Never Let Go
My mother died of Parkinson’s disease in 2004, and my father passed away in 2007. Neither of their deaths was sudden or tragic but the end of a long life for both.
Friends told my siblings and me we would grieve in our own ways and there would be no predicting how our grief would show up or affect us. Of course, there are principles and common patterns of grief we can read about in books, but our friends were right. Each of us has worked through it in our own unique way.
In letters and cards now from friends we hear often about the passing of parents so when I read this passage from Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods,” I was surprised by my reaction. At first, I quickly agreed, but then I knew there was something pulling at me in the opposite direction.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Sometimes we let go and yet the people we held so dear and who loved us come back to us. It’s not hearing their voices in the night or seeing ghosts in the house. Rather, there is something of their lives left unfinished and in us they are still working to complete it. It is the sense that the best of who they were (and often the part we knew the least) is being lived out for them in us. We joke about the abrupt discovery that we have become our parents, and the older we get the more obvious it is in the mirror. Yet, there is truth in the discovery – and it is a good thing if we understand it.
I tell men who have lost their fathers that they will be sitting alone three or four years from now and realize traits of their fathers have been coming to life in them that they thought were his alone. It’s more than recollections. It is a kind of waking up to something long dormant. Sometimes the very traits and mannerisms we understood the least and resisted the most are the very things we begin to recognize in our own lives. It is their way of living on through us.
There was a time in my life when I would have thought each generation has their own dream and no right to foist it on the next. To live vicariously through your children or to allow yourself to carry the burden of a parent’s dream for their own life was unacceptable. My job as a son was to find my own mission independent of my family. My task as a parent was to help my children discover their individual paths independent of mine. But, I have come to realize I am part of a chain of generations and each is part of the other for a reason. We are not a collection of unrelated short stories. Our lives are chapters in a novel whose author has linked us together.
I know Mary Oliver is right about “when the time comes to let it go, to let it go,” but I also know there is a deep joy of being part of a story that continues with each generation. I have come to understand and appreciate my own parents and their lives because they have not let go, and I hope they live on in my own children…and theirs.