Nine years ago today, my mom died of colon cancer. Oddly enough, today I found an essay I wrote 5 years ago about finding the grace of acceptance amid loss. I'm posting it here. It's a tearjerker.
Finding grace in loss
copyright 2000 by Bonnie Vanak
“What is it you can’t live without?” My friend’s question forced the forkful of scrambled eggs to stop halfway to my lips. Such a deep, probing question for Sunday morning. I didn’t know how to answer.
She continued talking, not noticing my silence. I never did respond. But the question dogged my thoughts like a determined bloodhound. No easy answers exist, for every day I process loss of control and find within myself an ability to give up everything I thought I could never live without. My list includes motherhood, climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, family members, even the innocent love of my first marriage. These precious items I once held so tightly in my fists in fear that they would slip through the cracks of my fingers - I now unclench my fist and let them spill out like golden grains of sand. I let them go back to the Earth, back to God.
Slowly, oh how slowly, I have learned that even without what I consider life’s most precious items, the ultimate reality is that my being, my soul survives no matter what the loss. I survive, I thrive, I learn and grow. With loss comes the grace of acceptance.
The journey toward grace hasn’t been easy, but it began with someone I thought I could never live without - my mother. Dear Lord, how I still miss her! Five years after her death I can see her face with its mischeavous smile and her green eyes dancing with amusement. I hear her laughter echoing through the valleys of my mind like wind chimes in a gentle breeze. I was so blessed to have her even for one day of my life, but God granted her to me for 35 precious years.
No one ever thought she was ill, even the day of my wedding when she walked proudly down the aisle on my brother’s arm, beaming as if she herself were the bride. If she leaned on him a little hard, as if for strength, no one noticed. We, her family, believed her statement, “It’s the flu. I’m just a little tired,” when she excused herself to retire early from the pre-wedding fesitivities. The giant tumor crunching away her insides and causing so much agony was as hidden as her bravery.
I knew she would die even before I knew she had cancer. While honeymooning in Maine, I heard a song that I’ve always associated with death. As my husband and I dug into our prime rib and chattered about whale watching, instinct warned me that hundreds of miles away my mother’s soul was preparing her - and me - for flight.
I didn’t tell my friend that Sunday morning that there are many things I can now live without. For I know about loss of control, that helpless, frustrating pain of watching someone you love dearly slip through your fingers like delicate grains of sand. I know about how deep a mother’s love runs, an endless pure stream of water that never stops flowing. My mother’s love for me gave her strength to hide her pain so that I would be blissfully unware of her impending death as I exchanged vows with my husband.
Letting go gave me a grace to accept my own powerlessness and an odd sense of power within that loss of control. When you lose what means most to you in life, and find yourself still standing on two feet, walking and talking, you realize your soul will survive. There is strength that comes from loss, from letting go of things you once held so tightly clenched in your fists.
I discovered this as I sat besides my mother one week before Christmas, only eight weeks after she had walked down the aisle with such dignity. She lay in a semi-coma, her breathing strained despite the oxygen canula forcing her to live. I stroked her claw-like hand and pressed my lips to the shriveled flesh. That hand had diapered and bathed me, wiped away tears when my first marriage failed and proudly arranged my headpiece for my second wedding. As I looked at the skeletal body that had labored to give me life, I whispered to her, “It’s okay Mom. I can let you go now. I don’t want you to suffer anymore. Go back to God. Grandma and Pops are waiting for you.”
Then I gave her frail body a final hug and let her go gentle into that good night. For love is the greatest force of all and when you give it the freedom it desperately needs to soar higher and higher until it flies directly into the waiting arms of a loving Creator, it never truly leaves you. The spirit of my mother lives on. I know this to be true. My mother is besides me every step I take and on those days of darkness when it seems like the clouds will never lift, I hear her laugh - gentle and cheerful as wind chimes in a summer breeze. I smile, because I know I can go on.
This is the true secret to the things you think you can never live without. Life’s most important gifts, such as the neverending love of a mother, are with us but for a few precious heartbeats of time. When we are forced to let them go, they return back to us in the grace and strength to carry on.
As long as we carry their love in our hearts, we can and will survive.