehow got squished in storage. It absolutely broke my heart to discard them. I am so darn grateful that, by sheer accident, we captured their joyous little images in this photo. And … as I say that … my heart weeps with such heartfelt gratitude for the short time I had with them … and … with her.
Day 11: Liniment. For some crazy reason, my thoughts this morning are turning to liniment. The scent of A535 seems to have burned into my neural pathways. I remember rubbing my Mom’s hind quarters liberally with that topical analgesic in the hopes it would soothe her chronic back pain. And, I am humbled by my recognition that I was not the best Florence Nightingale. I am ashamed to admit that I often resented having to rub her down with this smelly substance.
And yet, as I say that … I am reminded of just how much compassion and empathy she offered me when I was, as she would phrase it … “feeling punk” or just “not up to snuff.” Her caring was filled with the most tender and unconditionally loving energy. Makes me tear up as I think about how deeply she nurtured and tended to me when I was under the weather myself.
In this moment, I am specifically recalling coming home one night from seeing the movie “Paper Moon.” I was writhing with horrific menstrual pain. My Mom sat beside my bed while I tried to distract myself through the labour-like cramps by telling her the play by play details of this lovely movie. She never once looked bored, annoyed or wishing she could escape to somewhere else. She always did her very best to help alleviate any discomfort I was experiencing … mental, emotional, physical or spiritual. I will always be grateful to you for that Mom. ❤
Day 12: Altruism. My parents separated when I was 12. And, after that, even though we were on welfare … my Mother would occcasionally contribute to Telethons! Yes. I am serious. She gave from what little we were given. She always had such a heart for people’s suffering. Perhaps some of my penchant for social justice was inspired by witnessing her valiant efforts to do whatever she could, without excuse, to help anyone she perceived to be underestimated, marginalized or oppressed.
In so many ways, I had the childhood that nobody wanted. I have not spoken to the more unfavorable parts of my childhood here, but … there are many. And yet, in so many other ways, I had the childhood that everyone wanted. My Mom was the mom that many of my friends wanted to talk to when they were out of sorts. She was always warm and welcoming of both them and their problems. I will never forget when one of my school chums showed up at our house unexpectedly late one night after downing a full bottle of aspirins. She refused to go home and begged us not to tell her parents what she had done. She spent the night at our house … initially heaving up everything that was heavy on her heart … and then on our bathroom floor … heaving up all the contents of her attempt to end it all.
She was still vomiting in the morning when her Dad picked her up, so I went to the hospital when them. Even though she was in such a fragile state, his anger and outrage filled the car and my awareness. I’m not sure what he thought all his guilting and shaming was going to accomplish, but I felt such a sense of compassion for why she didn’t want to go home the night before. She didn’t need a lecture … she needed a soft place for her fractured spirit to land. She needed a shoulder … and … I was just so very grateful that my Mom had offered her one the night before.
Most sadly, however, I learned many years later that she had tried numerous additional times to end her own suffering … and … had finally been successful in taking her own life. Breaks my heart to know that she never found her way through the darkness that surrounded her. And, it reminds me just how transformative it can be … if/when … we have somewone in our lives who adds kindling to our internal flames when they are flickering far too faintly.
After I shared my “Better Because You Spared Me” blog, I gained a deeper appreciation for how my Mom was also a source of light to one of my oldest and dearest friends. My friend Joan shared in the comments section on my Facebook page regarding my blog that my Mom’s loving energy was a safe haven for her too. Joan’s childhood was the envy of no one. Absolutely no one. And … her tender words touched me deeply:
Oh my dear friend … As I read this I was brought back to many of the times your mom was not feeling well or in pain and would still come out greet us as we came in the house after school. Even as I read this something that came back to me so strongly, maybe it is because I never had it in my own home, was the love. Through all her pain and through all her sickness your mother had a wealth of love for you. To a little girl that had none, the love in your home was palpable. I will be forever grateful that I was able to feel some of that love and I have often wondered if it is that love, that prevented me from taking a very different path in my life. So as I sit here, tears streaming, I am holding you in my arms, as a sister would, willing to share, willing to help and willing to just hold. I love you my friend and I love your mother and always have. To think that through all her challenges she had so much love to give. She was a remarkable woman as are you. You honor her everyday by sharing your loving giving spirit with so many xo🤗💞
It is not lost of me that the light of love from my Mom was perhaps what spared both me and my dear friend from taking very different paths in our lives. Joan and I both found ourselves in the field of Mental Health tending to those who are struggling. Joan is an exceptional hypnotherapist, counselor and life coach in her own private practice: Inspired Wellness and Hypnotherapy. As I responded to my precious friend:
Joan …. you are my oldest and dearest friend and I’m trying to type through the stream of tears that have welled up from my heart space and are flowing down my cheeks in streams. Your heartfelt words have triggered my memories of your very unique ‘igloo’ house …that was shaped like an ice cube … and felt even colder and icier on the inside than it looked on the outside. Your white, cinderblock house was a perfect example of that notion that our outer world reflects our inner world. Mrs. Byar [Joan’s mom] scared me with her reserved and steely demeanor. I remember everything in your experience being hard, unwelcoming and militant … everything but you. I’m honestly not sure how you survived all that you endured my cherished friend. And … I am feeling so deeply grateful that the love my mom offered so generously and freely touched into your heart in such a meaningful way. And, I am sobbing to think that somehow you chose to nourish that love and let it grow you into one of the most kind, compassionate, caring and loving souls I have ever met. From where I am looking, your commitment to heal our humanity by adding so much light to the dark parts of this world is unrivaled! You are such a glowing example of how we can refuse to be defined by what happened to us. You are a such a precious gift to me … and so many others. I am so grateful for your sharing here … you have taken this whole experience to a new level for me my friend. I can see so clearly that the gift of love … is everlasting. I knew my mom’s love spared me … and … I am so deeply moved to know that in many ways, it also spared you. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️
There is nothing quite so significant as being invited to exist in someone else’s presence. To be front and center in their circle of attention and … to feel their love and affection for you. As Joan so tenderly pointed out … even when my Mom was not well, she did her very best to give me the highest priority she could muster.
