the first year

What does one call the day one’s mother died?

What does one call that day as it repeats in unsleep and diswake, in the numb and void of weeks and months that unform as they linger too long and pass too fast. What does one call that day as it repeats as a year and another year and another year and accumulates into decades and more that fold in an instant, returning us to that first gasp. That first cut. That first quiet. That first that can and must be only.


I am starting this writing before the day that I do not know how to name, to post on the day that I do not know how to name, because I cannot write it on the day that I cannot name. I am starting this writing on a day that started with the loss not feeling so keen and then, as though someone sharpened grief, the loss cut sharply, the partially healed suture opened, and now, in writing, I attempt another suture.

A suture: to knit the impossible before and even more impossible after

The before: a presence. 

The after: a loss.

Loss meets loss at this suture, as loss attempts to take the place of a before, so that a suture might be possible.


Keen.

Keening.


An uncle died barely a few weeks after my mother. An aunt died a few months after. It was a season of compounding loss. These things happens, I was told. Deaths that cluster. Funerals that cluster. Grief that accumulates. Mourning that disperses.


After has become a very strange word. Even a very strange feeling.


I could not eat or sleep for close to a month after the day my mother died.

My mother died in the early hours of Sunday.

I could not sleep through the night on Sunday for close to six months after she died.

No matter how much I exhausted myself, I’d be awake at least 10 minutes before the time she died.

I could attempt to diagnose this. I won’t. I mark it simply as something that happened.


It rained the day of the funeral, as she was buried next to my father, as she had wanted, next to him at the home I will always think of as his, the one he imagined and wanted, and that they built together.

In the home I know of as hers, the one she chose and convinced my father they needed to buy, and that they owned together until he died and it became hers, in that home the flowers bloomed in the weeks after she died. They were glorious. A salute. A farewell to the one who had imagined them and planted them and tended them and left them so that they would continue to bloom in her memory, and to remind me, in my grief, that beauty persists and beauty heals. And that mothers leave treasures for us all over: glances that live as memories, gestures that we perform and remember, words and phrases that we echo, tones that we inhabit.

I eat the sweet potatoes she planted and left with gratitude. I eat the bananas she planted and left with gratitude. I eat the avocados she planted and left with gratitude. I eat the beans she planted and that self-seed with abandon, with gratitude. She built a world that would nourish my body and my spirit, teach me beauty and care, patience and generosity. And how to mourn.


A year is a time of no time, a time when forgetting permits a breath and another breath, and remembering permits a break and another breath, and I move between forgetting and remembering, finding breath after breath, a way to move between then and now, at a pace of inhale and exhale, at a pace when inhale feels as though it betrays exhale.

Still.

I learn still from Christina Sharpe. Still. To stop. To persist. Despite and because. To still be here. To be stilled here. Still. A stillness that is absence. A stillness that is contemplation. Still.

Forgetting is grace. A gift. A gap between breaths. This one and that one.


My mother planted dahlias and sweet potatoes. I sow annuals among them: pansies and violas, balsam and stock, marigolds and alyssum. To nestle beauty and growth within the beauty and growth she gave me.

I build new shapes, give different use to what she left me to use, to nourish, to nurture, what feeds body and spirit, self and relation. Eat from my mother’s garden. It will always be hers. And I hope I will have learned enough from her generosity to always offer food to friends and strangers, seeds to grow and cuttings to root, color to spread and leaf to shade.

She modeled how to build and sustain relation, avocado by avocado, bean by bean, banana by banana, maize cob by maize cob, harvested and shared. And, if now, I sow different plants— mustard spinach and arugula, radishes and beets, sage and basil, thyme and oregano; and, if now, I make new edges of portulaca and rosemary, sunflowers and strawflowers, I edge to extend her vision of beauty, and mine, to see where my eye goes now.

Flowers and scents. A garden full of birds and butterflies, bees and wasps, life, glorious life.


