When Dylan Thomas wrote “After the first death, there is no other,” we immediately knew what he meant. He was talking about that moment when you see death up close and you realize how fine the line is, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t nature of being.
After that first experience, death becomes a little less shocking. You have a sense of what might happen. You certainly have a sense of how you might react. Our ancestors lived side by side with the grim reaper in a way we cannot imagine: Your children were dead by 2 and your husband or wife at thirty. In America (the only place I can speak about with any authority), the departed were lovingly washed, laid upon the dining table, mourned and buried. Embalming didn’t begin until the Civil War, a revolting practice that has polluted quite a bit of good dirt.
In Saying Goodbye to Our Mothers for the Last Time, editors Thayer and Harrison examine the all too specific aspects of death through the eyes of a son or daughter. Losing a mother is a devastating generational transition. It is also an organic transition wired into most lives that would be much easier to handle if we talked about it, if we had healthy discussions about loss and death.
I spent the last night of my Mother’s life with her in hospice. I finished reading her mystery and we found out who did it. We slept, I went out, and when I returned my father was sitting near her head, quietly singing as she took her final breaths. I finally learned what “fearsome beauty.” It was the ending of my long long affair with her and it was a gift.