the essence

pulling weeds

pulling weeds

My mom is dying.

Just three weeks ago, I was moving my graceful bleeding hearts from pots into the shady side garden. My little Mary wore her stiff pink garden gloves and chatted with me as I dug deep holes over by the rose arch, “What’s this called? Is that a weed? Why are you putting that funny dirt in? Let me do that one!”

Finished with the transplanting, I turned to the beds to pull a few hearty weeds. Erik emerged from the house, “It’s your mom,” he covered the earpiece with his hand, “it sounds important.”

Wiping my hands on my jeans, I took the phone and sat on the porch. “Hi Mom.”

“I have good news and bad news.” She chirped.

“I have the best, most treatable form of liver cancer. But I have liver cancer.”

Honestly, and I’m sure this sounds heartless; the news of cancer was expected. My mother’s health had been poor for a decade. She was the last of my children’s four grandparents to have cancer and her eventual diagnosis felt inevitable. But her next words could not have surprised me more:

“During this past week, as I’ve waited for the biopsy, I’ve been examining my life. I’ve been thinking.” I heard her voice crack and strain.

“And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ever since you were a little girl I’ve been hard on you. I don’t know why. I know I made you feel unloved.”

I wanted to object. She didn’t need to apologize; our relationship has been fine for the past several years. It was OK; I understood, and I have made oh-so-many mistakes of my own. But her words split my heart right open and filled an empty aching hole.

“Are you still there?” she asks.

By now, my throat has contracted and tears spill relentlessly from my cheeks. The only reply I can manage is a sharp intake of breath, a fragment of a cry.

“And I want you to know that I love you. I’m proud of you. I cherish you. My time left may but short; but it will be….” Sobs steal her voice too, and as the sun sets on my porch we sit and cry together.

Finally, I find words, “I love you too, mom.” We both hang up, because it’s all we can take. I’m amazed and overwhelmed and frightened too because my heart has never felt so clean and soft.

*****

Friday, just when the kids were coming home from school and filling the house with their friends and plans of weekend revelry, my sister called, “You need to come down here,” she sobbed, “mom’s in the hospital.”

We threw a few apples, some clothes and all six kids in the car and began the 12 hour drive from Salt Lake to San Diego.

When I arrived Saturday she was a fragile as a cobweb, drifting in and out of consciousness, her features flattened by illness. I began to cry the moment I saw her but she took my hands and exclaimed, “You’re real. You’re really here. You’re real!”

My sister sat beside her, holding her hand and speaking to her gently, almost like a mother to a sick child. She stood to kiss her on the forehead, to murmur words of love and to brush back her sweat-dampened hair. I watched her, mentally molding my actions to hers and feeling a bright and vivid awareness of the burden my sister had been carrying these past weeks.

The doctors say my mom should be writhing in pain, that her decaying liver and pancreas would create almost unbearable agony. But when I asked, she shook her head gently and said, “Oh, you don’t get any pain with this.”

She is so sweet. Incredibly, indescribably sweet. It’s as if every bit of worry, anger, every wordly care have been burnt away and only her true essence remains. Even when asking the nurses to leave, she is gentle, kind—her love fills the room and pours out in the sanitized hallways. Her room faces the famous Torrey Pines golf course and hang gliders drift outside her window delicately balancing between ocean and sky.

Trivia doesn’t interest her. She wants to recall old memories, to read scriptures, to talk about the temple. But the moment we shift to what’s for dinner or what’s happening in the world, she becomes muddled and drifts away only to return after a restorative nap.

My 17 year old Ben brought his viola along(just because he loves it—can you imagine?) and drew out rich, golden tones. He quickly discovered that fancy concertos were out of place and switched to hymns and primary songs—“Come, Come, Ye Saints,” “I Know the My Redeember Lives,” “Abide With Me,” “I am a Child of God” and

“I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers
Confused at the grace that so fully he profers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.”

Her voice is an alto and during a few songs she sang in clear, sweet tones perfectly matched to the viola as Ben improvised and harmonized.

I had an afternoon with just my mom and dad where we reminisced and laughed and recalled every happy story. It’s like selective focus on my camera where the best, the most beautiful things are crisp and detailed and everything else creates a lovely, blurred background.

My parents told of how they met, their first date, their long courtship and it’s crescendo when my dad proposed at San Francisco’s Half-Moon Bay. They spoke like a duet, back and forth, filling in details and forgotten notes. And they kissed so much, so blissfully that I averted my eyes and watched a hang glider lift and soar; dip and glide.

