And so it begins.
We book our last-minute flights that leave at ungodly hours, requiring transfers through Atlanta or Detroit. We return to the churches where we last stood in matching bridesmaid dresses, clutching multi-colored bouquets and smiling with our arms around each other. Back then, we were exhausted from staying up too late after the rehearsal dinner. The lives we returned to after the wedding were the uncomplicated (though we didn’t know it then) lives of single, childless women at the beginning of their careers. We had car payments, transitional boyfriends, portions of our graduate degrees, fabulous highlights. We didn’t have birth plans or mini-vans.
We return full of sorrow, having slammed against the awful reality we vaguely knew was waiting for us in the far away One Day.
We return to bury one of our mothers.
My own mother is alive and well, recovering from jetlag from a well-deserved summer trip. My father is too, having survived his first-ever trip to Europe as a septuagenarian. I’m proud as hell of them for saying yes to the invitation to travel to Spain—for scouring Dallas for the best (but still cute) walking shoes and greeting a new experience with an open-wide yes-ness that took them thousands of miles from their comfort zones, which typically include rounds of iced tea at Corner Bakery and breakfast at a local diner with friends.
They are tired, but alive, still hurtling through new, pleasurable experiences. I’ll see them in October, and we’ll let my daughter boss us all around, most likely marching us straight to the American Girl Doll store. We’ll eat too much dessert, they’ll spoil my kids rotten with cookies for breakfast, and we’ll sock away new memories.
But not all my friends can say that.
Some of them have been unable to for years. As I sit here on a plane to Texas where I’m headed to help a dear friend say goodbye to her mother, smooshed between a hygienically-challenged French citizen and a sweet old lady with a gigantic eye mask, I think, “Oh my God, it has begun.”
This new era’s actually been threatening for a few years. My friends’ parents have had health scares, close calls, bad doctors’ visits, scans revealing ominous spots on vital organs. It’s always gut-wrenching to watch someone grapple with a sick parent. It’s devastating to be the one with the imperiled parent.
Today is the first day I will bear witness, as an adult and as a mother, to a friend’s final goodbye to her mother. When my own mother’s mother died, I remember the women from my mother’s sorority and grammar school who showed up. One sweet, tearful woman (Helen?) surprised my mom at the funeral. When they embraced, Helen kept saying, “Oh, Erin, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
I thought that sounded so strange. It wasn’t like my mom was doing some once-in-a-life-time trick, like jumping from a high diving board into a little bucket. Helen’s words made what was happening at that cemetery in Baton Rouge sound so exciting. So not-to-be-missed. Like a circus trick. A stunt. A show-for-the-ages.
But here’s what I now understand. The daughter who buries a beloved mother is jumping from a high diving board into a little bucket. The bucket is a new world where the daughter no longer has a mother. She now has a grieving father to support and a new identity as a woman whose mother no longer walks the Earth. Soon, she’ll have closets to empty, clothes to donate, insurance forms to file, and Christmases and grandparents’ days to get through without her mother.
Jumping from a high dive into a little bucket is fitting metaphor after all.
In my back-and-forth text exchanges with my friend about funeral arrangements and travel plans, she thanked me profusely for coming. I typed out “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Then I erased it. It still sounded so strange. Too happy. Too celebratory. Too jaunty.
Then, I typed it again.
Because it’s true. I wouldn’t miss the chance to bear witness to her crossing over to her life. The one without her mother.
Because it has begun.