“There’s a combination of joy and grief that can take your breath away. The sum of those two parts wells up inside you and holds your breath hostage until you let go of the notion that you can control the paradox and choose between joy and grief.”
~Brene Brown via Instagram, 5/22/17
Lately I’ve realized how I’ve been putting off things my mom would have been excited about because I am not sure how to be excited without her, how to be joyful inside this grief. I thought I could only have one or the other, and grief is a given. Joy happens, of course, but it feels somehow accidental. Like I experience it in spite of myself.
Though there had been hints before, this realization struck me fully when I landed an awesome job teaching 9th and 12th grade English in Phoenix, which is news I’ve not made very public. After the offer phone call, I texted my best friend and then called John at work to share the news, and when I hung up from talking with him, I burst into tears. Because, of course, the next call I should have made would have been to Mom.
To be honest, it’s the first phone call I would have made.
She’s always going to be my first phone call.
She would be really irritated at me for putting things off on her account. She would be sympathetic for a minute and then give me this sort of sideways look—it’s her equivalent of her mother’s over-the-glasses version—and use my name instead of calling me ‘my baby.’ (I have a version, too, much like hers; my students call it The Look.) And then she would remind me, as she had many times before, that it is my responsibility to put my gifts into the world. To not do so is to diminish both myself and the gift (and, in my mom’s worldview, the divine gift giver).
A little more than a week before she died, we had a rough night. It was one of only two moments of conflict in the months I was with her, and though (after years of reading student evaluations of my classes) I know better than to dwell on the outliers, these are among the moments I remember most clearly. One of Mom’s friends from church had come by to visit, and I was in the kitchen fixing her something to eat. Just as I noticed that their conversation had gotten a little louder than usual, her friend called for me.
Mom was crying, which I had seen her do only a few other times between being diagnosed with two kinds of cancer to being transferred into hospice care. And I was alarmed. I sat on the edge of her bed and held her hands as she repeated over and over, “Courtney, I’m so scared for you.”
“Why are you scared for me, Mama?”
Her friend answered for her, “She’s afraid she’s not going to see you again.”
Cue The Look.
“Don’t worry about me, Mama. I’m going to be with you always and you’re going to be with me always. Don’t be scared for me.”
I tried my best to reassure her and eventually she drifted off to sleep. I don’t remember how (or even if) I managed to send her friend on her way with any degree of civility. I do remember sitting by her bed past midnight reading the same passages from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass over and over.
She may indeed have been afraid of not seeing me again, though our many hours of conversation about faith make me pretty sure that’s not what she was worried about. She had concluded years before that, in her words, I am way too smart for any puny human to convince me to become saved: “God Himself is the only one who can do it, I’m pretty sure, and I’m betting on Him.”
I think it unlikely, given how completely her faith governed her experience with and her beliefs about her cancer, that she had some lapse in her conviction that God would “get me when I needed to be gotten.” It’s much more likely that she was scared of what my life would look like without her in it. I was, too.
The whole time she was sick we were held up in the love of others: family, given and chosen, and friends, new and old; nurses and doctors and pharmacists and the young man who brought the lunch tray and the woman who cleaned the hospital room; students and colleagues, past and present; random strangers in line at the pharmacy and in the elevator when I pressed five for the oncology floor. And since her death, I’ve been held up by that same love, through Mothers’ Day, my birthday, her birthday, the holiday season, and the first anniversary of her death.
My life would not work without that love. I am grateful beyond words. And convinced that this is what there is to do in this life: hold each other in love.
If someone had tried to tell me last April that my life without my mom could be a life with joy, they’d have gotten The Look. And also possibly a punch in the throat.
And now I’d owe that very brave person an apology.