We are already past our first week in May and today is Mother’s Day! I’m praising the mommas of the world and those in my own life. My mother has always been an incredible inspiration to me for her strength and wisdom. It was just two years ago that I had started to experience death of friends. My own brain got a bit muddied at that time and I had a seizure that left me pretty wrecked. But, in reality, those difficult and then paralyzing events were the passageway for where I am today. I have always known the ephemeral qualities of our days but that reality was kicked into high gear a couple of years ago. I had been reaching and striving to meet my goals as the owner and sole operator of a dog walking and pet care business in the city of Chicago. It was my way to commune with animals and be outside – two things that made me a happy person and feel right in the world. I wanted to save enough money to give it to my parents so that they could retire early. And I also wanted to save enough money so that I could get a little piece of land and hopefully farm one day settling down near my birth area, raising babies, and being close to my parents, fully aware that our time together is short.
The memory that I have, post-seizure, is one of terror, fear, and consolation. My father loves to watch TV and it is common that if the family is spending time together, on his terms, it is around a television which is the exact opposite of how I spend time in my own home or with others. I came home to visit and see a slew of neurologists and so I stayed with my parents for a week. Dad had on a gruesome killer war story and with everything happening in my own life the program was just too painfully real to watch. I asked him if we could turn it off but he refused. I tried to handle my mind, “It’s just television, Abby…” but, “No, these things really happen in life and it is sick ‘entertainment’, just leave the room,” was the voice that battled back. After digesting the first voice and trying, I failed, and I got up and said the latter out loud to my folks and withered away crying on the back steps. I was not proud to be as fearful as I was, or to have to ask to turn it off, but it just pounded all around me. We’re going to die. And everything, and everyone I love, at any moment, will follow this truth, and it hurts.
I knew it was a significant pain, however, and a truth of life pain. It shook me up and rightfully so. Here I had been spending my days focused on a business to pay tribute in a way that was meaningful to my parents (financial success), but in the meantime I was hours away and married to a business that I had a hard time getting away from for visits. So I cried on the back step losing my mind a little, and my mother followed me in and rubbed my back in just the way that soothing mothers do. “It’s okay,” she said. I said it wasn’t, and that I was so deeply sad. She told me that I was growing, that was all, and, “Come with me. Let’s go pick some berries.”
The sun was hot and tears were rippling down my face and she talked about how vigorous the berries were, how healthy and supple they were that year compared to others, that there were way too many to pick and she needed help. She had a little bucket for me and we sat down in front of the bush and as I plucked each juicy berry it hurt with the glory of life. I looked at my beloved mother, the sky, the berries and the healthy leaves, heard the pluck from the bush and the thud in the bucket and a terrific, heart-full pain rang through my body with the lingering taunt of death deep in my bones. She rubbed my back, but kept on picking, telling stories to try and rip that reality from my bones or placate the mind, and I knew that it was because it hurt her to see me that way and she wanted to divorce me from the experience, even if only temporarily.
And as I started to linger in the beauty of the moment, grateful as all for it to be happening there, picking berries with my mother, my father stuck his head out the window with a camera and said, “SMILE!!!” and I lost it all over again. My dad is not one to cater to emotional difficulties and nurtures in his very own peculiar Dad Way. But sure enough, he took himself away from the TV and came outside to my mother and I in the berries, set up a self timer on the camera and plopped it into the grass, ran over near my mom and I, and he took a picture of us three near the berry bushes crouched down. I was crying and sun squinting with berries in my hand, and they were kneeling down around me squinting and smiling as though this was a Normal Family Photo. Though it may not be “normal”, it is probably the most Real Family Photo we have ever taken together.
No one wanted to talk about the death in all of our bones, and so we supplemented that conversation with actual Living by picking berries and commemorating a Day Alive.
Sometimes, often times, I find myself living speedily, rushing to goals, and making sure to milk my days, because the truth of our ephemera lives like a hawk on my shoulder. These days I try to just feed the hawk, and know she is there, but take the slow time to just be, and have faith in my time alive with the truth right now that I Am Living.
It is still just as precious to be decisive about how we spend our time and who we spend it with, but when it comes to family and dear friends it is significant to always make the time to care for them and be with them. Pick berries with them. Make them something with your own hands. Invite them into your life to share time. You never know how it may change your own life or theirs. A day or two after the berry picking day with my mother I woke at sunrise to eat eggs in the back yard and there by the berry bush I thought of how that little piece of land was worked by all of us at some point in time. My grandfather kept diligent care of his gardens after his life as a farmer; my sister and I took care of the garden and yard after he had passed to help my grandmother; my grandmother took care of the yard as a means of joy and maintenance; it was in the back yard near the berry bushes where she had been working alongside my mother when she had a stroke and there began her parting with this world; and it became a sanctuary for my mother to continue her big garden and where she would find joy in taking care of the little plot with my father. All of this coalesced within me, with a burning desire to Just Live, and it made sense to me that farming and gardening was burning in my bones just as much as the taunt and reality of our short days.
When my mother took me into her garden to soothe me something changed in my brain and upon much meditation on those experiences I decided that I was no longer going to continue the dog walking and pet care business, and that instead, I was going to find a way to farm and make my way back home. Last year on Mother’s Day I came home from a farming internship in Cornell, Illinois and brought my mother fresh chicken and turkey eggs, handmade maple syrup, and a bounty of fresh lilacs and flowers. And this year, I am going to bring her fresh eggs from my own farm, flowers grown by my own hand, and a cheesecake I made from scratch in the wee hours of the night. Part of me felt the pressure to go to the Sunday farmer’s market to sell the last few bouquets and handmade goods that did not get sold at yesterday’s market, but I am tuning out of that same striving that led to my internal demise with the dog walking business – the pressure to always be there, the pressure to always do better. For today is not about making anything but time, love, food, and honor for my mother.
And making a berry compote atop the cheesecake.