“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
I didn’t write anything last week because I was traveling.
Without down time and solitude, I can’t write. The hurly-burly of the world is just too much to allow me the sort of silence I need to ruminate and sort myself into language.
However, I dreamed of words — I sorted and culled and braided language — as I dawdled in airport lounges and coffee shops and diners. I thought about the clear beauty of the city skyline in Seattle, about all the ways in which it has changed. I examined much of it through my mother’s keen gaze as we walked and talked our way through a whirlwind of days.
Strangers in a Strange Land
It’s strange to realize that this person whom I have known since I was basically a single cell splitting, can still surprise me.
She can still astonish and still worry me.
She worries about money; she worries about making mistakes. This trip home, I saw just how fragile and how tentative she can be in terms of dealing with the onslaught of life, its hustle and bustle, its ever-changing technology, its loud insistence. I’ve always thought of her as a tower of strength, but last week I saw her vulnerability, her soft underbelly. There is an aspect of her that is weary. She’s 79 and she’s tired.
I wish I could make things easier for her. She deserves peace. It’s been a long haul, dealing with early deaths in the first few decades of her life. (My sister, as a newborn; her mother while Mom was still in her twenties; her best friend to a brain aneurysm when they were both 45.) She’s experienced so much strife and struggle and loss. I long for her to be able to simply enjoy the twilight of her life.
Yet, I know this is the path she chose.
Her challenges forge her spirit. She’s as vast and beautiful as she is, directly due to the losses she’s experienced.
She’s like the skin horse in Margery Williams’ classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
While I was with her, we ate too much. We showered each other in words, in questions, insights, and our thoughts about the future. I showed her how to work the DVD player and the stereo, the Kindle and the computer. We talked about cooking and kindness and the news of the day.
Could I do more?
I prize these small moments now. In the past I didn’t. I guess I imagined I had a rather large supply of them left. Now I know that’s not true.
There’s a bitter-sweetness to every single day. I wonder if I’ve done enough. Have I been there often enough? Have I made sure she knows that I love her? Have I done my best to have no regrets?
I always feel the insistent pull of those doubts whenever I get ready to leave her again.
We took the light rail out to the airport on my final day. The train travels through the bowels of the city and emerges into parts of South Seattle I never knew much about while I lived there. International District. SODO. Stadium. Othello. The stations are surrounded by brand new townhouses and restaurants mixed in beside the shabby tract houses and pre-war buildings. We watched the clouds move and the traffic on Interstate 5. I willed myself to stay present — a mighty challenge for me — as I started to realize the moments were waning.
At the airport I showed her how to check-in using the airline kiosks, something that still instills some fear in her. She doesn’t travel much, but she wanted to be prepared for her trip with my brother this coming week. They’re taking the twins to Hawaii for their fourth birthday.
We made our way to the security line and said our goodbyes. I choked on my tears as I loaded my bag and purse through security and walked through. She waited and watched me go, as she has so many, many times.
Once through, I stood and waved and blew her kiss, hoping against hope that that wouldn’t be the last time I ever see her luminous face.
She stood bravely waving and blew me a kiss in return.
Hours later at home in Phoenix, I called her to check on her. Asleep, she was momentarily disoriented when she picked up the phone.
Then the distance asserted itself.
We both felt it grab hold.
My throat tightened and I couldn’t speak. For a long moment we just listened to each other’s quiet breath, wordless and lost. I longed for another chance to kiss her cheek. I longed for another cup of steaming Earl Grey tea, for another rainy afternoon of doing nothing other than sitting across the table from my first love, my mother, my skin horse.
Shavawn M. Berry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Huffington Post, elephant journal, Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry, Olentangy Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Vagina – The Zine, Rebelle Society, The Cancer Poetry Project 2, Kinema Poetics, Kalliope, Poet Lore, Westview – A Journal of Western Oklahoma, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Concho River Review, North Atlantic Review, Synapse, Living Buddhism, Blue Mountain Arts/SPS, and Poetry Seattle. Her technique essay on the dramatic monologue/persona poem is featured in a poetry database published in 2013 by Ebsco Publishing. In 1998, she received her MPW in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where she specialized in Creative Nonfiction and Memoir.
Ms. Berry teaches writing at Arizona State University where she just completed a 2013 Lincoln Ethics Teaching Fellowship. You can follow her on Facebook or read more of her work on her blog. A portfolio featuring a selection of her essays, blog postings, and prose is available at Shavawnberry.contently.com.