Sunday, May 21, 2006


The usual small talk with some guy I met at work. "How about this weather?" he asked, and I agreed it was very nice. "Yes," he said. "Things are growing, things are thriving. It's such a beautiful day to be alive."

I felt like crying.

How can things thrive when my mother isn't here to appreciate them? How can I celebrate being alive when she isn't? Shouldn't everything just stop? Why is the world going forward while I'm still grieving?

Growing. Thriving. Beautiful.


My whole life up until my late teens was spent on a farm. It had been a working farm until shortly before I was born, my family raised cattle and chickens, corn and soybeans. By the time I came along, dad still had a soybean crop, but mostly the farming days were past. So the whole place, the barn and the corncrib, the pasture and the fields, all were part of my private playground.

My most vivid memory of the farm, or at least the one I most often turn to for comfort, is of the row of tall evergreens that ran in a straight line west from the barn. Their trunks were thick, and the branches from the different trees had seemingly fused together, and the ground beneath them was covered with dead needles. It was a wide path under the trees, and the branches hung so low and so thick that very little direct sunlight would hit the ground under them, and that which did had a shimmering emerald tint. If the rest of the farm was my playground, this was where I would go to find peace.

The older I got, the more dissatisfied I was with country living. Bored, frustrated and depressed out of my mind, I wanted to drop out of school and just leave, take off for anywhere else in the world. Mom broke down at this notion, crying and hysterical. "I don't think I could live with myself if you did that," she sobbed. "I don't think I could stand it if I didn't know where you were."

She had a point, of course--I was, what, fifteen, sixteen?--but when I think about it now, I think there was a subtext to what she said. What she really meant, maybe, was How dare you go explore the world when I haven't?


My dad died ten years ago. He had been in failing health for some time before that, and Mom had essentially been reduced to a caretaker role. A series of strokes had essentially robbed him of his motor skills, and he had a colostomy bag which needed changing regularly, so she literally had to be there for him.

His death was something she saw coming, and she'd prepared herself emotionally. In fact, it turned out to be a liberating experience for her. Suddenly she had time to do things, to start living the life she'd misplaced somewhere along the way.

She started working. She stopped smoking. She could go on trips and be gone overnight, or for longer. My sister Ann took her along on several cross-country jaunts, to New Orleans and Memphis, and other places Mom probably never dreamed she'd see. As she hit her seventies, suddenly the world was hers. A lifelong cynic and fatalist, she was seeing life in a whole new way. There were times when she was downright giddy, which was a little disorienting. She was supposed to be cranky.


But through all her life, Mom sustained herself by appreciating the simple, temporary beauty of nature. Weeping willows, rainbows, snowflakes--a cornball list, but I saw all of these things make Mom cry. She could be transfixed forever just watching clouds race across the sky, and their shadows prowling on the ground. She'd call me with daily reports describing the blooming of her neighbors' flowers.

When I go out today, I'll be doing the things I normally do, concerned with the usual things. In a world of flowers and trees and grass, earth and water and sky, I may not notice all the things that surround me.

But they'll be there anyway, and they'll still be beautiful.