Waves. Darkness. Seasons. Analogies for grief are not in short supply.
But the swimming pool surprised me a little.
When I was a little girl, I thought I knew how to swim. I had an above-ground pool in the backyard, a little over waist-high to a six-year-old. I could easily walk across the pool. “Swimming” amounted to one or two strokes before having to turn and head the other direction. Sometimes, if no one else was swimming at the same time, I could swim around and around, lightly touching the outside wall of the pool.
Then one summer I unofficially became a member of the Davis family, who went to our church. Their oldest daughter, Deanna, was my babysitter that year, and Deanna’s dad listed me as a member of their family so that I could go with Deanna to their swim club.
The Morgan Wynd Swim Club had a sizeable inground pool with two diving boards, a slide, and a snack bar. To this day, I smell chlorine whenever I open a bag of barbecue potato chips, the associations of the two are so strong in my memory.
Swimming around the Morgan Wynd pool meant bouncing on my toes around the perimeter, hanging onto the edge. I couldn’t actually swim proper strokes across the length of the pool, but I could bounce up and down and make it all the way around the pool, even the 12′-deep end of the pool where the high dive was, thanks to the concrete overhang and the curved wall.
Of course, the quest of the summer was to dive off the high dive. Of course, it took me weeks to get up my courage. Of course, the high dive was in the middle of the deep end of the pool. And of course, I’d focused more on being afraid of the fall than figuring out how I’d make it back to the safety of the concrete edge.
In I jumped, feet first and holding my nose. There is nothing worse than a noseful of chlorinated pool water, so I avoided that at all costs. I went down, down, down, figuring I’d touch the bottom and push hard at an angle to emerge closer to the edge. At that point, I was betting I could swim two or three real strokes to reach safety. The only problem was that I didn’t realize my little six-year-old body was too light to make it all the way to the bottom of the deep end, even jumping off the high dive. When I stopped sinking there was nothing. No concrete bottom. No concrete wall. No concrete ledge. Nothing.
I had enough sense to realize that I was going to have to move myself towards the surface, so I lifted my arms above my head and pulled them back down through the water over and over, swimming awkwardly in a direction I’d never gone in my backyard pool: up. When I finally broke the surface, I managed to doggie paddle to the edge, terrified.
Jumping off the high dive forced me to learn how to propel myself through the water, from the depths to the surface.
And that’s what grief has been like.
For the first few weeks, everything centered around the funeral and thank-you notes and cleaning out mom’s apartment and getting the estate opened. Then things got quiet and normal returned. And I realized I didn’t quite know how to move through life without my mom. She’d been both the wall I pushed off and the edge I’d hung onto. What I did with my time depended on her schedule of doctor appointments and house-cleaning and errands. Choices I made about healthy living habits came in reaction to her poor choices in nutrition and exercise. I even chose what I wore based on what I knew her reaction would be to my fashion choices. When I was frustrated with my husband or overwhelmed with raising my kids, she’d exhort me to get over myself or assure me it’d be all right. And then she was gone.
For several months I felt like I didn’t quite know how to move through life. I had my husband and youngest son to take care of on a daily basis, but they were at work and school and involved in sports and activities. All the time I’d spent caring for my mom was now free time. All the choices I made about what to eat, what to do, where to go, what to wear… those were mine and overwhelming.
The six-month “anniversary” of her passing was October 7. It was a Monday. I thought about it the weekend before and was impressed that I didn’t have a sense of dread. A good friend asked me if I’d like to get coffee. She’d lost her father recently too. She asked how I was doing, and I told her I was doing OK. I mentioned that day marked exactly six-months from the day Mom died. She talked about struggles with her family since her father died. We chatted a little more. She said something that should have made me smile, but for whatever reason, it hit a sore spot in my heart. My smile disappeared. Tears welled up in my eyes. She tried to make me laugh. I apologized, grabbed my tissues and my purse, and left the coffee shop sobbing.
I cried all the way home; I couldn’t even see the lines on the road, I was crying so hard. I went inside and cried more. I washed my face and breathed deep breaths. Then I started sobbing again. I ugly-cried off and on for about five hours, texting my husband and telling him what had happened. I was sad. So so so sad. I begged the Lord to let me feel His presence and His comfort. I was in full-blown lament mode. And then, I was at peace.
Other than grace, I have no way to explain what happened. I was just filled with peace. Deep, deep peace. And I knew I needed to move towards the surface. So I did.
Things I had held onto (material things) because I was afraid my mom would be disappointed with me if I got rid of them, I felt free to deal with. I emptied the last of the home-canned produce she’d taken with her to the independent living community. It was old and had turned a funny color, and it smelled bad when I broke the seal of the lid. It needed to go. Then I cleaned out her old metal filing cabinet that I’d brought to my house exactly as she left it. I organized her important papers and put them into file boxes until we close out her estate.
I even found a home for the planters we’d given her a few years ago for Mother’s Day, to keep her gardening (her joy) without having to negotiate the brick steps to get to her backyard.
By grace, I emerged from the depths, swam to the side of the pool, and climbed out.
I still love my mom. I still miss her. But I think this will be the last post on grief for a long while.
I’m moving on my own, and that feels amazing.