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VIEWPOINT Forgiveness: a mother's love even after death

As I write this, exactly one year ago tonight, January 8—right now, in fact—I was holding my mother’s hand in her bedroom. Her cancer had recurred in August. She didn’t want chemo-therapy. She just wanted to be comfortable, and out of pain.

As her heartbeat gradually slowed over those few hours, I told her how much I loved her, how much I was going to miss her; how I’d be okay, and would love her grandkids, and her dogs. I talked to her for a few hours. It was just us two. She wasn’t responsive, of course, but I like to think she heard me.

A hospice nurse came in to listen to her heart every so often. “Not long now,” she said about 1 a.m. She died at 1:30.

I thought that moment was the end of a journey, and it was in one way. But the truth is it was just the first step in a process that I’m only now beginning to understand.

My mom was selfless, her love unconditional. Her wish, for my whole life, was for me to be happy. And I was, pretty much always. Throughout my life, she was wounded when I was suffering, which admittedly wasn’t often at all until recently. I’ve had a good life. But, I had been in the middle of a lengthy, emotionally complicated divorce for some time when she died. It was the source of a lot of worry and pain on her part, and stress and anxiety for me. I disliked bringing my problems into her life, especially when she had so much stress of her own to deal with. I felt guilty.

After she died, I did all the stuff you do. I thought after each task was complete I would be one step closer to…what? I didn’t know, really. I just kept checking things off the list—bank accounts, death certificate, memorial, insurance matters—thinking that as soon as this one was done, I’d feel different. I didn’t.

Mom left me her home—a beautiful gift—and I moved in with my kids. But it was mom’s home, the place where she lived for nearly 30 years. It held a lot of good memories, but a lot of bad ones too. It’s where she got sad, sick and died. I dwelled on the heaviness of all this, and the memories I had of her here.

I tried changing things: I painted the walls, moved in my own art and furniture, and eventually did some minor renovations, all with the goal of making it ours. It didn’t work. I was still fighting something I couldn’t put my finger on.

Over the past few years, my default had been to blame my divorce for the anxiety, aimlessness and sadness in my life, and, to a lesser degree, mom’s illness. And yes, all that upheaval wasn’t good for anyone involved. It was a difficult time.

I hoped mom’s death would somehow open a floodgate. For years, I’d felt as if I was quite loosely tethered, sort of floating about. There were moments, hours, and days sometimes where things made sense, like when I was with my kids, or my girlfriend, Lisa, or when mom and I would laugh and forget about her illness for a bit. But those times were fleeting. I thought mom’s passing would bring me closer to grounded, or at least bring a sense of calm. But it didn’t happen.

My anxieties and sadness were still with me. I tried therapy, exercise, drinking (nope), not drinking (better), sex, sleep, travel—nothing turned off that constant chest pain and anxiety that one therapist attributed to “the 24-hour-a-day, minor earthquake that is your life.”

I don’t know where it came from (probably some subconscious retention of something I heard or saw), but after the better part of a year since mom’s death, one day I woke up and just decided I’d had enough: enough sadness, enough fighting and enough grief. I had to give up my old ways of thinking. I started behaving differently. I decided to stop fighting with my ex-wife. I let go of resentments, grudges and anger. It felt good. It feels good. And you know what? It’s catching; my ex and I are friendly to one another again, and that change shows in our kids’ faces.

It’s a wonderful feeling, feeling good again. I didn’t realize how powerful all that anger was. It was dragging me down, and the crazy part was I was doing it to myself. It’s kind of maddening to think I’d had the key to my own happiness all this time, but was too wrapped up in my ego, or just not smart enough to use it. But regardless, I’m glad I did.

And mom would be glad, too.

My girlfriend Lisa is sensitive to spirits. Once in my old apartment, she was visited by the ghost of a woman who’d died there just a few weeks before. She has mentioned a few times over this past year that she’s surprised she’s never felt mom’s presence in the home she lived in for so many years. If I know mom—and I do—she’s probably ready for a visit now that the pain is gone from here, finally.  And it feels like home.

—Mick Rhodes