The very long goodbye

It’s taking me a very long time to finish saying goodbye to my parents.

How long?

Mom’s second yahrzeit — the anniversary of her death on the Hebrew calendar — just passed. It’s almost seven years since Dad died.

We gathered in November 2017 to eulogize Mom, mix her ashes with Dad’s, and scatter them in a Florida river. My aunt and cousin sang “On Eagle’s Wings.” I heard another cousin say, as he scattered his cupful of ashes: “Goodbye, good people.”

But I wasn’t done with those good people, so I brought a ziplock bag of ashes home with me. (Pro tip: when traveling with cremains, give TSA a heads-up.) That winter, we scattered a small amount in our neighborhood park. My plan was do it twice more: that spring at Brandywine Creek, one of my favorite childhood spots, and in the summer after planting trees in memory of my parents. Four seasons of commemoration and tribute, marking out the year in places that are important to me.

That was more than a year ago. The trip to the Brandywine and the tree planting both remain in the future. The ziplock bag still sits unceremoniously on my dresser — the same way Mom kept Dad’s ashes on his dresser for five years after he died. At least his were in a cardboard urn.

Why the delay? Why have I not yet kept my promises to myself?

I see three reasons.

The first two are obvious. Number one: life happened. Given my ongoing struggle with Lyme disease, the one-year, four-season plan was too ambitious. Life happened in happy ways as well. My grandson was born last summer, almost exactly a year after Mom’s death. I inherited money, which allowed me to make our home greener (solar panels), safer (asbestos removal), and more comfortable (air conditioning). Organizing those projects became a part-time job last fall and winter.

The second obvious reason is my reluctance to finish saying goodbye.

Mom and Dad both chose to be cremated. Neither wanted a funeral. They didn’t want to be buried, so there are no graves to visit.

We did hold memorial gatherings for each parent. And my adopted Jewish tradition, with its profound wisdom about death and mourning, did give me the chance to sit shiva for Mom and to recite daily kaddish, the prayer in memory of the dead, for each of them. But clearly, those rituals were not enough for me. And clearly, I haven’t been ready to conclude the additional rituals I planned.

Third, I have busied myself with other activities that honor my parents’ memory and keep them close. I’m spending more time with my beloved siblings — truly a blessing that flows from losing our parents. I want to see that amazing grandson as often as I can. I’m immersing myself in family history research and writing, which helps me understand more about Mom and Dad and also prompts me to connect with extended family. Two days ago I called my mother’s sister, asking her the questions I used to ask Mom about long-gone relatives. Yesterday I spoke with a “new” second cousin, who was thrilled to learn she has family on her father’s side and wants to get together ASAP.

The research and writing, the family visits and phone calls — these are not dutiful commitments, although they would surely please my parents. They are ways of letting myself love what I love, to paraphrase the Mary Oliver poem that inspired this blog and its title. They’re ways that I feel more fully alive, more fully myself. Which is, of course, what parents want for their children, and therefore a way to honor my parents.

About those ashes: last week, on Mom’s yahrzeit, I sat by the river in my neighborhood park, at the spot that I now think of as Mom and Dad’s. Even at the height of summer, the occasional leaf dropped off a green, healthy tree and swirled downstream, reminding me that life never stands still.

Next month I will return to my home state of Delaware for the first time in 10 years. Accompanied by some of the people I love most, I will walk my favorite trail to the Brandywine, where we will speak some words and release some of Mom and Dad’s remains.

And sooner or later, I will turn my attention to tree-planting. We will scatter the remainder of the ashes, creating a living memorial in my back yard. And then the very long goodbye will be over.

Except it won’t.

At the beginning of shiva, it’s traditional to tear a garment — symbolizing the irreparable hole caused by the loss of a loved one — and wear it throughout the week. I chose one of Mom’s shirts, as a way of feeling her presence. At the week’s end my older daughter stitched the shirt into a tallis bag, to hold my prayer shawl.

Now, my younger daughter is making me a new tallis, incorporating fabric from a dress that matched Mom’s shirt, and from a sweatshirt of my dad’s. Every time I wrap myself in it, I will feel my parents’ embrace. I will say hello every time I put it on, and goodbye every time I fold it and put it away.

I hope I never stop finding ways to say goodbye.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.

2 thoughts on “The very long goodbye

  1. I try to see the goodness of life every day of my life. I make a statement of thanksgiving for something daily.
    Feel better and thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sherry, thank you for reading and commenting.

      Your daily practices call to mind a recent teaching from Rabbi Yael Levy. Drawing from Jewish tradition, she reads the Hebrew word bitachon — trust — as an acronym for brachot (blessings), tovot (goodness), and chayim (life). She says we can cultivate trust — in ourselves, other people, God, the universe — through daily practice of noticing blessings, goodness, and the life force that animates everything. Sounds like you are cultivating a very similar practice.


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