On the 15th Anniversary of my Mother’s Death

Fifteen years fails to satisfy, on both arbitrary and aesthetic levels.
It’s not long enough to be a significant milestone; it’s sufficient time to satisfy the import it has accrued. It is what it is: a decade and a half, five thousand, four hundred and seventy five days. A long time.

I’m of course of a certain age (and have been for some time now) that just about any event may seem like it happened yesterday. Certainly, memories that conjure profoundly positive or negative feelings are still fresh, and one need not be especially nostalgic to acknowledge this.

Still, fifteen years is impossible to trivialize. I was 32 when my mother died, which means that almost one third of my life has passed without my mother being here.

There’s something about the shock and sorrow involving the death of a loved one that (understandably) changes the way you look at life, and even how you organize the way you look both forward and backward. In a chapter entitled “Calculus,” I reflected on this in my memoir:

My grief has made me, against all previous likelihood, into a half-assed mathematician. Numbers were never my bag, and I’ve got the report cards to prove it. And yet, ever since 2002, I find myself going over similar calculations, repeatedly.

There are the obvious, inevitable examples. For instance, on August 26, 2004: This is the second anniversary of her death; it is therefore seven years since her first operation. Then, with a combination of improvisation and OCD, other variations ensue: I was twenty-seven at that first operation; my nephew will be twenty-seven when I’m fifty-seven, which is two years younger than my mother was when she died. My mother’s funeral cost about (insert dollar amount here), which would buy (this many) trips to (this place). If we went to the various hospitals and treatment centers approximately fifty times over the course of five years, at roughly fifteen miles per trip, this distance would get you from D.C. to Chicago. We ate in the hospital cafeteria roughly twenty times, or enough to pay 2 percent of one of the cashier’s yearly salary. And so on.

And then this, revisited on a regular basis: If I get diagnosed at fifty-four, like my mother did, that means that effective immediately I have x years and y months to enjoy a cancer-free existence (although those malevolent cells could be coursing through my oblivious veins even as I type).

I can barely balance my checkbook, yet here I am, a poor-man’s Pythagoras, my busy brain co-opting or pre-empting the confusion and consternation cancer yields. And just like the bad old days during Algebra exams, I apprehend much less than I’d like. For example: How might my mother have lived her life if she’d known she was never going to see sixty? How might I have lived? How might I do things differently (i.e., better) if I could know how far off, or how unacceptably close my own death will be?

All of which is to reiterate the obvious: losing a loved one (particularly a parent) changes you.

Two things in particular have made this loss bearable, even positive in unexpected ways. One, I had abundant opportunity to express to my mother how much I loved and appreciated her. I’ve never had to agonize over things left unsaid, which — while not an issue even before my mother got sick — is not an inconsiderable blessing. Two, while this loss has affected me in subtle and obvious ways, it’s mostly proven that I’m the same person I already was, only more so. There is a peace and freedom there that would be inconceivable if I felt anything but affection and obligation for the woman who did the most to help me be the person I continue to become.

And on anniversaries and certain occasions, I’m relieved that — in ways I could never have comprehended before August 26, 2002 — I was actually preparing for life without my mother long before I lost her.

I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

The historical intersections of culture and psychology suggest that there can be no archetypal way to grieve, just as there are no ultimate answers for how we might reconcile our place in the world, including the non-place before we are born and wherever we go when we die. But there is certainly a wrong way to grieve and grapple with the transient nature of existence. Anytime we are encouraged — or obligated — to follow a path someone else prescribes (particularly someone who is getting paid for the prescription), it’s a short cut to resolution we can only attain for ourselves.

Cemeteries are like churches: created to contemplate people not accessible to those still living. They serve as memorials, affording an opportunity to ponder this world and reconcile our place in it.

I’ve been to the cemetery, and I don’t mind going to the cemetery. From a purely aesthetic perspective it is a lovingly constructed memento for departed souls: names and ages and years connected by what all of us ultimately have in common. The cemetery is where my mother’s body rests. Anyplace else I go is where she lived; where she still exists. Wherever I go, she accompanies me.

But sometimes this is not enough.

So I return to the lake by my father’s house. The house I grew up in; the house where my mother helped raise me; the house where we helped her die. The lake where I once caught sunfish; where I swam and drank my first beers. The lake where I skinny-dipped with the girl across the street, not knowing what I’d do without clothes on dry land. The same lake I walked around during those last two weeks, my own routine once the August sun began its slow descent and most families sat down to dinner. The only place I was ever alone those last two weeks: a respite from crowded and uncomfortable thoughts; a retreat from the inevitable rituals of adulthood. The same lake my father and I ended up, later that final night, after it was over and my sister had returned to her family. The lake we silently circled, not saying much, not needing to do anything other than exist.

This is where I go. I return to this lake. It is my church, my sanctified place for reflection. The water flows and recedes, feeding and restoring itself. The trees surround the water, their leaves emblems of Nature’s enduring procession. The sky stares down impassively to see its ancient face reflecting up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.

*excerpted from the memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy


Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net