Tuesday, October 18, 2016

An Orphan in My Third Third

Did you feel it? The shift in the universe? Like the gravitational waves, “ripples in the fabric of spacetime from a cataclysmic event”? Or maybe it was just my universe.

My mother died.

We’d had a happy time, sitting in the sun, looking at old home movies. She was all settled, ready to be released back home. All good. I flew back to Alaska. Two days later, she was nonverbal, back in the hospital. Suddenly, things were “grave,” according to the doctors. She died before our planes landed and cars arrived.

My mother died peacefully with Cousin Larry, Jessica, and Kathy at her side, with her best friend Gloria on the other side. They say it was easy and peaceful. I thank everyone she wasn’t alone, but I worry whether she was frightened. Whether we all are.

My mother had a big chair in her and my father’s bedroom. When I came back from school dances, no matter what time, I would sit in that chair and tell her about the night. Did I have a good time? Did any boys ask me to dance? Anything special? She let me go on and on. She asked questions, she never fell asleep on me.

Now I need a big chair, and I need to tell her how her death is rocking me.
I didn’t expect this. I somehow thought I was “ready” for this news. I even thought it was the best way for things to go, that my mother needed to be spared a life of endless readmissions to the hospital. That she didn’t want to live in a world that had become so confusing to her.

And now I find myself bursting into sobs when just nothing at all triggers it. My mother died two days before Yom Kippur. I sat in her synagogue with all the contemplation that Yom Kippur fosters, looking around at “her” space, and I think my whole self just broke.

The thing is, my mother and I had a “prickly” relationship. I don’t understand some of the reasons, but it was prickly enough my mother could never broach the subject. Yet I was her only child to have a child. I KNOW in the core of my being how powerful mother love is – I know of nothing else so gripping – so I know my mother felt it for me. My mother felt it for her four kids. And now there’s a shift in the universe because that force is gone.

A long time ago, I was featured at some event and asked the organizers for an extra copy of the program to send to my mother. One woman said she used to do the same thing, and she noticed each time she couldn’t after her mother died. As my siblings and I went through my mother’s things, I ended up with piles and piles of all the photos, programs, news clippings, stories, and letters I’d sent her over the years. Even from far away, my mother was … my witness. The keeper of my story. Or something like that.
Now my life is … unobserved. I don’t know how to describe this.

My father died when I was 26 and he was 56. But to me, he was “old” and I was young. Not so young as to feel robbed, but not so old that his mortality leaked into me. I was 26, I still had a mother, and death was something that happened to old people. But now I’m in my Third Third, and the loss of my mother puts our generation “up next.” You find yourself doing subtraction, estimating how many years you have left. Mortality is beyond hinting; now it plants its shadow solidly in your path.

I’d said my Third Third was my mother’s Ninth Ninth, and that was worrying, stressful, challenging. Sometimes it was a problem bigger than me, a whole-society problem. Now my Third Third is motherless, and it’s still bigger than me: a sadness so very, very big.

My siblings and I talked about an afterlife. None of us believe in one. I believe in spirit, in soul, in things not observable; I just believe they die, too. But I do believe in memory, in the aftereffects of good deeds at work in the universe. My mother left a lifetime of good deeds behind. Let me share her obituary with you here.

Tonight as I was cooking dinner, my thoughts just glanced in my mother’s direction as they often did. And then I remembered that she’d died, and the universe shook again. I’ve lived 3,000-4,000 miles from her since I was 17, and yet she was always a presence. Now she’s an absence. And no matter how much I think of her or cry over her or wish about her, it does no good. The hole is big and real and permanent and sad.


  1. Yes.

    And no.

    Be well, Barbara.

    Jay and Gene, London

  2. I'm sorry for your loss...and it's one that we all share, sooner or later. One thought is that you will find that your mother is still with you, inside of you, and you will be aware of that as you live. Another for me is that when I lost my mother, as an only child, I lost the person with whom I shared my childhood memories. I miss talking with her about things that happened.

  3. That's a beautiful and profound post, Barbara. All of us who knew Tibby will miss her warmth and luminosity. Thank you for writing this -- and for all your writings about our strange, marvelous and contemplative third thirds.

  4. Ah, my friend..... I have shed a few tears with you. Thank you for offering this personal and thoughtful account. Interesting how "readiness" can end up being a ruse. I trust you will allow the new and unfamiliar feelings to give you even greater insights into yourself and life, and our collective experience. Love and light.....

  5. The obituary is wonderful. The love that you and your siblings have for her shines through.

  6. Just beautiful, Barbara. Thank you for this glimpse into your mother's life. My deepest condolences to you and your family


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