I'll never forget the conversation I had with my mother about her own mother, who died when my mother was still a child. It took place when my mother was about 60, so she had not seen her mother for nearly 50 years.
She told me that she had lost the sound of her mother's voice.
As soon as she said that, I immediately tried to recall the voice of the one person who I had loved and lost at that point in my life – my paternal grandmother, who had died about five years earlier. Thankfully, I could easily bring her strong voice up in my memory. I packed it back away, and prayed that it would always stay there so that I could remember the long and wonderful conversations about life and politics that she and I had as I moved into young adulthood, as well as the peas we used to shell together and the corn we used to shuck in her backyard.
Then my own mother died, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, eight years later. Several months after her death, while dismantling her apartment with my sister, I very deliberately worked on preserving her voice in my memory banks too. And there it still resides, along with my grandmother's, for me to call on and listen to and really, really hear every once in a while.
I find that we have now moved into a phase of life where more and more of my friends are facing the aging and loss of their parents. This year alone, I have several close friends who are caring for critically ill parents, worrying about parents who are far away and not doing well, and who have lost a parent – one after a long illness, one completely unexpectedly. I have another friend who is simply worried about her mother as she ages – "I need my mom," she said to me recently.
We all do. But sadly, we are all going to start losing our moms and our dads and our loving aunts and uncles more and more frequently as we, too, move into the depths of middle age.
And as these losses come more frequently, I come back to the same things that helped me when I was going through my mother's untimely diagnosis and death. Connection, support and a simple, "I'm so sorry." Chocolate and hugs help as well.
I have a close friend whose mother died, painfully and in a drawn out manner, a couple of years before my mother did. When, at the end of her mother's life, she had to leave her home and family to take care of her mother, she told me that the thing I could most do to help her was to check in, by phone, just to let her know that I was there. She might not answer, she might not return my calls, but she would know that I was there, thinking of her and keeping her in my heart.
So I did just that. I called almost every day, just to leave a message, just to let her know that I was thinking of her. And each year, on the anniversary of her mother's death, I am with her at synagogue, and we cry together to mark the losses in our lives.
So many people don't know what to say when they encounter someone who has recently faced a loss. They stumble, they inadvertently say inappropriate or even hurtful things, although generally it's with the best of intentions. It's just that our society is so focused on preserving youth and preventing death, that when it arrives at our doorsteps we are ill equipped to meet it. If anything, we are running from it as fast as we can, and when we are forced to stop, turn and face it down, it paralyzes us.
Thankfully, I can still count my personal losses on one hand – my grandmother, my mother, my infant son. I have learned a lot from the love these three people bestowed on my life, and I learned a lot from losing each one of them. Even though my mother's death was fairly sudden, I helped care for her for the three weeks she was ill. In those caretaking moments, we still had some time together to talk about the big questions while she was preparing to die.
I am not afraid of talking to someone who is facing a loss or is in the raw, early stages of grieving, because I have been to the depths of loss and I have come back to life. I know how they feel, and I know the importance of offering comfort and a listening ear. In fact, one of my to-do list items, once my children are a little more grown, is to consider signing up to be a hospice volunteer. I find great inspiration in talking with people who are facing either incredible loss or the end of life themselves, and bringing their stories to light.
In the end, this is what it is all about. It's about the voices in our lives, and the stories that they tell. It is about friendship, and showing up. It is about love and loss and life.
And I hope never to lose the sound of my mother's voice – she still has a lot to tell me.
Photo of my mom, Alice Paul, circa 2003, with my children, via Jonathan Stern