And I wish I had a photo of that—of my dad’s forehead pressed to my mother’s; tears streaming down his cheeks and her peaceful, joyful smile.

She wanted to hear the scriptures and asked for specific chapters. And I thought, “Why these verses? There’s nothing comforting here.” But when I began to read the words came to life and filled me and overwhelmed me, until I had to pass the book to my dad and let him read in his calm steady voice. The spirit filled the room like a temple and we drank it in.

My sister read with her too and turned to Third Nephi where Christ is visiting the Nephites. He tells them he must leave and the people cry and beg him to stay a little longer. Ruth stopped, wiped her own tears and pleaded, “Can you stay just a little longer? We need you.”

She was quiet. And Ruth read it the words once more, and asked again, “Just a little longer?”

Her eyes were closed and her words came like the remnants of an echo, “I’ll try. I’ll try.”

*****

While my mother slept, my sister and I whispered between us. “This is mom as her true self,” my sister confirmed my own thoughts, “doesn’t it make you wonder what everyone else is really like inside? Once we strip away our daily worries and pride and need to ‘keep up appearances’ the Light of Christ simply shines through.”

I saw the fruits of the Atonement and it is glorious.

Today, I am home, trying to weed out the busyness in my life so I can go back to San Diego and be with my mother.

Why am I so damn busy? (And that’s the perfect word because my frantic life is literally damning me from God’s blessings, from the whisperings of the Spirit.)

OK, some answers are obvious. I’m a mother of six darling ever-needy people. But why have I added in so many other things? I like to live my life with wide margins, big empty gaps in the schedule so that I can follow a prompting to visit a neighbor or simply to read a book. But I’ve made my life so rushed that I can only hear spiritual shouting.

I’m reexamining the role of women as nurturers. Because it is our nature and my job to drop a task to kiss a skinned knee or to spend an afternoon chatting with my son. I love the example of my friend Jeannelle, who is a single working woman and spends many evenings and weekends with whomever needs her most. I want to be more like her– but mostly I just want to get on a plane right now and see my sweet mother.

How has forgiveness changed your life? Have you tasted the sweetness of the Atonement; seen the way it transforms a person into their true, best self? How can we make more room for the Spirit in our lives? How can we embrace our role as nurturers and still pursue our personal goals?

About Michelle L.

(Blog Team) never folds laundry and her car is a mess. She runs through the streets of Salt Lake City, UT, takes lots of photos, plays Uno with her five fabulous boys and buys way too many dresses for the little princess. Her husband is the most romantic man in the world because he does all the Costco shopping AND hauls it into the house (sorry to make you jealous girls). She writes at Scenes from the Wild.

47 thoughts on “the essence

  1. Michelle, this is truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. I don’t have any answers to your questions because I need people like you, and writing like this, to help me SEE the answers. Thank you.

  2. If I can see to type through the tears!
    I have seen that beauty in a dear friend who has learned lessons about living more celestially, more in tune with the Spirit. It is hard to give up mortal habits, but the end result is so worth it!

    Wish I could remember it more clearly, but one of the brethren said when we come to the judgement seat, our relationship with our spouse and family will be something like 80% of our “grade” (aargh! wish I could remember it better!).

    As I relected on that, I realized how easy it is to slip into doing it backwards — where everything else takes up that 80% of our time. One of my summer goals is to correct that! Time flies too fast to waste it on the unessential at the expense of the eternal!

  3. One of the more beautiful expressions I’ve ever read. I’m careful about what commitments I bring into my life for this very reason & I try to make better use of “busy time”….walking home from school with my kids we’ll talk about life & say, “I love you’s,” etc. I’d love to share this message in RS.

  4. Nothing like honking out the ugly cry in the morning. Thanks for sharing these beautiful thoughts with us.

  5. Who would have guessed even a month ago that this is how things would be between you and your mother.

    I’ve thought about you and your mom all weekend.

    Blessings on your family.

  6. Wow. When I die, I want to die just like your mother, and when I write, I want to write just like you.

  7. Thank you for sharing this. I love the idea about everything else being stripped away and just getting to see the essence of another person. It’s a mystery to me why we don’t try to get down to that in ourselves and others more often; as you discovered, this is the most beautiful, heavenly part of life–realizing and cultivating our connections to each other and to God.

  8. Michelle, this was tender, poignant, and lovely. I’ll be thinking of you and your mother in the weeks to come.

  9. It’s a miracle to me that the hard things that you are going through can touch me. Make me stop and look at my life. I don’t know you and yet I am so greatful that you shared yourself and your family. It’s a miracle to me that we can all be strangers to each other and yet-friends- being so touched by the sharing of such a personal thing. I will be better today because of it.

