(Please Note: My mother and I both thought this blog was important to share so that others can move past their fears and face death as a transition to light)
My son was about to leave for Nova Scotia so I decided to call my mother to share in her excitement that she would get to spend two whole months with her grandchild. It had been a year since she had seen him last, a separation I knew was difficult for both her and my father. They had been my son’s second parents from the beginning. Dad used to rock my son to sleep with his Merle Haggard CDs, frequently would put him in protective gear and take him around the yard on the lawn mower, and he enjoyed Easter egg hunts and snuggle time with his grandson, but most of all, my dad is an amazing male role model that my son looks up to.
(Dad, Cole & Mom)
My mother was all about my son’s education. She taught him through field trips to museums, science fairs, and frequent trips to the library. She loved watching his mind grow and exuded gratitude in being a part of his journey and development.
Everything changed when my mother had her stroke four years ago. My mother was a very active member of our community. Her work at the local university aligned her with students who were traveling or working from different parts of the world. She exposed me to various cultures and traditions by inviting international students, with their unique perspectives, to sit around our kitchen table to engage in lively conversations; subsequently, many of them adopted her as a mother figure. These small acts of inclusion taught me about love and diversity in ways that are now ingrained in my soul, and they have changed the way I view the world.
(Me in Ethiopia 2009)
After her stroke, people would often stop me on the street and ask, “How is your mother?” I could never lie for their comfort and I always answered truthfully, “Not so great but I appreciate you asking.”
I find there is often a misconception surrounding stroke survivors in that healing is inevitable, but this was not the case with my mother. She remained paralyzed on one side of her body, and the parts of her body that she could feel often were in unbearable pain.
Now in a nursing home, my mother’s quality of life is practically non-existent.
When I called her on that day to share, what I thought would be excitement, I was met with something completely different. It is a conversation I will always remember, and I am grateful I was given the opportunity to have had it, because it was the day my mother said, “Goodbye.”
“I need to talk to you about something important,” she insisted the second she heard my voice on the phone.
“Okay,” I said reluctantly. When my mother says she needs to talk to me about something important it is usually her way of beginning a lecture about money, and her continuous need to “educate” me about budgeting. It never ends well, and is pretty much the source of all our arguments.
“I’m dying,” she says with conviction in her voice. As soon as the words left her mouth and met my ear I channelled the rebellious teenage version of myself, rolled my eyes, and responded, “Mom, do you really think you are dying or do you just want to die?”
I knew my mother suffered from depression, and truthfully who wouldn’t in her situation, but this time her tone was different.
Quick to respond to my sass she responded, “Forgive me Cara if I hate this existence and pray every day for it to end.”
When I realized how serious she was I became quiet and admitted truth to her that I know most of the general public would have difficulty understanding.
“I know mom,” I confirmed her emotions with pure empathy, “and I want you to know that I pray all the time for God to take you, and for you to transition to light (a phrase I used to describe death).”
As if I revealed the best news ever, my mother exuded joy in her reaction, “REALLY?! Do you really pray for that?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “I also understand that most people do not relate to my wish for you”.
“Mom,” I continued, “I know there is more, I’ve been there. I beg the unconscious world to forgive me for wanting more for you. More that they don’t quite understand.”
She sobbed relief. Her next question was one of pure motherly love mixed with the instant guilt; the kind that happens the moment your child enters the world. “Was I a good mother?”
(My Birth Mother Maureen & My Adoptive Mother Coleen)
I felt nothing but pure love and empathy. “Yes,” I responded without hesitation, “You are a great mother!”
“Was I mean?” she asked, her insecurity radiating from the phone. Again I answered without hesitation, “Yes mom, sometimes you were mean,” I laughed uncomfortably on the other end of the phone. I continued, “But I want to tell you something about that, mom. I always knew that when you said mean things to me that they were coming from a place in your past. Your statements were riddled with fear for me and your desire for me to succeed, no matter how mean they sounded. The problem was that sometimes, for me, it was hard to remember this when my name and personal experiences were attached to it. I know you only wanted the best for me.”
