Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Trying to Find Light against the Gray


My mom was too good at savoring the deep joys of life, and in the simplest of things.

Some would call it mindfulness of the present. Others might view it as the ability to compartmentalize, like a trap door slamming down. Still others would label it disassociation or, more clinically, PTSD.

It was one of her best and worst qualities. She brought light into every day, into every room, to every person she met. She herself found light there. It was a cheery light, vivacious and smiling. A light of lightness. A light against a darkness that was so complete, she had to make her own 24/7 sunlight.

She has no memory of, still less knowledge about, where she spent her baby years. Her parents used false names on her birth certificate, because her mom didn’t want her, and her parents weren’t married. Her mom disappeared. My mom, as infant, was what was called “illegitimate” back then.

She has ultrabright memories of ages three to about nine, when she was dropped off with her dad’s secretary and the secretary’s many sisters and mom in a Boston house. These women raised her as their gemstone. All the photos from this time capture boundless happiness and love. Until my mom’s dad reappeared with a new wife, in a string of wives and covert mistresses and untold survivors. They whisked her away to a hidden life in rural Florida’s everglades, and her dad — racist, anti-Semitic, mysogynist, authoritarian, cruel — began raping her several times a week or more, for years.

She became expert at play acting in the darkness with him, and being an overly joyful self — her self — the rest of her days.

Her light — and the darkness she tried so hard not to see — went out six months ago today, on October 3, 2013. It seems like yesterday. I can feel its strength still, burning my skin, bringing tears to my eyes from its warmth. Its heat. Its love.

A year ago, I was trying to convince doctors to let my mom out of the hospital, where she’d landed yet again from her immune-system cancer. They talked chemo and tests, while looking at charts and numbers. I talked life, gazing at my mom. My mom talked about making sure that my dad died well, now that she, too, felt the imprisonment of what it meant to be tethered to a sterile bed. She finally gave me her permission — as additive to my conviction of what was right to do in this wrong situation — to release him from his perpetual black hole of “life-support” tubes attaching him to a dingy, small nursing home bed — something I would sign off on doing about a month and a half later. Walking toward light can take time. Too much time.

A year ago, in that hospital, I didn’t know what death looked like, up close and personal. Since then, I’ve had the honor and hurt, because one can’t separate the two, of watching the life gently ebb from and death clearly flow into the bodies of first my dad and then my mom. I can recognize death’s signature now, at least a death that is allowed to proceed naturally, as one’s body wants it to, even if one’s mind can’t comprehend it. If I’d known what I know now, I would have recognized death beginning to join the light on my mom’s face in her hospital bed a year ago. I would have let more life and light in for my mom during those last six months, avoiding the dark of more tests, more hospitals, more medicine.

But I did the best I could, because she kept up joy for both us, and it was infectious. It always was. I never realized that until October 3, 2013, when my mom’s hand felt warm-cool and then cool-cold, and clouds moved in, as if mocking the brilliance of the autumn leaves all around us.

It became utterly dark indeed for the first few months after her death. A door slammed behind me, and someone threw away the key. I was stuck in a hallway of total darkness. There might be doors leading out, or even windows to see a bit of illumination, but I couldn’t even perceive their presence. All was absence.

It still is. But the absence is gray now. I open doors, yet with little enthusiasm.

I’ve come to recognize that the joy of possibility, of light, of always being able to at least appreciate the simple things in life, completely eludes me now. I play act at life. I can feign “happiness” at moments, but I don’t seem to be good believing my own performance. I can’t muster smiles or laughter, or even feeling at ease, in ways that approximate what was within me before I met death face-to-face. I struggle daily to believe that this is the strength I need now, like my mom before me, to get through loss, absence, and pain, feelings of abandonment and lack of love, and the grief that surrounds me like tight embrace, even if its clutch is only visible to me. I daily miss my mom and her ability to see the good, and act from it in all things big and small, with an upbeatness that puts my prior ability to be positive — before her death — to shame.

For most of my life with her, I thought she made the wrong choice to avoid her dark demons. I’ve discovered newfound compassion, postmortem, for her decision. Her lightness was her strength, her courage. It was what let her determinedly take hold of the rest of her life after she finally said no to her father. She gave herself permission to squeeze out every moment of truly felt, truly embodied, joy until she died in a polar opposite way to how she was born into this often-horrific world: surrounded by care, love, friends and family, and the brightness of dawn.

*  *  *

If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, rainy day in San Francisco, March 2014)

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This entry was posted on April 3, 2014 by in Dispatches from Life.
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