Grief + Love
“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” ― Jamie Anderson
The day after I returned from Egypt, my mom died.
I spent our last night together reading Mary Oliver poems out loud by candle light, whispering gratitude to her for waiting for me, sleeping alongside her in her bed. The next day, she slipped away. Surrounded by the love of my sister, her partner, and me; in her home of thirty years. Her final wish honored.
Brain cancer is loud, cruel, chaotic. But this, this was peaceful. Her suffering had become so great, I felt a shocking sense of gratitude that she no longer had to endure it.
I’ve written so much about me and my journey since my mom’s cancer diagnosis. And I’m grateful to my writer mother for giving me the gift of this form of therapy and catharsis and connection to her. But as I’ve struggled to find a way to commemorate her passing here, in this diary to the world where I’ve shared so much of the earthquake cancer was in our lives, I know that the true North Star of this story is the brilliant, generous, kind and accomplished woman who lived in such a spirit of gratitude.
And I realized that’s the story I want to tell, today. Not her death. Not our pain. But her beautiful life.
And so, after much reflection, I want to share the eulogy I read at the the service where we celebrated that life. Writing this, and her obituary, was the task that guided me in the foggy, dream-like days after her passing:
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
My mother left this world a peaceful woman, full of gratitude for her wild and precious life.
She always lived that way, so full of wonder at the world and always able to find something to feel grateful for, even in the most trying of times. She almost seemed guilty, at times, for how blessed we were.
In my eyes, she’d hardly been dealt a perfect hand. Many of you here today are familiar with the challenges she faced, because you helped her through them, because little was more precious to her than friendship.
And she always persevered. When she met her Miller, I asked her, aren’t you afraid to love again? Hope springs eternal, she’d smiled. And Miller, I can only hope to someday find a love as simple, steadfast and true as the one you shared.
She lived her life with that gratitude permeating every step, walking a path of service in her constant commitment to Unity House, her generous donations to non-profits and social service organizations, her easing the burden of others in any way she could. She was the first to take a friends kids to the movies, to be a compassionate ear to anyone who needed comfort, to find an odd job around the house to offer to someone who needed work, to invite a practical stranger who would otherwise be lonely to Thanksgiving dinner, or to offer to hold a stranger’s baby on an airplane so they could go to the bathroom.
Our home growing up had an open door — literally. There were too many people coming and going to deal with silly things like locks. Friends who’s washing machines were broken would pop by to do a load, those who lived far and didn’t want to drive home always had a guest room they could crash in. Musicians of the local Albany symphony orchestra, the board of which my mom sat on, turned our basement into a home away from home, a few of them staying so often they became like family. At one point in my childhood, my parents were adding an addition to our house when one of the day laborers fell off our roof. When my mom sussed that he had no health insurance and was, in fact, living in the van that was currently parked in our driveway, she insisted that he move in. He lived with us for months.
I have a distinct memory of dropping off a Christmas tree, gifts, and an elaborate holiday dinner to a family in need we’d sponsored one year via Unity House when I was quite young. It was an eye-opening experience, and I recall balking as the family picked through our lovingly chosen meal looking unimpressed. They weren’t very grateful, I complained on the way home, disappointed that the experience had had very little in common with a Lifetime movie. We don’t do it for the thanks, my mom said, unfazed.
Our allowances, doled out weekly when we reached an appropriate age, instilled a similar lesson of generosity. We were given $30 a week, three crisp ten dollar bills, which we dutifully inserted into three envelopes each for saving, for spending, and for charity. I hope to carry on her legacy of generosity, always.
I think lovingly of my mother when I hear the phrase, “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a bigger fence.”
Speaking of fences and walls… one of my earliest memories is of being on my parent’s shoulders during anti-war rallies during what must have been the Gulf War. (My dad is cringing right now that I don’t know for sure.) And one of my final pre-diagnosis memories is watching my mom accept the Activating Democracy Award acknowledging her work founding Capital Women. She has always, always fought to make the world a more equitable place for all.
But for two of us, she made the world more than that – she made it magical. Olivia and I had a childhood that truly felt full of wonder, largely thanks to the imagination, love, and efforts of our mom. We had the most elaborate theme parties announced with handmade invitations – a sock hop birthday for me, a camping birthday for Olivia (complete with invitations that featured little opening tents flaps, in the age before Pinterest) to an elaborate treasure hunt party in which she literally buried coins and sealed plastic bags of gummy worms all over the backyard, and left us clues from a mysterious local pirate.
The holidays, too, were bursting with love and tradition. No holiday was too insignificant to decorate the entire house – I believe one year we had seven Christmas trees – or to gather for a meal. One of my favorite holidays has always been Valentine’s Day, which we celebrated with an elaborate pink and red breakfast, complete with heart shaped pancakes and cinnamon rolls, in which we all exchanged elaborate cards. And of course, many of you have been roped in at one point or another to our infamous Fourth of July cupcake decorating contest on Martha’s Vineyard.
