Sunday, June 3, 2012
Patty and I sat by the window of our hotel, visiting. It was a perfect Oregon beach morning: calm, mild, sun splashes along the ebbing tide line. Our conversation wandered from teacher talk to girl talk to book talk to speculation about the stories of the people making the trek down the stairs just below us heading toward the beach.
One particular redhead caught our interest, both for her amazing russet hair, and for the trench coat that was not standard beach wear. As we watched her move up the beach with her two small children, we noticed a small gathering at the very edge of our line of sight. At first it looked like they were watching the two surfers braving the cold Pacific waves. But when I stuck my head out our window and looked harder, I could see people taking pictures of something in the sand, which I could not see. At one point I thought I saw some bit of gray move slightly, but it was hard to tell.
Curiosity drove me from the room with camera in hand. I didn't quite run, but I moved quickly, afraid I'd miss whatever was so interesting. I could see stakes in the sand from quite a distance away, so I knew what I'd find before I got to the clump of people.
This is the time of year that seals give birth to their pups. There are signs everywhere at the beach warning tourists to leave the babies alone if they see them on the sand. Moms will leave them there, safe, while they hunt for food just beyond the incoming waves.
The stakes were placed by volunteers as a sort of corral meant not to keep the pup contained, but to keep us away.
When I got close enough to really see the pup, I was surprised at my own reaction. He seemed so vulnerable and I could see ribs and some very strong part of me insisted he needed my help. I distracted myself by taking pictures, and watching the people who were watching the pup. A volunteer said he was just a couple of days old. She also pointed out the mom, swimming and hunting in the shallows. She said the mom might not come in to claim her baby until late at night after the beach was completely clear of people. I wondered if the mom knew how much danger she was leaving her baby in, if there was a thought process involved, or just embedded survival behaviors.
Mothering has been on my mind a lot lately.
In the weeks before Mothers' Day I was aware this would be my first without my own mother, and my second without my daughter. However, it seemed like my grief was at low tide, and I was going to get through the holiday without incident. That changed several days before when my favorite barista asked me what I was doing on Sunday. I have no idea why that question at that time created a new tsunami of sadness, but it did. Not so much for my mom, but for Kathleen.
When I woke up on Mothers' Day the worst of the sadness had abated. I sat in the quiet predawn, journaling, missing both Mom and Kathleen, but grateful for the love I felt for them both. Emma was on my lap, Toby and Walt both sleeping, and Grace was in her corner. She hadn't come out for breakfast, but when I checked on her, she responded to my pets and went back to sleep. In the preceding weeks, I'd watched her go completely blind, grow thin and lose much of her spunk. But still she had demanded food, purred under my hand, and curled into my lap.
I became aware of odd sounds coming from the corner that had become Grace's safe place months before. When I went to see what was happening, already knowing it wouldn't be good, I found her unable to move her hind legs. So at 6:30 on Mothers' Day morning, I woke Walt, told him we needed to take Grace in, and began my final goodbye to her. As with Cooper in January, I held her through her last breath, and brought her home, saturated in an awareness that true mother's love is a willingness to sacrifice personal needs for the greater good of the beings in our charge.
Because my experiences with mother and motherhood were unconventional, I've always thought there was some magic to motherhood I missed out on. That if my life had followed a different course, I might have known some secret maternal power involving safety and a love that serves as a shield against loss and pain.
But watching that seal pup last weekend, I realized that mothering is a danger-filled endeavor, no matter what. Dangerous for both mother and child. Requiring trust and sacrifice. And never ever free from pain and fear. But it's only through a willingness to bear the pain and sacrifice that any of us get to the incredible joy found in that one very particular and unique bond.
The first year anniversary of my mom's death is Wednesday this week. I'm not feeling sad, which surprises me quite a bit. What I feel more than anything is gratitude for the bond my brothers and I formed, the true family we became, when we said goodbye to the mother my oldest brother describes as "far from perfect, clearly human, but most importantly, all ours."
Mom left me on a beach very early on, and didn't ever quite find her way back to me, always swimming in the shallows, perhaps waiting for the safest time to come in. A time that never arrived. But I understand, finally, that she believed she was keeping me safe. Just as I believed I kept Kathleen safe by giving her to other people to raise, and swimming away.
The only love we have to offer comes from hearts broken on rocks we have no power to avoid. Hearts that seek to save others from those very rocks. Imperfect love, yet strong enough to be a healing power long after the physical relationship ends.