My mom, in tears, whispered, “Thank you honey.”
To bring light back to the conversation I reminded her of a previous conversation we had the year prior when she ended up in the emergency room after heart problems. Even back then I knew it was important to talk about the reality of her leaving this world, and that there was something very important I needed to tell her.
Having had a near death experience I know there is more than what this reality reflects, but the problem was my mother loved to live in her head and was the biggest skeptic. I love her so much I couldn’t bear the idea of her sticking around the earth plane simply because she refused to believe she had died. Reminding her of this conversation I asked her, “Do you remember what I asked of you mom!”
“Vaguely,” she admitted, “Refresh my memory.”
My mother was finally in a place to hear me, so I gladly repainted the conversation in hopes that this time it would resonate.
“I sat on the end of your bed and told you to do me a favor. When you die please remember this conversation and my voice, know that you are dead, don’t stick around, go into the light, listen to my spirit guides and your spirit guides, don’t try to analyze what is happening, accept it, let go, and when you do finally let go I give you full permission to haunt me, but for the love of God, please don’t freak me out! You will be extremely eager to talk to me because you will find out that I knew way more than you thought I did, and if you come to visit me, in your eagerness you might freak me out!”
My mother remembered and responded, “I think I am finally ready to hear that advice!”
“I am glad, Mom!” I said, with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye.
“Don’t worry,” mom continued, “I will be sure to rule over you in heaven, and when you are standing in the Tim Horton’s line-up getting your coffee, I will be whispering in your ear, ‘Are you sure you can afford that?’”
I cracked up laughing at this, and for a few minutes had a huge belly laugh. You have to understand, my mother does not have a developed sense of humor. She does not understand jokes, let alone cracking a joke. All of our fights over the years have been about money and her constant question of, “Can I afford that?”
“Look at me,” she said amused and proud of herself, “I made a joke!”
Mom continued our conversation, “Please don’t cry for me when I go, you can shed a tear, but don’t be sad.”
I laughed at this statement as well–a typical way for mom to try and control the situation. “Umm, sorry mom, that is not something you can decide for me. I’m going to cry–a lot! I need to grieve and let go!” I continued, “and just to let you know, if I find out that you and dad have made it so that we aren’t allowed to say anything at your funeral or wake, I will be super pissed! Just so you know!”
Surprised, mom responded, “Really? Why’s that?”
“For the love of God mom, I’m a writer. If you rob me of expressing myself after losing my parent I will be crushed! Don’t forget, funerals are for the living. You will be gone and free while we are stuck here feeling sad. A least let me write about it and share!” I chuckled as I said my peace.
Mom paused for a second and smiled, “That actually makes sense.”
“Well,” she continued, “If you are going to write me a letter at least write it to me while I am alive so I am sure to hear it.
“I will see what I can do, mom,” wondering where I would even begin, “but that might be a very difficult task.”
I feel so lucky in so many ways that we can have these conversations. They are unconventional, the way I traditionally like to roll, but they help in creating closure before we say goodbye. Even my father and I have had some belly laughs around death.
My dad is a planner and he likes to have all his ducks in a row, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that he had already paid for and planned their funerals. One day I came back to his house and there were these beautiful wooden boxes sitting on the table.
“Hey Dad,” I sang out, “These are really nice boxes, are they for the garden?”
Dad shuffled into the room, busy as usual, and without skipping a beat responded, “No, but they do hold dirt.”
With that I realized what they were his and mom’s cremation boxes, and the two of us busted out laughing.
“Well,” I said between the tears of laughter, “They sure are pretty!”
As much as it will be difficult to say goodbye to my parents someday I am so grateful, not only for how much they love me, but for making death funny. So to honour my mother (because she requested it) I am going to make my first attempt at writing them a “Celebration of Life” letter. Thanks to both my mom and dad for making me smile.
