“In the final months of her journey towards death, she fearfully let go the chisel, and saw me take it up and throw it away. (We had no need of that chisel now.) It had lost its edge some time ago. Only the soothing touch of hands, smoothing away the dust, the detritus of anger, fear, self-pity—only that clearing pass of palm on heart, on head—was all that was required.”—Helen Noakes
By Helen Noakes
“The air through which I move is murmurous with absences.”—John Banville, Shroud
SAN FRANCISCO California—(Weekly Hubris)—December 19, 2016—If I were to recall 2012, I would remember the long months of slogging through darkness towards a distant pinpoint of light. I would describe the year as a seemingly interminable, exhausting journey towards a moment of immense clarity. For 2012 was the year of my mother’s death, a year of endings and beginnings, a year that taught me to forgive, release, and bless the one person who shaped me in the womb and out of it.
And while this shaper, this sculptor of my strengths and weaknesses, was baffled and, at times, appalled at the shape I took, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was her chisel that had cut and scraped me into the woman I had become.
In the final months of her journey towards death, she fearfully let go the chisel, and saw me take it up and throw it away. (We had no need of that chisel now.) It had lost its edge some time ago. Only the soothing touch of hands, smoothing away the dust, the detritus of anger, fear, self-pity—only that clearing pass of palm on heart, on head—was all that was required.
We sat in silence in her quiet little room, rain pattering on the window, the sounds of children’s voices from the grammar school playground next door, the clock on the wall, silently marking off the seconds, minutes, hours. Until, one day, a day when she seemed more aware of the present than her imagined past, I thought to ask her forgiveness for any pain my being in her world had caused. She stared a moment, in surprise, and said I had done nothing that required forgiveness. And after falling silent for a minute, murmured, “But she was a terrible mother.”
I was stunned into silence. She gazed at me for one more moment of lucidity and then slipped into the soft-focused world of her dreaming mind.
Hearing her refer to herself in the third person, I knew that she had accepted her separation from this world. There was no turning away now. My hand moved over her in the familiar prescribed Reiki patterns. I felt her spirit seek a peace her body would not permit. And, as if driven by another wisdom that had its own prescriptions, my palms sought patterns: brow and heart, crown and solar plexus, sending energy between the two, opening pathways towards peace. I later found out that these were not new, these combinations. Dr. Usui, the founder of Reiki, had used them. It was the Reiki, the repeated affirmation that she was loved that allowed her, days later, on November 10, to slip gently into her good night.
On January 1, I marked the beginning of 2013 by taking a long walk on Ocean Beach. The Pacific sparkling and frothing with immense waves, the cries of children, the barking of dogs, seemed far away. The ones who shaped me flitted gently through my thoughts. It was my father’s birthday, January 1. With that memory, my mind conjured my parent’s wedding picture—my mother’s hope-filled smile, my father’s serious gaze. My father with his infinite patience and his iron will: contradictory traits I inherited.
My grandmother’s love for the holidays soon drifted into my thoughts, her cooking for days towards our Christmas and New Year celebrations. She loved books, my maternal grandmother—books, music, and the Christmas season. Did she imbue me with those tastes? My aunt, whose free-wheeling independence seems to have rubbed off on me, did little, enjoyed much, and found humor in the most unlikely circumstances. My great-uncle, whose letters to me I found as I was clearing my mother’s house, led me to think beyond the ordinary, to dig deep and not turn away. And my maternal grandfather, who died when I was four, left a deeply imprinted memory of his love, his patience, his indulgence.
How much of them I carry in my bones, my thoughts, my writing and my art. Like the breaking waves I cannot stop watching; they hover on the sparkling tides of memory for a moment, wash away, then return. Whether I see them in my mind’s eye or not, they are in me, around me, and despite their absences, they murmur their stories, their incredible stories.
Note: For anyone interested in reading further from John Banville’s work—a quote from his novel, Shroud, precedes this column as an epigraph—please go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shroud_%28novel%29 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Banville.