Being in a foreign city, surrounded by non-English speakers (I know, don’t lecture me), a large chunk of my day is spent alone. This is fine, even preferable most of the time. Especially since I’m a bit of a loner and a stubborn introvert.
But this week I’ve stalled a little – attempting to churn up some excitement for this wonderful place but not feeling the same punch of delight like when my son was visiting.
Like the time when he and I took the train to Andermatt and our running joke was “Oh, it’s just another Alp” as the beautiful panoramas of mountains continuously flashed by our windows. We’d seen so many over-the-top views that day that we were nearly saturated. Indeed, ho hum, shrug.
But of course, we weren’t nonplussed at all.
For me, in fact, our witnessing it together made the mountains that much more spectacular.
So today, I had the most amazing run along the lake, in a new direction this time. The cool Alpine air was so pleasing and the sun strong enough for me to wear shorts and go sleeveless. The town is waking up, preparing for a new summer season.
The beaches are raked and the paddle boats and snack bars are being dusted off and readied. The yachts are un-swaddled and have been gently lowered from their slings into the lake.
And, at about every 1/4 mile there is a charming bench, newly cleaned (I saw the guys do it) and poised enticingly over pretty, grassy overlooks. Grouped for gentle conversation.Their seats gleam invitingly, luring us to come, take a rest, and simply look at this day. Isn’t it unbelievable? And all of these seats were completely empty.
When I am running, I usually try to earmark all the special niches – the most adorable cafes, the best views of the harbor, the best spot for a towel on the sand. It’s my little catalogue of places to share with another traveler like me. But I don’t even know who I can share these things with.
And so the pleasure fades just a little bit. And even the para-gliders looping right over my head don’t thrill me as much since I can’t even point them out to a friend. Someone to marvel at them with me – the gorgeous way the bright parachutes catch the lofty thermals, unpredictably dipping and diving.
Yes, for certain, we all know this – experiences are just a bit more meaningful when we share them. But the wistfulness I feel today is a specific kind of homesickness I’ve come to recognize.
It is the grief that I carry for my mom. Her absence resides in my chest and I carry the heaviness in my shoulder muscles, up my neck even. It’s a hollow ache that I knew would follow me here, to be unpacked eventually – I couldn’t ditch it back in North Carolina.
And, as I suspected, Mom is now my most constant travel companion. Or my memories of her anyway.
This time, 16 years ago, she was diagnosed with a critical metastases, and even though she continued to outlive the breast cancer for another amazing 15 years, I’ll never forget that first phone call with the report from Mom and Dad. We had just moved to Durham, and I thought, we all thought – this is it, our luck has finally run out. This time Mom’s really going to die.
I remember going to the Ash Wednesday service at St. Phillips and sobbing into my hands after I walked back to the pew with the ashes on my forehead. How could God do this to me?
The emphasis was on me, because I was completely consumed with feeling abandoned. I was devastated. Dad seemed okay and Mom was being strong, staying focused – they were facing it, dealing. But I was wrecked. And like a selfish child, I felt at the very epicenter of her dying. Mom was going to leave me.
Anyway, that Easter Sunday I remember hating everything about going to church – my allergies, the scratchy pantyhose, cranky kids, feeling like my head had been blown wide open. And then the hymns – blaring trumpets and the choir bleating out this absurd chorus having to do with love conquering death.
Yeah, right – what about my mom? At the sharing of the Peace (hugging and greeting one another), my broken pieces couldn’t be put back together with the minister’s stiff hug and condescending pat on the back.
And her smile – everyone smiling – joyful, elated even. And it was all so phony, such a show – why the hell are all you people smiling? You’re talking about dead Jesus and my very real mom is dying. And she, of all people in this world, doesn’t deserve to die (does anyone?) And then I felt so cheated. She was my mom – the mom of me.
I remember feeling like I was going to spin out into nothingness just imagining the future without her.
And I so despised the fact that what we love never lasts. Never. And that our tight knit marriages, incredible bonds with our children, and sisters and friends, our good deeds – all the relational stuff that makes our bodies actually mean something, in the end, none of it lasts.
I mean, God, my body, it’s all I have. Even when my mind is questionable, I have this body.
My body in the world. My achey running legs and sore, blistered feet. My shoulders holding the worry and the grief. My belly fat jiggling while laughing and joking, and crying. My strained eyes wrinkling from reading and writing. My biceps aching from weeding and mopping, and my face and forehead tightening from overthinking, smiling, trying to please.
The hard, angry yelling, the standing and the waiting and miles of walking. The laboring, and the bathing and the nursing. And God, all that reading to the kids so they’d be smart. The planning and the senseless ruminating.
The cooking and the dressing, making the appointments, walking the dogs. The heaving up and down the stairs, and the endless cleaning up. The effort of living and loving and giving a damn about this sucky world.
