I do not know how to hold all
the beauty and sorrow of my life.Flowers, by Cynthia Zavin
It’s a seesaw at times, one day you’re up and the next you’re down, and not even by day, it can be every other moment. My heart swells at the sight of something magnificent, the tulips making their way through the earth, the unidentified bird on the topmost branch, trilling about something delightful, or the child explaining something close to his heart, and you think, could the world be any more beautiful than this? And yet at the very same time people are shooting each other in a town near you, and covid rates are rising. Your blood pressure is up a little, what does that mean?
You have a doctor exam and you give in to the hospital staff, no longer a sentient, choosing, opinionated, strong-willed woman, but instead an old woman with pillows under her head, white hair splayed out, hospital lights cast a greying glare on your skin. You lie there as people poke and prod and make decisions based on something you don’t know or understand, and you feel ancient and realize you have no agency, no ability to seize back control. And what’s the point really, why fight it, it’s going to turn out the same whether you feel affronted or depressed or useless, so just lean back, let them do what they’re good at, and why care if they see you as just another old person?
So you relax and enjoy the demerol, and move into that twilight phase as they prod your backside, but who cares, it’s peaceful, the blanket they warmed for you is a comfort, the tv screen shows your insides that you are mainly unaware of but so vital to your health and wellbeing, and perhaps the key to feeling at your best. You watch as the camera winds around the loops and bends and see that your flesh is as clean and pink as a newborn’s – well mostly – skin that doesn’t see the light of day but processes fuel and keeps you alive, oh holy flesh, how grateful I am for you.
Beauty and sorrow, it’s that moment of appreciation and love for each of your bodily systems, fluids, flesh, gorgeousness, knowing that one day you will be the old lady laying on the pillow and death will come. But not yet, not yet, all is still gorgeous and tender, and there are more children’s words to hear, and more tender words to write, and more love and hard things to hear as we hold each other’s hands and walk through this terrible beautiful life together, and that is beautiful no matter what.
What stands out in my mind about my mother’s death is the terrible tragedy of the stroke come too soon, and the terrible beeps of the machines that kept her alive, the terrible shiny floors and bed rails, the terrible smells of the hospital and her beautiful pink cheeks, rosy from the oxygen, her skin taut and young looking, the beautiful freezing rain outside the window, the drops streaming down, each line racing the other over and over spilling down to the bottom. And there as you peer over the edge a few stories below is a patch of earth between the buildings, a small square that has been meticulously tended, full of the bright blooms of Iceland poppies, covered in glistening cold droplets of rain, the brightest oranges and yellows that you can imagine. If you didn’t know that nature produced them, you might think someone had added a dollop of extra color, what you might add to a food to make it more attractive, or like the colors of a banner waving in the breeze or in the cold March rain, a comfort and a miracle to go with the dying woman you then turn to, unbelievable that she should go too soon.
I was not ready. We hadn’t come to terms. We hadn’t quite forgiven each other. I didn’t know who she was, what she loved, what she thought about in those long moments that she sat staring out into space, if she had dreams that hadn’t been met or if she dreamt at all, if she accepted her lot and was satisfied. I wish I knew all that. But she was private, she was insular, kept her cards close to her chest, and I suppose tried to be the best mom she knew how to be.
So there’s the beauty, there’s the sorrow, a bouquet in each arm, doomed to carry both throughout life, turning to smell the delight on one side, and then turn and nod to the other, acknowledge it, and then look ahead and stay in the right now.
I will be that woman, older, older I hope, there is still so much to see and do, and I know I have wasted so much time, or I think I know. Is anything a waste? It’s what I do, who I am, using time, taking time, spending time, eating time, hopefully not killing time, enjoying time, loving time. Maybe just lean a bit heavier to the beauty side as I go.
By Cynthia Zarin
This morning I was walking upstairs
from the kitchen, carrying your
beautiful flowers, the flowers you
brought me last night, calla lilies
and something else, I am not
sure what to call them, white flowers,
of course you had no way of knowing
it has been years since I bought
white flowers—but now you have
and here they are again. I was carrying
your flowers and a coffee cup
and a soft yellow handbag and a book
of poems by a Chinese poet, in
which I had just read the words “come
or go but don’t just stand there
in the doorway,” as usual I was
carrying too many things, you
would have laughed if you saw me.
It seemed especially important
not to spill the coffee as I usually
do, as I turned up the stairs,
inside the whorl of the house as if
I were walking up inside the lilies.
I do not know how to hold all
the beauty and sorrow of my life.