I’m perched on a paint-splattered stool, located downstage right, in a darkened forty-seat theatre. We’re well into the second act of Barenaked Angels, a play that’s a sort of hybrid between solo performance and an ensemble piece. My fellow cast mate Phil is standing on the opposite side of the stage, recounting a story about his niece Sam, a young girl who died after a battle with Mitochondrial disease. Sam had an affinity for butterflies and ladybugs, and in this particular story, Phil tells the audience that on the day of his first big acting job, a ladybug appeared next to him on set during the filming of his scene. The ladybug remained in the same spot for several takes, and Phil was convinced that the ladybug was actually Sam, turning up in the form of the creature she loved, to let him know that she was all right.
This is not the first time I’ve heard the story of the ladybug, but during this particular performance, something is different. As I sit on my stool, listening, I’m transported back to an evening in late September: the night that followed the long day during which we eulogized my mother. After most of the guests had gone home, I sat on the deck of my grandparents’ beach cabin, staring out at the sea. The sunset was slowly shifting into twilight, and a huge full moon hung high in the pink and purple-streaked sky, casting a rosy glow over Case Inlet, which was so flat that it seemed a great mirror, reflecting the heavens back onto themselves. Stillness enveloped me like a blanket and it was almost as though the moon and the sea and the sky were speaking directly to me, whispering words of calm and comfort, telling me that my mother was at peace.
Today marks three years. Three years since I received the worst news of my life: my mother – my best friend – was dead.
If there is an emotion that a person can feel, over these last three years, I have felt it. Crushing sorrow. Denial to the point of delusion. Blinding rage. Crippling guilt. Red-faced shame. Paralysis-inducing fear.
I have spent much of the last three years trying to recapture the person I was before my mother died. It is only recently that I have learned – with the help of counseling, writing, and the passage of time – that the person I was won’t be coming back. Life has changed, and I am changed in it. And in this new reality – a reality where certainty is no longer certain – I am awake and alive to every moment, knowing the weight and import of each one.
A few weeks ago, I found some treasured photos- taken before everything went digital – that I had feared were forever lost.
The photos were from a trip my Mom took to visit me in England, after I finished a college semester studying abroad. We spent a few days in London, and then traveled to Wales. Craving luxury, I booked us into a fancy hotel in Cardiff. But Mom wanted something a little more rugged. She wanted to see the natural beauty of the countryside.
We took a train to Swansea then boarded a small bus bound for the Gower Peninsula. When we arrived, we stood on jagged cliffs, looking out in wonder at the vast sea before us, feeling as though we had come to the edge of the world. Among the handful of photographs we took that day, my favorite is of my Mom, pretending to drive a golf ball (she was an avid golfer) over a cliff, a huge grin spread across her face.
I had forgotten how full of life my mother was on that trip, how adventurous she was. That memory is such a departure from the mother I became used to in the years leading up to her death: someone who stayed mostly at home and avoided crowds, contenting herself with simple pleasures like gardening and cooking. Someone who gradually became more and more anti-social as she clung to memories of the past, slowly disappearing before my eyes.
It is so easy for the worries and the fears and the anxieties to grab hold of you and to keep you from moving forward, as they did my mother. It is much harder to know how much life can hurt you, and to throw your arms around it anyway, embracing it with all you have.
I have felt it all these last three years. Every dark, impossible, hopeless thing. But today, as I think of my mother, I think of the woman who insisted we travel by train and bus to the edge of the world so that we could gaze out at the sea, sensing all the possibility that spread out before us. And I think of that serene September evening after we said goodbye, when I knew in the core of my being that she was all right.
She is all right. And I am all right too.