And trying to be kind and striving to do the right thing. And all the apologies that never got choked out, and the bitter grudges that I harbored. And all the gifts I gave that were half-felt, or never given at all. The nagging resentments, the encouragement never shared.
Countless hours of talking and not listening.The reaching out, the pulling back.The friendships neglected, apologies spurned. The smothering jealousies, the inertia, the hands not held.
Pushing grocery carts, making beds, sex, the oversleeping and the insomnia. The pettiness and the micromanaging, the wasteful boredom, and the stupid worrying. The regrets, the fears, the incessant brooding and the being so very, very tired.
The overeating, and the punishing. The expectations I put on the kids, on myself, on everyone. Being rigid, being depressed, being sick. Giving up, and giving in and refusing to stand up. The running away, the walking towards. The hell I gave my husband.
The lap swimming and the singing and turning down so many chances to dance and be silly.
The pushing and the straining and, most of all, the endless grasping and needing and wanting. And all of that potential wasted. And all of the chances I missed to say I love you.
All that energy. Toward what end?
We all know what end. Our bodies are not sure things at all. What a raging lie. They just go on until they don’t anymore. And just forget that “living -on -in -one -another” crap – what a cheap substitute that is.
Not one bit real. Not real like Mom’s breathing body. Like my living body.
Answer me this, with these bodies used up, dying, and just one day gone – what’s the point of all this struggling to love?
Last week I got behind a mother and daughter shopping together, on the escalator, and it nearly took the air out of me. It was like seeing Mom and me in a weird mirror, some cruel trick taking me back to past shopping trips with her. The way the older, smaller woman was held at the elbow by the daughter.
My knee-jerk reaction was to reach out and grab that bony joint, steer her in close to my side. And I started re-living our fun, our jokes – how we had laughed. Because we had a love/hate affair with it – the shopping that is.
And, a few days later, I stumbled upon a tulip farm – almost an acre of fresh tilled meadow of the bright red, yellow and pink sunny perennials. And at the edge of the field, a wooden sign and a tin can – pick your own. I immediately thought – oh my God, Mom would have loved this.
So, today, I really wanted to see my mom on one of those cozy lakeside benches with me, with her eyes closed, facing up to the sun like a flower, like she always did. And she would turn to me and want to make a plan for dinner, because she was all about the planning, let me tell you.
And then, maybe we would traipse through those rows and rows of tulips and carefully, mercilessly, cull and snip the most perfectly hued ones for our table. Because her table was always the bomb. Then she would buy just a half dozen though, because she was so frugal. And even though we are maybe different that way, I loved her for it.
But mostly we would just sit, because after so many years of being busy and hyper, Mom finally did learn how to just be with me. Just be. With me.
What I wouldn’t do to have that today.
I think of how she was the one who always took my side when I would call her with my drama. She was the one who unequivocally loved and defended my two children, even in iffy scenarios, just because she was so loyal to me.
And she was the one who insisted I tell her when I was mad or upset with her, because she had zero ego involvement – imagine that?
And I knew that sometimes I had really hurt her. But she would always respond like she only wanted to do better, and to be better, for me.
It was always about me. Loving me.
And she was the one who could always break things down to the real – the nitty-gritty in any situation. She was so straight up honest. You know, truly knee-buckling stuff. And sometimes that scared me.
And our family joke was that she made putting your foot in your mouth a high art. But we could never be mad at her for that, ever. Especially not now.
And you could never lie or fake it with Mom. She always knew. Even if she didn’t know, she knew. But she always forgave me, really forgave, like in the forgetting it way.
She was all these things, but so much more. So much more. She was authentic and natural, and talented and beautiful. And she was the truest thing in my life.
But what I remember the most is the way she always knew how to love. It was her biggest, her best, her most shining legacy.
And that is the love that I am carrying at my core – memories of the countless times that she loved me in the most grand, most perfect way – the way that all mothers should love their children, I believe. She loved me as if I was absolutely the most beautiful and amazing person in the world.
Simply because of who I am, and what only she would call me – Elizabeth Bristol. And, the funny thing is, it was the same way that I loved her. The way that I still love her. Because she was Judith Louise Graham Lewis. And she was the one I called my Mama.
And because of that she was the most perfect mom for me.
And now, I so want her to be here, sitting on this freshly painted iron bench next to me, looking out over the water, with the snow on the hills in front of us, and the tiny wooly specks of lamb up there grazing on the hillside.
And we would have nothing but time. All stretched out in front of us – just endless time. Time to talk, and laugh and time to cry.
And the time to plan, of course, we would definitely have time to do that.
Today I just needed to stop running and close my eyes and feel the breeze and count the months since last August – it’s only been seven. Not very many at all, but a really long time too – two seasons. I can’t believe it’s been nearly seven months since I last talked to you, Mom. And I just hope you know how much I miss you.
And God, Mom, I really really wish you were here.