The meaning of a day

Well friends, here we are again. Like it or not, ready or not, this day rolls around. Another August, another anniversary. Today it is four years since my mom died, and, as in years past, I don’t really know what to do or how to mark the day. My family and some of my mom’s friends in New York have already gathered at church for a memorial mass and breakfast, an annual tradition they have created. My dad and my brother will go to the cemetery, a place I have only been once since my mother’s death.

imageAs the years pass, I find it harder to know what I should do, or even what I want to do. On the first anniversary, I took the day off and spent it on my own, wandering around the city, reading in the Vondelpark, sitting in the sun, and finally sharing the thoughts that had been rattling around my head for the previous year. In the years since, I’ve been wondering more and more about the meaning of this day. Should the day that my mom died be given any more importance than any of the days she lived? She’s more present to me on her birthday, on my own birthday, and on any number of ordinary days that I miss her, than she is today, the anniversary of the start of her absence.

One thought I’ve had consistently over the past several years is how much she’s had to miss. There are so many things that I know she would have enjoyed. Our lives go on – as they must – and a lot has happened in four years. I think about my sister’s children and how much Mom would like seeing her first granddaughter rowing with her high school team. She’d appreciate that her first grandson has become a voracious reader, and that her second granddaughter has blossomed into an academic powerhouse. She’d love helping them through their awkward but thoughtful teen years, and watching them grow into young adults.

My brother’s kids are younger, but they’re at or near the same age as the students that my mom taught for decades. Their energy and goofiness – and the youngest’s startling resemblance to my brother – would have tickled her. Even the little things, like a (widely-panned) movie adaptation of one of her favorite books; she’s had to miss that, too.

There have been less-than-wonderful moments, also a part of life. Disappointments, challenges, the deaths of neighbors and friends. These are moments when my mother’s friendship, compassion, and fierce loyalty would have been a welcome balm. She understood the importance of showing up and being present for others in need.

All day today, a line from Lori McKenna’s beautiful song “Never Die Young” has been running through my head. The song is a deeply personal, one-sided conversation with her mother, who died when McKenna was only seven years old. As an adult and a mother herself, McKenna looks around at the joy-filled activity of her home and young family and notes, “I was the one who I felt so, so sorry for, but you are the one who is gone.”


As the day winds down on my side of the ocean, I can’t help but think that the best way to honor the death of someone you love is to just keep living as fully as possible. To be present and alert to the people around you. To give of yourself, your time, your energy. To make the most of wherever you are, and whatever you have. We’re still here, even though that often seems unfair or impossible, and our debt to those we love but no longer see is to witness and participate and enjoy this life as much as we can, for as long as we’re given.

I love you, Mom, and I miss you still. Everyday.


The two cards I mailed today

A few hours ago, I dropped two cards in the Post NL box.

One was sent to friends of ours who live about 50 kilometers away. They are new-ish friends who we met about two years ago. We clicked immediately and since then, we’ve had one crazy adventure and a few of those fun, lazy afternoons of laughter and good conversation that stretch into dinner and drinks, and before you know it you’re running for the last bus back to the train station. Yesterday they welcomed their first child, a little boy, and my congratulations-via-whatsapp felt sort of lame and insufficient.  So…a cheerful blue card celebrating Hugo is making its way to their home – a home which, in the coming days, will be filled with family and visitors and new sounds and smells, thanks to the arrival of their son.

The second card has to make a much longer journey, and it carries no celebration. It is traveling to Seattle, to a friend and former colleague who I have known for at least eight years, maybe longer. We worked together in a challenging, fast-paced international health organization, and we got through a lot of difficult days thanks to her humor and perspective. Yesterday I learned that her sister, a vibrant and beautiful young woman, passed away from cancer. She had been diagnosed years ago and was living with the disease, seeking alternative treatments and continuing to travel and run and do yoga and work as a nurse. I met her only once, briefly, a few months ago, at brunch when she and my friend came through Amsterdam. Meg was full of life and light – you would never have known she was sick at all. Even from that quick interaction, it was clear that she was one of those special people who can both soak in and radiate love and energy to those around them. She lit up the room. It seems unspeakably unfair that her life has ended.

It is hard to know what to say to someone in the early days of their grief. No one knows what to say, really, but often the words matter less than the act of trying. So…with that in mind, there is a card making its way to my friend in Seattle, offering whatever comfort I could manage in a few words, reminding her that she is held in the circle of her sister’s love, and the love of many others.

I’m thinking a lot tonight about the gatherings of these two families, one celebrating a birth and the other grieving a loss, and how their respective gatherings may have more in common than one might think: tears, memories, laughter, fear, sadness, regret, anxiety.  As my small wishes and small wisdom make their journeys, I’ll be right here, holding my friends in my thoughts and in my heart.

To live in this world


A year ago today, I shared a long, personal reflection on the first anniversary of my mother’s death. After I posted it, a friend suggested I reread it from time to time, and especially on this anniversary day. I did, and will continue to do so, not as a measure of any kind of “progress” but as a remembrance. Another year has passed and still – again – things are different. Words like “easier” or “harder” have no place in grieving, at least for me. There is just different, other.