How do you even begin to write a letter or put into words how much you love someone? Love is a gift, an emotion, a comfort and something not everyone in this life is blessed to experience from their family. Since I was a child I always knew that before I came to this earth I chose you to be my parents. Although we did not share biological DNA you shared with me your knowledge, compassion, and values, and that helped to weave my spiritual DNA. Unknowingly, you created a warrior.
Our greatest teachers in life are the ones who know how to push our buttons, who make us question, and who mirror the change we want to see in ourselves. Our relationship is like no other. My greatest frustration has always been your inability to allow me to thank you. I know it is a generational thing, but it continues to be important to me to express, without interruption, how much you mean to me.
When I was younger I hated myself. I don’t know how and why this happened. I have tried to trace it back to the source, and a few factors come into play. The one that seems most obvious to me was the contradiction of the two worlds I lived in, the world in which you created for me and the one I was forced to live in. The world you created for me was safe, and loving. You told me every day that I could achieve anything, that I was beautiful, and by example, you showed me that I had to fight for my dreams. The world in which I lived in would tell me the opposite, and over time, temporarily, the outside world won.
Little did I realize, as a youth, that the external world had begun to erode your self-love and resilience as well, but you kept this truth from me the best you knew how, for as long as you could.
Now, as a mother myself, I think back to how challenging it must have been for you as a mother to not have had any control over the self-hate your daughter experienced, when all you saw in her was beauty and potential. When all you wanted was the world around me to give me a chance, you stayed strong for me, and I noticed. I began to emulate your strength. I began to look in the mirror and I began to like, and then love, the reflection that stared back.
People who know us, and who might read this letter, might think, “But what about all the arguments, the tears, the frustration, and the unkind exchanges you shared?” Mom, as much as your fears and insecurities over time became impossible to hide from my adult eyes, as much as your words hurt me so much that some days I thought I would combust, as much as our roles reversed and now I was the one begging you to love yourself and choose differently, these moments were always laced with one constant: Love.
Love comes in many different shapes and sizes, actions and words, and in the creation of memories. I choose to remember. Remember all the love.
This love looks like family vacations where my brother Chris and I played silly games in the backseat of the car; it looks like campfires, the beach, waterslides, and laughter. It came in the form of baking our favorite snacks: caramel corn, chocolate cookies and your special cream cheese brownies.
It was in moments when you forced me to eat my vegetables, even if it meant I had to wash them down with milk, because you wanted me to be healthy and strong. I felt it when I would open the top drawer of your bureau to revisit all our letters, cards and mementos you felt were so important that you had to save them, and in the end you turned what I viewed as ordinary moments into extraordinary acts of love.
You cradled me when boys hurt my feelings (and they hurt them a lot), when I wanted to give up on my dreams, and when the time arrived in a blink of an eye, you loved me enough to let me go.
How frightening that must have been, yet you did it for me, and I hope to do the same for my child when the time arrives. Sometimes, one of the greatest acts of love is learning to trust and let go, and because you did this, I not only travelled the world, but I took you with me. When I stood in front of my South Korea students I would pause and think of you. When the wallabys hopped in droves through the fields every night at dusk, as I watched them after a hard day’s work in my Australia sculpture apprenticeship, I would wish you could see them with me. Every day I wake up with the adventure of being seizure free, I rejoice in our success, knowing all of it is possible because you and dad loved me and let me go.
Now I do my best to emulate that love as a mother to my son. To give him a life full of memories like the ones you have given to me. You can leave this world knowing that you have created a ripple of greatness in the lives of many, but in your daughter’s life, you sparked a light so bright that she has become determined to share it with the world. Know that the light you have created knows no boundaries.
Even though I will cry when you leave, it won’t be for the reason you may think. I will cry because I am so overcome with the joy you have given me in my life, and that I got to experience that life with you.
Thank you for always reminding me of my own power, and always know I give you permission to haunt me when you are gone, just please, don’t freak me out.
One of Your Wonderful Creations