Day 13: Philosophy. It’s Friday the 13th today. Many believe 13 is an unlucky number. I don’t. It’s my favorite number. I got married on the 13th. There were even 13 teensy little diamonds in my engagement ring. My Mom was born on the 13th. I had exactly 13 days to sit with my stepmom before she transitioned. It’s actually 13 degrees below zero this morning as I share this moment with my Momma in my heart space. I’m not sure why I am sharing all of this, except that it is bringing to mind how deeply our beliefs impact our experiences of things.
My mother was raised in a very staunchly religious Seventh Day Adventist Home. Consequently, she was very well-versed in the Bible and clearly understood what she was supposed to believe. After she and my Dad split up, I remember how she lit up whenever the Jehovah Witness proselytizers rapped on the door. She’d invite them in and eagerly and enthusiastically explore their tenets and unpack their doctrine. My Mom was very reclusive, and because she didn’t socialize much, her spirited engagement in these conversations about religion was interesting for me to witness as a young girl.
My father was ever curious – perhaps even skeptical – about the roots of religious affiliation. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in a Higher Power … he just questioned mankind’s manipulation of the masses through religious rhetoric. My parents never took me to church but, they never objected when I asked if I could catch a ride with my friend’s families. They never taught me ‘what’ to believe, but invited me to thoroughly explore and question any and all beliefs before I adopted them as my own.
I was taught by them that what speaks to the spirit of one soul may not be what illuminates another. Notwithstanding that, the overarching message in our home regarding religion and spirituality was consistent: God is love. So, it went without saying that if your theological orientation wasn’t leading you closer to feeling love for each and every member of our collective humanity, then you’d be wise to question your theology.
Our house during my childhood was filled with books. I was introduced to conversations sparked by some incomparable thought leaders like Herman Hess, Franz Kafka, Siddhartha Gautama, Kahlil Gibran, Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Rumi, Hafiz, Sigmund Freud, Lao Tsu, Confuscious and the like. The conversations in our home certainly played outside the lines of mainstream cultural and religious norms in terms of philosophic resonance.
I fondly remember my Mom assuring me that people are innately good. She contended that even when folks stumble and fall, they are generally doing the best they can in any given moment. Her allegiance to this philosophy was reflected in her explanation of my Dad’s alcoholism, emotional verbal abuse and neglect to pay child support. She never once spoke ill of him. No. She contended that he wasn’t the best expression of himself when he was drinking … but his alcoholism did not define him. He was struggling, but beneath it all, he was still a very, good man. I believed her.
My Mom was ahead of the curve and already seemed to understand the professional wisdom we are finally coming to espouse regarding addiction; as Gabor Maté so compellingly points out in this short video, addiction (in all it’s varied expressions) is a maladaptive effort to escape the pain (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) that folks can’t bear to be with. I do know that the traumatic legacy of my Dad’s early childhood was deeply wounding for him.
While recognizing that the adversity experienced in people’s childhoods does not excuse their ‘bad behaviour’; it can help us to better understand the roots of it. We are learning that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have a tremendous impact on future violence in our lives – both victimization and perpetration. We are also learning that our lifelong health and opportunities are also influenced by our ACE scores. The data shows that the higher your ACE score, the more likely you are to smoke, to become obese, to be a victim of domestic violence, to experience depression and anxiety and, even, to attempt to take your own life. The ACE study is profoundly interesting! If you would like to learn more, check it out here. But I digress …
As we evolve in our understanding of human behavior, I remain ever grateful that my Mom taught me to be generous in my assumptions of people. I’m no saint and can still get frustrated with people, but even in those moments, I like to remind myself, as Ram Dass states in a book by the same title,“We are all just walking each other home.” And, beyond the intimate connection this sage draws between loving and dying, I also interpret this to mean that we are collectively on this human journey to find more love, to experience more love …and … to ‘be’ more love.
What if our collective purpose on this planet is to learn how to personally embody the changes we want to see around us? I remain inspired by that ‘what if’ … and … although it can be so darn challenging when we are faced with difficult people, if we say we want to live in a loving world, we must require ourselves to embody, embrace and express that energy of love in our exchanges … even when it is trying for us to do so. Maybe, most importantly … when it is difficult to do so.
That said, I still shudder when I remember being emphatically corrected by another woman many years ago in a Christian Women’s Group when I dared utter aloud that I thought most everyone was doing their best given the context of their lives. She fervently countered my suggestion by arguing with unwavering conviction that my statement was “not true” … that some people are just possessed by the Devil. It was clear that she thought I was incredibly naïve to posit such bunkery.
I was effectively hushed because … in that room … in that moment, I suspected she was not alone in that belief. She had a mailbox in that Church. I did not. Even now, I can feel my breathing shallow as I touch back into the felt sense of that contentious moment. And while I concede that we must set boundaries to protect ourselves with some folks, I would like to suggest that the most vicious and perhaps villainous people who inhabit the world are/were vulnerable victims of someone/something else. I align wholeheartedly with the notion that “hurt people, hurt people.”
And while I cannot prove my perspective any more than someone else can disprove it, I am purposely, deliberately and consciously choosing to believe in the innate and inherent goodness of our Universal humanity … because … I like the way it fuels my spirit when I do.
