The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone. – Harriet Beecher-Stowe
On one side of Nous en prendrons bien soin, people of this world. Opposite them, people from another. In the woman’s long legs and the shape of her hair is something of the four-legged being. She comes from him. Someday, she will return. But not today. Today is about the little gray creature. He is not of this world, but he dwelled here once. The clothing tells us so. He doesn’t need this clothing where he is now. Why is he still wearing it? What is preventing him from being free of it?
Nous en prendrons bien soin is dated 31 May 2020, but the story behind it starts in January, in my shaman’s beautiful Upper West Side office. Outside, the city hums, ignorant of the deadly virus that is already killing people in China. Inside, equally ignorant, I am chatting. Happily. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way has me thinking about synchronicity and art and God; it has me doing things like writing letters to myself, drawing to music, and making fairy houses in Fort Greene Park. For my mother, for Christmas, I had made a homemade coloring book.
The ten days I have just spent with her during break were simple, calm, and quiet. My mother has a daily rhythm I find soothing and relaxing, I tell the shaman. She rises early and says her morning prayers. Then, there is breakfast, the washing of the previous day’s dishes, a snack, lunch, a nap, dinner, another snack, and then bed. Between these events, she makes jigsaw puzzles, does search words, and colors in her coloring books. She also talks on the phone, writes letters, makes bread, and cleans different little corners of the house. I love being with her throughout these days. We play cards. We put pieces in the puzzles. We don’t necessarily talk much, but we don’t need to. Being together is enough.
“You’re in the process of saying goodbye to your mother,” my shaman says. In getting to know my her like this, he explains, and in coming to understand her better by virtue of being with her without an agenda, and without trying to impose my rhythm or my topics of conversation on her, I was setting myself up for a healthy and beautiful goodbye untainted by unresolved issues or frustrations that, ultimately, are mine to deal with. And to be dealing with them now, while she is still alive, is obviously the best time. Too many people don’t do this work while the people they love are still amongst them; they too often bury these people without having truly said goodbye.
The shaman doesn’t know it, but he is talking about me. My father sat in a hospital bed the last time I saw him. It takes him hours to shave, he told me. I’m dying, he meant. But I didn’t understand. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t say anything. This moment would haunt me for years. In one recurring dream, he sits quietly in a chair against a wall. In another, he passes silently through the room. There is the dream where I watch him carry a large flat full of blueberries to the car, but in this one, like in the others, I never go up to him, we don’t exchange any words. The guilt and shame and confusion I feel in the dreams follow me into my waking hours. The bitter tears I do not cry stay stuck in my throat and clog up my heart. The pain is burdensome. I will never be free of it.
But this thinking is that of a flawed human; it is not God’s thinking. Look at the painting. In the sky-blue bird at the woman’s feet is the promise of freedom. In the four-legged being in front of her, God. With God, isn’t even the impossible imaginable? If my father is the little gray creature, then the clothing are the unresolved issues and frustrations I had yet to contend with. But clothing is not a permanent fixture; it can be removed. My father’s physical body might be dead and buried, but I could still do the work my shaman had spoken of. I could still say goodbye. In fact, I had to say goodbye. My heart would not be free until I did. And God needs my heart to be free, for the child in the teal hat. My mother.
We will take good care of her, the four-legged being says. These words are both a promise and a call to action. My mother is still of this world, but her days here are numbered. God is calling her; my father, too. One day they will come for her, and I will have to say goodbye. If I want to be ready, I have work to do.