There’s a part of my heart so hermitically sealed that I only know it by its outline, the shape of the welded door, the density of its contents. I can operate full time on a plane where I bring my mother into conversation, tell her funniest stories, hear from the people she touched, see her furniture in my home and still stay well within the anteroom, outside the sealed place. I can know it’s there without ever going inside.
And because the grief’s anteroom seemed plenty real, it was quite something to realize recently that for all my personal development work, the therapy, the journaling, the reading and rereading C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed — that I really hadn’t crossed the threshold that mattered. I hadn’t really, fully flung open the door of my grief over losing my mother – at least not as an adult. Just hazarding a glance at the doorframe, taking stock of its weight and worth felt like quite enough, thank you.
I come close to it, then back away. I think I’m diving in, I think I’ve felt what’s there to be felt – the longing, the missing, the sadness. But I am only talking about feeling it, intellectualizing it. Recently, with some help, I began watching myself more closely, and what I saw was that I come up to the door, I feel around for the handle, I touch it – and then I back away. I clap my hands together with efficiency – that’s that, then! – and it can look healthy; it can look a lot like progress. I touched the door! I know all the right things to say! I can take care of my listener! But I’m only doing this little yo-yoing grapevine shufflestep, a little dance forth then a retreat. It’s a pattern I’ve been doing so long, I’m hardly even aware of it. I’m hardly even aware of what drives that soft shoe retreat – that little dark worm of fear that wonders what happens if I open the door and don’t come back out.
Do you know what’s inside the door? Grief’s real interior space? You do if you’ve lost someone — and of course you have; we all have. We sit on the couch in the grief’s anteroom and hold the loss of someone, their absence. But inside the heart of grief is imagining your life if they were still here.
I remember one conversation I had with Mom, I was twelve in a ribbed yellow tank top with matching striped shorts and she in her customary “yardwork” terrycloth jumper, both of us leaning against the laminate counters in our kitchen as the sky pinked into purple after dinner one summer night. We were talking about the afterlife. “I don’t know what it’s like,” she said, “I imagine there is so much love, it’s almost hard to bear. I know we get to review our lives, the kinds of people we were – maybe we’ll even see the conversation we are having now, we’ll see us standing here, talking about it. I don’t know, but I do know I am going to have a LOT of questions when I get there.” I guess because she said, “maybe because we’ll see THIS conversation”, I have lodged it in my memory as one of those crystallized moments. It’s one of the few I allow myself to touch, and I am newly aware that there are so many I withhold access to.
Where it feels the most raw is not necessarily the memories of the past, it’s imagining her here in the present tense of my life, right now. I don’t know how much I am ignoring what I am missing until I imagine the commonplace – the miracle – of being able to contact her, to hug her, to argue with her. When I picture walking beside her, how her height and gait would precisely measure up against mine (it’s funny how the body remembers), how she’d look at me, look into me, and smile – that’s where it’s too big to hold. When I imagine being able to pick up the phone to call her, to tell her of some mundane detail of my day or bring an issue or problem to her that I alone am holding, or – the ultimate kick in the gut – imagining her with my children, that’s what feels so nearly unbearable that I’ve taken up an almost-comfortable residence in the anteroom to my real grief.
A friend recently posted on Facebook her truth about what it’s like to walk through Mother’s Day – all the marketing, all the ads and brunch specials and obligations. Of course it’s incredible to be a mother, she said, but she’s consumed with wanting to shout at every 70-year-old woman she sees, “Why do you get to be here?” (when her mother is not). It can be an exhausting holiday to push yourself through because it forces you to imagine your mother alive – and then realize over and over she’s not.
I once asked my mother in law whether the deep hole she felt for her mother got partially filled when she had children. She said it did, and later I experienced that for myself too. But it was less of a sense of filling up for me, and more of a mooring, an anchoring again that I had come loose from. Cheryl Strayed is right too when she says that this brand of grief is a constantly empty bowl we fill and fill and fill again.
Another friend wrote me recently about what it had felt like for her to turn the doorknob on that hermetically sealed room, allowing herself for just a minute to play the What-If game. What if her dad had met her daughter, what if the two most important humans in her life might have directly known and loved each other. She said it felt like a sucker punch, the wind knocked out of her. She attached Lucille Clifton’s incredible poem, “My Mama moved among the days.”
My Mama moved among the days
like a dreamwalker in a field;
seemed like what she touched was hers
seemed like what touched her couldn’t hold,
she got us almost through the high grass
then seemed like she turned around and ran
right back in
right back on in
There is a fear in speaking so candidly about the simultaneous constancy and impossibility of grief that we sound too messy, too narcissistic, too mired in our own attachment to pain. I am trying to override that fear and recognize that the ears that would hear it that way are the inner critic’s or those whose opinion I don’t value, who’d have me believe that I’m always taking up too much space.
The anteroom is my living room. It’s a part of me, like my height and laugh and propensity to overstuff the recycling can. It’s home. But my story of loss is limited if I freeze it all, arrest it only in her absence, and not – as painful as it might be – reach towards her, bring her through my days with me, imagining her here.
I have to create the space and don the bravery to enter the hermetically sealed door from time to time. To hold the full weight of the loss of her, and know I can stand it – that it’s not in fact totally unbearable. And in bearing it, I am bearing the weight and beauty and pain of my own life. What’s inside that heavy vaulted door is actually my mother.