23 May 2013

The Death of Mother Wood, Part 2

When my mother died last year I had the feeling of moving to the front of the line. With my grandmother's death, the feeling has returned in a more intense way. It was reassuring to hear an actor in a recent interview with Terri Gross confess a similar experience after his father died. It's difficult to describe the experience in words, which may be why I'd never heard anyone else mention it.

What "line"?

As a young child, too young to conceive of a "line", I lived with my hand in the hand of my parents as they led me through the World. Nearly every aspect of my existence relied on their guidance. Later, Time brought experiences of independent discovery -- coming face-to-face with the World on my own, holding no one's hand. For a time, though, each of these discoveries was carried back to be shared with the one(s) whose hand I used to hold so tightly. "Look what I found!" and "The clouds are moving, Daddy!" I was still being led:  their commentary and reaction to my discoveries informed future expeditions.

There was a particular summer afternoon when my siblings and I were home alone. Although this might be unthinkable nowadays, it was a small town and a safer time with minimal risks attached to leaving four kids unattended. Still, I was the oldest and wouldn't have been much younger than 9 or 10.

In the midst of some playtime fantasy world, a distracting awareness dawned that the environment was changing. The curtains began to dance in a quickening breeze through the screened windows, an alternating rhythm of being sucked flush against the mesh and then floating out into the room. The world beyond the window seemed held by a solid, lively stillness. There was no birdsong; the birds were silent in their hurried flight to shelter. The oak tree leaves, disturbed by wind, strained against their stem tethers, twisting and fluttering. Dark clouds rolled in to block the sun. The air was electric.

I can remember the excitement that overtook me. "Let's go outside!" As the oldest child, my word -- whether uttered as invitation or command -- was law. My sisters and brother eagerly followed me out the back door into the yard. We ran around squealing and screaming, our breath nearly sucked out of us as the storm approached. Within minutes it was raining. Thunder boomed and lightning exploded in long powerful branches against the sky.

In retrospect, we look like four miniature drunks:  laughing and rolling down the hill in the wet grass. We were ecstatic. Crazed by the storm. That is not how it looked to my father when he pulled into the drive. "What are you kids doing?!" he shouted. "Get in the house!"

I can't remember the substance of his intense reprimand as the four of us stood dripping wet in the kitchen. I remember the overhead light was on and the stunning contrast between the dark outside and the bright inside made it difficult to focus on what he was saying. I caught the gist: we were in trouble. It was "bad" to be taken by the storm and "bad" to be outside in the rain and wind. I would have a child of my own before I allowed myself another greet-the-storm adventure.

Eventually I ventured into more personally significiant exploration, discoveries that I did not share. Things I learned without seeking a witness to corroborate or judge. By this time, however, Authority had been internalized. I knew "right" from "wrong" Memorization of the codes, the list of what the world deemed "appropriate" and "inappropriate", was fairly secure. Pure discovery was rare; explorations were curated by the voice of an Inner Judge/Parent, an entity that embodied the entirety of my socialization to that point in time. It was no longer necessary to show-and-tell my parents what I was discovering because they lived in my head. They were still leading me. At age 16, sitting on the flood wall with a "white man" I didn't know, smoking pot for the first time, I understood I was doing something "bad" without ever mentioning the episode to any of the adults I knew.


The lives of the ones who led my life were also led. They followed stars invisible to me. Bright stars of longing and purpose that burned only in the private skies of their own hearts and minds.

They followed their stars...and I followed them.

I am talking now about roads that wind beyond the realm of social convention and practical concerns. I am talking about the urges and motivations of their Souls. The paths they took for love or avoided out of fear. The life-long journeys driven by a burning question.

I have imprecise knowing of their deepest loves, fears and questions. (I have my own deep loves, fears and questions.) Still, I think now that my life has followed, in a largely subconscious and unacknowledged way, the light of my ancestors' guiding stars. And I think I have enjoyed measures of security, protection and hope from my position, behind them in line. Never really thinking about it, taking it for granted, that someone was further down the road, having experiences, flailing in uncertainty and basking in resolutions. In advance of me, on the same road. paving the stretch ahead that lay beyond the bumpy place I presently tread.

This week, I have experienced a new kind of alone-ness. It's been partly physical:  my gray hair, sagging body, dry skin and achy joints are mine alone now. There's no one alive -- no female in my bloodline -- who is experiencing the next stage of these phenomena. I am "it". I am the primary, senior actor, the "expert" now, living out the perplexing miracle of physical aging.

Artist:  Etienne Saint-Amant
In the psychic realm of this alone-ness, there are questions about Being that I hold alone now. In the end, what matters most in Life? Does there come a time to abandon certain dreams? Are there any consistencies in Life, anything Truth that persists from first breath to last? What is Death?


It seems there is no clarity to be had. Something like "imagination" -- conjecture, digression, inspiration -- moves me along in the emotional and ideological jumble my grandmother's death has sparked. I discover/experience only temporary clearings, spaces wherein I embrace the confusion and lie down in exhaustion. Or stumble upon some aspect of pain or puzzlement that reminds me of someplace I've been before.

Today, I awoke with some tears as I considered that both my mother and grandmother spent their final years without a loving partner; and that my life seems to lean toward a similar final chapter. As the tears subsided, a calm came upon me. I am. I am here. The confusion, the feelings, the memories and questions are mine. They are part of the Story of Me. Part of the story.

I am not under attack by an alien force intent on blowing my mind or crippling my life. I am having a life. "A good life" by my grandmother's assessment in a card she sent me some years back. Death is a part of Life. We die and our deaths become part of the Survivors' stories. I am a survivor. At the head of the line with a new chapter in my Story.