The Circle of Life
Several years ago, I came face to face
with the circle of life. In the span
of 33 days, I lost my mother and
became a mother for the first time.
Growing a baby while my mom was reaching the end of a multi-year battle with cancer, I tried my very best to make sure my body was a healthy place to house a developing person, in part by opening to my emotions as fully as possible. I allowed my tears to come when my mother suggested that I hurry up and have the baby before her arms became too weak to hold even a newborn. I felt the discomfort that arose when I had to mediate a conflict between my mom and dad over her stubborn refusal to accept his efforts to follow the recommendations of the hospice team. I weathered the array of frustration, resignation and amusement at the absurdity of having to fire the priest that showed up to the funeral home to help my family with the planning of my mom's services (as she had really disliked him) and I knew no one would do it if I didn't.
But despite my effort at emotional range, I was still sitting with the heartbreak that my mother and my daughter would never meet. The temporal limitations of this circle of life felt so absolute since theirs was such a close call, having missed each other by just over a month. The nearest thing to in-person interaction that would ever occur between them happened on the occasions when my mom was able to feel my daughter's kicks and movements when she would place her hand on my expanding belly. I don't know what happens on the other side of death, so I don't know what—if anything—my mother can know or see about the lives of her grandchildren. But I do know that I want my children to have an awareness of her and the ways in which she is influencing me influencing them.
There are traits of my mother's that deserve to be passed on—kindness, gentleness, the willingness to listen, a genuine interest in people and their stories, her giving spirit, gratitude for the sacrifices of ancestors, pride in cultural heritage.
There are also takeaways from my mother that I am intentionally working against forwarding to another generation: unquestioned faith, underused critical thinking skills, restricted attitudes about sex and gender roles and feminism, playing it safe. There are qualities in my children that I am certain are reflections of my mother's nature as well as her nurture—their blue eyes, sensitivity to emotion, hesitation about making their needs known, one's preference for the familiar and the predictable, the other's chattiness.
I hope that there is some way for my mother to know that she has been and will continue to be a foundational element of who they are and who they will become. I hope, if there is an afterlife, that my mother can also feel at peace with and respect for the choices I have made and will continue to make as a mother that differ wildly from what she did. We learn from both the successes and the mistakes of those who came before us, and have the opportunity to pause and edit and reassemble them into a narrative that connects to but does not repeat the past.
Debra Frasier's book On the Day You Were Born has been established as birthday eve family reading with both of my children, and has helped to inform my efforts at framing the ties that weave across time. In it, she writes with words and pictures about the interconnected web of existence, the comfortable reliability of nature reflected in the lunar and water cycles, and most poignantly for me, the songs of ancestors that make up the circle of loving voices surrounding children when they arrive on earth. Although my daughters cannot hear my mother's gentle words or her terribly off-key attempts to sing, her voice was there for them as they developed and arrived, and it is available to them as they grow. The circles and cycles of life are not always literal or visible, and they may not follow a temporal line or the predictability of geometry, but they serve as an embrace that links past to present, missteps to wisdom, and my mother to her daughter and her daughter's daughters.