Day 14: Character. As I awake this morning, I am continuing to recall the depth of my Mom’s character. After years of enduring the costs of my Dad’s alcoholism, she firmly required him to choose: his family … or … his bottle. Unfortunately, his addiction was more powerful than his freedom to choose otherwise. He couldn’t set the bottle down, so my Mom changed the locks on the door on August 11, 1970. I was 12. Coincidently or not … it was their 20th wedding anniversary. Unbeknownst to him, it was a gift … albeit wrapped in a very ugly package. He moved to Winnipeg to be closer to his sister, my Aunt Audrey. He sobered up. He got his life back. He even found another love … my stepmom Gerri. Although I never called her ‘Mom’, I came to love Ger too.
It breaks my heart to look back on their separation, though, because I know my Mom secretly hoped that they would reunite once he quit drinking. She never ever wanted to lose him … just his addiction. But, he was either too proud or too wounded to come back. Nonetheless, he remained the absolute love of her life. Here they are on their wedding day:
And, I am sure memories of my Mom’s wedding day were what inspired a torrent of tears streaming uncontrollably down her cheeks at my cousin’s wedding less than a year after they separated. She was seated to my left during the ceremony and I had never seen her so emotional. I recall her scolding me for glancing towards her … I guess she was afraid I would draw attention to her with my gaze. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I recognize now that she was having a gargantuan grief burst in that moment. I get tears in my eyes as I imagine how hard it must have been for her to lose the love of her life. Here’s one of the rare photos that I have of them together … in happier times.
My Mom loved my Dad so unconditionally that she even accepted and welcomed his new partner. The following photo was taken in 1989 … the summer before Mom died … at a dinner out at Sven Ericksens restaurant. Dad and Ger had travelled out from Manitoba to visit. It was such a rare and treasured occasion when I got to spend time in the presence of both my Mom and Dad. I am not sure how my Mom held it together … but she did. Maybe it was just a gift for her to share some space with him again. She was gracious and loving and kind. That is my Dad seated beside her. For some reason, she got to sit beside him and Ger was across the table.
Day 15: Music. My thoughts this morning took an interesting turn. Mom loved Harry Belafonte. One doesn’t hear him often any more, but I grew up with my spirit being stirred by the deep sense of humanity I could hear streaming from our nice little turntable through his incredible vocals. We enjoyed this and many other of his songs on the 78 LP vinyl version we owned. Harry Belafonte goes hand and hand with my childhood memories and hearing him always, always, always brings my Mom home to my heart.
We had a whole schwack of LPs. My Mom had a broad palette for music. Another of her favorites was Charlie Pride. Oh … and Perry Como and The Platters too. She loved good music. So do I. She also thoroughly enjoyed watching upcoming stars performing on Lawrence Welk … and … Ed Sullivan. She reveled in seeing people claim and share their gifts with the world. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that were she still alive today …‘The Voice’ would be one of her favorite shows. It would be so wonderful to be able to climb into the twin bed beside her again and chuckle together over the light-hearted bantering between the coaches. She’d probably really love John Legend.
You know who else I think she’d be a bit smitten with …? Keith Urban. Yep. She’d love his long hair … his heartfelt lyrics … his empathic capacity to speak right into the sorrow within people’s hearts. He just released a new Christmas song, too, that I expect would touch deeply into her own longings. I can only imagine how deeply she ached for someone to make it all better … for someone to fuss and bother to make things special for her.
Day 16: Quilting. My heart felt really heavy as I snuggled down with my coffee in the darkness before the Christmas tree this morning. The heaviness I was feeling took to me thoughts of the heaviness I experienced when my Mom passed away … and … I didn’t have any inkling as to how I was going to hold her close. I also wasn’t sure what to do with all her belongings. It was too hard to even think about parting with anything right away, but … what to do with it all?? I’ve always had a very creative spirit. It’s making me smile as I think about it, because my capacity for creativity was something that my Momma took great pleasure discussing. She seemed very proud of it.
While my paternal grandmother was an excellent seamstress, my Mom never sewed at all. I had never enjoyed sewing in Home Economics in school, but I was 13 when I sewed up this handsome little number. It wasn’t until I got married that I really recognized the creative joys of sewing
I made Cabbage Patch Doll clothing (along with matching dresses for my daughters), I sewed Barbie clothes, I whipped up some Care Bears when they were sold out one Christmas. I got the bug for quilting at ‘Ladies Time Out’ (a group for young mothers) when I learned how to make a Christmas table runner. We still use it.
I discovered that my perfectionistic tendencies and my keen eye for detail were well suited for quilting! And then, one Autumn, my good friend Deb and I took an evening class together and created the most beautiful quilted tree skirts. I enjoyed it so much that I ended up making four of them … that way each of my daughters could have one. It was really such fun choosing the fabrics and piecing together all the colors!! I am looking forward to resurrecting my passion for quilting in the years to come! I even bought a new machine with some fancy stitches … haven’t had it out of the box yet … but I will!!
Anyway, it somehow occurred to me to take all my Moms signature fortrel pants along with the brightly-colored house coat that she always, always, always took to the hospital with her … and … create something meaningful by stitching them all together into a quilt. I even used one of the sheets from her linen closet for the backside of it. I imagined that when I wrapped myself up in that quilt … it would be like getting a hug from my Mom.
Were I to write a memory of my Mom onto each of those squares, they’d include her playing rummoli and crokinole with me when I was young. There would be one for playing hangman and other word puzzles with me way past my bedtime on school nights in my tweens … and … another for playing Spades with me and my boyfriend during my teens. One of the squares would be in honor of our bedtime activities. Mom always spent some time with me when I was young … talking, telling stories, singing silly songs. I vividly remember our animated renditions of “Going on a Lion Hunt.” Another square would be for teaching me to play cribbage somewhere along the way … another for teaching me to knit. One would represent her dozing off in the front seat of the car during the dusk to dawn movies at the Drive-In while my friends and I snacked on popcorn in the back seat. Oh … and there would be one dedicated to Scrabble. I still LOVE a good word game.
