I was going to go see Sherman Alexie at the Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham. He was on tour promoting his latest book, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, a memoir about his relationship with his mother. His mother died in 2015, and he wrote this book as part of his grief process. I ordered it and read it in preparation for going to see him, but then he cancelled the majority of his tour. He explains why on his website.
Some weeks ago, I saw a book on my co-worker's desk called H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. At my co-worker's invitation, I picked it up and paged through it. Chapter 2, "Lost," starts out with her account of the phone call from her mother telling her that her father is dead. I also saw references to her reading Elizabethan and other-era treatises on falconry, a literary touch that appealed to me. She wrote well. I gave it back to my co-worker and said it looked like a good book. My co-worker offered to loan it to me after she read it.
After I read the Sherman Alexie book, although she had not yet read the Hawk book, my co-worker told me to go ahead and read it, as she would not get to it for a while. So I have started it. I'm in Chapter 3, "Small Worlds." In it, the author is reading The Goshawk, by T.H. White, an author I like, though I haven't read this particular book by him.
Sherman Alexie, in his memoir, mentions a number of visions and feelings of encounter with his mother that he has after her death. Ironically, he claims not to believe in life after death. He says that, even though he doesn't believe in ghosts, he sees her ghost. In the letter I linked to above, he recounts more mystical experiences of his mother's presence, and he says:
As I write in the memoir, I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time.
As I also write in the memoir, I don't believe in magic, but I believe in interpreting coincidence exactly the way you want to.
I don't believe in the afterlife as a reality, but I believe in the afterlife as metaphor. And my mother, from the afterlife, is metaphorically kicking my ass.
It's frustrating. I do believe in the afterlife as a reality. I don't believe in magic, but I believe in miracles, prophecies, and visions. And I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe in the eternal life of the soul and the coming resurrection of the body. But I never hear from my parents now that they've passed on.
My brother, a devout, pious (in the best sense), godly man, did have a vision or dream of our father shortly after Dad died. He saw Dad, on his way to somewhere good, turn and give my brother a reassuring smile before continuing on his way. I'm so glad my brother shared that vision with us, but I wish my dad had smiled at me, too.
I've read stories about people receiving meaningful text messages from their dearly departed's phones that are no longer in use. My cell phone was on my dad's account, which is now my account, and his cell phone is still on my account, but he never texts me. (Of course, he never really learned how to text while he was still in this world. He never quite mastered the use of the cell phone at all, in fact.) Although I might freak out and be terrified if I received a text from my dead parent, so maybe that would not be the experience I long for.
I know any number of people who've had vivid dreams of a dead loved one who either reassures them of their (the departed's) well being or tells the living person a significant message—something to do, or something to stop worrying about. I have not had any such dreams about my parents.
When my co-worker gave me the Hawk book to read, she commented on something I knew but hadn't thought about. She said that the Sherman Alexie book (which she is also reading) is about someone whose mother died and the Hawk book is about someone whose father died, and, moreover that Alexie had a complicated relationship with his mother, while it seems that Macdonald had a close relationship with her father. That somewhat mimics my situation. Alexie's mother was far and away more difficult to deal with than my mom, but my mom was sometimes quite enough for me.
So maybe I am receiving reassuring messages, but I have to be more attentive to notice them. Not sunbursts or visions or amazing coincidences, but just a couple of good books. My mother often did give us good books. When we were children, many and many. She encouraged reading, took us to the library, and directed us to children's classics. But also when we grew up. One Christmas, she gave all of us The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck, which begins, "Life is difficult." She thought this was a useful book, and it was. Another time, she gave us Shantung Compound, by Langdon Gilkey, which is a memoir of life in a prison camp (Europeans interned in China by the Japanese during World War II) as a microcosm of human nature and human society. So it would not be unlike my mom to point me in the direction of helpful books, and it would be like both of them to enjoy reading and discussing them. Maybe I am hearing from them, just in a more subtle way. Or, to put it another way, I seem to be providentially finding and reading books that relate to my situation.
My family is low-key. We don't do much drama. We have the cool, reserved Northern European temperament. If my parents did want to send me a message, having them lay a book on the table would be more typical than performing some astonishing act.
My mom told a story of how, after her own father died, she wanted some kind of feeling or message from him. She lived far away from her parents at the time of his death, and she traveled to her hometown and her childhood home for the funeral. She went to places in the house that she particularly associated with her father and tried as hard as she could to somehow feel his presence. But nothing. That's how we roll.
Maybe it's because our parents are at peace. We know they have gone to be with the Lord. I don't doubt that my parents are in the presence of Christ in a more beautiful and wondrous way than I can imagine. I really don't need them to send back a postcard telling me so.
Reading Sherman Alexie's experience I have two thoughts. One is that he has a lot of unresolved issues with his mom—a lot of justifiable hurt and anger, in addition to love and grief. I, on the other hand, may have had some difficulties with my mom, but at its foundation the relationship was solid and loving. Also, by being near her in her declining years and accompanying her along the journey to her life's end, I was able to leave behind some of the irritation and anger I used to feel toward her and genuinely to feel compassion, gentleness, and kindness toward her, as she grew frailer and more dependent. My dad I always had a loving relationship with, all around.
The other thought is that Sherman Alexie is persistently refusing to believe his own experiences. "I don't believe in ghosts....I don't believe in magic....I don't believe in the afterlife," in short, he does not believe in spiritual realities, or in the reality of his own spiritual experiences. He wonders why his mother is kicking his ass from the afterlife he doesn't believe in. I would guess that she's trying to wake him up and he is so insistently not listening to her that she is getting louder and louder. I don't have that problem with my parents. We are in one accord as to our faith. That's why at my mom's funeral I wanted the verse in "The Church's One Foundation" that has the line about "mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won." That line has comforted me ever since my brother died. I think Sherman Alexie was once a practicing Catholic. If I knew him, if I were his friend, I would tell him, "Go back to church, start praying again, receive communion."
Well, to wind things up, I know my parents are with the Lord; they don't have to tell me so. I'm grieving, and reading thoughtful memoirs by insightful authors who are in the same situation is a good method for me to deal with my loss. Thank you, Sherman Alexie. Thank you, Helen Macdonald. Thanks, Dad and Mom. Thank you, Lord.