She gave me the independence, the curiosity, the roots and the wings to explore the world. It was hard being so far from my family for so many years, but I always knew that my mom would be waiting for me when I came home, at the curb at JFK, or upstairs around the corner through security at Albany International, or standing there with her arms crossed smiling at the Amtrak station. She once told me, you give the best hugs in the whole world, it makes every wait to see you worth it.
And I believe that’s because I had a lot of practice. Years ago when I was feeling homesick, I started a tradition that at the end of my yoga practice, during savasana, my meditation was to visualize all the people I missed across the world, all my closest friends and family, and pull them into a hug that was so real I could almost feel it. I always saved my mom for last.
Some of my most beloved trips are the ones I convinced my mom to come on, to places like Iceland, Belize, Thailand, Greece and Turkey. She wasn’t always sure while we were planning, but I won her over in the end. My heart aches thinking of the ones we didn’t take, the ones we dreamed of.
We tried to make this last year as special for her as she had made our lives for us.
I remember right from the beginning, right from that start of the saddest, darkest, most heartwrenching and confusing time of our lives, right from that hospital bed in Mass General, there was laughter and love and cuddles.
There were beautiful sunrises over the Charles River. There were picnics in the ICU with friends who’d driven all day with lawn chairs and bagels and smiles to be there. There was my mom, joking that she didn’t remember me when I first walked in the room after she woke up from brain surgery, marveling as we told her stories of the last week, determined to edit the emails we sent on her behalf updating friends and family about her condition, and telling us she was going to write a new memoir called, “why are brain tumors so funny?”
I took a page from her book and ordered a tshirt that said, “I’m sorry for what I said before my brain surgery,” which she proudly wore to the litany of appointments that suddenly filled our days.
Two months ago she was playing tennis, renovating a house, finishing a historical fiction novel and running a political action committee. I said that to doctors, nurses, random people — pleading with them, practically, as if someone’s vitality one day were some sort of pact with the universe that they’d have another one tomorrow, as if the doctors might reconsider their diagnosis if they knew how special she was.
One day, still in the hospital, she asked to go outside and the nurses said no, it was against policy. We respectfully pushed back, and when we received written permission from a doctor to go out in the garden we were beaming — it felt like the biggest victory in a tiny little battle.
We were innocent then, and had no idea how many battles were ahead. But one of my mom’s many close friends and I were talking last night and we said damn, we had some good times too, didn’t we? So many spa days in the living room, so many missions out to see a movie at the Spectrum, so many walks around our beautiful street, a route that is forever etched in my mind, or down along the Hudson, or down to the harbor in Oak Bluffs, so many special family meals. The house always filled with so many friends, so many flowers, so many loving cards.
So many deep conversations, when that was still possible.
Some of them I wished we’d had years before, before she began to struggle to express herself. We spoke one morning about what happens after we die. She grasped for words and concepts, but she told me, finally, that while she wasn’t sure what happened, she was certain of one thing: you can’t extinguish energy. It goes somewhere.
My mom has been my North Star, always pulling me home to her, to my roots, to the beautiful home and community she raised us in.
Now, Olivia and Miller and I, and all of us who were blessed to be a part of my mother’s life, we have to find a way to go on living our own wild and precious lives, the way I know my mom would so desperately want us to. I feel like I have such big shoes to fill, like I have such a huge mark to leave on the world if I want to be anything like her. It’s going to be such an honor to try.
My mom sent me two text messages, in the final stretches of her life, that I will cherish for the rest of my own.
One, a simple reply to a tortured decision I came to her with, that said everything I needed to hear: Follow your dreams, sweetie.
The other, a response to my frantic scrambling of travel schedules as I rushed to rearrange my life and get to her side: My heart is calling you home.
And while I wasn’t sure at the time, today I feel certain that my mom is at peace, and she lives in us. Because you can’t extinguish energy. And while I don’t know what happens when we leave this world, I know that she is here with me and with all of us who loved her.
I have begun to realize that perhaps my mom’s greatest gift to Olivia and I was to surround us with a community of so many people who love us like family. We wouldn’t have gotten through any of this without them.
My mom’s memorial truly was a tribute to her incredible life. We could not have pulled it together without the many hands that came to help and hold ours. We were amazed at the turnout of nearly 300 people — a testament to the enormous amount of lives she touched with her friendship, writing, activism, mentorship, and kindness. We were so humbled by everyone that traveled from near and far, and we have endless gratitude for everyone who showed up, sent flowers, wrote letters, did favors, gave hugs, and made us feel surrounded by love. And that includes so many of you who read and acknowledged my journey here.
