My friend’s dad died this week. We spoke for a bit while the pain was still raw in his heart and the tears were still fresh in his eyes. He told me that perhaps he should have gone to be with his dad as he died, though he didn’t think that’s what his father had wanted. In fact my friend asked him, and his dad said no. But now with nothing left but memories and regrets, he wasn’t so sure. His stepmother called him angry and released the pain of her loss through the phone into his ear and his heart. “You should have come!” she yelled. Though a more accurate translation would probably have been, “I’m in so much pain. I’m all alone. Won’t you come?” My friend asked me what I thought — if he should have been there with his dad. I told him that I believe it doesn’t matter anymore, perhaps it never did … that’s one of the things about death: it leaves us only with what is. And then I shared with him a poem that had touched my heart when I stumbled upon it earlier that morning. Something Parker J. Palmer had written about death, loving from a distance, and taking our last lonely breaths:
Waving Goodbye from Afar
One by one their names have been exhaled
in recent weeks, fading into thin blue air on
their final breath: Angie, Ian, Vincent, John.
I talked, laughed and worked with them, we
cared about each other. Now they are gone.
No, they do not live on – just watch the world
keep turning in their absence, a tribute here
and there depending on the fame of the fast-
fading name. I’ve always thought it would
be good if a few who loved me sat with me
as I died. Now, as I learn of friends who’ve
taken sudden leave, I’m glad all I can do is
wave goodbye from afar, knowing they can’t
see me. It feels right to offer them an unseen
last salute, seeking no attention, unable to
distract them from a journey each of us must
make alone. It must be a breathless climb, the
kind I’ve made many times in the mountains
of New Mexico. The last thing I wanted there
was someone who just had to talk when it was
all I could do to climb, to breathe, then stop –
marveling at the view, wondering what’s up top.
My friend told me that the poem had given him solace. He read it as he eulogized his father at the funeral. I thought I would share it with you today, on Mother’s Day, another day that causes many of us to remember, reflect, and regret.
For some, like me, today is a day to reconnect with old memories of times with our moms. We find remembering to be a way of being together, if just for brief shards of time, with our mothers who have left us here, alone as we navigate our lives. Some memories are beautiful, like sitting on my mom’s lap as a child reading Curious George and the Man With the Yellow Hat; or sitting again, later in life, at the beach in Mexico, holding hands tightly knowing her life was slipping away, but also knowing that we had that moment, each other, and the sea. Other memories bring more pain, like her cancer diagnosis and the image stamped in my mind of the coroner, his gurney, and the black plastic bag he zipped her body into before carrying her from the house. I didn’t wave goodbye from afar like my friend, but here I am, waving from a distance nonetheless, saying hi and goodbye, depending on the moment, and the memory.
I have friends whose moms are alive and well yet, they too, wave from a distance. Separated by land, or time, or emotions that are too deep or too hard to cross. I wonder if today is more painful for them than it is for me. After all my mom is gone, there’s nothing I can do, nor she. But they, on the other hand, can be tormented by the thoughts of should I call? or I wonder if she’ll write? Other people I know are at home, right now, sitting with their moms talking and carrying on and still they feel alone and empty inside, misunderstood. Physically close, but emotionally waving from afar. Some moms I know are alone too. Their kids too busy making a life, or an excuse, to stop by with a bunch of roses for a kiss or a meal. Others sit in regret, wishing they’d put in the time to be there when their kids were young, or not done some of the things they’ve done, that left them there alone on a day we’re told is meant to be spent together.
I know this doesn’t describe us all. You may be spending the day with hugs and smiles and happy stories told by those you love and by whom you’re loved. This isn’t for you. Not that I’m not happy for you, I am. In fact, it’s what my wife and I and our three kids were doing right before I snuck away to write down these thoughts. So for those of you who don’t know this pain, I know that you feel complete and whole and not in need of any of these words. But I also know that the little boy inside, the tender soul who lives in me beyond the smile and dimples my wife and children see today, is a little sad and a bit alone. This is for him and for you, if you’re sad too. This is for all of us, those for whom Mother’s Day is bitter and sweet: Parker J Palmer’s poem, and the knowing that we’re not alone as we share Mother’s Day from afar.