This year I don’t have anything profound or even anything particularly personal to say for myself, so I’m relying on someone else. One thing that has brought me comfort during these past 2 years has been reading poetry again, where I find expressions of the same solace, anger, resignation, peace, or confusion I feel, but cannot give voice to.

So I offer this up to you, and to the memory of my mom, and all the love and light she brought into the world.

“In Blackwater Woods”, by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes
to let it go,
to let it go.

Mother’s Day

When my dad and niece were visiting last month, we were watching TV one evening and a commercial came on for some Mother’s Day promotion. My niece, who was cuddled up on the couch with me, turned and said, “Huh…you don’t get to celebrate that anymore.” She didn’t say it to be cruel – it was more of an observation than anything else. Still, it hurt. In the days since, I’ve kept her words with me, rolling them around my head in quiet moments.

Today is Mother’s Day. And as most of my readers know, my mom is no longer with us. And I’m wondering: do I get to celebrate it?

Years ago a friend shared an essay from Charles Dickens about Christmas and how the meaning of the holiday can change as we age and experience loss. Dickens speaks of a friend from his youth, with whom he had once imagined and discussed their growing old together. Now that his friend has – in his prime – taken up “his destined habitation in the City of the Dead”, Dickens asks, “Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, husband, brother, wife, we will not so discard you…”

So, in the spirit of Dickens and Christmas, I am observing Mother’s Day. Like most holidays, Mother’s Day isn’t a purely individual holiday – it’s not just about your mom.  (But don’t tell your mom that. Because of course it’s only about her.) It’s a collective recognition that being a mother can be hard. It’s a celebration of grandmothers and aunts and sisters and whoever else may have mothered us in some way at a time when we needed mothering. It’s a time to think about women around the world for whom motherhood and childbirth is dangerous, or deadly. It’s a moment to consider what mothers risk and dream of for their children, and the sacrifices made to help realize those futures.

And for myself, it is a day to think about my mom. More than once during this time abroad, I’ve thought about how much she would have enjoyed hearing about our lives here. She would have had a lot of questions – silly ones, about everyday things, like where we buy groceries and if we’ve met the neighbors and where we store our bicycles.

Today I’m thinking about all the little things that make up a person, a life. I could tell you a thousand things about my mom or write a thousand questions that I never thought to ask her. But today I’m thinking about how we couldn’t talk while she was baking, as if measuring flour took all her attention. I’m thinking about her beautiful complexion and how she never wore foundation.  I’m remembering the smell of her perfume.  The look she would give my dad on Christmas morning if one of his gifts didn’t quite hit the mark. And the very specific way she would say, “Hello Katie” whenever we spoke by phone. And the fact that she still called me Katie, which almost no one now does.

One of the stupid, annoying things about grieving is that the grief changes, and I change, and how I respond to loss and what I need to deal with it also changes. It sucks. So maybe this year I can have this sort-of reflective, Zen-like perspective on the universality of Mother’s Day. Next year I may ignore it completely. Who can say? Mother’s Day is hard for people who still have mothers – our relationships with our moms are complicated, in life and in death.  I don’t have any answers for you there.

So we’ll end where we began, with Dickens again. His final word, his promise to his lost friend – and his appeal to us – is that we “shut out nothing!” There’s no right or wrong way for me to observe this day or any other significant day. You take what comes, you find yourself where you are, and you shut out nothing.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Will the circle be unbroken?

Back in early March, shortly after I revived this blog, I wrote something called, “Why now, and why here (Part 1)”. I talked about why I chose Amsterdam for this adventure of ours. I spoke about the connection I’ve long felt with the Dutch, and the reasons, both practical and silly, that brought me here. That covered the “why here”. As for the “why now”, I sort of cryptically deflected it for another time.


Wedding day, May 2004

What I was skirting around was having to connect our move to the death of my mother on August 5, 2014. Maybe I wasn’t ready to make the connection, or to talk about it in a public space. To be fair, one didn’t directly lead to the other. I had been talking about moving abroad for some time, and my mother was supportive and excited for us, encouraging us to make our plans regardless of her health.

They say that you’re not supposed to make any big life decisions in the year after a significant loss. Well, I blew that one. Instead of following the common wisdom, I took off, alone at first, to a place where I had no community, no support. I also had no triggers; my mother had never been here and there was little to remind me of her.

Maybe I was trying to outrun my grief. Maybe, in the face of loss and the regret that inevitably comes with it, I felt a greater urgency to do something that I had always dreamed of doing – no time to waste. I’ll admit I haven’t really given it much thought. There’s time to figure it out, if I’m so inclined: “grief is real and loss is for life, as long as life. In any case, I’m not sure it matters.

What follows is a bit of patchwork (an analogy my mom would have appreciated) written inconsistently over the past year. Although I’ve tried to piece it together in a way that might make sense, it is, like all handmade things, imperfect.