There would be a square in honor of her taking me to The Boardwalk uptown, in Edmonton, on Christmas Eve one year in my teens so I could pick out a gift for myself for Christmas … and using our grocery money to do it. Yes. Makes me tear up as I remember the red sweater I picked out for myself. Oh my … and one for the “Penuche” she used to make on rare occasions. It’s a brown sugar based fudge that I recall being so incredibly delicious. It wasn’t as sweet as you’d think. I completely forgot about it until just now, but maybe I should make some … for old times sake.
I am mindful, as I reflect upon all of this, that many of my fondest memories with my Mom are not the formal celebrations or special events we expect are catalysts for making magical memories for our children. No, it’s not necessarily the birthday parties or Thanksgiving dinners that take up the most space in my heart, but rather, just those normal days. A box spice cake with the chocolate icing so chilled from the refrigerator that it has to melt in your mouth slowly. It’s the tartan skirt that she insisted on buying me in grade school that I loathed at first glance and then grew to be my favorite.
It’s those memories of walking with her to the grocery store during the cold winters when our blue and white Ford Galaxy 500 refused to start. It’s her allowing me to practice my ear piercing on her almost none existent ear lobes for the new job I got at the mall. It’s hot chocolate made with real cocoa powder and evaporated milk with tablespoons full of sugar. It’s so many small, seemingly insignificant things.
It’s humbling to recognize that many of the moments that make us miss our loved ones the most are those day to day moments that you simply took for granted … the ones you have no idea will be some of the memories you’ll hold most dear in time … those experiences you’d do anything for another opportunity to savor right now. Yep. Very humbling indeed.
Day 17: Cough Drops. My memories of my Mom would not be complete without speaking about Beech-Nut Menthol Cough Drops. They were an absolute mainstay in her life. We used to buy them by the carton and wrap them up for her at Christmas. And, then, I’d find them … sticky and half dissoved … all over the house. Honestly, I used to get so cranky about that.
And those of you who know me might be surprised by the uncanny parallel here!! I always, always, always have a package of Fisherman’s Friends in my purse. Not because I have a sore throat. No. Just because I love to suck on them. I do not, however, leave them stuck to surfaces all over the house. My favorite are the Citrus or Lemon … but I can make due with the Cherry or Mint quite nicely. 🙂
Do you suppose this kind of similarity could be hereditary?? It is a rather rare and unique idiosyncrasy that my Momma and I share. Neuroscientists are learning that many, many of our attributes (temperament, personality, abilities, fears and preferences) come via our genetic loading … but … may not be manifest until they are activated by the right environmental stimulus. Perhaps my own daughters will be epigenetically predisposed to having an affinity for cough drops too … and … their bodies are just waiting for the right brand of lozenge to render visible this part of their own DNA?? It took many years before I developed such a healthy
addiction affection for Fisherman’s Friends. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find me without them. It had not occurred to me until this very moment that my Mom and I had this in common. 😉
Day 18: Miscarriage. No reflection about my Mom would be complete without honoring the fact that she had five miscarriages before I was tucked safely into her arms. She never really talked about it, but I know that she lost some in early pregnancy and some in later trimesters. After researching the traumatic impact of pregnancy loss during my Graduate studies, I am deeply aware of how gravely these losses likely impacted her.
While I defined ‘unreconciled grief’ at the onset of this blog, I learned in my studies that the grief of miscarriage/pregnancy loss goes unrecognized and is habitually silenced in our culture. And, often, these losses are quite traumatic … but … no one talks about it. No honoring of the loss through mourning rituals. No casseroles brought to your door. No Hallmark cards. No days off from work. Often … no one even knows you have experienced a loss or what that loss actually means to you.
I am sobered as I reflect upon how much loss my Mom experienced in her lifetime. Parents, siblings, babies … husband. She lost her health. She lost her career. She lost her dreams for her future. She even lost her mobility when she was relegated to a wheelchair after one of her surgeries. And ultimately, she probably felt like she lost me to some degree when I got married and started a family of my own. I find myself wondering if she ever had an opportunity to mourn all the losses she endured in her life. And, if not, I am questioning whether some of her depression, anxiety and physical ill health may have been rooted in her own unreconciled grief? Could some of her suffering have been alleviated through grief work?
I guess I will never know … but … when I look at these pictures of her in her youth … I see such vitality! I see who she was before all the illness, pain, addiction and loss compromised her capacity to live in the fullest expression of who she could be in the world.
A mother of six … who only got to know and raise one. Although you never got to hold them in your arms Mom, I know you will have held each and every one of them as treasures in your heart. I am aching as I consider all the moments you didn’t get to celebrate with my five brothers and sisters. In this tender recognition, I am joining you in grief … wishing I had got to know them too. I am wondering what our lives would have been like had our house been filled with all of us. I am guessing your life would have been very different Mom … so very, very, very different. ❤
Day 19: Chicken à la King. Wikipedia states that this regal dish is typically made with diced chicken in a cream sauce, and often with sherry, mushrooms, and vegetables, served over rice, noodles, or fresh bread. Uhmmmm … that is not the way it was prepared at our house. We were on welfare, so my Mom made it with canned mushroom soup and canned green peas and put it on toasted store-bought McGavin’s bread. To her credit … it was absolutely delicious. I am thinking I should make it some time … in her honor … but without the canned peas. I am not terribly fussy about canned veggies. I could safely say I am never tempted buy them. Ever.
