Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Complicated joy

I've heard that grief comes in waves, and I think ocean waves are a perfect metaphor. Think how the ocean changes day by day: some days, the ocean appears soft and gentle, another day the waves are light and merry, lapping at the shore. Some days, you find the ocean still and blue...no waves at all. This may feel peaceful, it may even feel a little sad. Of course, there are choppy waves, fitful bursts, smacking against the shore. Then there are those stormy times, waves fast, furious, capped in foam and blurred with debris and shifting sands...you can only wrap yourself up tightly and brace for the surge...knowing that calm will come again.

Our newborn granddaughter was getting her very first diaper change at home, and there we all were, oohing and aahing about her tiny and perfect features. Those feet and toes! Those hands, those fingers! Look, look at her fingernails, her wrist...small, delicate, detailed 'miniatures' of all that we are, such a miracle of life. We are so blessed. Her uncle noticed her little ears, so very tiny and precious, and I stepped closer. Ah, look! The detail, almost sculpted art, as if carved for a doll, mini and circular tunnels of flesh, so, so, small, so precious. "And look, Mom, they are flat, pressed against her head -  I've heard that's a newborn thing, that they'll expand over the next weeks, plump out, as our ears do."

Coincidence of words...

look, Mom, they are flat, pressed against her head...

Instantaneously I was transported somewhere entirely different, as if lifted up and pulled under by a riptide...

look, they are flat, pressed against the head...

said the doctor at my father's deathbed, two months ago. "This is a sign that death is imminent. He is in transition." To hear these same words again, here with our new grandbaby, washed me right back to the nursing home with Dad, holding his hand, as he left this world. Leaving me breathless. Imagine, we come into and out of this world with our ears pressed flat against our heads...why? what does this mean? Full circle of life. Time is such a tender treasure. 

What a wave of emotion followed, what a rushing ride I took, as I kept my happy poker face on - here, in this room, full of joy and celebration at the birth of this new precious soul. Everyone was full of good cheer, so excited to see this little bundle of love. I breathed in deeply, exhaled, trying to compose myself. I felt all jumbled and awash inside, in two places at once. I made chit-chat, light banter, and felt myself almost physically slipping away into another time and space.

Yes, immediately, another riptide.

I slipped instantaneously into this place of understanding about my mother's mental illness...her debilitating anxiety. My mother died two years ago. My mother - oh, my mother! She could not be hospitable. Seriously. Tales of her rude behavior are family legend. She shunned others, shunned social gatherings. She refused to acknowledge her mental illness, and we were left to experience it. When forced to be around others, she was frozen, or clip, cruel, and brusque with her words. She was so difficult to be around. Here I was, celebrating this beautiful new grandchild and I was yanked back some thirty years to my brother's engagement party - where Mom had sat like a sullen statue, completely apart from all of our jubilation, while sitting in our midst. 

Clarity and insight - what if she was simply overcome with emotion inside? Like me, jumbled and awash? Feeling too much? Mom held the world at arm's length, pushing it away, really - perhaps uncomfortable feeling was the wall in-between. Fear of showing emotion, 'feeling too much,' and her ability to let go, an impossibility.

One more brutal wave of grief: why has it taken so long for me to feel compassion for her? Why do I feel empathy, see strength and possibility, imagine more complexity and dimension to her, now, after she has gone? 

I think I have always imagined joy as clean-cut. The birth of a new baby - JOYOUS! In fact, it has been much more complicated, multifaceted, entangled. I am a mess with joy. For me, our new little one has been an "all at once" sensation - feeling simultaneously tremendous love, gifts, and blessings coupled with sorrow and pain of loss. 

I find myself processing my childhood, my family, and my parents in new ways. 

Birth and death, these are truly liminal experiences, times filled with vulnerability, rawness, not fully knowing. We go back and examine what happened before. It is a time of transcendence, revealing memories with new perspective, and a future unknown. 

Who is this beautiful little being? What has she brought? We don't even know who she is, who she will be, how she will mold our hearts.

Waves fast, furious, capped in foam and blurred with debris and shifting sands...

I am awash.


I wrote this post for Slice of Life.  All participants are writing about one moment, one part of their day, on Tuesdays. Thank you, Two Writing Teachers!


  1. Oh, Maureen, I hear the complicated emotions you’re experiencing. Yes, grief is like ocean waves. Yes, grief and joy, life and death commingle. You have room for all these feelings. Remember, Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” I grieved for my father ten years before having a day w/out his presence in my conscience mind. I felt guilty for feeling joy. That’s so not how life should be. And like you, it has taken much time to entertain gentle thoughts about my mother. Give yourself grace and love on that new baby. Give yourself permission to be among the living. Hugs and peace to you, dear friend.

  2. My Maureen the wave of emotions. So much to process all at once. It is funny how our emotions jumble up together like that. I found I could not grieve for my mother for many years after her passing. It just took time and it hit me what other emotions popped up as well. I guess we just open the doors and feeling come out all as once. Breathe and release the past as you step forward to enjoy the future! Love to you

  3. Maureen, my heart. I was lost in the love, depth and ultimate peace of this piece. I am awash with appreciation for the peek into your life today. The description of the waves in your first paragraph kept coming back to me throughout your writing, as you experienced different kinds of waves. This line: "Time is such a tender treasure." Wow. You have illustrated that perfectly here with your words. What a treasure you uncovered this week about your mother after all these years of knowing her. There is more I could say. I think I will go and read it again. Beautiful writing.