A year ago I drew this labyrinth in the sand on my favourite beach.
Dragging my fingers in the barely-warm April sand felt wonderful after having spent three days in a nursing home. My mother was struggling so overwhelmingly. The only thing I really knew how to do was play the piano for her and sing the hymns she liked. (During those moments I was very grateful to her for forcing me to take piano lessons so many years before.) She was a very good mom.
At the moment I drew this little spiral I did not know that a few hours later I would watch my mother leave her earthly body. That morning I just drew something very familiar, a small Cretan labyrinth. Into the centre and out, one path. Death is sort of like that. Just one way in and one way out. I will spare you the selfie I took of me laying beside her in the bed that spring evening as she struggled with her last few breaths. My need to crawl up beside her was more to comfort myself than for her benefit. I kept whispering to her “Don’t be afraid mom”. Whether or not she heard, I do not know. People say that hearing is the last to go. I felt privileged to hold my cell phone up to her ear as I called her grandchildren near and far and had them say their goodbyes. From many miles away her daughter-in-law sang a hymn to her over the phone and her son recited her scripture. Her son-in-law prayed on the phone as she took her last breath while her other daughter-in-law held her hand.
It was a good death. And a good funeral.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about both.
When my husband was a clergyperson I loved it when he would take some sand or earth and make a the symbol of the cross on top of the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. I reflect that putting my hand in the sand that morning was a sort of ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ kind of moment for me.
These moments are necessary. This last year of grief has been good.
from The Good Funeral: Death, Grief and the community of Care by T.Long & T.Lynch.
One of the most powerful moments of my mother’s committal service was seeing my brother and sister-in-law placing her ashes into the ground. They knelt down on the grass beside the small hole. Gently her arm went all the way to the bottom of the soil floor, over a metre down, like a final caress.
Families who are not given the opportunity to partake in rituals such as, funerals and memorial services, religious or not, are missing out on chances to fully mourn, experience their grief and have that grief witnessed, a vitally important function. All of the great religions feature rituals around death, for good reason.
I increasingly hear about individuals requesting no ceremony after their deaths. This is troubling to me. We have rare opportunities for collective emoting, not just for joy but especially for grief. No wonder grief sometimes takes the form of huge displays after public tragedies. When our grief is denied expression we gunnysack it and it comes out in other ways, like anger and depression.
Public displays of grief are important and necessary, such as state funerals, processions, piles of flowers. Why do we deny ourselves the right to grieve when it is our own loved ones?
Ceremonies are not for the dead, but for those who need and want to remember and mourn. They help us to face our own mortality. Of course not all families and cultures need to do things the same. Nor do individuals need to grieve the same. But pretending that nothing is going on, by bypassing these rituals, does not support good grief.
I felt privileged that my brother had asked me to make a fabric bag to house my mother’s earthly remains. I put off making this bag for weeks until I just couldn’t procrastinate any longer.
It took a couple of attempts before I came up with something which satisfied me. I started with a piece of batik fabric in teal colour and held it in my hand for about 20 minutes. Nothing came. I then went rummaging through a special drawer I have of old pieces of fabric, tapestries and recycled cloth. I came upon a piece of old quilt on which I had already started a kantha quilting on years before and never finished. THAT was it! The fabric just jumped out at me. Pick me, pick me. This old quilt, no doubt fashioned by a woman many years ago and well worn with loving use was in the perfect colours.
I felt a tinge of what artisans (no doubt slaves) of King Tut must have felt to fashion things for his royal tomb, grand things, like a gold chariot, that they knew would never be seen again. When I finished the embroidery, and embellishments of costume jewelry selected from her jewelry box, including a butterfly/cross pin which symbolized the Faith At Work movement, I knew my mom would have liked it.
Then when my sister-in-law read a poem entitled “Butterfly” at the graveside, a poem which she had written immediately after Mom died, it was like a mind meld had happened that I had included the butterfly pin on the side of her bag.
Light as a feather.
Translucent gossamer wings
shimmer in the sun.
She flits from blossom to blossom,
gently touching all in her path.
She imparts the blessing of mercy
with each delicate touch,
leaving the fragrance of beauty
to linger lovingly
long after she has gone.
she drifts into a lurking cage.
She is frightened,
cannot find her way out.
She struggles, throws her fragile body against the
again and again.
She cannot escape.
confused, and bewildered,
she collapses on the floor.
And she waits.
Kept alive by a few random raindrops that fall
into her prison.
Slow death awaits.
Those who come and stare cannot release her,
this she knows.
Yet somehow she imparts her gift of loving kindness and mercy
to each one.
