On this Twelfth Night, eve of Epiphany, when my mother would have turned 85, I reflect on the fact that many of the people I am closest to today—both geographically and emotionally—I did not even know in January of 2011.
At that time, I was in Kentucky, and suffering terribly because of a breakup a few months before that had left me feeling completely ungrounded. I had temporarily lost my identity in another, one with whom I finally had to sever ties in order to regain my self. I remember sobbing in my friend Candace’s bedroom, “I’ve had to break up with Bruce, and I’ve realized I have no idea who I am!”
During my time of healing, I sought counseling and found, through a trusted friend’s recommendation, a wonderful therapist who I will call Ryman. I saw him only five or six times, and I shared my story and brought him texts that I wanted to use to help me weather the storm until I found dry land again. They were passages from Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and Melody Beatty’s The Language of Letting Go. Ryman and I made recordings of his voice and my own that I would play in solitude, reminding myself how to get back to center, where I needed to be.
Ryman was a huge help in keeping me on course, though he constantly told me that I was the one steering the boat—I was doing all the work, and he was just there to watch and listen. Months passed. I reached the shore and regained myself… just in time to be of some comfort to my mom in her final months.
Now, living in North Carolina, I have a whole new social pathway, but I keep in touch with many friends and acquaintances in Kentucky and the world over. I reach out to Ryman about once a year, and he always sends a message back to tell me a bit about his life. During the Twelve Days of Christmas this year, I wrote a note to him, and his response left me reeling. Unbeknownst to me, during January last year he lost his wife, his soul mate, to a sudden illness.
“It has been a year filled with sadness, joy, thanksgiving, longing, some despair, etc., all fine and part of the process,” he wrote. “Your experience after your Mom passed was part of a continuing reminder for me that she is alive and well in my heart and in every part of my existence and everything around me.”
I responded: “I can tell between the lines that you are allowing yourself the privilege to be fully immersed in ‘the luxury of grief,’ which is a very individual experience, as unique as your relationship was. I can say nothing that will help, but only to allow all this to flow over you and into you like a river, without trying to map its course. I feel that at the 3.5-year point since I lost my mother, I am actually done with grieving because I have always allowed the grief to overtake me fully and take me wherever it wanted me to go.”
I thought about what it really was that helped me get through the first year after my mom’s death. I remembered that I felt the most lost and bewildered on the first Mother’s Day (which was almost a year after she passed) and that I wished to be able to be counseled by Ryman, but I was far away and alone.
“I read a lot of things but really, what’s helped me most was just listening to my own heart and staying tuned in to my mother through common friends and through my writing about my grief,” I wrote him. “Something that helps me that I’ve never really tried to write down is the notion of how we experience time as linear, when truly it isn’t. Because of that, it seems that one person has to ‘go’ before another, but actually, we are all already everywhere together at once. During this horrible time of separation, you are forced to remain in this linear time illusion, while she is actually free of it. So as much as you can join her in that knowing that you are truly still together, the more free you become.”
Ryman responded the next day: “I just read your email and thanks so much. I copied it onto Word and made a copy to keep in front of me as a reminder about getting centered with this experience. Today, I have been sad and had moments of feeling sorry for myself. It’s of course all okay, but I want ‘to allow it to flow over me and into me like a river’ and be open to creating something new and different. I love your ‘linear time illusion,’ which nails the reality, leading me to say, ‘Oh, I forgot about that!’ Thank you for reminding me!! So much of what you said was a reminder of what I sometimes forget. One wise person said, ‘We teach those things we most need to remember ourselves.’ That has always been true for me.”
I’m overjoyed that I could be of some help to this person who helped me remember who I was at a crucial time of self-doubt.
Even though now I am so much happier and centered than I was five years ago, I still have days of frustration and need reassurance. On one of these, recently, I received a wonderful message from my new colleague, Tina—one of those people I didn’t even know five years ago, but who is now a treasured friend—who texted me:
“Just keep being you: dedicated, visionary, warm, professional, deeply caring, funny, experienced, creative, kind, with a smile and laugh and deep heart that naturally just draws you in… what struck me when I first met you, then played out deeper as we started to work together is that you do all these things with poise and class. Keep being you…”
One of the coolest things about that message was that while I read it, I felt somehow disoriented and seemed to travel back in time. For an instant, I thought I was reading a description written long ago about my mom—but then I realized, this was about me.
When I start to take any aspect of life for granted, I want to always remember Ryman and how he helped me get back in my boat and get back to shore in late 2010 and early 2011. I want to remember how sudden was his loss and how effervescent his ongoing resilience. I also want always to remember being with my mother in her last days and hearing her say, “I would give anything if I could just get out of bed and come to greet you when you get home from the grocery.”
A message came to me today from someone I don’t even know, as part of a chain of uplifting quotes:
“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you, before you depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so.
One day I shall dig my fingers into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or raise my hands to the sky, and want, more than all the world, your return.”
~Mary Jean Irion