I was unprepared for my mother’s sudden death to bear gifts. Learning about grief and loss is a lonesome journey, filled with heartbreaking revelations and insights that I am always unprepared for. “They never talk about ____________” or “no one ever told me __________” are repeated refrains, as if enough conversation or guidance or understanding could lessen the weight. But truly, I’ve never heard of anyone discussing the gifts of grief. How heavy they weigh in my hands. How bitter their sweetness.
My mother died traumatically, when she was both too young to expect it and doing all the things doctors tell fat people to do to live long, healthy lives. I am her youngest, her baby, and it was given to me to catch her when she pitched forward, unable to breathe. She told me she was dying, and it was true. I am still untangling the guilt and remorse, the cycling through of everything I might have done differently in that moment. I am still untangling because I am still here, still able to hold an anguish my sisters are explicitly incapable of bearing. This was her first gift.
For much of my adult life, I have been more terrified of staying alive than of dying. Living is such work, after all; a never-ending slog of navigating myself and my child through a society that seems to value only all the things I lack. My mother, on the other hand, loved living. She was an accomplished dreamer, ready to embark on a new round of aspirations – traveling around the world in a sailboat, making fiction of her childhood. Because why not? She had long ago gifted me the understanding that a goal is just a dream that you are acting on to make real. When she left us, there was no sense of regret for a life not lived, not enjoyed – yes, there were many things she wanted to do still with her life, but there would always be many things she wanted to do. And there was gift number two: if not now, when? I stopped saying what I wanted to do and started doing those things. I stopped using the word “should” and explored the wide worlds of “could” and “will” and “am.”
Warp-speed forward, and I can rarely tell what is more real – the beforetime or the aftertime. Aspirations that felt like dreams are now realities. Bereavement has a way of distorting and magnifying emotions. There are no clean lines separating what is influenced by the death of a loved one. I can point to very real, tangible inheritances, opportunities and outcomes that came about only because of this; however, grieving tinges all things with mourning. I did not set out to find gifts here. As I stood hand in hand with my sisters, touching the body that was my mother for the final time, I said, “I don’t know how I’ll survive without her.” My sister replied, “Yes, you do. She taught us how.” I have not yet figured out how to navigate the wide world her gifts have revealed to me. I do not know if a time will come when I am not stopped in the middle of remembering her by the horrific realization that she really is dead, gone; that everything she was and all she did will always be spoken of in past-tense statements. And – not but – I am choosing to feel it all, feel it deeply. I am choosing to be here, to be now. I am sure in the knowledge that this, above all else, is what she wanted to gift me most.
Margaretta Slabey, Ph.D., photo by Zorn B Taylor
Amber Flame is an artist whose work has garnered artistic merit residencies with Hedgebrook, The Watering Hole, Vermont Studio Center, and Yefe Nof. Flame joins the Hugo House in Seattle as the Poet-in-Residence, and is a queer Black single mama just one magic trick away from growing her unicorn horn.