Birthdays, funerals, and motherhood

After Jonas was born, I was sucked into a real quandary about my own mortality. There were some specific questions I could articulate (like who will raise my son if his father and I both die– a question we still haven’t answered). But more haunting than the handful of articulated questions I found myself pondering was the sensation that came, the acknowledgement, the undeniable recognition that I was mortal and the sense that I could not get away from that fact.

Mortality is obviously the one undeniable trait (besides birth, the dependence on water, sustenance) that we all share. It unites us whether or not we live in acknowledgement of that thread day to day. And yet, it is not something we can live in full awareness of each moment.

Childbirth and newborns seem to invite an inescapable acknowledgement of this. In the fuzzy eyed state of no sleep and hormones, there it is: laid bare like your face in florescent light.

This time, with Elias, my second son, the encounter has been less shocking. Perhaps because I’ve never returned to the place I lived before I become a mother. So, I was not thrown there with the arrival of this person  into my life. This time I was already in a subtle yet constant state of being there.

My grandfather ,  Louis Landon Milhorn, passed away last August. I was pregnant with Elias at the time.. A  friend once told me that our grandparents are our spiritual guides, whether we know them or not. The passing of this guide –Pop — at a time when I was ushering a new life into this world, was stunning. And the magnitude of having lost this mentor has unfolded in parallel with the coming of Elias into the world.  Family, and my sense of it has broadened, again, through both the birth of my second son and the loss of my grandfather.

When Pop died, I was unable to attend his funeral. I went to TN to help plan the funeral, took writing I had done about him that I helped plan as a part of the ceremony that was to be a tribute to his life,  but I had to leave before the funeral for a conference that I am in charge of annually.

Before I left the Smokey Mountains for the Hudson Valley, I was able to visit the funeral home to view my grandfather’s body. My parents came with me. As we stood in front of Pop’s coffin, the funeral director came in. He was a tall man, his middle wide and his hair gray. He had known my grandfather. “Louis’ skin was so thin,”  he said. We had to repair the skin after we arranged his hands.”

I had been looking at his hands– his fingernails, his fingers, sunspots and veins. His hands folded across his chest. They were the same hands he’d spent his lifetime with and they were done with their work, folded. It is an image I still see sometimes– the strange finality of it, the awkward peace.

On the plane, I watched the landscape of east TN grow smaller– the land that gave birth to my family, to my roots. My children will most likely never know that land the way I do. I spent summers as passenger in the car as pop drove us around and told the stories of trees, bridges, homesteads. As we reached flying altitude, I looked at my hands. I thought of my son’s hands– placed my hand on my slightly pregnant belly and pictured  hands that  growing there in a few weeks time.

Elias’ birth has  brought me back to my voice. It has landed me here in the midst of my writing self again. It has made me brave enough to see that I need to write, to work out the knots to explore  the rawness, the boredom, the layers that make up parenthood. And so here I am, writing again. Not that I ever really stopped. And yet I found myself immobilized by that pulsating sensation I mention above– unable to face what might surface as I began to type, to explore, to write.

Pop’s birthday is tomorrow, and the year anniversary of his passing is approaching. I feel now both his absence and his presence. Like my children too; When I am not with them I am no less changed by their presence in my life– that pulsing is there now, always. My mortality is so much larger perhaps because with life, i have also given them mortality– their own limited window here to do their work. The image of Pop’s hands returns. I don’t mean to but for a split second I think of my children, of their hands. This is the ache that comes sometimes: the vastly incomprehensible truth that we all face a moment when we have to let go.

It is a strange recognition of our interconnectedness, the inescapable nature of life, of death, of loving. The memory of Pop, his life, and presence keep me going, just as the present moment with all of the kid and work life chaos does too. One sort of pushes me along from behind and the other pulls me on. Together they seem to land me squarely and achingly here in the present. And, that, is not somewhere we are accustomed to standing. But standing here I feel achingly alive.

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