I’m sending this out, with great love and childish hope, to my mom and all those we love but no longer see.

On the day my mom died, a friend who had recently lost her mother sent me an email. In it, she shared a quote from an essay that Laurie Anderson wrote for Rolling Stone about the death of Lou Reed, her partner of more than 20 years. It said simply, “I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

(I think it’s important to point out here that my mother wouldn’t have had the slightest idea who Lou Reed was, to say nothing of Laurie Anderson. Her musical tastes ran more to Lionel Ritchie and the Bee-Gees. But hey, nobody’s perfect.)

Women in waders. Fly fishing in North Carolina, May 2010

Women in waders. Fly fishing in North Carolina, May 2010

This single sentence from Anderson’s beautiful reflection was like a life buoy thrown to me just as the sea was rising. My mom had been sick for a long time, and as her health declined we had the frank, tearful conversations that I imagine most families have in these situations. Still, the knowledge of her illness and her worsening condition remained abstract, almost up to the very moment of her death. How can we ever prepare ourselves for such loss?

There are parts of that day and the days that followed that have blurred. Even in grief – perhaps especially in grief – our brains find ways of protecting us from ourselves. Other parts of the day are crystal-clear; I could close my eyes right now and reconstruct every sensation, if not for the fact that it still hurts so much to do it.

What I both remember and find comfort in reliving is the outpouring of support that my mom’s death inspired. One after the other, friends, neighbors, former students, quilters, and teachers shared memories. Remarkably, almost everyone remembered the first time they met my mother. There was story after story of her suggesting that someone join a parent’s group, or take a sewing class, or contribute to a gift for a retiring teacher. Stories of invitation, of welcome, of encouraging someone to do more than they thought they could.

Of course, what she was really doing was inviting people into the circle of her love.

Life inside that circle was remarkable. My mom was generous with her time and her attention. She knew how to listen. She was creative and artistic. Affectionate. Curious. She was a loyal friend who would go well out of her way for others. She did not give up on people. She sacrificed – or at least delayed – her own ambitions in order to care for her family.


The Budapest stop of our European adventure, October 2012

This is not to say that life inside the circle was always easy. While the circle of love may not have had conditions, it did have – how shall we say? – standards.  There was a way that things were to be done, and this was non-negotiable. My mother had high expectations for those around her. To do a poor job on a school assignment, for example, would be disrespectful to ourselves and to the teacher who assigned the work. Whether it was homework or household chores, there was no greater sin inside the circle than doing a “half-assed job”.

And the flip side of my mother’s fierce loyalty was that she could hold a grudge like no other. I suspect she went to her grave still angry at my high-school boyfriend for breaking up with me. In 1993.

I’ll pause here to say that trying to explain the heart of who my mother was in a few paragraphs is a fool’s errand – the ultimate half-assed job. If you knew her, you’ll know that nothing I can say will properly capture her. Edna St. Vincent Millay gets it right in her poem Dirge Without Music:

“A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the


They are gone.”

I’m not sure that there is a purpose to death at all, but I’m willing to entertain the thought that the purpose is, perhaps, the release of love. And I’ll consider it only because in the days following my mother’s death, I felt held and lifted and comforted by the love that came back from the circle she had created over so many years. My mother had stepped out of the circle. And so we all had to move that much closer to each other. And it was her love that allowed us do it.


God, my mom would have hated this picture. I love it. Unknown location and date.

In a wonderfully honest new book of essays, Meghan Daum writes, “Most of us have unconscious disbeliefs about our lives, facts that we accept at face value but that still cause us to gasp just a little when they pass through our minds at certain angles.” The first thing on her list is the same as mine: that my mother is dead. A year has passed and this fact seems no more believable today than it did on the day of her death. My most common thought in the first few days of her absence was a befuddled, “…but she was just right here…”. As one might remark about a missing set of house keys.

That thought has by now largely passed, but I’m not sure what’s taken its place. I can say that everything about this year has been surprising. Nothing is linear. Progression is followed by regression. The fact that I moved to Europe a mere six months after my mother’s death has no doubt made the grieving process more complicated. In the early weeks after my arrival, loneliness was common. I was fine for long stretches, then found myself ambushed by grief, unable to share or manage it.

I was – am? – vulnerable in ways I could not have anticipated. And what you cannot anticipate or imagine, you cannot defend against. I have done things that are selfish and thoughtless and inexcusable, even when viewed through a generous lens of grief. I’ve had moments where I was unrecognizable to myself. And while some of those moments are shameful to me, and hurtful to others, I honestly don’t think I could have expected my heart to have protected me, broken as it was.

And the love that I want to believe was released in that hospital room? The love that closed around those of us left in the ragged circle in the days after my mom’s death? What of that? What happens to it in the months – years? – after its release? Will it become harder to call to mind, harder to feel? Does it become diffuse, stretching to reach everyone as they need it, each in their turn? Or can it continue to grow, to expand, both for and through those my mother loved, and who loved her? Could it be that it is endless? Could it be so?