  10. My wife of 28 years lasted almost 11 months with her cancer. Much of that time was a ‘temple’ experience, where the mundane was recognized as necessary but not as important as relationships with each other and with God. She changed how she related to the children, and we together changed our relationship. She taught me wonderful things in those months.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Michelle, thanks for sharing this writing and this experience. I wish I had the wisdom of perspective and knowledge. Forgiveness is such a constant and demanding battle, but one that is so essential to win. Thinking much of you these days…

  12. Beautiful, Michelle. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    My own sweet mother passed away ten years ago, and this description of your time with your mother “as her true self” brought back so many memories.

  13. So beautifully expressed. Last year I flew to visit my dad, who seemed to be on his last moments. I needed a blessing from my bishop for strength before I could go. I tried hard to be forgiving. I’m not sure I achieved it. Reading how beautifully your mother opened up and sought forgiveness gives me hope for my own relationships. I am very hard on my oldest son and have already apologized–but still haven’t been able to change my behavior. I will try to seek for the essence of who he is and who I am and maybe that will make the difference.

    Thank you for asking us to think about such weighty matters. Forgiveness and repentance are what matter.

  14. Wow. This was so raw and heavenly, thank you.

    My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and liver disease and probably won’t be with us for long. I take her to lunch every week and have the same conversation I’ve had with her for about a year. It’s all about her happiest times, gratitude and love. I think Alzheimer’s has brought out her true essence and I always feel so enveloped by love and hope when I’m with her. Maybe that’s what forgiveness is–letting go of who we’re no and becoming who our spirits truly are.

  15. No words-only heartfelt love and prayers to you!

    you will weed and bloom even more – you are stunningly beautiful now!

  16. Thank you, Michelle, for sharing such a tender and personal moment so freely. Your post brought back many memories of when my own mother died, and of how very deeply I was supported by my Savior and the glorious hope of the Atonement. God bless you and your family.

  17. beautiful post michelle. Truly I love oyu thoughts and words abotu burning away everythign else until the essence, the essential parts of life remain. The things we treasure but often are to hurried ot to everyday to make time for and take in.

  18. Thank you for sharing your experience. Not everyone gets these good moments, it is nice to share in such an experience with you. Writing is such a blessing, a way to hold that experience in greater clarity for the future.

    It could be interesting to have more posts about dealing with aging and death (I hope I’m not being morbid). It is something we all have to deal with/learn about.

  19. I echo everyone else’s heartfelt thanks for this. Death is what we fear most…but maybe not so much after reading your sweet experience.

  20. When my mom got sick and was in the ICU the week before she died, I dropped everything to spend time with her. I only have one kid, so it wasn’t too hard to get child care, but I am very thankful that I spent the time with her because she is gone now and those moments will never be back.

  21. What a beautifully written, touching expression. I am grateful that amidst the struggle of cancer, you are finding such beauty in her, and in your relationship with her.

    And now I ponder about the daughter I am too hard on. Why it is, and how I can fix it now.

  22. …moving our graceful bleeding hearts from pots into the shady side garden… you have transplanted them so tenderly and lovingly. An amazingly spiritual and enlightening post. You are a gifted writer, and a lucky daughter. Beautiful!

  23. Beautifully written. I think you capture so many raw emotions here.

    I connect to this in many ways — I have a father with cancer, a mother who I need to forgive, things I need to change in my relationships with my own children and family. Apologies to give….and to receive…

    thank you for your enlightenment.

  24. Michelle – this was perfectly beautiful. I felt every word. What a gifted writer, mother and daughter you are. I believe during times when we can’t simplify our lives or “weed” them thinner, God’s Spirit continues to speak to us – but in ways He knows we will recognize. He is always whispering. You have the desire to hear and you will. Windows of time will open and you will be able to be the strength to your Mom and others – that you want to be.

    You wrote the sweetest offer on my own post last Sunday – to hold our babies when they come because you also live in Salt Lake. One of the reasons we returned to Salt Lake was to be closer to my Mother who is fighting her second brain tumor. I understand the unveiling that happens when someone is suffering like this. You described it sublimely. I would love to be a comfort to you as well. You will be in my heart and thoughts. Please keep us informed of your sweet Mother’s progress. Blessings.

  25. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts in such an eloquent manner. The article was absolutely beautiful.

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