Looking Back, Not in Anger

This is the week that I observe my father and mother’s Yahrzeit, the Jewish memorial for the dead. I’ll light a candle that will burn for 24 hours, and think of my parents, who died almost 25 years apart.

Yahrzeit candle

Yahrzeit candle

My father has been dead for 34 years this year. He was a man of few words, and believed in not expressing his emotions, but I know with certainty that he loved me. He helped me with science projects, he showed me how to draw, and he taught me to love and respect books. That’s a lot. Certainly enough for my lifetime.

My mother will be dead 10 years now. When she developed dementia, most of my friends encouraged me to “reconcile” with her. They told me that I needed to forgive her and open my heart and we would have that happy ending everyone wants. She resisted softening (as did I), and my friends promised me misery if I did not achieve this. I would live in guilt and uncertain sorrow for all the days of my life if we did not tenderly hug and cry at the end.

There was no death bed reconciliation. She died leaving me with unanswered questions, uncertain of how to describe my relationship with her, other than “difficult.” I have long forgiven my mother, if forgiving is the understanding that the past cannot be changed.

I’d like to speak to the daughters (and maybe sons) who are counting on that big death-bed reconciliation. It’s OK if it doesn’t happen. It’s consistent with the rest of your life. Even if you say you are sorry for things you don’t regret, your mom (or dad) may not be capable of understanding, forgiving, or changing. They are busy dying. That takes up their attention and their focus. And it should.

When my mother was close to her last breath, I sat with her, and told her that she did not have to struggle any more. I told her that her children were adult and doing well, and she would go to heaven, in which she believed. I told her she would see my father, who was waiting for her there. I said this although my father was an atheist. I said things I didn’t believe, but I knew she wanted to believe.

And then I absolved her of ties and unfinished connections.  Yes, I, the wayward daughter, who had no right to step into the role of absolver, did just that. I did not ask for forgiveness. This was not about me. I accepted her exactly as she was–as I could not have accepted her had she not been dying–and let go.  There would still be anger and frustration and confusion, but that prayer was the first step to striving and replacing it with letting go. I lit a candle, read a poem, and then blew out the candle and watched the smoke rise up in the room. I drove the 100 miles back home, and was not surprised, when, two days later, I got the call that my mother and the woman in the next bed had died.

That was ten years ago. There are still unanswered questions, and what I have come to understand is that there always will be. Not every question has to have an answer. Some questions get honed into better questions. And some questions change your behavior so you don’t repeat the pattern again. That’s what death will do for you if you let it. Even without reconciliation.

—Quinn McDonald knows that sometimes reconciliation is not a goal. Living with questions will do just fine instead.