My mother loved plants, but she did not want them in her room. Now, I am putting plants in her room. African violets. Peace lilies. Some from her garden, brought inside. I tend them in the space where I tended her. I look for new leaves and shoots, evidence of life. Of life.

Still.

Perhaps at the end of the first year, I will finally put away the scarf and nightdress that sit on top of her chest of drawers, waiting. Waiting as though she will ask me for them.


On the day she died, I took two things: the worn-out shoes she wore to almost all her medical appointments in Kenya and India. Worn out. Saturated with hope and disappointment. “I can walk,” she’d say after a particularly bad period when she’d been in a wheelchair or confined to bed. “I can walk.” I wanted those shoes. The shoes my mother longed to wear.

I took, as well, her white scarf. One of her favorite ones, one she had worn a few days before she died. I wore it to church for the service and to the gravesite. Because I wanted whatever faint scent it had to rest on my neck. I wanted the intimacy of her presence. And, now, on the rare times I visit those who loved her, I wear it. So that she can be in the room with us.

We do not pack away our mothers. Perhaps we hold on to some things more than others. An old pen. a barely used diary. Scraps of paper with handwriting. As I try to make sense of what to keep, I linger. I smile. I am surprised, and so glad that her life can still surprise me.


Is this mourning? To linger. To be still. To be surprised. To tend.


To tend to the dead so that I may tend to the living. To remember that mourning is also a practice tied to living.


In conversation with those who loved her, I tell them that my mother was a happy person. Even when she was fighting—and she fought a lot—she was happy. She would shout and laugh, laugh and shout. She preferred laughing to shouting. Her laugh was loud. You could hear it from a kilometer away. Loud and prolonged. Her laugh saturated space, created atmosphere, was weather, and refuge. Her laugh. I miss her laugh.

I miss her laugh.

She laughed less as she got sicker. And, still, she laughed. And sang.


Grief compounds. News of death sharpens the edge. Turns tender scar into tender wound. Soon after my mother, an uncle and then an aunt.

An uncle who drove to the hospital and stayed until I was ready to leave, until the bureaucracies had been completed. An aunt who visited with care and love, who cooked when my mother asked, and even when my mother did not ask. Who loved gently and kindly.

A first year and then another first year and then another first year. Since then, many other first years.

A first year in which I am still learning the textures of grief, still unprepared for when and how it arrives, slicing across the moment, coloring the day, demanding a pause, a beat, a breath, and another breath.


Eventually, I could listen to the song my mother listened to and sang every day. Eventually, I could play and replay it, finding something in the notes that was more than loss. Finding my notes in her notes.

And flowers.

My mother loved flowers. And they continue to bloom. They continue to delight.

Between this petal and that petal, I take a breath, and she is with me. Between that petal and this petal, I take another breath, and she is still with me. I prune hard, taking plants all the way to the ground, and I marvel as they push up new growth. I marvel at my mother’s wisdom, at how she chose plants that could live through Nairobi’s cold and dry, hot and dry, cold and wet, wet and wet. And thrive.


A branch fell down. It had been rotting for some time, damaged from an earlier pruning. I left it on the tree because such branches have an ecological function, providing food and shelter for a range of animals. I have moved the fallen branch to the garden where, as it decomposes, it will continue to provide food and shelter to a range of microbes and animals, and will feed the soil.

Over the past year, it has been tempting to turn such ordinary events into metaphors about life and death, to think about how life persists, to think of death as part of a process. I have wanted to believe this lie. Most days, I do.


Mourning is repair.

On days when I cannot forget she is gone, I seek repair. I plant and weed. I sow seeds and repot cuttings that have rooted.

I find places where the cuts feel fresh, the scars tender, places that need tending, places that I can tend by listening to and for her in the breath between this petal and that, in the whisper between this falling leaf and that one, in the first green shoots of dahlias as they return to bloom, and in the plants that arrive to surprise me.

A volunteer thorny melon appeared in a bed where I had sown radishes and beets and marigolds and saget. It sprawls across what I had planted, moves beyond the bed to another bed, curious, probing. I watch it move in delight.

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