As I share this, I am reminded that many years ago I had a psychic reading and the Medium asked “What is with the tinned vegetables? Who likes tinned vegetables?” I wanted to say “No one in their right mind likes tinned veggies” … but instead … I think I teared up, right there and then. My Momma always, always, always bought canned vegetables. I thought it was because she really enjoyed them, but … in retrospect … I am wondering if it was because they were cheaper and easier to store than fresh or frozen. We only got to go grocery shopping once per month when the social assistance cheque arrived and the only freezer space we had was a space on the top of our fridge … which got increasingly smaller as the frost built up within it.
Nonetheless, the fact that she could not make the ‘King’s Dinner’ the way it was supposed to be done … with dry sherry and pimentos … never stopped my Mom. I learned from her that even if you don’t have the best of things, but you can always, always, always make the best of the things you do have. And, she always did. At any rate, watching my Mom do so much with the little we had might be one of the reasons the following is one of my favorite quotations.
Well … except maybe with parsnips. My Mom loved parsnips!! Blech. I can see no redeeming value in those veggies … despite that they weren’t canned. If you have any suggestions for how to make the ‘best’ out of parsnips, please let me know. 🙂
Day 20: Rules and Rulers. Because I had no siblings … we always had a cat. I think it was so I wouldn’t feel lonely. The first cats I remember being part of our family were Ying and Yang … the Siamese cats that we had when I was in elementary school. We finally had to foster Yang out because he was the rebellious ring leader and would lead Ying astray. Together, they reeked havoc in our home. Ying, by himself, was amazing. He was so very loving … and … even became my alarm clock. He would lick my eyelids open in the morning when it was time to get up for school. It was devastating to our whole family when Ying was killed in traffic outside our house. It took a while, but with time I welcomed some other fabulous, fluffy, furry feline friends into my heart.
One of them even had kittens! My Mom allowed me to stay home the morning she went into labor. She said that it was a beautiful learning experience for me to witness a birthing. She was right. It was sublime … except … when she started eating the afterbirth!! Gah. THAT caught me by complete surprise!!
Yes, we always had a cat … until we moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets. And well … as much as my Mom taught me the value of integrity, she also allowed me to sneak a cat into our apartment complex! I learned from my Mom that there is no virtue in honoring the rules … if a greater good is not being served in some regard. Once again, perhaps my passion for social work, social justice and resistance to power and oppression is rooted in this learning.
I learned from my Mom that we must push back when rules and rulers need to be challenged. My Mom held such respect for rule breakers like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, the Suffragettes, etc. Oh … and the Beatles! She loved that those exceptional musicians challenged the establishment with their long hair and that they continued raising mainstream eyebrows with their passionate platform and priceless presence on the planet … inviting us to ‘Come Together’ and “Imagine” and just “Let It Be” or maybe do “The Hippy Hippy Shake” instead! Yes. There are times when it is ethical and wise to resist the patriarchal power of the status quo.
Just because it is popular, normative or legal, doesn’t make it right. There are times when it is not only okay to break the rules, but a matter of good moral conscience. Okay … perhaps sneaking a cat into an apartment doesn’t fall into that category! 😉 I still love her for doing that for me.
Day 21: Parenting. When your children get older and have families of their own, you need to share them with their in-laws. This year was our year to move our Christmas and celebrate together early (from Dec 20-23). We opted to rent an Airbnb and have a ‘destination’ Christmas. I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage my Advent of Love time while were away, but it actually worked out well.
I woke up on our first morning there and while the rest of the family was still asleep, I found myself inviting my Momma to join me in the stillness of a new space in front of a different tree. I got thinking about her and how she might have enjoyed all the fun and festive frolic that was about to unfold with all of us under one roof for three nights. I had visions of us spending time outdoors together … maybe some skating, skiing or snowman making. It didn’t happen as I had anticipated, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time together. We played hours of board games together and ate delicious food and laughed … and … some of us even sang karaoke … and … we even bundled up and went for a beautiful stroll through the captivating light display erected by the lake.
Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself here. As I was reflecting upon all the beautiful souls still snuggled up tight in their beds on our first morning together, I got to thinking about myself as a wee child. As the story goes, my parents had recently hired painters to paint the living room. They had chosen a rose shade of red … if memory serves correctly. Very shortly, thereafter, both my Mom and I had laid down for a nap. One of us got up before the other. Apparently that creative spirit that my Momma so admired in me was sparked by what I had witnessed the painters doing. So, I took the pastry brush out of the drawer … not sure where I got the paint … and added a little of my own magic to the wall in the living room.
Now, I can only imagine the tongue lashing I would have given to one of my children had they done the same … but no … not my Momma. She told me later that her first thought was to grab the camera and take a picture of her little Da Vinci. Yes. My Mom had laser clarity about what was important in the parenting arena. She never sweated the small stuff … at all.
And, as I grew, she never lectured or shamed me for my mistakes. We never had alcohol in the house once my Dad was gone. So, although I had sipped on a bit of Lonesome Charlie or Moody Blue in my early teens, I had never even been tipsy until my boyfriend’s sister’s wedding … when I was 17. I got desperately tangled up with too much rum and coke. Gah. It was horrible!! To this day … I still can’t stomach the smell of either. When I arrived home, my Mom asked how the wedding was. I wasn’t the least bit scared to be honest with her, so I candidly replied, “Boy, were we sick!” and headed directly off to bed. She never said another word about it. Not even one. She didn’t choose to ensure I felt remorse or shame for messing up. She simply let the consequences of my choices do the teaching instead.
