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Here is an African proverb that showed up in my email inbox on December 31: “Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your purpose when you are confused.”
That is what I’m hoping as 2013 emerges and we approach the end of a 2012 vacation — a family Christmas gathering that brought together my mother, my sister, my children and me on the dilapidated Gulf coast island we have visited most every Christmas for 36 years. We speak in the code of family: favorite foods, favorite songs, favorite television soap operas, shared legends of childhood hijinks, the stardust of memory, leaving out most of what troubles us.
Every morning since we have been together I have looked into my children’s faces, searching for hints of who they’ve become in their adult lives. They leave behind breadcrumbs and I peck at them, a trail of clues — the books they’re reading, the quality of their haircuts, the state of their wardrobes. But these marvelous creatures in their 20s and 30s remain a mystery, my own flesh and bone, so near and so far away.
One day the son-in-law picks up a guitar and accompanies a sing-along of “The Tennessee Waltz.” We reminisce about how Patti Page hit those notes so effortlessly, so smoothly, then a week later we wake up to the news that Miss Page has died. She is the same age as our mother.
We watch my mother closely, checking her prescriptions, her mood, her footing, the state of her kitchen, looking for cracks in the well-worn surface of her life, wondering how she can appear so solid and sure-footed when we feel so fractured. Since 2007 she has lost two grandsons, a daughter, a brother, a nephew, and a raft of friends. She has endured cancer and chemo, a fractured sacrum and invasive surgery. Now, on the other side of immediate crisis, she has quietly reclaimed her days, re-establishing an ironclad routine of normality that anchors us. We see her float across the back yard to the laundry room, in sock feet and her thick blue bathrobe, and we know all is well. We watch her heat the kettle and fix her afternoon cup of instant coffee and we taste our own wellbeing.
I hear ‘2013’ and realize I have only considered this year as the expiration date on a credit card, a mythical future.
But over the holiday, the present and future come into focus momentarily when I read Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a book I have been too afraid to pick up, wisely chosen by my son-in-law the writer as a Christmas gift. I thought I couldn’t face Didion’s reflections on motherhood and the loss of her daughter, not after losing my own son and bandaging that wound daily for the last five years. But Didion brings into focus so much of what I have avoided since that terrible wake-up call.
Blue nights, she says, the gloaming of our lives, the time extending between sunset and darkness, “are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”
Didion says she believed when she began writing this book that her subject was children, “the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them.”
But looking at the loss of her daughter, Didion crosses the frontier of the great middle distance of mothering and arrives somewhere else altogether, contemplating “the ways in which neither we nor [our children] can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.”
Blue Nights accomplishes what the best personal narrative seeks to do, illuminating a dark path in a way that allows the reader to reconsider obstacles in the way of living. For me, reading it is like gathering up the worries and wrinkles of aging and shaking them out, a sheet headed for the clothesline.
One morning this week I help my mother shower and shampoo. I expect to behold my diminished future. I see her bent and well-used body, her graceful slow motion, her wrinkled skin as soft as a baby’s. It is the best I can possibly hope for.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.