Our mother’s birthday was Tuesday. Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El remains one of the fiercest, smartest, most loving people I have ever met or known. I cried Tuesday in my car, in the movie theater parking lot. I cried in the grocery store, with a bag full of peaches I promised myself would become a pie before they rot in my cupboard.
My mother died almost a year ago at the age of 70, having spent half her life in Lancaster as a mentor, activist, professor of psychology and African American studies at Millersville University, and agent of change. She would have been 71 last week. Or maybe she is. One of the hardest adjustments I’ve had to make is to begin referring to her in the past tense, because I love to talk about my mother. My heart will not consign her to grammatical history, not willingly at least.
Grief, of course, is located in the distance between love and loss. The struggle with language mirrors this. There is another world inside our hearts and minds where our loved ones are still alive and our bodies, our senses, struggle to bear the difference.
If you are like me, you forget in a way that is frequent but brief. You pick up the phone or call out their name to recount a triumph or a loss, a breakup or a promotion — and no one is there. Not in the way that they used to be.
Barb Stengel, one of her chief end-of-life caretakers and her best friend, told me after she passed that this can make you feel that you’ve lost your mind. “You will feel like there is a hole in the universe, one that no one else can see, but you will know that it’s there.” I have escaped this somewhat, knowing that hundreds of people have seen the same, but that has not always made it easier.
Grief is slippery and insidious. It will make you run and hide from the kindness of strangers. One more “how are you doing?,” one more “I knew them, and I’m so sorry for your loss,” is more than you can bear. It is all kind, well-intentioned, appropriate and necessary, but none of it feels right, and it may not for some time. Nothing feels right for a while. Grief will wreck you, and maybe teach you grace.
My mother’s death came after a decade with triple-negative breast cancer.
I have had the privilege of telling her story, of being able to speak her legacy and my pain into the world. I am lucky to be able to do that. Millions of people suffer from breast cancer; many do not survive it. Many families have their grief compounded by the astounding medical debt that cancer can bring, and they do this all in silence and relative obscurity, feeling absolutely alone in this world.
I say all of this to encourage us all to be more open, vulnerable and, yes, public with our grief. This is not a demand, but I do believe that it is a kindness we can share with one another. Our embarrassment and shame over our natural desolation means that our stories go unshared, and our grief goes without mutual recognition. This subtle taboo against public mourning, or limiting it to the first two weeks, or whenever we have to return to work, leaves us that much lonelier in a society already designed to individualize and atomize us.
My mother abhorred that anyone should be lonely.
She traveled to Philadelphia for all chemotherapy appointments. We had a routine, though my older brother went more often with her than I did. I-76 to South Street to Convention to Civic Center. Around the block to the parking garage. Up the elevator to the second lobby where we would stop to get tea. Then onward and up the elevator to her doctor, and then to chemotherapy.
Once, she met a woman in the lobby, somewhere around the tea, Earl Grey, hot (yes, really) portion of our routine. We were already late. Overwhelmed and by herself, the woman did not know where she was to go, had never met her doctor before. The Penn Medicine Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine is a great glass-and-steel building with elevators that lead to escalators to other elevators — a monument to medical care and progress or a “shopping mall for those of us with bodies that want to kill us,” as my mother put it.
At my mother’s insistence, we took this woman to the information desk, called up to her doctor’s office, and then walked her to the waiting room. My mother stood with her during the intake process, and we waited with her until the nurse called her back to her appointment. My mother held her hand, and then never told anyone about it.
We almost missed my mother’s appointment — I was deeply frustrated, but she would not have it any other way. I will never forget how scared that woman looked at first, and how grateful she was for the kindness and advocacy of one particular stranger. Rita knew intimately what it meant to suffer, and while she knew that this is unavoidable in life, she believed that no one should have to suffer alone.
The night, or morning, that my mother died, we all sat in silence in the living room of the home she bought with her own mother. There was a camaraderie created through months of taking care of her, and each other, that she had blessed on her way out of the building. She tethered us together by sheer force of will. All of those people are my family now, if they weren’t before, and I have the opportunity in writing this to express my gratitude and pride in all of them.
We all die alone, I think, but my mother believed and lived as though life was best survived together. Last week, I learned of several deaths in our community — they all seem to come together — and they are each an impossible challenge. Grief is impossible to manage or predict, as real for every person as mine is for me, though the wail may catch in our throats. Often, what is quiet in the mouth is cacophony in the heart.
If you are mourning now, the one thing that I can offer you is what my mother offered us through her battle with breast cancer: the knowledge that we need not be diminished by grief and suffering, that we might indeed be greater for it. That we will all survive this, together.
Ismail Smith-Wade-El is a member of Lancaster City Council.