She never imposed a curfew on me either. She always said responsibility was earned … and … she afforded me as much responsibility as I proved I could handle. And, I never abused it. I honestly didn’t want to fall beneath her vision of me. She even left me her car when I was attending a French Immersion Program post high school graduation. I was only 17. She was going to be five hours away … without a vehicle of her own … but she entrusted me with it. And, even though I thought I earned it, her faith in my character was a gift that I am just realizing I didn’t really appreciate or fully understand … until right now. Sometimes we can’t/don’t/won’t see the blessings that are right in front of us.
Day 22: Entrepreneur. Although my Momma was schooled as a teacher, she was a savvy entrepreneur. She never made any money at it, but she never stopped seeing possibility. When she ended up with a colostomy, she saw a need to create more dignity for the wearer. She visualized a way to dress up a problem! She invented ‘Classic Comforts’ … ostomy bag covers. I’m not sure what happened … we had all kinds of prototypes … even a racy little red one with black lace on it! Perhaps she ran out of money? Or maybe she hit a snag with getting a patent? Or maybe she couldn’t sustain the physical energy needed to build a business? Whatever the reason, this exceptional dream fizzled. It’s too bad, because someone brought her dream to reality! I see now that you can buy ostomy bag covers on Etsy and Amazon … but nothing like that existed back then.
I always loved seeing the twinkle in her eyes when she was leaning into something that excited her!! Earlier in my life, when she and my Dad were still together, they created a temporary employment agency called “Man Friday” that was a clever play on the concept of a ‘Girl Friday’. It didn’t last long though. She also dabbled with writing and submitted an article or two to Redbook Magazine … but it never lasted. She even tried her hand at oil painting … but only for a season or two. Yes. She was a remarkable soul indeed … but nothing ever really stuck.
And you know what was the most interesting … the most inspiring thing to notice? My Mom’s health was always so much better when she was excited about a project! They say that the body and mind are so deeply connected … and … I believe it.
In addition to the impact our ACE score can have on our health and well-being, there are many neuroscientists, physicians and healers who are confirming that, as Bruce Lipton‘s research has confirmed, “our biography becomes our biology” . The evidence is mounting that painful emotions are held in our bodies and expressed in all manner of somatic symptoms and behavioral responses intended to alleviate our discomfort. As Bessel A. Van Der Kolk confirms in The Body Keeps the Score:
Of course we experience our most devastating emotions as gut-wrenching feelings and heartbreak. As long as we register emotions primarily in our heads, we can remain pretty much in control, but feeling as if our chest is caving in or we’ve been punched in the gut is unbearable. We’ll do anything to make these awful visceral sensations go away, whether it is clinging desperately to another human being, rendering ourselves insensible with drugs or alcohol, or taking a knife to the skin to replace overwhelming emotions with definable sensations. How many mental health problems, from drug addiction to self-injurious behavior, start as attempts to cope with the unbearable physical pain of our emotions? (p. 76)
Further in this regard, Gabor Maté adds fascinating points to ponder in his book entitled When the Body Says No,. He, as well as many others, have noted that specific emotional issues and feelings are linked to particular physiological reactions. For example, our faces flush when we are embarrassed. Our tummies ache when we are nervous. Maté goes so far as to suggest that there are particular ‘coping styles’ and/or ‘personality traits’ that are more susceptible to particular ailments and illness. For example:
“Cancer patients, to a statistically significant degree, were more likely to demonstrate the following traits: ‘the elements of denial and repression of anger and of other negative emotions … the external appearance of a ‘nice’ or ‘good’ person, a suppression of reactions which may offend others, and the avoidance of conflict …” (p. 125-126)
Maté discusses the commonalities of folks who have colitis, Crohns, MS, ALS, Rheumatoid Arthritis and a number of other chronic conditions. When I consider all my Mom’s health concerns over the years, I find it entirely fascinating.
Louise Hay has added insights to this conversation in her book called You Can Heal Your Life. In it, she presents a chart that identifies which emotional issues are correlated to which specific somatic problems. Most interestingly, it suggests that my Mom’s sciatic pain is most likely aggravated by hypocrisy and/or the fear of money and the future. That said, I am wondering if her chronic pain was intensified in those moments when her commitment to being in integrity was compromised … and/or … when she was really feeling the most fearful about our finances and our future. In the final analysis, I will always remain curious about how all my Mom’s losses, challenges and loneliness may have impacted her health and well-being.
Day 23: Tears and Apologies. One day about a year or so before she died, I had popped in to see her. I can’t remember what we were discussing, but we were just standing in the dining room … and … she caught me right off guard. I will never forget the sadness and regret in her query when she asked, “I wonder what we did to you?”
I literally felt the weight of remorse that was anchored to her question … and … I wasn’t sure she was strong enough physically or emotionally to shoulder the truth in that moment. So I lied to her. I told her I was fine … except for my emetophobia. I told her the only unfavorable legacy of my childhood was my fear of other people vomiting … especially if those other people are drunk. I reassured her that my childhood had sparked strength and resilience and independence and capacity. And, while that was all true, I knew she knew I was leaving some things out.
It was one of those moments where I wasn’t sure telling her the truth would serve the greatest good. She was in absolutely no position to undo what had been done, so I didn’t want to pile more guilt upon her that she’d have to take to her grave. It was enough for me … that she even asked. Just in her asking, I heard her insight and her apology. Everything shapes us. She knew it. I knew it. And we didn’t need to discuss it again.
Were I’d been honest, I might have mentioned that the roots of my ‘people-pleasing‘, ‘perfectionism’, ‘performing’ and ever ‘proving’ my worth started early on. Perhaps because I was so sensitive, I was intuitively aware of peoples emotions and could literally feel it in my body when people were upset or unhappy. And, I didn’t want to see my Mom sad, so I became acutely aware of how to stay in her favor.