The sheen of her gossamer wings has faded now.
into dull lifeless grey.
Unable to fight it any longer,
she rests, releases her battered body after years of struggle.
That beautiful body, now at peace.
Spirit soaring now to heights unknown,
to beauty never before realized.
She is finally free of the fetters
that bound her for so long.
She is in the sparkling diamonds on the river.
She is in the tender young buds on the tree.
She is in the timeless sweet song of the robin I hear.
She is in the tiny any scurrying along my path.
She is in the sweet squirrel
staring curiously at me from the branch above.
She is in the beautiful butterfly
who lands beside me,
on my bench by the river.
She is finally free.
-Sheri King Ward, 2016
Perhaps one of the greatest compliments I have ever received as an artist (and daughter) was from my other sister-in-law who said something to the effect “it’s remarkable how you were you able to get a piece of fibre art to look like someone”.
Few of us will ever get the chance to see human ashes, or touch them. Of course, it was me who had to transfer the ashes from the temporary box provided by the crematorium into the bag; a job which was difficult, enough in itself, to perform. Again, this was a healing moment of grief.
Cremation isn’t for everyone. If you have quandaries about cremation, I recommend listening to this podcast on End of Life University, https://lessonsfromdying.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-cremation/. Even though it comes from an American perspective there is much to gain from it.
I know my mother isn’t ‘in’ that bag. But the act of creating the last holding vessel for her ashes was profoundly healing. And seeing it placed into the ground gave me a finality which, even though ripped my heart out, was necessary.
Later we all joked about me making this “griefcase” and how I should be selling them on Etsy! But it was a ‘one of’.
I honestly don’t know how families who are denied these rituals cope. Ceremony is necessary. Rituals are important. Creating your own as a family is wonderful. Please do not fear these times. This is where the healing lies.
My BFF from childhood, her mother died yesterday.
The house where I grew up on a quiet suburb of Winnipeg was surrounded by Borodys. Literally.
On the south side was by best friend Carol-Ann and her mum, dad, brothers and a dog, Binks. And on the north side of our house was her grandparents, Mr. & Mrs. Borody, Senior.
Our front lawn was a path from the one house to the other. Which proved to be an interesting dynamic. Like the time when one Borody adult was chasing one Borody child across our lawn with “The Board of Education”.
Two families growing up, side by side, for years.
Leaning over the fence between our driveway and Carol-Ann’s house, our mothers would gab for hours. The regular kind of stuff that new moms share. I can imagine the joy, “I’m pregnant again!” “Oh my, so am I!”. The two mothers birthing one after the other. Within a couple of months, my older brother and hers, my middle brother and hers, and then we two, born within 3 weeks of each other.
Mrs. Borody was so different from my mother. Didn’t your friend’s mothers always seem cooler than your own mother?
I thought Mrs. Borody had more fashionable clothes. She played Bridge. Didn’t she cook more interesting food? She played golf and travelled. They had liquor in their house, my folks were tea-totlers. Their house was nicer than ours, and a full two-storey.
But I was totally scared of her. She spoke with a forthrightness that wasn’t normal in my family. She was part of that “Mothers Who Know Everything” club. Even until a couple of years ago we would laugh about that time when she caught Carol-Ann and I buying too much candy at Parkview Drugs across Portage Avenue.
Mrs. Borody was the consummate neighbour, the kind of neighbour everyone wants and needs. Who else would have been there at 6AM when we needed someone to take a picture of our family leaving on our monumental journey to live in California?
Our mothers rescued each other more than once for many things, like water leaks, Hallowe’en costumes, borrowing an egg, and boosting the car in winter.
Births and deaths. Tears were shed. Shoulders were there.
Mrs. Borody graciously hosted a neighbourhood bridal shower for my older brother’s bride-elect. Her own son Richard, the same age as my older brother, was tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident when they were both 18 years old. How bittersweet for her.
I will never forget that summer day. The day Carol-Ann’s brother died.
Richard and Doug, two lifelong friends separated forever. How Mrs. Borody bore that grief was an education to me at age 12.
My whole life Mrs. Borody has remained a touchstone to my roots. I would enjoy getting my mom and her together long after they had both moved away from the old St. James neighbourhood.
Then when Parkinsons-like of symptoms robbed Mrs. Borody of her vitality a number of years ago I saw her decline from a stately woman of tremendous will and forebearing to a helpless shell who could no longer speak. It was tough to witness.
But her eyes still shone with remembrance.
I could never bring myself to call her Helen. It was always “Mrs. Borody”.
Rest in peace Mrs. Borody.