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.

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27 thoughts on “Looking Back, Not in Anger

  1. Thank you for sharing so honestly. I suspect this will one day be my reality and it is a truth I can hold onto that not every question needs an answer. Some questions do change behaviour without being answered. And all of that is okay. ‘Fixed’ can be peace in the unanswered questions if we can let go of our expectations of what ‘fixed’ should look like.

    Thank you.

  2. Quinn, the depth of your soul amazes me. As we age I think we find our true selves (if we look!) and are able to accept that life is one long letting go. Letting go of: youth, children, our health, and loved ones. how we go about the lettiing go in each instance is a gift of learnning from our own and other’s lives. And if we seek peace in the process, we find it, wherever and however it comes Thank you for sharing., you make me look deep within and that is GOOD.

  3. Thank you for this post, Quinn. Both my parents are still alive, but my mother has had a series of major strokes, and become a very unpleasant woman. I try to remember her for the person she was, not who she is.
    Shalom.
    sue:)

  4. Like yours, my mother survived my father by decades. It was, I think, the only part of her life she was really in control of. Our family does not tend to be very close, not due to any ill will or problems but just because we go in our own directions and don’t have all that much in common. So there wasn’t anything to reconcile. She wasn’t much attached to objects, and didn’t accumulate very many of them. The things that dated back hundreds of years (I’m supposedly related to Mayflower-era settlers) had gone to museums some time ago.

    What there was, and still is, are places. The kind of places often called “times”. But they are more than times. The world moves and traces a path, and every point on that path is a real place. A place that can be visited, even though on a new visit it is also a new place, and the visitors are different people. Different and linked, by paths and connections that are themselves different and linked.

    We live in an expanding universe. It’s expanding so much and so fast that it’s difficult to hold in your mind for long. We’re not only in the universe, we are also of the universe. And so we, too, expand. Revisiting a place somehow encompasses other visits, and the person you are now somehow encompasses the person you were — and all the places and people you’ve been.

    The paths through all of the places I’ve been and the people who’ve been there — including the me-that-was — keep weaving into the me-that-is. I seem to be a map.

  5. Like you with your Mom I miss what I never had with my Dad. Sometimes I think that What Is and Was are the answers, we just don’t understand what the questions were that needed those answers or why.

  6. A somber way to start my day here. The clouds are rolling in. The day promises more and rain too, a physical manifestation of your words.

    My mother and I had a wonderful relationship. It’s her senior years that have caused a divide. She has become a bitter, angry woman, someone I don’t know. I have to find a way to continue to love her. I do that by remembering who she was. And it’s hard.

    Every now and then I see a flash of the person I remember. It lightens my heart and makes me smile. Those are good moments and carry me through this change to the next moment. I love my mother. I miss her already.

  7. Dying is a solitary business, and you were wise to have grasped that. I was still very immature when I was with my father when he died, but the experience taught me that I needed to become best friends with myself, since I would need my Self in my last moments to comfort me. That lesson has been my saving grace.

  8. this line: “if forgiving is the understanding that the past cannot be changed” is so appropriate for me today. my father, an intense difficult man who i was afraid of for a good portion of my life died april 19th, a week before his 94th birthday and after 11 years in the nursing home in a state of advanced parkinson’s.
    my youngest sister had a mental crash a week later. admitted herself to the hospital. was there two weeks and has been at my home since then.
    with her here[ 13 years between us] certain issues are surfacing, among them are our two very different approaches to the challenges each day presents.
    some seem to choose to remain stuck, others, move on.
    thank you, quinn, for your words today.

    • We rarely see life the same way others do. And we each have different memories of the same incident. Chasing after love and acceptance is the race with no end, just exhaustion.

  9. Your story touched me Quinn and I believe that in where we will be after this life there is always love and forgiveness……here on earth,things are ‘heavy’ and dual. When you follow your heart and listen to your Inner self I am certain that all is good whatever you do…….thanks for sharing your story! warm greet Miranda

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