“Grief can be the garden of compassion.”Rumi
Four months ago today, my mom passed away. Consequently, she died exactly three years later, to the day, from my father. I am eternally grateful I could be by her side as she left her physical existence. At 88 years old, her body was fragile and her mind clouded and confused by dementia. Her death was her release. I miss her, but I know her light-filled, wholly healed, liberated spirit is with me. These are the word I spoke at her service celebrating her life and legacy of love for her family.
As a family, and her family is Mom’s/Gramma’s greatest joy and legacy, we can look at each other and see the physical characteristics we inherit from our parents and our grandparents. My hair is the most obvious physical trait – a gene that has been passed on to my sister, my oldest daughter, and my niece. My elemental love of gardening, my sister’s intuitive artistic talent, and my brother’s deep-seated love, from a very young age, I might add, when he could name every president forwards and backwards, for politics, public policy, and the preservation of justice, are innately inspired by our mother. Mom/Gramma will be deeply missed, but today is a celebration of her life and liberation from her brittle body and her deteriorating cognition.
Mom’s life was not without significant heartache and loss. She suffered tremendous grief beginning with the death of her first-born child, a son, thirteen months before I was born and only a few short years into her marriage to my father. As the years passed, a move to Georgia, a devasting house fire which included the loss of two cherished family dogs, her mother’s long and painful battle with pancreatic cancer, the years of estrangement from her brother, a bitter divorce, and the early onset and lengthy illness of her beloved sister who succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 63 years old. Lastly, her father’s death only a few days after her sister’s passing. For as long as I can remember, even in my childhood, mom’s emotional state was often fragile, and her joy and ability to express her feelings freely were shielded by worry and fear. The way she loved us came from a wounded heart that had suffered deep, unhealed loss. Although it often created a chaotic environment, I would never deny that mom loved us. All of us with her whole being in the best way she knew. Her family was her purpose and she worked hard to create a home where her children and grandchildren would visit often and make a multitude of lasting memories.
In addition to her amazing artistic talent, of which my sister received every last gene, my mother was a hard-working gardener. She always had generous gardens, vast and vibrant, bountiful in vegetables and fragrant flowers in a variety of textures and colors. The process of tending her garden – planting, weeding, watering, pruning, raking, and mowing – was grounding. Each task brought joy, wholeness, healing, and connection. It was her therapy. I embrace my innate connection to the natural world passed down to me from my mother and her grandmother, a farmer, whose first name I also inherited! I am so deeply connected that I teach it to others. Our authentic connections to nature and to others is vital to our healing and well-being. After her divorce, my mother became fiercely independent. When her cognitive decline became evident, she was unwilling to accept any assistance or self-acceptance of what was happening to her. It was so difficult. As in natural systems where everything depends on everything else – independence without interdependence leads us to isolation and without the resources we need to adapt when our growing conditions change. She continued to garden until it just became too overwhelming, but I do believe until her last days of raking, watering, and pulling weeds, the garden gave her solace in the changes that were going on in her body due to her dementia.
In my work, I facilitate a lesson where participants imagine themselves as a plant. A plant that most describes who they are – their personality and character, their essence. As I was thinking about the characteristics of my mother that I most appreciate and from which I have learned lessons, I pondered what plant would represent her in my garden of life – I thought about the beautiful tea rose with its protective thorny stem, but beautiful, perfumed blooms that symbolize love in all its forms. The lotus flower with its single sacred bloom rising from the murky, dark depths of the water. Both these flowers would represent mom well – her love for her family that blossomed wholly despite her protective armor and growing conditions that were muddied with grief and loss. My fondest memories of my mom were the times she spent with her grandchildren, particularly time with my three children and my sister’s two girls. In choosing a plant species to represent mom, I chose the sacred symbol of the Sonoran Desert – the Saguaro cactus.
