The story is sad but it has changed me over the years. It was in the final days of my mother’s illness, perhaps a few weeks shy of her death. Her kidneys had stopped working long before and the routine necessary to keep her alive had become too much for her. Her restless spirit was not well-suited to the enforced stillness. Her body was a war zone of interventions and indignities, and she had had enough. So she told me something a daughter doesn’t want to hear from her mother, at any age: she was tired, and she wanted to let go.
My mother wasn’t asking for my permission or for me to help her get there. She just needed to share this with me. Perhaps she wanted my blessing. So, the truly sad part of the story is that I couldn’t give it to her. Instead, I argued with her, trying to convince her that good things lay ahead if only she could muster the energy, the strength, the endurance. I had not lived long enough to know that death is not optional, and that sometimes it’s even a necessary welcome.
We, the imperfect creatures, are also those who can grow and change and sometimes make amends. It is an integral part of who we are.
Why do I share this story? Because even though I have lived with regret for this exchange, even though I have gone over it many times, wondering why I couldn’t just hold her, tell her it was alright, that she had done plenty and that she could go in peace, today, many years later, I am humbled and even grateful for it. The experience has opened me to a dimension of life I probably would never have known or been able to grasp through hearing or reading other people’s stories.
I understand now that we need to stop hiding from death, like we need to stop hiding from our failings, our fears, our very human weaknesses. As a result of this painful experience of loss, I have made it a practice to make myself talk about such things, to face them in myself and in others with as much tenderness and compassion as I can call forth.
It is easy to feel love and gratitude for our loftier emotions: the awe we feel at the wonders of nature, the devotion evoked in us by almost anything that children do, the happy coincidences, the ordinary magic that sometimes envelops life’s small events. It’s even easy to feel gratitude for gratitude itself. But how do we appreciate the challenges?
And the truth is, if we don’t make peace with our vulnerability and our less endearing qualities, we run the risk of leading a shadow life…
How do we make room for our less graceful hours, the moments we wish we could rewrite, the subtle cop-outs, the inconsistencies? Can we find it in ourselves to appreciate our flailing efforts, to forgive our less than perfect courage, to recognize the aching heart that stood in our way?
We aspire to be good people and we do not always make the mark. Yet there is in our strivings a strange sort of beauty. We struggle. We fail. We look back on our deeds. We rethink. We regret. We learn. And if we’re lucky, this sends the wheel spinning forward in a slightly shifted direction. We, the imperfect creatures, are also those who can grow and change and sometimes make amends. It is an integral part of who we are.
And the truth is, if we don’t make peace with our vulnerability and our less endearing qualities, we run the risk of leading a shadow life, which amounts to a shallow life, one not fully inhabited. In doing so, we dismiss the very ground from which we can eventually climb up to higher heights, one sure-footed step at a time.
These days, a friend of mine is struggling with a life-threatening illness. In addition to comforting her and wishing her well, I will be on the front line of those ready to listen to her talk about her fears and her longings, if and when she chooses to do so. It will be my honor to hold that sacred space open for her, for the both of us. It will be in my mother’s honor.
I do wish I had been able to hold this kind of space for my mother. But I like to think that the story of this particular failing was, perhaps, the greatest lesson she left me; it opened me to a new kind of gratitude, a new kind of courage, a new kind of wisdom – that of letting go.