It’s been ten months to the day without my mom today (well, it was a week ago when I started writing this), and we love and treasure her more than ever.
I miss her emails that would arrive in my inbox moments after my blog posts went live, informing me of my various crimes against grammar. I miss dinners out on the back deck, Law and Order SVU marathons on the couch, road trips with my feet on the dash in the Pilot, showing up at the wrong time for movies at the Spectrum, care packages from across the world. I miss the way her long hugs felt at the airport after a marathon travel journey all the way back to her arms.
“She’s not gone, she’s still here as long as you’re remembering and talking about her,” someone mused after her passing. And it’s true. In these months, nothing has become more precious than finding scraps of her writing, hearing recordings of her voice, or being told stories of her — times she took lent a listening ear, adventures she went on, acts of kindness she touched people with. One of my favorites stories, the recount of which left me belly laughing, was of an afternoon pedicure with a friend, tumblers filled with mimosas in hand, after which the friend admired a painting on our wall, and my mom literally took it off the wall and insisted she take it. That’s so my mom. And that painting is now hanging in her friend’s house, reminding her of that story every day.
My mom wasn’t my best friend and we didn’t talk every day; she was my mom, and we lived independent lives, of which our relationship was a rich part. I’ve gone through many stages of guilt, since her diagnosis — why didn’t I live closer, why didn’t I ask her those big questions you think you’ll always have time time, why didn’t I come home for more holidays, why didn’t I cherish her more.
I’ve thought a lot about my decision to share so rawly my journey since my mom’s cancer diagnosis here. I remember listening to Cheryl Strayed speak at a conference and say that the drug addiction that she succumbed to after her own mother’s death was rooted in this deep fear that the only way to show the world how much her mother’s life had meant to her was to destroy her own. And while I’m grateful this feels like a less destructive outlet, I can relate: I want the world to know how deeply she was loved, and what a hole the loss of her has left in our hearts.
I can get so lost in grief, in loss, in pain, since cancer robbed us of the thirty more years we so casually felt entitled to, together. She wanted to live, and she deserved to. But I know, deeply, that the love between a mother and a daughter is eternal — she gave me life, and I am dedicated to living it in a way that makes her proud.
We sure miss you, mom. This world is not the same without you in it.
“All that I am or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” – Abraham Lincoln
Bawling. That was beautifully written, such a poignant reminder of my own losses, but also the wonderful people that still fill my life. Thank you so much for sharing.
This comment touched me Meghan <3 Thank you for sharing.
I unfortunately know how you feel, losing my mom to cancer in April, less than 4 months after her diagnosis. A very beautifully written tribute
I am so sorry Anne. My heart goes out to you.
Alex, thank you for sharing…this meant a lot to read and I’m sure it was not easy to write or share. Your words around someone’s energy never leaving and the first quote about grief being love you can no longer give put into words some of the things I’ve recently been feeling due to a recent loss. Sending a lot of love and a big hug.
This is love, plain and simple. Thank you for sharing us your mom.
Thank you Ramona <3
I’m so sorry for your loss, Anna. I understand and I am grateful you found some understanding in these words.
I could hardly read to the end; my eyes were so filled with tears. What a wonderful, personal. So absolutely love-filled tribute to your mom. And I so agree with you that her energy lives on, in and all around you.
Thank you Bonnie <3 I appreciate this very much.
This is beautiful Al. Love you ❤️
Love you Kiki…
Tears are rolling down my face. Alex, you are a prolific writer and this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read. I never had the fortune to meet your mom, but she sounds like an amazing human being and an amazing mother. Sending you love.
I’m touched Diana. Thank you <3 This means a lot.
Oh Alex you just left my house and now I wish you were here to give a big hug. This has me near tears .
I look at these pictures and all I can think is how your mom always had such a big smile and an even bigger heart. You are so much like her. Love you
You are the best, Laur. I love ya.
This is so beautiful. You gave such a great tribute to your mom. Even having never met her, I consider her someone I look up to from the way you’ve described her and her wonderful life. I’m so inspired by her zest for life and her joy. I’m so sorry for your loss. You deserved so many more years with her. <3
Wow, this means so much to me. Thank you so much <3
Your willingness to share your life and emotions gives others (me) permission to feel my painful feelings out loud as well, free from shame, guilt, or fear. I hope you gain strength from knowing that your vulnerability through such an impossible experience creates space for others to heal alongside you. What a beautiful tribute to the most wonderful woman. Love you <3
Love you so much, my dear friend…
What a wonderful tribute to your mom, my heart is so sore after reading about her wonderful life & how much you loved her. You have a big heart and she 100% knew how you felt about her, no doubt. Thank you for sharing! Sending you a big virtual *hug*.
