First day of school, first kiss, first job, first sexual encounter, first car, first place of one’s own, first child… so many milestones in life. Unfortunately, not all are as happy as that or things which will be cherished memories down the road, but that doesn’t make them any the less important or impactful. I hit another milestone this year that fits that category – my first parent died.
My Mom passed away quietly last month after a couple of years of slowly fading into the void. Dementia had made it necessary for her to be somewhere where she could be looked after 24/7 three or four years ago. The path from there was uneven but always pointing in the same direction. Downwards. Stomach problems that had plagued her for much of her adult life were getting fiercer while the medical personnel could do increasingly little for her with her growing frailty. Many a phone conversation took place this past winter between concerned doctors and I that always revolved around the same things – if she were younger, stronger, more could be done , but at her advanced age with her numerous health issues, even comparatively minor procedures could end up costing her the life it was supposed to extend. Having to decide whether one’s own parent should be resucitated if unconscious, or given any medication aiming to do more than keep them comfortable, what they ultimately would want while far away are not the types of call that anyone would have to take in a perfect world.
But this isn’t a perfect world (it is however, the only one we’ve got as I point out as much as I can) and there’s a reason the phrase “circle of life” exists. I grieved of course, but knew as well that it was a part of life. A rite of passage I’ve been lucky to have been able to avoid into middle-age. My wonderful Dad and loving stepmom are still in the here and now, something a number of my counterparts haven’t been able to have for a long time. A good fifteen years back I was a pallbearer for my friend Russ, who was burying his own Mom a decade or more after his Dad had gone on. And of course, I take comfort in realizing that she’s not suffering any more; the quality of life for her in the final few months, bed-ridden, weak and in pain more often than not isn’t much of a life after all. I take comfort in the hope/belief that she’s somewhere else now, reunited with two sisters who left this world long before her.
Being, fortunately, the first person close to me that I’ve had to be in charge of putting to rest, I’ve been lucky to have had a number of good people, kind souls, helping me through the process. To make sense of the paperwork, arrange the funeral preparations, design the marker for the cemetery. Which brings me to the point, in a long way round.
I was stuck with the question of what to put on her gravestone, to remember her to the world with. Obviously, like everyone else, I had her name front and center, and the dates when she entered and departed this existence. What was left was what more to say. What few words could tell the world who she was?
“Wife/Mother/Educator/Gardener” .came to mind, before settling on a simple line I think would mean a lot to her : “Cymru am byth.”
I didn’t know that one either, but it is the motto of her homeland, Wales, and roughly means “Long Live Wales.” For although her time growing up there was only a small percentage of her life – she went to college in England and came to Canada soon afterwards – it shaped her ways, her thoughts and beliefs. She was proud of her adopted land, but never entirely left behind her homeland. Before I was school age, she’d already become a Canadian citizen. She made sure she voted and would be quick to put in her two cents worth about any politician or policy in the news. At varous times she was an ardent fan of both Toronto’s Maple Leafs and Blue Jays. But there was always Wales at her core; fond memories and a mindset that were integral to her. Few things she traveled with, from suitcases to cars, were missing a Welsh flag; the local supermarket probably stocked leeks (their national symbol) largely because of the volume she consumed in soups, stews, steamed… if there were Flakes of Leek in the cereal aisle, it would’ve been her breakfast. Cymru am byth.
It reminds me of an important lesson she taught. Always remember where it is you come from but be always be proud of where you are now. Of how far you’ve come. Or to quote Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.” Which might not be the quote for her tombstone, but might be a very good one for all of us in the here and now.
Looking backwards, but moving ahead. RIP, Mom.