20 years ago today, in 1997, my dear mother died. Her Toronto hospital room overlooked a ravine filled with trees in their autumn glory. In her last days, I sat holding her hand, looking out the window, thinking, waiting and wondering if the end of this journey would lead to an existence after this one. That’s a tough one for a non-believer like me. On the day she died, it snowed. I’ll never forget the brilliance of the autumn colours behind that screen of falling white flakes.
When I was a young girl, my mother read to me at bedtime. I can still see the illustrations in the books she read – Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking glass, Heidi, and the Blue, Red and Yellow fairy tale books. My mother, Sandy, also invented fantastic, serialized bedtime stories where I was the central character.
But my favorite story was one she told every year. It was the ancient Greek myth about Persephone’s abduction by Hades and her mother Demeter’s grief. It is the classic mother – daughter separation story. Through it, the ancient Greeks explained the life-death-rebirth cycle of the garden. I never tired of the story because her telling was wrapped up in our close relationship as well as her own separation experiences.
And as the story involved a very significant pomegranate, every year in October, my mother would buy one and I would search for the chambers of tarts seeds while she told the story.
I miss the most our long conversations about everything under the sun. My art genes come from her. She constantly had a notepad with her to write down and sketch her ideas and thoughts. She was one of the smartest women I ever knew and was decades ahead of her contemporaries in her views about life. She regretted that she was born too late to be a full participant in the 60’s. I know she would have fit in well with the radical shift in thinking that made people challenge the conservatism, racism and sexism that permeated public and private life in North America.
Our relationship wasn’t perfect. Our mother-daughter conflicts were spectacular and heated. Between the two of us, there were so many slammed doors that the paint chipped around the door frames. But do you ever wish you could have been a contemporary of one of your parents? I do. I wish she was here to share this life with me. We could paint together. We could have wonderful conversations. I know she would have embraced the internet and it’s publishing and researching possibilities. And I have so many questions for her — there was never really enough time to say everything.
At work two weeks after mom’s death I heard a song about loss on the radio. (And believe me, when you are fresh with grief, you’ll find that most songs deal with separation.) I cried in front of my coworkers and felt overwhelmed that evening with loss and with the realization that I would never talk with my mother again or experience her love. I am very fortunate to have a treasure trove of letters from her, written to me while I was an art student in the German Democratic Republic in the 1970’s. I pulled one out at random and it began:
“Dear Flora – yes, I do love you.”
The letter was dated only with the month and day – Oct.23 …. what would become her death day! I was quite astonished — how fitting, it seemed, that my mother the writer would choose just the right words to comfort me.
Today I’ll think about my dear mother and miss her as I have every day for 15 years. I’ll read some of her poems and I’ll paint. And for sure, I’ll eat a pomegranate. I am so thankful to her for exposing me to art and books and ideas and for being the free spirit she was. I know it was her wish for me that I could paint full-time. Well, I can now and I do. And thankfully I do this in a beautiful valley, much like the one she imagined in this poem she wrote when she was 38.
To Be in Country Warp Again
To be in country warp again, in fields who, sleeping, stir and rustle of the past; in hills, from whose veiled summits are downcast night shades, still showing glistening shields; where footed cattle strike the ground unseen, in pastures, beaded in the night by incensed air that with night cries resound, as one by one, stars thread the dark with light. – Sandy McConnell Doehler, 1960.
The loss of a parent is profound. Parents are extraordinarily significant in all our lives. If you are interested in reading more about the various impacts on adults losing their parents, there is an excellent article here.