Mom & I, in the summer when she thought she'd beaten cancer

I sit down to write a blog post, and all that comes out is… I don’t have a mother anymore.

I try to write in my journal, and the only words that show up on the page are… I’m an orphan now. I don’t know how to be an orphan.

I turn to my work, and all I can do is stare at the blank page and think… Who am I now that both of my parents are dead?

I wander around the house aimlessly. I can barely focus enough to wash the dishes. I watch mindless TV. I putter. I sit long minutes lost in thought.

I phone my mom’s husband, my mom’s cheery voice comes on the answering machine, and I fall to pieces. It’s hard to leave a message when the one I really want to talk to won’t return my call.

Last week, when Mom was slipping away, and her mind was no longer always clear, she looked at me with sadness in her eyes. “I don’t know how to do this,” she said, in her nearly invisible voice. “I know Mom,” I said. “I don’t know how to do this either.”

And that’s how I still feel. “I don’t know how to do this.”

I don’t know how to get used to the fact that I can’t pick up the phone and call Mom. I don’t know how to write this grief in any way that makes sense. I don’t know how to tell you the story of what it meant to watch her die. I don’t know how to make meaning of the days of vigil, watching her slip away, carrying her emaciated body from bed to chair when she became restless, waking in the night to care for her, listening to her gurgling hanging-on-to-life breath.

I don’t know how to speak with this lump in my throat.

I don’t know how to be at the top of the family tree, the oldest woman in my line of descendants. I’m much too young to be the matriarch. I don’t want to take on that responsibility.

Last Saturday, when I was supposed to be hosting a day retreat for women of courage, I spent the day planning my Mom’s funeral. Instead of being the teacher, I was the student again, forced to learn new lessons in courage.

Grief is a cruel teacher. I want to skip this class. I want to rebel, climb out the window, and run away to a place where my Mom and Dad and son are still alive. I don’t want to stay here and write the test. Not again, please. I’ve been through this class a few times already – can’t I get an exemption this time? Can’t I just be the teacher now without having to learn any more of these difficult lessons?

I haven’t been given a choice though. I have to stay here and learn the lessons I have yet to learn. I have to pay attention – to be present in the pain, to let the tears come, to let the panic wake me in the night, to remember again and again what her empty eyes looked like when the breath left her body. I have to let another death change my life.

I have to bear the burden of this fresh crack in my heart, remembering that the pain is telling the story of the privilege of being loved. I have to remind myself that my heart can break without falling apart because it has been made resilient by love. My life can feel this emptiness because I’ve known fullness.

I will get angry at the teacher now and then, and I will lay my head down on my desk when the learning feels too heavy, but I will stay here in this class. There’s nothing “fair” about it, and right now the pain is blinding me from seeing the blessings, but, in the end, I know I will be richer and wiser for having had the courage to love and the courage to grieve.

My heart is broken, but I will learn to dance with a limp.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” ― Anne Lamott

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