She was typically so generous with her praise of me … I didn’t want to disappoint her. I wish I had learned earlier in my life that “praise and blame are all the same”. As Richard Carlson contends in his book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and it’s all small stuff; compliments and complaints are entirely subjective evaluations based upon the preferences of another person. As such, they do not actually define the subject of the judgment. They just tell you about the person who offers the evaluation. For example, if I tell you I like your shoes, I am not telling you anything about YOU. I am simply telling you my preferences regarding my taste in shoes.
It’s tricky though, because we tend to take these subjective evaluations to heart … as if they are some kind of truth that the teller knows about us. And with that fear, the people-pleaser becomes a chameleon of sorts … just trying to measure up to everyone’s preferences. It’s entirely futile.
Yeah, so you are living on a really slippery slope when you are sensitized to people-pleasing … because … it’s absolutely impossible to please everyone. Gawd knows, though, I’ve tried … my highly kindled and overly anxious amygdala rested so much easier if I sensed that people were happy with me.
It was rare, but every now and again … my Momma would say: “I have a bone to pick with you.” Gah. I trembled to the core whenever I heard her say that. I always knew I had really messed up if she felt it was important enough to take issue with me about something. Like I said, though … I really didn’t give her much trouble at all.
Notwithstanding that … there are a couple of things that I feel like I still need to apologize to my Mom for. First, my impatience with her. I wish I could turn back time and have a do-over. I recall one Christmas Eve … we were driving 80 kms (50 miles) on the highway to my husband’s parents house. We should NOT have been on the road. No one should have been. There were completely blinding white outs. It was soooo dangerous. She uttered something and I came unglued upon her … very harshly. There was silence in the back seat. She just let me sit with the discomfort of my own actions. I am not sure if I ever apologized for that or not. I guessing I didn’t, because that moment still haunts me.
And … the other thing that I wish I could change is the amount of time I spent with her once I moved out of the house. I deeply regret being so wrapped up in my own parenting and responsibilities that I did not see her as much as I could have. And yet, as I say that, I realize I’m being a bit unrealistic. My children needed to take priority … and … the truth is, the amount of time we spent together wasn’t all on me. She was just not well enough for us to connect all that often.
But, that is the part that puts a gnarly knot in my gut and a huge lump in my throat right now. She was all alone … almost all of the time. She lived alone, she went to her surgeries alone, she recovered alone, she spent holidays alone. All alone.
She never complained about it though. Maybe she preferred it that way??
I guess I will never know, but even though I really love my solitude … being alone is not at all the same as being lonely. And, as I sit with all this here and now, I fear that she must have felt so incredibly lonely.
And here’s the thing … I know I don’t even need to ask for her forgiveness. I know she forgives me. I just wish that I could have a little time with her now. She’s been gone for half of my life … and … I have changed and grown. I have curiosities about her that never hit my radar when I was younger. I have questions to ask … and … hugs to give. I have the humility that comes from raising my own daughters. I see things differently. I see her differently now.
I am wondering what it was like for my Mom to be the 7th child born to a 41 year old woman during the depression. I am wondering how it impacted my two year old Mom to be a toddler, in need of attention, growing up in the shadow of her infant brother who had died one week after his birth? I am wondering about the grief that my Grandma must have endured losing her child while trying to parent seven others? I find myself wondering if my Mom’s childhood was a bit barren of attention … perhaps she felt lost in the shuffle? I would love to have a deeper understanding of the meaning she made of her own lived experiences.
I yearn for the chance to see more deeply into her heart … to hear into her own wounds .. to honor her life experience more fully. I really only knew my Mom the way she presented herself in her role as my mother. And, it that role, our relationship was mostly about me.
At what age do we get interested in knowing our parents as people … as human beings outside the face they put forward in their parenting role?? I mean, for the most part, my daughters only know me as their mom. It’s a role I took very seriously … editing and chiselling and refining my presentation in order to reflect that of a “good mom” … but, there are many parts of me, as a woman, that they have not yet met nor have been offered an opportunity to spend much time getting to know. I guess my daughters will have a deeper sense of who I am as a woman because of my writing, but … I sure wish I could have met those parts of my Mom that went entirely unnoticed in our short time together.
For example, I am only two years younger than she was when she died. I have so many curiosities about what was going on inside of her. For example, I wish I had a chance to ask her what she was thinking about in this photo. She looks so very melancholy, don’t you think?
Day 24: Meaning Making: I woke up on the last day of my Advent of Love reflecting upon how much I enjoyed going to the Zoo Lights in Calgary with some of the family the night before! It was absolutely magical! The weather was perfect … not too cold, fresh fallen snow, no wind, a spectacular sky and the light displays were simply stunning … well beyond glitteringly gorgeous!
In the quiet of our hotel room the next morning, I was reflecting upon how I would have savored several more hours there … just breathing in all that luminous light against the backdrop of dark stillness. If you ever get a chance to go … I highly recomment it! It was hard to capture the magnitude and magnificence of it all on camera. It was absolutely mezmerizing!
And, on my final day of this morning/mourning ritual, I also wanted to spend some time revisiting a question that I have been pondering for almost the entirety of this Advent of Love. Just before I started this, I was chatting with a very dear friend of mine about my “Better Because You Spared Me” blog when Kimmy asked:
“What do you make it mean that your Mom died on Christmas Day?”
I told Kimmy that I could remember being a bit annoyed with her initially. I can recall thinking, “Mother … seriously!?! With 365 days of the year … why did you have to pick Christmas to die on??” Gah. I am embarrassed to say it, but I was grumpy with her for that.
