Saturday, May 13, 2017

Of grief and gratitude

A year after my mother's death, I took Dad to the cemetery to visit her grave. The flowers are lovely and the epitaph perfectly describes her character, but I didn't feel her presence--didn't feel anything, really. The whole place felt empty and quiet--dead quiet.

Later I sat in a park she loved and read a little book and there I saw her smile in the azalea blossoms, heard her gentle voice in the breeze from the lake, and if I let my imagination run wild I could almost see her puttering amongst the rose bushes. She taught me long ago to pause and appreciate beauty, to cherish growing things, so that's where I go to remember the Mom I knew before illness stilled her busy hands.

I was reading  Gratitude, a little book comprising four essays Oliver Sacks wrote when he knew he was dying. "I cannot pretend I am without fear," he wrote, "But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved, I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Sacks writes gently and poetically of his coming death, but the new Terence Davies film A Quiet Passion looks without flinching at its horrors. Cynthia Nixon portrays Emily Dickinson as first playful and witty and, later, bitter, angry, caustic in her contempt for foolishness. Her tenderness emerges full force in scenes on her mother's deathbed, when Emily and her sister Lavinia pour body and soul into easing their mother's passing, but the film does not sugarcoat the ugliness of fleshly decay or turn away from the painful final breaths. Emily's death is even more brutal, but her flailing and desperate gasping for breath lead seamlessly into quiet moments of peace and poetry, reminding us that "Parting is all we know of heaven / and all we need of hell."

The film, the visit to the park, the book all felt cathartic, opening a  place where pain and beauty could coexist peacefully. I keep coming back to the final essay in Gratitude, "Sabbath," in which Oliver Sacks muses on his on-and-off relationship with religion over his long life. The final words were written just weeks before this death:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
For my mother's final rest, I give thanks. For her life that touched so many people, that taught me to see beauty and cherish growth, that allowed me to hear her wisdom even after her voice has been stilled, I have nothing but gratitude.

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