If you lose someone very close, someone in your blood, adoptive, or friendship family, especially if the circumstances are violent and unexpected, you may do what I did: doubt your role, scrutinize the ways you failed in it, dream and then when you wake up, remember, wishing you hadn’t.
I hope, then, that you are flushed with gratitude for the life that gave you such a role to fulfill, however flawed, however well. That happened to me, too.
Because being Casey’s mother is an important thread in The Tree You Come Home To, I am not sure what part to give you here. But here’s what comes first to mind, a dream, which I put into one of the parts of “The Architecture of Loss,” the poem I referred to a few days ago:
The doors slam shut on the night-time
river of sliding images as the boy rises,
brushing leaves and debris from his shoulders.
He looks up, a grin spreads slowly across his face . . .
but something gives him pause—is it in my reach
for him or a shadow on the vaulted ceiling?—
Oh, to stop that cellular movement of knowledge across
the eyes, nose, mouth drawing down—
What am I doing in your dream?
There, there, my darling, come and let me hold you,
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry . . .
In the dream, we are in a kind of wooded ravine, maybe a cave but if so, very large and not dark. Who knows what the dream was doing before he appeared. Since he was new to the spirit world, perhaps he didn’t know his way around yet, when he stumbled into my dream. He rises and brushes himself off. He sees me, breaks into a smile. My heart fills and overflows, then he realizes that the only way he could be there, in that place, is if he is no longer living—this knowledge tracks across his face minutely, cell by cell. I watch. My heart breaks. All I can do is apologize.
This is one of two dreams where he comes to me so clearly. The other one I wrote into a poem, too, when I was putting Seeking the Other Side together. Other dreams in The Tree You Come Home To are less specifically about him and more about my doubts, guilt, all part of grief—at least for me.
When my mother died in 2001, I had feelings of gratitude that brought tears to my eyes. I thought of how she had protected me, loved me so unconditionally even when I wasn’t so lovable, believed in my abilities beyond their reach. But also for her many gifts: her love of nature, her love of music, her precise way of speaking, the depth of her thinking, the way she talked back to the television. The list is long and still growing. I thought that probably most of my good qualities came from her.
The parental urge to protect is probably in our DNA, so even when you’re not to blame, the feeling of failure runs deep. We need better ways to think about our inability to save others that doesn’t feel so rotten. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s 11.22.63, where he imagines two men who share a mission and go back in time (there’s a handy portal for that) to prevent the killing of JFK. But the past gains a kind of will and makes it more and more difficult for them to alter things, even if it really would be better if this or that murder hadn’t happened.
It was true for me and is for others, too, I imagine, that we need to work through whatever feelings of failure we have, wonder what if, but before too long, stop, before it becomes a well-rehearsed rehashing of the same old finger pointing . . . when that happens, we’ve allowed it to take on a persona, gain will, resist any kind of healing, say, “stay here, feel bad.”
I hope The Tree You Come Home To is not just a sad story. I hope it’s a healing story. I don’t want any of us to get lost in the cycle of regret.
A picture of a card from 1994:
And this, from a journal entry: “My mom will be gone for a couple weeks, and I miss her.”