A cat and a birthday helped
I’m terrible at it.
And I’m not even sure why I’ve chosen to write about such a challenging subject, especially right before Geoff’s birthday. I can feel the beginnings of the anniversary sadness that always hits me around this time, the memories that crash and spill into my heart.
Maybe it’s because “we teach what we most need to learn,” and I need to be reminded for the thousandth time of the Buddhist philosophy’s wisdom I’ve tried to adopt in the years since Geoff died.
That’s when the phrase “letting go” entered my personal lexicon. You must let go of your grief, your mourning, move on, I was repeatedly told.
To me, that meant denying my feelings of grief and loss, living a pretense, projecting that all was well, that I was quite okay, despite tragedy’s destruction of life as I’d known it.
And I didn’t want to. Feeling that grief was a connection to my son, and I would be disloyal to him if I surrendered it. I clung to my mourning — wore it like a talisman that daily marked my loss.
Yet I was also mother to another son and wife to a husband. And not functioning very well in either role. Guilt added to grief, and I was stuck in their gluey morass.
I began to write, about his death, my struggle to accept what was and how it was affecting our family. Those early poems became the first portal into the relief I didn’t know I needed or even wanted. Often, I have described writing as a way to transform the inchoate — the unruly mess of feelings in our guts and hearts — as a way to create a new being, a piece of art, something outside of ourselves.
I have come to understand that’s what letting go is, actually. An embrace of reality, then an acceptance of that reality, coupled with a healthy dose of self-forgiveness. A sure knowledge of impermanence that everything is always changing, that we have no control.
An invitation to start over, each minute, each hour, each day.
A friend I met at a writing workshop in New Mexico insisted I must attend a meditation retreat. She refused to take no for an answer, insisting it would change my life. So, I listened to her, traveled to Taos, and learned breath and silence on the side of a mountain, with the guidance of wonderful teachers.
I was learning how to carry my grief differently.
But integrating these seemingly simple concepts into a life takes time—months, years. And grief is an unruly companion. It has toppled me in surprising moments. Triggers lurk everywhere, especially at this time of year when Geoff’s birthday reminds me of all I have lost.
It’s hard not to get caught.
In an email I recently received, I read these words of the writer, Alan Watts, and laughed — with recognition of all the bones I’ve broken in the past.
“When a cat falls out of a tree, it lets go of itself, becomes completely relaxed, and lands lightly on the ground. If the cat made up its mind that it didn’t want to fall, it would become tense and rigid and would just be a bag of broken bones upon landing… So, instead of living in a state of constant tension and clinging to all sorts of things that are actually falling with us because the whole world is impermanent, be like a cat. Don’t resist it.”
Be like that cat, I tell myself on Geoff’s birthday. Feel it, let yourself fall, see what’s at the bottom of the well. Embrace impermanence, you know how.
I had dental appointments that day, made months ago. I love my dentist and was glad to see him, and find out my old teeth were in fine shape.
“Let’s go out to lunch,” I said to my husband after the appointment. “And maybe after, go and look for that ring we were going to get for my eightieth birthday present. Though there’s no way I’ll find what I want.”
I had a vision for this ring, a replacement for one I’d worn for over fifty years. Silver and gold bands entwined — I’d looked online and found nothing resembling my idea and was resigned to finding a jeweler to make one.
We tried a new middle eastern restaurant, and the kale salad with hummus and feta was purely delicious. Stopped at a chocolate shop, and a spice store brimming with fabulous smells.
Down the street a bit, we walked into the jewelry store. Hit by the glittering cases of gold and gems, I almost wanted to leave — Too fancy, I thought. They’ll have nothing I want here.
A salesperson approached us with a warm smile and offered to help. I told her what I was looking for. She walked to a nearby case, unlocked it, and pulled out a display of rings on a black velvet pad.
“This one?” she said, placing a silver four-strand ring on my finger with a large smile. Connecting the top two strands was a gold x. It fit perfectly.
My husband was smiling in agreement. “Let’s get it,” he said immediately. “I want you to have it.”
It was only a few days later I realized Geoff had given me a birthday present. The four strands were our family, him in it still, and the gold x was a kiss.
We are all falling out of a tree, every moment of our lives.
The day I’d dreaded had become celebratory, redeeming, joyful. Maybe, after all these years, I’ve made some progress in letting go.
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