Thank you so so much Jenny <3 You are the best.
I loved your essay. the photos are stupendous. Love you. Job well done.
Love you back, so much <3
Beautifully written, Alex, as always. I’m so sorry for everything you’ve gone through.
Thank you for your kindness, Diane…
What an amazing tribute to your mom Alex. She must be beaming alongside of you in spirit reading this. I think the most therapeutic part of this journey of grief is keeping their memory alive, you have captured so many wonderful memories here. Thank you for sharing these words and photos. What a beautiful and amazing woman and life. I’m certain she is always with you! Sending love to you. Xoxo
I so agree with you Amanda, you have modeled it so honestly and joyfully — I admire you and am grateful for you!
Such a beautiful tribute to your amazing mother, it brought tears to my eyes. I’m so, so sorry for your loss.
Thank you Karlijn, I appreciate you <3
You always makes me cry, such a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing all this with us. <3 <3
Thank you for reading and being here <3
We hear you and we hear your Mom. So much love! <3
All the love right back <3
This was beautiful, thank you for sharing.
Appreciate it, Jon <3
This brought me to tears…. so many tears. I lost my dad to cancer in April and I struggle some days with how to manage the sadness and loss, especially during such a weird time. Thank you for sharing your mom, your memories, your thought, all of this with the world. For that you will certainly leave your mark here
I’m so sorry Angela. I really get it. It’s an odd time to grieve. Sending you so much love and healing.
Okay I need to be more like your mom. She kind of puts us all to shame, no?! Thank you so much for sharing Alex – this was especially poignant for me as I am now preparing to be a mom myself! I feel like along with being a beautiful tribute, this is a bit of a how-to guide for raising a kind, responsible, creative, generous daughter. I’m just bowled over by everything you’ve told us about her. How did she have the energy? The time? How did she remain unjaded??? What a remarkable soul.
Those photos at the top are incredible. I see you so much in her! x
Wow, Becky, I feel like I just got joyous news from a friend. Congratulations! You really made me smile on multiple levels, here.
Aw that’s so sweet Alex, thank you! Funny, I did feel like I was sharing my news with a friend when I left the comment. I have been reading you for ages girl!! x
Awww keep me posted! Very very happy for you.
This was so beautifully written. Your mom’s energy seems infinite–embedded in the hundreds of lives she’s touched and this energy running further and further with each person that they help or love.
I love this thought and this visualization so much <3 Thank you for it.
I am known for being long winded, and rarely at a loss for words. But THIS did it. Sweet Jesus, what an incredible tribute to Mama.
I am touched — thank you!
Alex, what a beautiful tribute to your amazing mom. I know she stands quietly next to you in everything you do. Thinking about you and wishing you comfort and love. Elena (Anthony’s mom)
Elena, I love knowing you check in on me here. Thank you for the kind words (and for making such a great kid) <3
Beautifully written, as always. Sending love your way x
Thank you so much Cami — I’m not sure how I missed this comment before, but was rereading this post this morning and feel the love <3
Oh wow, the tears are streaming, that is such a lovely tribute to your mum. As always your writing is so beautifully honest. Thinking of you and your family x
Thank you Emma, that means a lot x
Thank you so much!
Long time since I’ve come back to your blog. As beautiful as ever. Your mum sounds like an amazing woman – thank you for sharing her with us through your stories and words. Lots of love to you xx
Thank you, I appreciate the kind words.
I didn’t have my blog back when cancer took my Mom, so I wasn’t able to do as lovely a tribute for her as you’ve done here for your Mom. I did write a poem in her honor that we read when we scattered her ashes, though. I love that the two great loves of your life intersected (travel & family). The same is true for me. She was the one who told me to get off my butt and go!
That is so sweet, Erica, all of it — the poem, the amazing mom advice. I see you and feel you <3
I am crying for the loss of a woman I have never even met. Alex, you have done your readers a service here, albeit one that you would have preferred to have done much later in life. You have given us the gift of choice. Most of us will lose our parents someday, but you’ve given us a glimpse of what it means to find gratitude in the face of tragedy. I feel braver reading this. Thank you for sharing it with us.
That means so much, Amy. I hope that sharing this journey perhaps helps someone cherish what they have before they lose it — know it has for me.
I cried sooo much reading this post. It really made me realize that we need to cherish our time with the one we love when we have the chance. Your Mother has truly raised you well. She is an amazing women. Much strength to you & your family. Thank you for sharing the photographs and memories.
I’m sure she is happy & proud of you & your sister!
Thank you so much for these kind words and sentiments Carol. I am touched that you reached the same conclusion I have through my words. Hold your loved ones close.