When my mother passed away a few years ago, I was unprepared for the grief. Grief is a funny thing. Just when you think you’ve made progress and are feeling better, it comes back fast and fully loaded and ready for another round. It’s like peeling an onion. You can always go one layer deeper, one layer closer to the core.
Even now, two and a half years later, I still find myself saying, “How could my mother be gone? Why didn’t I have more meaningful conversations with her while I could? Why didn’t I share more of who I am with her?”
My mother did spend quality time with my son before she died, and I am grateful for that. For 9 years, she watched him two days a week while I was at work and going to graduate school. She eagerly greeted him at her front door, excited to see what fabulous things this brilliant grandchild would do. Every day, she recorded detailed notes about his accomplishments, which she labeled with the date and “DUCK,” his nickname, at the top. She photographed his first ride in the wooden swing on the porch, the first time he stood up in his playpen, and the first time he ate strained peas without crying.
When he said his first word, “ball,” she wrote that down, too, and called me immediately. Later, she gave me a gold charm bracelet with a tiny soccer ball fastened to it. That’s how my mother was: She remembered important details, and she wanted you to remember them too.
My father was always there in the background—he helped out with Duncan as well, especially as my mother became sick. But it was my mother who single-handedly taught Duncan his times tables with dog-eared flash cards and helped him memorize his spelling words. She was the one who let him eat Lunchables on the couch. She was the one to discover that he had an aptitude for puzzles—because she was always coming up with something educational for him to do.
I always thought grief was something you work through until you get past it and then you can focus once again on the endearing memories that remain. But I know now that that’s not how grief works. The pain never completely goes away.
* * *
My brother and his wife had their first child a few months ago—a girl—and they named her Micah Heléne, her middle name after my mother. Micah would have been the eighth grandchild. The day she was born, I felt a deep sadness about my mother not being there for this special occasion. I know my brother and his wife felt it too—we were all missing her.
That night, I went to bed crying, clinging to my mother’s stuffed polar bear. For some odd reason, this bear gave her comfort, and in the last months of her life, she fell asleep every night with her head resting on its soft belly.
I thought about Duncan, and Micah, and how much of the other grandchildren’s lives my mother was going to miss. I said aloud, “How could you leave Duncan? You only knew him for 9 years. How could you leave all of us?”
I finally fell asleep. But that night, I had a dream about her.
In the dream, my mother and I were going to watch Duncan perform in a play. The funny thing is, Duncan has no interest in dramatic arts. It would have made more sense if we were going to watch his football or baseball game. But dreams often don’t make sense, do they?
We arrived at an historic theater dressed for the show, and walked up to the ticket window. We were excited—it’s always an adventure to see your child or grandchild perform. As I pulled out my wallet, the woman behind the counter told me there was only one seat left.
“You have to be kidding me,” I said. “What are we going to do with one ticket?” I was annoyed that I hadn’t thought to purchase our seats ahead of time. But the woman didn’t seem to care. She just shook her head, and said, “One ticket left.”
There was nothing we could do, so we bought the ticket. The woman immediately hung a white sign that said “SOLD OUT,” and then closed the blinds in the window, right in our faces.
My mother and I looked at each other. We didn’t have to say a word. We were thinking the same thing: 1) How rude, and 2) There’s no way in hell either of us is going to miss this performance. So we did the only thing we could do—we decided to sneak in.
Sneaking in was completely contrary to how my mother or I would normally act. We both tend to be conformists, and we respect convention too much to sneak in anywhere. But this was an emergency. Honesty was tossed out the window for a more important principle: seeing Duncan’s performance.
We found an unattended side door, and snuck in the theater. Inside, it was beautiful and ornate—marble columns and doorways, gold leaf and frescoes, crystal chandeliers. It was bustling with a few hundred people. Just as we entered the room, ushers were moving people to the back of the theater so they could add some extra chairs. We found somewhere to sit, and settled in.
Shortly after we took our seats, I woke up.
* * *
Typically, after having a dream about my mother, I lie in bed for a few extra minutes. It’s an amazing feeling to be in her presence again. I’ve had very few dreams about her since she died. I’m sometimes puzzled when I’m in the middle of these dreams, wondering how it is that she’s suddenly here or noticing that she doesn’t look sick anymore. But this time, I had none of these thoughts—the two of us were just there to see the show.
The dream turned out to be a profound gift. I had fallen asleep thinking about how much of Duncan’s life my mother was going to miss, but there she was, by my side, sneaking in and all. Once again I saw her pulling out her camera, popping cinnamon Tic-Tacs like she always did, ready to see every minute of Duncan performing on stage.
Sure, there was only one ticket left to get into the theater that night. But my mother doesn’t need a ticket anymore. She can get in just as she is. Now I know that even without a ticket, she’s not missing a thing.