But my friend Kimmy offered another perspective. Her teenage son, Brett, transitioned on her 20th wedding anniversary. She saw it as a gift … she didn’e elaborate in that moment, but said she had received some very meaningful messages that shifted her perceptions around it all. She sparked my interest in pondering it a bit more.
And, in all honesty, I hadn’t gleaned any real insights until I spoke with Kimmy again about a week later. I am so very grateful that my friend heeded her keen instincts in the moment and offered to email a copy of the messages she had received after her son died. I had read them many years ago, but she was sensing that there might be something meaningful in them for me to revisit now … given that I was doing my Advent of Love.
And so, I read those poignant messages again on Day 7 of my morning/mourning process. I didn’t record my thoughts on that date because I wanted to let myself marinate in the layers of wisdom contained therein … and … see what other insights might be stoked if I dwelled with it all a bit more before I wrote about it here. And, Kimmy was so right! There were a number of things that stood out. I was particularly moved by one of the messages her son had sent her saying:
“I love you. Every spark, flame, glint, glimmer, sparkle, shine and starburst – that’s me. That’s my sign to you. I love you and our love lives on …”
And, although that message came from Brett through Kimmy, perhaps it is a message for each and every one of us. Metaphorically speaking, our loved ones spark the light above us, around us and within us. Perhaps this is the reason my Mom died at Christmas? It is the Season of Light … a celebration of the light of love that was culturally and collectively inspired by the birth of Jesus on December 25th.
All the colorful Christmas lights brighten our surroundings and our hearts. It is my understanding that these lights are intended to be symbols of hope and reminders of the goodness in the world. I believe that they were also intended to guide us in following the enlightened path of Jesus … by providing light and love to others … most especially for those who are struggling and/or enduring dark times.
And, my Mom had endured so much darkness in her life … perhaps she recognized that part of our salvation is seeking and embracing light – in all it’s various incarnations – despite the sorrows and darkness that inevitably find us. I was witness to the fact that much of my Mom’s resilience was fostered by her deliberately claiming whatever dots of light she could find in her life.
One time when I was really sad, she introduced me to a book called “The Prophet” that graced the bookshelves in my home growing up. In that book, Kahlil Gibran speaks about joy and sorrow by saying:
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. (The Prophet, p.29)
And so, as I have pondered it … I like the idea that maybe my Mom left at Christmas because the dots of light … those ‘sparks, flames, glints, glimmers and sparkles‘ that Kimmy’s son spoke about … would shine like starbursts and brightly reflect back to me and my family during the Holiday Season. There is absolutely no time of the year that casts as much light as Christmas.
And so, as we all find our way through the highs and lows of our life, may we take a page out of my Mom’s book. May we consciously notice the dots of light connected to the darkness … and not just at Christmas. May we persistently seek to find a dot of delight … a dot of understanding … a dot of relief … a dot of gratitude … a dot of remembrance … a dot of acceptance … a dot of laughter … a dot of comfort … a dot of hope … a dot of love … a dot of peace. And, as I say that, it’s comforting to remember that we typically find exactly what we are looking for in life … ❤
And, if we can’t find it … may we deliberately choose to create it. May we be wise enough to light a candle ourselves and illuminate the darkness for ourselves and/or others. Yes. Let there be light to help us find our way.
Gosh, as this Advent of Love has come to a close … but … the gifts of doing it will live on in my heart. It has been such a rich and illuminating experience. I typically wake up much earlier than I need to in the morning so I can enjoy my solitude. During this Advent of Love, there were many mornings that I couldn’t even wait until 6:00am to get up and illuminate the darkness with the candle lights and the Christmas lights. It was such a blessing to intentionally add some nice kindling to all that shimmers and shines within my soul.
Yes, meeting with the dark shards of my grief in these early morning/mourning hours has sparked a sublime sense of reconnection to my Mom. And, one thing I know for sure is that my Momma’s deep, abiding adoration and limitless love for me is one of the greatest treasures tucked tenderly into my heart space.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again … I am much of who I became because of my Mom. I can see that she always inspired me to be the best expression of myself. I am just so very grateful for all the ways my life has shone brighter because of her.
I am having trouble finding the words to describe how deeply meaningful this process has been for me. It’s been 30 years since you physically left us, but I feel your presence Momma. Thank you for meeting me in these tender moments of recollection as I sat in the pre-dawn darkness of my morning/mourning ritual with you here. I love you … and … am ever so much better because you loved me. ❤ ❤ ❤
Yes, through this Advent of Love, I am seeing so very clearly all the ways that my Mom left the light on for me … xo Karen xo
P.S. I am adding this post script on January 5th. I am STILL getting up extra early so I can maximize my opportunity to enjoy my time in front of my Christmas tree!! Very, very strangely, I have not been the least bit eager to take it down this year. Usually, I can’t wait to get it out the door … get rid of the mess and the falling needles. I’m usually tired of sweeping around it every day … and … they usually lose their lustre quite quickly. Generally speaking, the limbs of real Christmas trees are drooping so much after three weeks that the ornaments are collecting on the tips of the branches and/or sliding off onto the floor.
However … THIS tree … THIS year … is not dropping needles. It is still supple and soft and smelling good. AND … it has been up in our house for almost six weeks! Yes. SIX weeks! And, it is still so gorgeous! I did just hear something hit the floor … but … we haven’t even watered it for the last 10 days because I kept thinking I’d be taking it down. But … here I am … still thoroughly enjoying it. THIS tree has bestowed such blessings upon me THIS year. I am ever grateful for all the ‘life’ it has brought to my being … and … all the gifts I have received sitting before it. ❤
January 5th, 2020 … still glowingly gorgeous! I wonder when I will want to take it down??