I was still sitting in the front row, staring at the sunflowers I had picked out for my mother’s coffin, when a man patted my shoulder and said “Ten months.”
I nodded because it was all I was capable of at the moment and he walked off. He had known my mother since she first started practicing Nichiren Buddhism in Memphis in her twenties. He had helped her learn how to chant "nam-myoho-renge-kyo" and was one of the many people who supported her when she first started practicing. Because I, by nature, grasp at signs, it means everything to me that this man was one of the people chanting beside my mother’s hospital bed when a doctor took me into a private room and explained that she was brain dead.
What he meant by “ten months,” is that according to Nichiren Buddhist teachings after our death, we are reincarnated within ten months. My mother would be in this world again, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to find her.
Here are the facts: My mother, Carol Sweet-Jones, has been dead for almost a year now. She checked herself into the Emergency Room hours before Mother’s Day after having dinner with my grandmother. She was declared dead on May 12, 2011. Mother’s Day this year falls on May 13.
At some point, each of us – if we haven’t already – will learn how grief can turn holidays against us. The very occasions we once looked forward to become barbed and treacherous. It feels like a betrayal. By now, I’ve made it through the first cycle of my mother’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
I went to Memphis in August for her birthday, intending to visit her grave for the first time. I spent most of the trip in my cousin’s bed, sleeping with my eyes open. When I finally visited the grave, all I could think about was how ugly the grass looked. For Thanksgiving, I hosted a grand feast with friends in my apartment in Harlem because the thought of being with my family, but not my mother, was something I refused to make peace with. At Christmas, I watched movies with my friend Syreeta, then went with her to a Trinidadian party in Brooklyn. For New Year’s, I partied all night and cried the morning after. I know, now more than ever, there is no such thing as getting a holiday right. I’m forever grateful to friends and family who have helped me understand that I have the right to assert my need to cope with and honor my mother however I see fit.
Each of these occasions has been a dance partner requiring a unique set of moves and accompanying music. I’ve waltzed, moonwalked, and done the electric slide with grief much more adeptly than I would have expected. But how do you dance with your dead mother on Mother’s Day?
Even before her funeral was over, the thought of Mother’s Day – and all the Mother’s Days to come – was enough knock me to the floor. In fact, many a nights in the first few months of her passing did just that. I would stand up and cry until there was nothing to do but lay down and cry. I would wake up with tear streaks on my face and the moment I remembered why, I’d start crying again.
But here is the peace: grief is vast. I thought it would be like a river, powerful but with a clear direction. Instead, though, I’ve found that grief is an ocean. There is hell in grief, to be sure, but there is joy too. Now, though I sometimes cry, I more often feel a sense of awe at the depth of my connection to my mother. Perhaps this wonder is how I know that ten months and more have passed and that my mother, in some form, is back in the world. Awe at the undeniable fact that I will forever be the son of a fiercely beautiful woman. Awe at knowing just how exquisitely she prepared me to live and write my way into this world. And yes, her absence hurts, but her presence – and I feel it more and more each day – her presence moves me forward. Perhaps awe is the best word to describe this aspect of grief given its relation to the word awful.
Queen Elizabeth II has been quoted as saying “Grief is the price we pay for love.” Love, mother love in particular, is not free. In the fifth grade while on a camping trip, I got a letter from my mother that ended by saying “I love you more than the air I breathe. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.” A love like that is worth an infinite ache.