Last October, I spent some time in Saguaro National Park. These towering, tree-like, time-worn, columnar cacti are the sacred symbol of the Sonoran Desert. The creation stories of the ancestral and present native inhabitants of this land are steeped in the Saguaro’s origin and the significance to those who call this land home. Each Saguaro is an honorable relative, an ancestor that has passed on, returning to watch over them and sustain them physically and spiritually. As I gazed across the landscape, these cacti came alive. They are like families! Some stand in a circle holding hands, others extend their arms joyfully towards the sky, or encircle another cactus like the cradle of an ancestral mother. Like all cactus species, they are covered with sharp spines. Although they serve their purpose to protect the cacti from most predators, the spines are not completely impenetrable. Javelina, pack rats, desert tortoises, and bighorn sheep are not deterred by the prickly covering and eat the spines as a regular part of their desert diet. In addition, birds, like the Gila Woodpecker can turn this unwelcoming spiky structure into a home where it can safely nurture its young. The Saguaro cacti produce beautiful, but short-lived blooms that are pollinated by the desert fauna. These fragrant flowers bring forth fruit that is harvested by the native people of the region, the Tohono O’odham. How does the Saguaro symbolize my mother?
My mother loved her family and held them close to her heart. She held tight to her ancestors through photos, furniture, and stories. Mom would have loved nothing more than all of us to live together on a large piece of land. She loved being surrounded by her family. In the Saguaro, I see mom reaching out to hold the tiny hand of one her young grandchildren to walk them down Duke of Gloucester Street, here in Williamsburg, to the duck pond, or the candy store; scooping them up to cradle and rock them in her arms, smothering them with hugs and kisses; sitting on the blue rocking chair with the “little girls” squeezed in beside her. I see her leaning down to or sitting beside them in the sand at the beach and forming fantastical drip sandcastles on one of our many beloved beach vacations. I see her leaning across her dining room table, sharing her skill and love of art in teaching her grandchildren how to draw. I see her in the last year, with her once strong body confined to a wheelchair, mustering the strength to wrap her arms around her sweet great-grandson.
Like the spines of the Saguaro, for so much of her life my mom had a self-preserving protective layer. She did not express her emotions authentically and it was difficult for her to share her feelings freely. Nonetheless, just as the Saguaro gleefully welcomes visitors to the desert with their open arms, mom’s heart and home was always open to her family. I believe she blossomed as a grandmother. Spending time with her young grandchildren was her most fruitful time. Like the handful of desert animals that have an evolutionary relationship with the Saguaro, her grandchildren were not deterred by mom’s self-preserving layer, and I can say with confidence they felt safe and nurtured by her.
In the past 21 months, I have become a grandmother. It is a profound experience. The joy, love, gratitude, and wonder have multiplied exponentially in my life since my grandson was born – for him, for my daughter, and for her husband. Spending time with Paul (and his sibling in November) are my favorite days and I cherish every single moment. Seeing my mother with my daughter and my grandson was a very special moment. I know my mom is proud and pleased as punch that her oldest granddaughter and her husband are raising her great-grandson in the same house she bought when she retired and moved to Richmond to be closer to her grandchildren. Paul is digging in the same soil, appreciating the same beautiful garden, and playing hide and seek amongst the single stand of trees. I am reminded of how much my mother loved her family and now, with both my parents gone, I am the oldest, the matriarch, and standing right at the door of 60 years old. You can see me in the Ring camera! I look at photos of my children – the day after my son was born – I was 27, mom was 57 (two years younger than my current age, by the way) leaning over my oldest daughter and supporting my son’s head while he rests in his sister’s lap, and she holds his tiny hand. That will be me – in November when my second grand-baby, Paul’s sibling arrives. I have now moved into the gramma role. Where does the time go? How do I spend the next 30 years or so as Mom and Gramma?
I want to honor my mom and her love for her family. I want to create a place, full of love and joy, gratitude and wonder where my family can feel safe and loved. A place where vulnerability is encouraged, help is freely asked for, emotions and feelings expressed from an open, healed heart, and accountability for actions are acknowledged and accepted. Mom’s legacy is her family. Released from her suffering in this lifetime, her whole, healed, loving, spirit watches over us, reaching down in guidance, like the joyful arms of the Saguaro that represent and honor family members that have passed on.