Sorry for the delay on this one, but my thoughts kept scurrying away to places where I was hesitant to follow. At night, when I was a child, I imagined a nest of monsters breeding and taunting from the dirty clothes resting on the bannister outside the small bedroom my brothers and I shared. Darkness terrified me, and old habits, it seems, really do die hard.
Four Saturday’s ago, my mother’s beloved, local church held a memorial service for all parishioners who had passed away in the previous year. I thought I was ready for it. By then, it had been five months since she left, and I no longer instinctively reached for the phone to share a funny anecdote about some student’s insightful antics (she revered teaching and loved the stories). I no longer felt so guilty about the times I should have called, but didn’t. I started not to attend the ceremony at all.
During this last summer after her passing, I became something of a regular at the Catholic church where my mother converted, and where my brothers and I attended our first school, confessed our first sins, tasted our first communion, accepted our first confirmation, celebrated our first graduation, and buried our only mother. I really appreciated the priest who officiated at my mom’s funeral. A Nigerian by birth, I loved his sense of wonder and acceptance. When they transferred him to another parish in August, I stopped going. Then I got this invitation in the mail. The names of the lost would be read. The letter I received did not clearly indicate whether my mother’s name would be called if no one showed or not. My wife insisted we go.
I identified myself at the door and claimed a seat near the door. Just before the Mass began, I was given a tall, glass-encased white candle and a handwritten card with her name on it. I lined up in the rear of the church with fellow mourners, all of whom seemed bent by their own remembrance. When the music began, signaling the start of service, I noticed tears on the cheeks of some, and silent sobs drifting from the slooped-shoulders of others. I waited calm and straight.
We stood in alphabetical order (as opposed to the size order which had marked my earliest travels down that very aisle as both dutiful elementary school student and altar boy). A lady in white approached and lit my candle. The feeble flame seemed tenuous. I wanted to ask for another candle with a sturdier wick, but the usher had already moved on. I lifted a cupped hand outside the glass rim to shelter the wary flame, but I grew alarmed as it continued to struggle. I rolled the card with my mother’s name into a point, dipped it inside the candle.
I reasoned a stronger spark could rescue the light, but all I did was cause a slight stir as the paper began to burn. I quickly smothered the smoking glow with my fingers. I ignored the distracted faces around me. As I silently prayed the still-weak candle light would endure the altar journey, I unfolded my mother’s name card and bemoaned the stain of ash in the missing, far right corner. When it comes to endings, I just never seemed to get things right.
Somewhere between verses of the opening hymn, our line began to move. I followed the lumbering procession as we stepped towards two waiting priests. At the midpoint, less than eight feet from the foot of the altar, resplendent in white cloth and yellow flowers, I lingered, as the others had done before me, until the griever in front of me received a public sign of the cross and a private, whispered blessing.
When my time came, when a source unseen read her name over the loud speaker, my legs obeyed my intention. But not my heart. With each step, with every progression, the heat of the moment suddenly singed my soul in a way I had fought so hard to ignore. I was wounded–deeply. And my first protector and healer was gone. My body began to shake, not outside, but in. Still, I could feel myself moving forward, even as my spirit faltered.
I don’t even remember what the priests said. The next moment I can recall, I was moving back towards my seat in the rear. I stopped midway in the outer aisle to hand the candle–still lit–to the outstretched hands of another usher in white She placed it in a larger, red glass container resting in one of those ornate, iron receptacles reserved for silent petitions and alms for the poor.
But it wasn’t until I moved further along and passed my wife (who had arrived after me and sat in a different section) that I realized I finally had allowed myself to accept it all–not the tears so much, but the stillness after. The pained, worried look in her eyes as she studied my broken face signaled her awareness not so much of the gravity of the moment, as it did of its residual weight. Or maybe she was simply recalling her own premature, maternal loss some eighteen years prior. You never can tell with death. Either way, in her face I saw reflected my devastation. Those of you who have lost this deeply know what I describe can never touch what I mean.
In the weeks since that day, so much has happened. At the reception following that same ceremony, I embraced two former classmates I hadn’t seen in too many years, who also came to acknowledge a loss, including one–two grades ahead of me–who found her youngest, grown son dead from a prescription drug overdose after she returned to their home from church. “He had been sick, too many operations, and felt bad about still living at home with his mother. I think his demons just got the best of him,” she said. “See,” my wife whispered, “somebody always has it worse.”
In classes, I have been interspersing reading assignments about race and gender with some grammar review. We have begun diagramming sentences. Of late, I have worked on verb types and the energies each brings to a complete thought. Initially, some students had difficulty distinguishing between action and state of being verbs. The latter allows each of us to hold the mirror up to our faces and facades. I tell them it is the last group of verbs a youngster masters. These are uniquely human verbs, the “is,” and “was,” and “will be.”
Two weeks ago, the black alley cat my family and I rescued from a pound in New York seventeen years ago–my middle daughter named her Abby, short for Abigail–snuck out the house and never returned. She had slowed down considerably in the weeks leading up to her disappearance, and she almost never went outside anymore. But the vet said indoor/outdoor cats often vanish just before the end. They leave to find a private place to die.
I wish I could have been with her to stroke her fur and maybe hum a song as she gracefully let go. But I generally wish for too many moments I cannot have or repeat. Here, with the holidays upon us, I understand that gratitude sometimes flickers, but must never waver as long as the moments breathe.
Too many of my students have endured similar crossings at ages much younger than mine. One, a towering favorite, cradled his mother’s moist head in his fourteen-year-old arms as she succumbed to drive-by “collateral damage.” Whenever he writes or speaks about it, I always gather my breath and reassure him that death ends a life, but not a relationship.
I want so much to believe it. I heard it on Oprah once.