Acceptable Grief

Today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been 77. She died at 71. I don’t think she minded going at that age; she never expected to get old. But it was pancreatic cancer, so it hurt like hell.

There is so much to write about this. I will never be done with it, or even approach saying everything I need to say.

My mother was the one person who wanted me, and all my siblings, to be in the world, all the time–from before we were born. She wanted us in her life. She was difficult in her own way, but she universally wanted us to exist.

Last night in bed, my mind did some of its worst tricks. I wanted it to play dead, and it wanted to show me death. I thought of an upcoming trip with a friend to see horses, and my mind showed us in a car crash on the way to the barn. I thought of my sweet dog Ginger, 14 years old now but still happily eating, who loved my mother even when she was afraid of most other people, and my mind showed me finding her body in the yard. And I won’t even talk about the knives.

These were waking images. These are images I have when my emotions escape my control, like helium balloons I accidentally let go into the world. These are my disasters.

At last I told myself, “Tomorrow is Mom’s birthday.” And I knew my crazy grief ravens had come back to roost, yet again. I didn’t stop my morbid worries, but I knew where they had come from.

I don’t usually tell people these things. I say I am sad. I say I miss her. And these are true. But the feelings are more complicated than that, and these are my particular manifestations. They’re weird and they’re scary. They’re inappropriate and associative. What do these visions of pain and disaster have to do with my mother’s death?

I’m still working on figuring that out. But for now I have told someone. I have told all of you that, basically, I am crazy. Bat-shit-straight-jacket-cuckoo-for-coco-puffs-crazy.

But then, so are any of us who have lost a parent. As time passes, I care less and less about what is acceptable grief. Over 5 years and I’m still bereft. I still feel my personal torturous images gathering, and not just once a year on her birthday. Some days there is nothing–absolutely no trigger at all–and I’m moping all day about her gone-ness, anesthetizing myself with British tv murder mysteries and multiple naps.

Ok. This is how it is. Time does not heal all wounds, and there is no time limit on grief, and our feelings about the dead don’t all fold down to easily transportable size. My friends, I know you, too, grieve. Do it however you need to, acceptably or not. Let go of those goddamn balloons filled with strange images and feelings and smother the whole sky with them if you need to. I won’t judge, and I won’t tell you what’s normal, and I won’t try to convince you that you’re not crazy.

I Dream My Mother

They say when you dream a horse
that horse is your spirit.
—Judith Barrington
I dream my mother is a gardenia.
I dream my mother alive
still, her funeral
a fake, and she gradually recovering muscle,
mind, color and breath for the past three years
in Connecticut, where I would never
have thought to look for her.
I dream my mother as
Ophelia, drifting down the clear river,
singing. I dream my mother
a horse so she can ride across my back yard, leaving
hoof prints in the flowerbeds. I dream my
mother in feathers, flippers, fur. I dream
my mother in the morning, coffee mug in her hand, dust
in the pale light. I dream her carrying
a coffee can full of grain and whistling
in the barn. I dream her asking
questions of the air, and the air
answering. I dream her afraid; I dream her telling me
not to be afraid. I dream her on the phone,
inside an envelope, in riding boots, in tears.
I dream her asleep and I dream her waking
and, opening
my eyes to the mirror,         
I see—what?—an apology
of lashes, a seed in the iris that will take years
to bloom.
–Katherine Riegel, from What the Mouth Was Made For

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